By Kenric Ward | Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau
FREDERICKSBURG — Education reformers are urging Virginia to put teeth into teacher evaluations to ensure ineffective instructors are removed from the classroom.
“Current systems are completely unable to identify which teachers are effective and which are not,” says Marcus Winters, an education analyst at the Manhattan Institute, a reform-minded think tank.
Winters has developed a “value-added modeling” formula that rates instructors’ impact on student learning. So far, he reports, New York, New Jersey, Tennessee, Colorado and Washington, D.C., are using variations of the model to deny tenure to instructors receiving below-satisfactory performance ratings in two consecutive years.
The Old Dominion, meantime, remains stuck at the back of the class.
“Virginia had a toe in the water with guidelines suggesting that districts use evidence of student learning as part of (teacher) evaluation,” said Sandy Jacobs of the National Council on Teacher Quality.
“But unlike other states, there’s no clear statute or regulation. Virginia has some work to do,” said Jacobs, vice president and managing director for state policy.
In its latest annual report, NCTQ gave Virginia an F for “identifying effective teachers” and a D plus for removing ineffective ones.
The state failed to meet basic standards for “evaluation of effectiveness” or “frequency of evaluations,” the study found.
Winters and NCTQ say states must find ways to quantify teacher performance at a time when student achievement is evermore rigorously measured through testing.
Sarah Brody, a spokeswoman for the council, calls Virginia’s teacher-assessment language “ambiguous and gray.”
“We see the term ‘incompetency’ instead of ‘ineffective.’ We’re working to tighten that up,” she said.
Loose words, little accountability
Virginia law says teachers may be dismissed for “incompetency, immorality, noncompliance with school laws and regulations, disability as shown by competent medical evidence, conviction of a felony or crime of moral turpitude, or other good and just cause.”
NCTQ says the words ring hollow.
“Virginia does not use teacher evaluations to inform any decisions of consequence. The state fails to articulate, either through dismissal or evaluation policy, that ineffectiveness in the classroom is grounds for teacher dismissal.
“Furthermore, time on the job, rather than teacher effectiveness in the classroom, is the basis for granting teachers tenure or permanent status in Virginia,” the NCTQ report stated.
Virginia teachers receive “continuous contracts” — a euphemism for tenure — after three years on a district payroll.
Steve Greenburg, president of the American Federation of Teachers‘ affiliate in Fairfax, home of the state’s largest school division, said a task force ”thoroughly discussed” value-added assessments there last year.
“It is not for us, right now,” he said.
Speaking of Winters’ system for assessing teachers based on student learning gains, Greenburg said, “The ‘cohort’ (student data grouping) base is very small in Virginia, so comparisons are limited.
“Also,” he added, “lower achievers can show higher growth than high achievers using the model. If we actually got all students to perform well, then some would still appear to be in an area of low effectiveness — just by the model’s format.”
The Virginia Education Association has taken no position on value-added models, but its parent, the National Education Association, the largest teachers’ union in the country, is flatly opposed, branding them “a prime teacher-bashing weapon.”
No data on teacher dismissals
Neither state nor union officials could provide the number of teachers terminated for “incompetency” in Virginia.
“We do not collect data on local personnel decisions,” said Charles Pyle, spokesman for the state Department of Education.
VEA spokesman John O’Neil referred questions about teacher dismissals back to DOE. “We don’t keep those numbers,” O’Neil said.
The dearth of dismissal data — along with accounts from New York to Los Angeles of off-campus “rubber rooms” occupied by teachers removed from classrooms, and still on the payroll — raises red flags for reformers. Who, they ask, is being protected: students or teachers?
Winters says his research shows “a year’s worth of learning differential between teachers who are ranked in the 25th percentile and 75th percentile” in his value-added rating system.
Don Soifer, executive vice president of the conservative Lexington Institute, said Gov. Bob McDonnell offered a “plan to reform teacher tenure in Virginia that would have allowed value-added assessment.”
But that initiative, which Soifer called “a major step forward,” failed to pass the General Assembly.
House Speaker William Howell, R-Falmouth, said the Legislature may reconsider the issue next year.
“(Majority Leader) Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights) tells me we are looking at something somewhat similar” to Winters’ value-added formula, Howell said.
“It sounds intriguing. I know that the administration as well as our (Republican) caucus have been continuing to look at additional K-12 reform, and this might play an important part,” Howell told Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau.
Neither Cox nor McDonnell’s office responded to requests for comment Monday.
Reformers say Virginia needs to step up its accountability efforts — especially now that the state has a waiver from federal No Child Left Behind mandates.
“In a new era when teacher effectiveness in the classroom is becoming a matter of consequence and teacher evaluations will no longer be regarded as simply a formality, Virginia doesn’t require that all teachers are evaluated annually and the state’s teacher evaluations give no consideration to teacher effectiveness and include no objective measures of student performance,” the NCTQ report states.
“Against the backdrop of dramatic progress in some states, Virginia is failing to take actions to help ensure an effective teacher in every classroom. Virginia made very little progress.”
Soifer disputes the unions’ contention that the state isn’t equipped to build a fair value-added model.
“The educational data we have today allows us to do things — like true, longitudinal student growth — that have not been possible before on a district or statewide level.
“Value-added assessment systems for teachers, when well-designed and implemented, are one important way to do that,” he said.
Contact Kenric Ward at email@example.com or (571) 319-9824.