The PREP Act, Sen. Del Marsh’s (R-Anniston) all-things-teacher reform bill, has certainly started a conversation about how teachers are evaluated and why that matters to Alabama’s children.
We published a comparison of what the PREP Act proposes and what the Alabama State Department of Education (ALSDE) is already doing where teacher evaluations are concerned. As it turns out, what the PREP Act calls differs only a bit from what the ALSDE is already doing.
Those differences are enough to cause educators to push back strongly, while those supporting the bill stand by their conviction that this is a pro-educator bill and will have a positive impact on student learning.
To Marsh’s credit, many groups were consulted along the way, with the first draft having been floated last November. I’ve counted five drafts before the final bill was filed on March 1.
The groups that were consulted along the way include all the major players in Montgomery—Alabama State Department of Education, Alabama Education Association, Alabama Association of School Boards, School Superintendents of Alabama and Council for Leaders in Alabama Schools—and then some.
Marsh met with former Alabama Teacher of the Year Ann Marie Corgill after radio host Matt Murphy brokered a meeting between the two.
That isn’t to say that all of the groups agreed with everything that ended up in the final bill, but at least all of those groups were given an opportunity for input.
Before, during, and after the public hearing last week, where the bill survived with a 5-4 vote, I spoke with opponents and supporters about the bill.
Here’s what supporters are saying.
The views of those concerned about the bill will be shared, too. Stay tuned. It’ll be next up.
Marsh is the only person I haven’t spoken with directly about the PREP Act, but since he sponsored the bill, it seemed appropriate to pull together some of his statements to start the discussion.
In a statement released after the committee gave passage to the bill, Marsh said, “This piece of legislation is a major win for students, parents and effective teachers and will help as we strive to ensure that our children receive a world class education that will give them an advantage in the increasingly competitive job market.”
“Major education reforms are never easy. Those who maintain the status quo will stop at nothing to keep it, but in the end, a majority of members of the Committee agreed that this is the right thing to do. I look forward to seeing this piece of legislation on the floor.”
He told the Montgomery Advertiser his purpose for proposing the bill was to provide uniformity in the ways districts evaluate their teachers.
Sandi Jacobs, Senior Vice President, State and District Policy for the National Council on Teacher Quality
Jacobs is known across the country as an expert on state and district policy regarding teacher evaluation. Jacobs, Dr. Joe Morton and I sat down the morning of the public hearing to discuss the world of teacher evaluation and the PREP Act.
Jacobs said that it’s fair to say that we don’t know “one right best way” to evaluate teachers that will impact positively student achievement, teacher recruitment and retention. States are still very different in their approaches to teacher evaluation.
Across the country, 43 states require student achievement data to be part of a teacher’s evaluation. In 2010, that number was near zero. “The landscape has transformed. This has become standard practice.”
She acknowledged that everyone doesn’t “love” it, but very few states don’t believe that student achievement has any place in a teacher’s evaluation.
She said the federal law for education, ESSA (Every Student Succeeds Act), doesn’t do away with the requirement around teacher evaluation entirely and that its predecessor, No Child Left Behind (NCLB) gave states the right to create their own system, which they did.
“Very few states don’t have [teacher evaluation] policy that is entirely their own,” Jacobs said. Most states adopted legislation or implemented regulations regarding teacher evaluation systems.
Alabama is unique in that while the ALSDE told the federal government it was moving forward with a teacher evaluation system as promised in its waiver, we didn’t pass any laws or create any regulations to guide it. In other words, the only place that Alabama’s teacher evaluation system exists is in the waiver from NCLB. Those waivers are no longer in effect after August 1, 2016.
In effect, then, the ALSDE’s Educator Effectiveness model, outlined in Alabama’s waiver, will no longer be required after August 1, 2016.
The landscape of teacher evaluation has changed dramatically, and that was due in large part to recognizing that we weren’t doing a good job with teacher evaluation, Jacobs said, adding that it wasn’t that states weren’t necessarily doing a good job of “weeding out the bad apples”, but that teacher evaluations weren’t giving teachers any information to help them grow and improve their teaching.
She understands that teachers are emotional and worried that this is a “gotcha” type mechanism, but that in the 40-plus states that have these types of evaluation systems in place, “there is no evidence that they’ve been put in place to be ‘gotcha’ systems”.
What you do hear, she said, is that trust starts to build in the evaluation system as time goes on, referring to a survey in Tennessee that shows that more and more teachers are understanding how the teacher evaluation system is benefiting student learning.
“You can’t build trust in an abstract concept. You build trust when you actually do it.”
Regarding the use of student growth, Jacobs stressed that bringing in some objective evidence is important in evaluating teachers.
That evidence doesn’t have to be based on the same test across all districts because all districts aren’t necessarily teaching the same thing, she added.
In fact, Jacobs said, under the PREP Act, in non-state-assessed areas that evidence doesn’t have to be based on tests at all, but could instead be based on student learning objectives or other pre- and post-tests that, for example, require a student in auto mechanic class to do something very hands-on like take apart an engine and put it back together again.
She acknowledged that no state has figured out exactly how to measure growth in subjects that are not state-assessed.
However, Jacobs said, “Any course that we’re teaching students, we want them to be learning something. It shouldn’t be inconceivable that no matter what the course, there’s a way to say ‘did kids learn what we wanted them to learn in this course’. We should be doing that for these kids, whether or not it serves a purpose for teacher evaluation.”
