Shades of Grades

It’s tough being a teacher today.

Inside the classroom, they’re faced with less time to teach due to incessant testing and shorter school days due to budget cuts. Many students are unprepared from the time they enter kindergarten and continue to fall behind in each grade because most teachers don’t have time to give them the extra support they need and many kids don’t get that support at home.

Outside the classroom, teachers are the target of politicians who think educators are overpaid and underperforming. If students aren’t doing well on the FCAT, it must be the teachers’ fault.

The Florida Department of Education released its new system for evaluating teachers with what it calls a value-added model — the difference between the learning growth a student makes and the statistical predicted learning growth the student should have earned based on previous performance.

According to the DOE report, 93 percent of classroom teachers in Clay, Duval, Nassau and St. Johns County school districts are rated highly effective or effective. Of the 11,730 teachers evaluated, only four — all from Duval County — were labeled unsatisfactory.

Nearly 92 percent of teachers rated effective or highly effective at the 21 D schools in Northeast Florida. At the area’s two F schools, both in Duval, about 87 percent rated effective or highly effective.

There are problems with the school grading system and the FCAT testing it’s based on, but it makes you wonder if this “value-added” equation has any meaning. Of course, it’s also possible to have good teachers who can’t perform miracles at schools with multiple challenges.

Despite these high teacher ratings, state and local teachers unions oppose the value-added portion of the evaluation because some teachers of non-FCAT classes are forced to accept school-wide averages for their value-added score. The state says there might be cases where teachers’ value-added scores are inaccurate because they erroneously include or exclude students. So much for math. An equation can only spit out good data if you enter good data into it.

The value-added calculation is half of a teacher’s total evaluation. The other half comes from observations made by principals who give teachers highly effective, effective, needs improvement or unsatisfactory ratings.

Florida’s best-performing district, St. Johns County, has been working on how it conducts its teacher observations. Brennan Asplen, St. Johns County’s associate superintendent of human resources, told The Florida Times-Union the district spent all last year training principals on “inter-rater reliability.”

“What we want is for evaluators to go into a classroom and each come up with the same result no matter who’s evaluating a teacher,” Brennan told the Times-Union.

That’s a good idea, assuming that the evaluators are observing the right things. One Duval County teacher told me when someone showed up to observe her class, they were taking a test. The evaluator stayed anyway and observed the class during the test. That’s not a very fair evaluation of a teacher’s skills.

According to a July 2012 Orlando Sentinel story, education researcher Robert Marzano’s classroom-observation system was chosen as Florida’s model, then adopted by 31 school districts. Teachers across the state say the system meant to improve teaching instead reduces their work to what one educator called a “humongous checklist” of “artificial gestures.”

“I definitely felt it didn’t capture everything I was doing,” Seminole County English teacher Liz Randall told the Orlando Sentinel.

Meanwhile, more people are talking about education than ever. That should be a good thing. Everyone has a stake in the education of our children — and everyone has an opinion.

Jacksonville Public Education Foundation conducted the One by One campaign, which included 169 conversations with 1,649 participants from around the city who shared their aspirations for Duval County public schools. Fifteen themes were identified and prioritized at regional meetings in November. JPEF is seeking approximately 100 delegates throughout Duval County at a meeting on Jan. 5 (apply at JPEF also recently launched a new website,, to make school data easier to access and compare.

Alvin Brown likes to call himself the city of Jacksonville’s first “Education Mayor.” He appointed Donnie Horner as education commissioner in July 2011, on loan from Jacksonville University’s Davis College of Business, at the cost of $1. The position reports directly to Brown and acts as his senior policy adviser. The office also has a program manager whose salary is funded by Florida Blue.

The mayor touts that the education commissioner office operates at no cost to taxpayers. That’s a good thing because the mayor has no authority over education. Of course, there are things he and the city can do to help.

In October, Brown announced a summit on Feb. 28 and March 1 aimed at improving education quality here. Comedian Bill Cosby will kick off the first day with school visits and an evening performance to raise $2 million to help the city pay for education initiatives like Brown’s Learn2Earn and mentoring programs. The second day will focus on helping groups interested in education cooperate and divvy up responsibilities.

These are noble efforts on the part of outside entities, but Duval County’s new superintendent Nikolai Vitti and a newly elected School Board need to take the reins. They also need to know where they need help and how to direct it.

One of the most useful things they can do is quickly figure out how close or how far off target these value-added evaluations are. How do they compare to what is being observed in the classroom? And what does highly effective instruction look like?

There is a need to grade teachers, just as there is a necessity to grade students. But students are not widgets. Any system of evaluation that doesn’t take into consideration the personalized instruction some kids need is a bad one.