State education superintendent Mick Zais and educators are fighting bitterly over a proposal to give letter grades to teachers based, in part, on how students improve on standardized testing.
The proposal by Zais, a retired Army general and former small college president who's in his first term as the state's Republican schools superintendent, has led to accusations of ill will.
Teachers say Zais doesn't understand challenges they face. Zais says the teachers -- and school administrators and the state Board of Education, who also object to parts of the plan -- are threatening South Carolina's next big move to improve public education.
Some teachers say Zais' plan is unfair because it would evaluate them, in part, on students' test scores in courses they don't teach.
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"That's really alarming to me," said Kent Riddle, a child development and kindergarten teacher at Angel Oak Elementary on Johns Island in Charleston County. "If I'm going to be evaluated, I want to be evaluated on what I do, on my results, not someone else's."
Riddle and some other educators also say they have had no input in shaping the plan.
Teachers' groups, allied with the S.C. Association of School Administrators, are working on an alternative plan, recently presented to the S.C. Board of Education. It's still "a work in progress," as the group seeks "buy in" from educators, the organization's executive director Molly Spearman said.
But Zais says the teachers are playing politics, urging them and the Board of Education not to reject the evaluation plan before there are results to consider from the first of two years of pilot testing under way.
"You don't redesign a plane in the middle of a test flight," Zais said of the plan, currently being "beta" tested in 22 schools.
The educators' criticisms come months before the state will have results from the first year of testing the proposed teacher and principal evaluation system, not slated for statewide use until the 2014 school year. This year, education officials will assess the results of the test program, revise the evaluation system accordingly, and test the program again in several school districts.
Before going into effect statewide, the state Board of Education must approve the evaluation system, which hasn't been formally presented to the board for a vote. That will come after more testing, said Jay Ragley, spokesman with the S.C. Department of Education.
But opposition has been building in the education community, including tense meetings education officials have hosted recently across the state.
A common fear is the new program will cause teachers to leave the state's public schools, specifically disadvantaged schools where students need them the most.
"You couldn't really come up with a better plan to drive teachers away," said Patrick Hayes, a fourth-grade teacher from Charleston and director of EdFirstSC, a teacher-advocacy group fighting the plan.
At its December meeting, the S.C. Board of Education weighed in, passing a resolution saying the plan "would not provide valid, reliable or meaningful data on teacher or principal performance and would be counterproductive to improving the quality of instruction provided to students in South Carolina."
Zais called the non-binding resolution "premature," saying it only would hurt relations between his department and the board, which oversees S.C. public schools but is not his boss.
MEASURING STUDENT LEARNING
Two aspects of the new teacher and principal evaluation system, required as part of the state's waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind school accountability law, trouble teachers.
Zais' proposal to grade teachers like students on an A-through-F scale probably won't be approved by the state Board of Education, members of that board have said recently, calling it an "insult" to educators and "demeaning."
Outgoing state education board chairman Dennis Thompson said the letter-grade system could be replaced easily with qualitative words, such as "exemplary" or "unsatisfactory" -- more suitable to professionals.
Also of concern is a new way of evaluating educators, based on a measure of student growth.
Under the proposal, about two-thirds of a teacher's evaluation would come from observation by principals and peers, much the same way teachers are evaluated now.
The remainder would come from a statistical analysis of standardized test scores from year to year, aimed at measuring how much a student has learned against predictions of student growth. A teacher's performance would be evaluated based on whether a student meets, fails to meet or exceeds expectations.
Critics question whether such an approach is fair, especially in districts that don't perform well on standardized tests.
Hayes, of EdFirstSC, said the approach doesn't take into account poverty or life experiences that hinder or contribute to one student's achievement and another student's failure.
Another rub comes from how the system would grade teachers in subjects where standardized tests are not given at the end of the year. In those cases, 30 percent of a teacher's evaluations would be based on how well their school performs on tests as a whole.
That is not fair to teachers who instruct in music, art, physical education or similar classes, critics say.
A TOOL FOR EDUCATORS, ADMINISTRATORS
Zais says the approach is fair, accurate and reliable, and does take into account other factors, including past achievement and demographics, when determining appropriate goals for each student.
It is also nothing new for South Carolina, Zais said. Teachers in the state's teacher development program are evaluated, in part, using the same approach.
Ragley says the data will provide educators with a tool they never have had before, allowing administrators to identify the best teachers and reward them while helping other teachers see areas where they are strongest and have room for improvement.
Instead of principals subjectively judging whether teachers are meeting their goals, "We'll actually know statistically whether you are meeting expectations or not."
Asked whether the new system might encourage teacher flight, Zais and Ragley said they are not worried about a mass exodus.
The few teachers who find "they're just not cut out for" the new evaluation system can leave teaching and find something "more suitable to their talents," Ragley said.
Zais said talented teachers want to be recognized and rewarded for their hard work. "The only teachers who have anything to fear are those who, in their heart, know they're not doing a very good job."
AT ODDS WITH EDUCATORS
State Education Board chairman Thompson says reducing the importance that test scores play in teacher evaluations might provide a compromise between Zais and educators who oppose the plan.
But it is unclear whether the two groups will reach an accord.
Asked whether educators should wait to see the first results from the pilot program before rejecting Zais' proposal, Vicky Hensley, a 12th-grade English teacher at Emerald High School in Greenwood County, said, "Nothing makes me say, 'Let's give it a chance.' I cannot name a teacher who has worked on this with him."
Hensley described Zais as "a bit combative" and lacking an understanding of the challenges teachers face and how hard they work.
"We are truly concerned about the education level (of students)," Hensley said. "We realize that affects our local communities, our state and it affects our country."
Roger Smith, executive director of the S.C. Education Association, expressed doubts about Zais' desire to evaluate teachers fairly.
"Superintendent Zais has said, repeatedly, that he doesn't think teachers want to be accountable. He disagrees with what teachers do on a day-to-day basis," Smith said.
To Zais, the educators targeting his plan, who are forbidden by state law from unionizing, are not concerned with fairness.
"This paratrooper general will not submit to nor be intimidated by union-like education lobbying groups that agitate for discord in order to justify in the minds of their members a reason for their continued existence or a reason for them to continue to pay membership dues," Zais told the state Board of Education earlier this month.
Later, Zais told The State those groups "did everything they could to ensure I was not elected and, despite their best efforts, I won by a huge margin, and they can't get over it.
"They need an enemy. ... I justify their existence."