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June 3, 2015

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Teacher evaluations called unproductive

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Brian Sandoval

The assumption behind Gov. Brian Sandoval’s education reform package is that red tape has prevented schools from getting rid of bad teachers, who are increasingly viewed as the greatest impediment to improving public education.

Simply put, the governor wants to make it easier to fire teachers by ending tenure and removing those who fail annual evaluations.

Testifying Saturday on behalf of the reform measure, Assembly Bill 555, Sandoval’s senior adviser, Dale Erquiaga, noted that 0.3 percent of Nevada public school teachers annually lose their jobs because of poor performance. The national average, he said, is 1.5 percent.

The implication: The current process fails to weed out poor teachers.

Erquiaga argued the process is “too hard” and “too cumbersome,” citing research showing 5 to 10 percent of teachers could be replaced for poor performance.

But school officials say they have the ability to fire teachers, and the goals the governor wants to accomplish require more of a cultural transformation than a legal one.

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Over the past five years, 171 licensed personnel, most of them teachers, have lost their jobs to “ineffective classroom performance,” said Bill Garis, Clark County School District’s acting human resources officer. That’s not many for a district with 18,000 teachers, he says.

Teachers, administrators, union activists, business leaders and education reform advocates say the district has a variety of tools and techniques to get rid of bad teachers. Principals may transfer poor teachers to another school. They may place them in less-desirable classrooms or give them especially difficult students to teach, with the hope that they’ll just quit.

It’s not known how many have packed up.

School District lobbyist Joyce Haldeman says many procedural barriers tie the hands of administrators who want to fire incompetent teachers, forcing principals to make a simple decision: Is it worth the time to begin the removal process, knowing that such efforts could be delayed or eventually dropped because of administrative appeals?

“What we currently have is not working,” Haldeman says. “It’s not productive. Because of technicalities it’s not happening. It’s not that it can’t be done. Principals do it here, but it’s not worth the time of principals to go through the motions because it’s not productive.”

As proof, she turns north to Washoe County School District — rather than her own — where she says district officials have publicly spoken of an abusive physical education teacher who they have been unable to get out of the classroom despite the educator’s having shoved a student and left another on a gym floor with a broken leg. Despite their best efforts, administrators have been unable to fire the teacher because of barriers established through decades of collective bargaining arrangements, legislation and an inflexible workplace structure, Haldeman says.

Union officials counter that principals often lack the skill, will, time, patience or training to work with teachers who need developmental assistance.

The reality is that poor teachers continue to teach, she says, and their students, parents and co-workers pay the price, a dynamic that filmmaker Davis Guggenheim characterized as the dance of the lemons in the 2010 documentary, “Waiting for Superman.” Quite simply, school administrators transfer the worst of the worst from school to school hoping they will improve or quit.

The reasons for the backdoor strategy include the length and complexity of the disciplinary effort, with its due process and employee protections.

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Whether Sandoval’s education reform package passes or the status quo persists, the hiring and retention of first-rate teachers will depend on effective evaluations.

Assembly Ways and Means Committee Chairwoman Debbie Smith, D-Sparks, says 97 percent of teachers receive satisfactory evaluations. Dozens of teachers testified in the Carson City hearing room and via satellite from a hearing room at the Sawyer State Office Building in Las Vegas, where they were joined by a single legislator, Assemblyman Paul Aizley, D-Las Vegas, a retired UNLV math professor.

Aizley suggested that the implementation of the governor’s proposal, which awaits legislative votes, be delayed for as many as two years so the current evaluation process could be understood within Nevada’s school districts.

More than a dozen teachers testified that they fear the change could make it easier for principals and school districts to get rid of teachers who earn more than younger teachers, particularly in tight budgetary times, an echo of the anti-collective bargaining techniques employed by Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker. Several noted that budget-constrained school administrators might turn to two entry-level teachers to replace a more costly educator with 15 or 20 years experience. They also worry that postprobationary teachers could lose their jobs to principals who do not like their personalities.

“You could be subject to the whims of a principal in a given year,” one teacher said.

Others spoke of the frustrations felt by young, high-quality educators who are about to lose their jobs to budget cuts because of the last-in, first-out formula that dictates who stays and who goes.

Principals are required to perform nine classroom evaluations for first-year teachers and three classroom evaluations annually for teachers who have passed probationary periods. Instead, the evaluations are used inconsistently, with some principals closely following the rules, while others rarely make the required classroom visits, particularly for veteran teachers.

The first three years of a teacher’s Clark County School District career routinely finds them undergoing a three-page, 45- to 60-minute review conducted by a principal or assistant principal who gauges a teacher’s planning and preparation, student achievement, the learning environment, professional standards and professional responsibilities.

Each category has three to nine subcategories, with teachers graded on a scale of one to four, with four being the highest level. The subcategories are designed to assess a teacher’s mastery of the curriculum and lessons, classroom management and his ability to work with students, administrators, co-workers and parents.

After the successful completion of nine such evaluations, a teacher is eligible to receive a much more limited single-page evaluation through which a principal or assistant principal may offer a brief “performance summary” that might offer a few suggestions for improvement.

The School District has hired an estimated 25,000 teachers during the past decade, the culmination of a 16-year period that saw the its student population double to 309,000. Hire 25,000 people to fill any positions, and even the staunchest advocates of the tenure-style job protections note that you will hire some who are excellent, some who should be fired and many who fill the bell curve of the broad middle.

No matter the outcome of the legislative debate, School District officials say a mix of new teacher and student performance measurements developed with the aid of advanced computerization and national standardized testing will create a more effective gauge of teacher performance, making it easier for principals and vice principals to perform teacher appraisals.

“This will give principals the data they need to determine how effective teachers are,” said Annie Amoia, a former elementary school principal who is the School District’s director of teacher induction mentoring and development.

There is another wild card that could affect Sandoval’s plan to improve teacher assessment. If his proposed budget cuts are adopted by state lawmakers, the School District will not only lose good teachers but also good administrators, the sort who effectively assess the performance of the best and worst teachers. The quality assessments that Sandoval and his staff crave could be hindered by the loss of those top-notch administrators, making it more difficult to remove poor teachers.

“The key to all of this is the execution of the evaluations. The district’s going to say their hands are tied; they can’t do the job,” said Ruben Murillo, president of the Clark County Education Association. “My question is what kind of training has been provided to these principals for the evaluations? What kind of training have they been given to provide teachers with assistance and improvements? When the district says it is too lengthy of a process, it is because they don’t try.”

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