The Ottumwa Courier

September 5, 2013

Teacher assessment raises concerns

Courier staff writer

---- — OTTUMWA — It's a sensitive topic: Judging which teachers are doing a good job and which teachers are not.

Three southeast Iowa educators will help seek a statewide system for evaluating Iowa teachers. Iowa Department of Education Director Brad Buck said 19 Iowans will serve on the council.

Jon Sheldahl, chief administrator at Great Prairie Area Education Agency in Ottumwa; Billy Strickler, a teacher in the Fairfield Community School District; and Joel Illian, a teacher with the Pekin Community School District, are now part of the Council on Educator Development.

According to the Iowa DOE, the council was "established as part of House File 215, the landmark education reform bill adopted by Iowa lawmakers."

"Our main goal is to design a standardized evaluation system that will be used statewide for teachers and administrators," said Stickler on Thursday.

But the idea of the state of Iowa judging educators has caused concern among teachers.

"Tying student performance to teacher pay is a touchy subject for all involved," said Stickler. "With many factors involved in this topic, there is no quick fix."

But why take on more work, more debate and more meetings?

"Something like this doesn't seem like more work," Stickler said. "It is the chance to create a process that will help Iowa reach the national and world standards [we] have been expected to be at."

In recent town hall meetings, Gov. Terry Branstad lamented the loss of Iowa's "top three" ranking on the list of best states for education in the nation.

Wanting to do a good job isn't enough.

Illian said, "The education of our young people is so important that we can't afford to gloss over the aspect of quality. Adults in education who are not doing a good job can have an enormously negative impact in the lives of our young people. Those teachers and administrators need to be told that they aren't doing a good job and given the opportunity to fix it. And if they continue to do a bad job, they need to find a different line of work."

The opposite is also true, he emphasized. Good teachers can make a huge difference in a student's life. Those teachers should be rewarded. The challenge, Illian said, will be how to determine what makes a good teacher — because there are a lot of different ways of reaching kids.

Yet this council may not be working to determine a formula for teacher pay, said Sheldahl. He said the "purpose of the task force is to look at criteria by which to evaluate teachers," in a way that meets federal guidelines. Why? Though not explicitly stated in the bill, he said it's because Iowa failed to get a waiver from the U.S. government's "No Child Left Behind" program.

"When it was denied, [the U.S. Education Department report] said go back and do this," he said. "One of the requirements is that states have teacher evaluation that includes a student growth component."

If we don't get a NCLB waiver, Sheldahl added, Iowa is in danger of "almost universal" failure by districts to meet the federal standard, which states that 100 percent of students in every school will test as proficient.

Not achieving 100 percent means punishment by the feds: withholding funding, firing the principal, getting rid of public school teachers.

"These sanctions are disruptive if you're working to improve," said Sheldahl.

Ironically, judging a school under No Child Left Behind brings up the same concerns some teachers have with how to judge educators. Current guidelines allow a whole year of work to be assessed using one test.

Sheldahl said the Iowa Test of Basic Skills is currently used to determine whether a school or an entire district has successfully taught students. Whether you like or don't like the ITBS, he said there are "concerns about using a once-a-year dipstick" to decide the performance of a district, a school or an individual teacher.

The diversity of the task force will almost certainly result in very different viewpoints, he said. Their first meeting comes up next month.

"I'm looking forward to seeing if we can come up with answers that can benefit students, parents and educators in Iowa."

— To see reporter Mark Newman's Twitter feed, go to @couriermark