Teacher evaluation fight may prove costly

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After the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation awarded Pittsburgh Public Schools $40 million in 2009 to help improve teacher quality, the district and its teachers have received national attention for working together.

Now the two sides have been at an impasse for months over scores to be used to determine teacher ratings -- distinguished, proficient, needs improvement and failing -- in a new teacher evaluation system going into effect this school year.

The ongoing dispute in a portion of the Empowering Effective Teachers initiative has raised some concerns about the future of the Gates grant, but Gates spokeswoman Deborah Veney Robinson said last week, "We have not said we're considering pulling the grant."

Pittsburgh Public Schools superintendent Linda Lane said: "They haven't threatened to take away the money, but they do review ... There's a process of holding us accountable for doing what we said we were going to do."

So far, the foundation has paid the district $24.2 million of the grant, with $15.8 million left to go, according to Ms. Robinson.

In response to questions about the grant's future, Ms. Robinson released this statement from Vicki Phillips, director of education, college ready in the United States program at the foundation and former Pennsylvania education secretary:

"The district and teachers have worked together for four years to build one of the most comprehensive systems in the country for supporting, developing and evaluating teachers.

"The foundation has made no secret of our frustration about the impasse between the district and the union, however no decisions have been made about the future of the grant.

"As a normal part of doing business, we regularly monitor progress against grant deliverables. We continue to watch the situation very carefully, and remain hopeful that the two sides can reach a resolution."

She added that "it would be a tragic loss for teachers, students and families if this work doesn't move ahead."

In recent months, Bill Peduto, who was sworn in as Pittsburgh's mayor last week, met with Gates officials, said Sonya Toler, communications manager for the mayor.

She said he would like to broker a deal between the union and the district and asked the foundation to give him nine months.

Teacher ratings used to be based on classroom observation, but a new state law requires that observation count for only half of the evaluation and other factors, including student test scores, make up the rest.

Pittsburgh has won a one-year approval from the state to use its own formula in teacher evaluations.

While the district still counts observation for half as other districts do, the weights of the various other factors differ and the district is using its own, more complex calculations of student growth based on test scores as well as student surveys.

All of the components add up to a point total for each teacher. The dispute in Pittsburgh centers on where to draw the line separating the scores of teachers who are considered proficient or better and those who are not.

While approving the cut scores for the levels, the August letter from the state expressed concern that the "district's current application of cut scores may not coincide with the intent of Act 82, which is to improve teacher practice and quality and thus improve student achievement."

Based on a dry run of the performance levels using 2011-12 data, the district announced in August that 9.3 percent of city classroom teachers would have received failing -- the new term for unsatisfactory -- ratings if the new system had been in effect.

That compares to the roughly 3 percent who actually received unsatisfactory ratings in June.

In addition, 5.3 percent would have been in the needs improvement category.

That left 85 percent performing proficient or above, including 15.3 percent who would have been distinguished.

The dry run was intended at least in part to give teachers a chance to improve before they receive the first ratings that count at the end of 2013-14.

Teachers may be fired after two consecutive failing ratings.

Local union president Nina Esposito-Visgitis maintains the district's required scores for the ratings are a much tougher standard than teachers elsewhere in the state or even the nation face.

However, Ms. Lane said, "I think it's fair. I think it is an accurate reflection."

Ms. Lane said the performance levels are not about firing teachers but are "about professional development and improving teacher performance."

Ms. Lane said the district's initial proposed score for performance levels would have designated more than 25 percent of teachers as not proficient.

She said she lowered the level twice and does not plan to lower it again.

Although Ms. Lane said the parties continue to talk, she said, "I've made the decision."

Ms. Esposito-Visgitis said, "We are always willing to work with the district to come up with performance ranges that are equitable and fair for our teachers ...

"Our teachers have worked so hard to make sure it is an evaluation and growth system. People all over the country have looked at our evaluation and growth system. I'm really proud of that ...

"Our issue is equity. That's the only thing."

Ms. Lane said she does not need board approval to set the levels.

The school board has four new members -- including three former teachers, one of whom was a high-level union officer -- since the cut scores were announced.

School board president Thomas Sumpter said he is "optimistic" the impasse can be resolved.

He said the performance levels set by Ms. Lane are "fair at this point," but "let's just discuss how it benefits teachers to have this system in place and what supports are necessary, because of how they rate, to help."

This isn't the first time there has been a roadblock in the Gates grant or in union-district relations, but the grant has continued so far.

In 2011, the district was unable to open the new Teacher Academy, in which the district would have trained new teachers who were uncertified as part of the effective teachers plan.

The district couldn't get the union to agree to hiring untrained teachers while furloughs of existing teachers were taking place.

In 2012, the union and Ms. Lane disagreed over which teachers should be laid off.

Ms. Lane wanted to lessen the role seniority plays in layoffs. The union wanted to stick with state law that requires layoffs to be based on seniority and certification area. Without union approval, Ms. Lane could not change the method.

More recently, the union opposed the district's efforts to hire uncertified teachers through the Teach for America program.

The Gates Foundation was willing to spend $750,000 over three years for program fees, but the new school board last month rescinded the prior board's vote for the program.

The district faces other challenges in the years ahead with paying for the Empowering Effective Teachers initiative.

So far, the cost has been borne largely by the $40 million Gates Grant and a $37.4 million federal Teacher Incentive Grant.

Those grants are winding down from now through 2016, and the district's share is increasing. A district presentation made in November showed the district contributing a total of as much as $31 million in 2014, 2015 and 2016.

In 2016, the projection stated there would be $1.3 million from Gates, nothing from TIF, $10.6 million from the district's general fund and $4.1 million in unfunded project costs.

"I don't think it's possible to continue every single thing at the current level," said Ms. Lane.

She said each part of the initiative will be evaluated, saying it will be "very important" to keep the ones that are "really getting mileage."

Education writer Eleanor Chute: echute@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1955.

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