While it's important for lawmakers to finish work on evaluations, they must protect tenure reforms


When Michigan passed major changes to its teacher tenure law four years ago, that was an integral step to ensure only the best teachers are in the state's classrooms. And when lawmakers at that time called for the creation of a statewide teacher evaluation, it didn't seem like a controversial request.

But it has become a political flashpoint, raising the ire of various stakeholders.

While it's important for the Legislature to settle on a framework for evaluating teachers and administrators, it must not come at a cost of harming the reforms to tenure.

That's a concern to some lawmakers, including Senate Education Committee chairman Phil Pavlov, R-St. Clair Township. And it should be. Pavlov is worried that an overly prescriptive approach will undermine the valuable tenure changes, which did away with layoffs based on seniority and gave districts more leeway to fire ineffective teachers.

The fear is that the more detailed the state's requirements on evaluation, the more the state is opening the door to additional lawsuits from teachers unions if districts don't follow every line item.

Pavlov's bill on evaluations passed the Senate in May and is now sitting in the House. His bill would lay out a blueprint for how schools should handle evaluations, from observations to charting student progress.

Yet Pavlov stops short of telling districts exactly what observation tool to use and doesn't call for the state to be in charge of setting a common student growth measure. He's leaving those choices to local districts.

Because of that, he's getting called all kinds of names, and accused of trying to gut evaluations of any muscle.

That's an unfair accusation, especially given Pavlov helped usher in the tenure reforms.

He's also paid close attention to the work of the Michigan Council for Educator Effectiveness, headed by Deborah Loewenberg Ball, dean of the school of education at the University of Michigan. This is the council lawmakers called for back in 2011 to craft a model evaluation.

Yet during the nearly two years it took the council to wrap up its 150-page report, the 2011 law called for districts to start putting more comprehensive evaluations in place, using student growth as an increasingly large part of the annual performance review.

That means many districts already use an evaluation tool. Case in point: Jackson Public Schools. Last week the district announced it will be firing two teachers because of ineffective ratings on evaluations two years in a row. The district uses the Charlotte Danielson's Framework for Teaching evaluation model — one of four models the council recommended the state adopt.

One of the Jackson teachers had worked at the district for 15 years; the other for 30. Before the tenure revisions, removing these teachers would have been much more difficult. It's possible now because the lawmakers took out the "just cause" standard for removing a teacher with tenure and replaced it with the "not arbitrary or capricious" standard — a much easier bar to meet, while still being fair to teachers.

Clearly, the law is working, and districts have the most important tools they need to enforce classroom quality — but local leaders must make the effort.

Opponents of Pavlov's bill fear that if the state doesn't step in with a more prescriptive framework, districts will continue with milquetoast evaluations. Considering 97 percent of teachers are currently rated as effective or better, that's a real problem.

But the threat of weakening tenure reforms with lawsuits is also real, and lawmakers must find a way to balance these concerns.

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