With regard to how much student growth should account for, Jacobs said that NCTQ believes that “you shouldn’t be able to get an effective rating if the objective evidence doesn’t show you are an effective teacher”. Alabama is on the low end of the actual proportion of an evaluation based on student growth. Thirty-five states require student growth data to count for one-third to one-half of a teacher’s evaluation. The PREP Act aligns with the ALSDE’s plan for one-fourth, or 25%, of the evaluation to be based on student growth.
Regarding using evaluations to award tenure, Jacobs said that teachers are on a tremendous learning curve in their first year, and extending the probationary period is important to allow them to better develop their skills.
Jacobs agreed that value-added modeling is imperfect, but said that no evaluation system is perfect. “We know that student growth models do very very well, despite their imperfections. They identify the tails very very well,” adding “it’s the tails that we care about. We want to make sure our superstars are getting identified as superstars and we want to make sure our strugglers are getting identified as strugglers.”
“Value-added does that very well.”
When questioned about additional costs that may emerge as districts determine how to pre- and post-test non-state-assessed subjects (if they’re not already doing so), Jacobs said, “We know definitively from many many studies that nothing matters more inside the school building to student success than the quality of the teacher. So the premise of all of this is to make our teachers the best prepared they can be to continue their professional growth so that they do the very best they can for students. Inside the school building, I don’t know what be more important to spend your dollars on than these things that are pushing that forward.”
Dr. Joe Morton, former State Superintendent and current Chairman of the Business and Education Alliance
Morton, who served as state superintendent from 2004 until 2011, said he believes most of the concern around the PREP Act comes from folks confusing it with its predecessor, the RAISE Act. The PREP Act is very different, Morton said, calling it “barely a kissing cousin” of the RAISE Act.
He said the PREP Act closely aligns with what the ALSDE is already doing around teacher evaluation, but does put into law some of the language and adds deadlines.
The PREP Act requires the ALSDE to develop a template that local school districts could use if they did not adopt their own.
Morton stressed that while both the ALSDE’s plan and the PREP Act call for 25% of the evaluation to be based on student growth, local school districts can develop the other 75%.
“I don’t know how much more liberal one can be than to say ‘design your own teacher evaluation’ around certain parameters.”
Regarding finding appropriate pre- and post-tests to measure growth, Morton said that good teachers are already measuring student growth within their classrooms.
For most teachers, Morton said not much would change.
The only teachers that could experience “dramatic change is those who are not being evaluated at all or are being so randomly and poorly evaluated that it amounts to no evaluation. Their boat may be rocked,” he said, “but that’s not the end of the world. Everybody needs a fair and comprehensive evaluation.”
Morton said he doesn’t see where the requirements of the PREP Act upset or change the path Alabama is already on with the Educator Effectiveness model.
“I haven’t heard any great rebellion from the school community over the state plan, so Marsh just takes the state plan and says it will now be the law of Alabama.”
He acknowledges that Marsh’s bill does go farther by calling for evaluations to be used in tenure decisions, but asks, “do we really want to give tenure to a person who has multiple unsatisfactory evaluations?” and then answering, “Probably not. That person might be better off doing something else.”
Morton sees changing tenure from three to five years as a “tremendous plus for the whole education community”, citing a number of examples why the additional years would be helpful for a new teacher and for a teacher who may be moved multiple times within a school district in the first few years.
The extension of time, and the inclusion of objective student growth measures, makes it more likely that teacher will have a fair determination, Morton said.
The PREP Act simply puts the pieces of evaluation that are already there into law, Morton said, defining when it happens and that it shall happen.
The bill gives not only gives great latitude to the ALSDE and local districts, but also “a whole lot of support in terms of recruitment, mentoring, and rewards for teachers,” Morton remarked.
“There’s $18 million in this bill, and all $18 million goes to teachers one way or the other,” he said. “If we’re gonna spend [money] on anything and make this whole thing called public education work, we better put it on teachers, and that’s where this money goes.”
“This is really a proactive teacher bill,” Morton added.
“All first-year teachers will get a mentor. That will help them be more successful. Future teachers will enter teaching knowing that they have supports that currently do not exist.”
Incentives will be provided for teachers to teach in hard-to-staff areas, he added, referring to the $2,500 bonus given to a teacher willing to teach in one of the hard-to-staff areas defined in the Act.
Regarding the Legislative Performance Recognition Programs, schools that show improvement or score in the top 10% across the state “will get rewarded with cash sent to their schools to spend,” Morton said, adding, “That’s pretty good.”
“It will be an opportunity, especially for poorer districts who always have difficulty with money to say ‘look, a little more shoulder to the wheel and we might get one of those 50- or 60-thousand dollar checks’.”
Morton said while he was superintendent, there was a similar program where schools were rewarded for improvement. Schools that earned those rewards would be recognized in Montgomery for a job well done and given money to use for what they needed in their school. “It was the most excited I’d ever seen school people,” he said.
Interviewed immediately following the public hearing, the Business Council of Alabama’s Bill Canary said, “Whether you’re a proponent or an opponent, there were two things that were strongly in the narrative: that a teacher is the single most important thing in the success of a child, and secondly, the teachers need to be rewarded and there need to be different levels of performance. Those are the common discussions. We can always do better and this is just one step in a long journey to make a difference.”
Canary supported the idea of local school officials maintaining control over 75% of the evaluation, but agreed with 25% of a teacher or principal evaluation being based on student growth on the ACT Aspire among other assessments.
Canary pointed to the recruiting provisions in the bill aimed at rural areas in Alabama and said the types of incentives and rewards in the PREP Act are exactly what is needed, despite opponents feeling exactly the opposite.
“Our children are the most important component of this discussion, and the second most important component is the teacher. Those are the two things that matter most,” adding “you can’t build a great workforce without a great education system”.