Jacques: Finish work on teacher evaluations

Ingrid Jacques
The Detroit News

If the whole debate over teacher evaluations in Michigan seems a bit stale, that’s because it is. And everyone involved is feeling a little impatient — from the governor to lawmakers to teachers. Gov. Rick Snyder even made a point to mention it during his State of the State address earlier in the week.

Getting a model evaluation in place is important. But it must also be done right.

Expect evaluations to be the first order of business for the Senate Education Committee this year.

“It’s our No. 1 priority out of the gate,” says Brenda Resch, chief of staff for Senate Education Committee Chairman Phil Pavlov, R-St. Clair Township.

This discussion started more than three years ago, when lawmakers passed sweeping changes to the state’s teacher tenure laws. Those changes were hard fought, and ultimately made it more difficult for teachers to earn the protections of tenure — and easier to lose them if they didn’t do their jobs well.

Before these reforms took hold, it was nearly impossible for school districts to show a bad teacher the door. That’s not the case anymore, as district administrators now have more leeway under the law to fire poor-performing teachers.

When Republicans in the Legislature made these reforms in 2011, tenure was their main target. But to get that piece done and win the support necessary to pass it, lawmakers were pressured by teachers unions to tie in evaluations. Unions, which were not pleased at all by the tenure reforms, said they wanted to make sure teachers would be evaluated fairly and consistently.

So as part of the tenure reforms, the Legislature also included a framework for how schools should evaluate teachers — calling for the first time for student growth data to play a part in a teacher’s rating. That was a worthy change.

But lawmakers turned the actual crafting of the model evaluation to a panel of experts: the Michigan Council for Educator Effectiveness. That council, led by Deborah Loewenberg Ball, dean of the school of education at the University of Michigan, spent significant time working on its blueprint, and turned in its recommendations in the summer of 2013.

In the last legislative session, however, the House and Senate couldn’t agree on the finer points of what the evaluation should look like.

Here are the main things that need ironed out:

First, lawmakers disagree on how prescriptive to make the model evaluation. Senate education leaders lean more on the side of offering districts a strong blueprint, but stopping short of saying exactly which evaluation they need to use. Senate leaders also wanted to allow districts that already have a good evaluation in place to keep it.

The worry is that if the law is too prescriptive, unions will have more fodder to sue districts if the evaluation process isn’t executed perfectly. The fact Michigan Education Association president Steve Cook supported the more detailed House version of the evaluation bill last year is telling.

Second, the chambers disagreed about who should have more oversight of evaluations. Pavlov and his supporters think this would be better handled by local districts. After all, it is the responsibility of school boards and district administrators to implement a variety of laws.

But other lawmakers would like the Michigan Department of Education to have purview over evaluations. Realistically, that’s a task the department can’t take on effectively, given all its other obligations.

No policy change can magically improve education in Michigan. If lawmakers give local districts the tools to keep the best teachers and evaluate them fairly — as the Legislature should — it is up to the districts to employ these tools.

Ingrid Jacques is deputy editorial page editor of The Detroit News.