Our Editorial: Don't ditch teacher grading model

The Detroit News

It took the Michigan Legislature years to fashion the state’s current approach to teacher evaluations. The framework was a bipartisan effort, and highly incorporated the input of experts in the teaching field. Three years later, however, teachers unions are having second thoughts.

Lawmakers shouldn’t bow to pressure to change it.

In late 2015, when Gov. Rick Snyder signed the evaluation legislation into law, the Michigan Education Association (the state’s largest teachers union) and plenty of Democrats praised the effort. 

The evaluation framework was a bipartisan effort, and highly incorporated the input of experts in the teaching field. Lawmakers shouldn’t change it.

Former MEA president Steven Cook hailed the legislation as a “major improvement over the present haphazard process” and said the legislation changes the focus of evaluation from “punishment” to “improving classroom instruction.”

That was then. The MEA has since changed its tune, now that the full impact of the evaluation law is kicking in. So have lots of Democrats.

Republicans, who spearheaded the initial overhaul, are also working to roll back some of the requirements. Term limits are undoubtedly to blame, as many of the lawmakers who worked on the initial law are no longer in office. And this is a complicated policy discussion. 

A bill introduced earlier this year by Rep. Aaron Miller, R-Sturgis, is getting traction in the House Education Reform Committee, and a hearing was held last week.

Essentially, this latest bill is about lowering the stakes of the evaluations. The law had mandated that starting out, 25 percent of a teacher’s annual evaluation would be based on student growth and testing data. Half of that included the state standardized test — the other half could be a test decided on locally.

This school year, however, that measure jumps to 40 percent, and the unions are worried this is an unreliable way to grade a teacher’s performance. Miller’s bill would freeze the 25 percent standard. 

Business and education advocacy groups are sounding the alarm that this would be a backward move for Michigan as it seeks to improve its public schools. 

In a strongly worded letter to House Education Committee Chair Tim Kelly, R-Saginaw Township, the heads of three top business groups in the state cautioned against making the proposed change.

Doug Rothwell of Business Leaders for Michigan, Sandy Baruah of the Detroit Regional Chamber and Rick Baker of the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce all signed the letter.

The business leaders pointed out how this year Michigan ranked 49th in the U.S. for third grade reading scores — across all socio-economic backgrounds. Yet that doesn’t match up with how teachers are graded. In the past six years, they say 98 percent of the state’s teachers have been ranked as “highly effective” or “effective.” 

“A quality teacher evaluation tool is one of the most sophisticated and powerful tools a school district has for not only accountability, but to catalyze change,” they wrote.

The Education Trust-Midwest also testified against weakening the law.

Sen. Phil Pavlov, R-St. Clair Township, and chair of his chamber’s Education Committee, sponsored the original legislation and worked tirelessly to get it done three years ago. He took criticism at that time for giving local districts too much leeway in how they fashion their evaluations. Apparently it wasn’t enough.

Pavlov is unlikely to take up the matter unless there’s good reason. And so far, we haven’t heard a convincing rationale for why it’s necessary to alter what had been welcomed as a fair and meaningful way to grade Michigan’s teachers.