Seniority is likely to lose a great deal of significance in teacher pay, layoffs and rehirings in the Akron Public Schools.
The Akron school board is in the process of enacting a policy change on seniority, giving the plan its second airing at last week’s board meeting.
But Akron isn’t making a radical move all on its own. It’s acting on a state mandate that eventually will affect all districts.
“Every school district in Ohio is working through this new legislation,” said Rhonda Porter, general counsel for Akron Public Schools.
The legislation, first introduced in the 2013-14 state budget, overhauls teacher assessments with the new Ohio Teacher Evaluation System (OTES).
The previous system relied on yearly observations to assess a teacher’s skills. The new system incorporates student performance on existing tests and requires new testing for grade levels and subjects that currently have none.
In addition to revising their evaluation policies, school districts must spend money on many new tests and, last month, they had to put their work on hold as the legislature toyed with significant changes to a system that has been in place for two years.
Akron administrators say they are ahead of the curve in rolling out a new system for evaluating teachers. They’ve welcomed the local teachers union’s input for design and development.
“The one big thing: We need to negotiate teacher evaluation policy,” said Bill Siegferth, a former president of the Akron Education Association for 27 years. Siegferth said he has been working “hand in glove with the board” to develop the new system, which is “critical” to a new contract.
The union and administration reached impasse on contract talks nearly a year ago on a contract that expired June 30, 2012. State law now requires that new contracts include the new form of teacher assessments.
The union and administration agreed to postpone a fact-finder’s study and to restart negotiations on a contract that complies with the new state law.
Throughout those talks, teacher evaluations remain the “biggest piece,” Siegferth said.
“You like to see less emphasis put on that,” Siegferth said of the student performance data. “There are just so many elements there that impact the kid’s performance. I understand taking responsibility [for student performance], but that’s a tough call.”
Originally, student performance was to account for 50 percent of the scoring in a teacher evaluation. The other half would be based on four half-hour observations made by administrators.
Following legislative testimony regarding the variability of student characteristics, the Senate in early June added a provision to the state budget that would have reduced the student-performance factor to 35 percent of a teacher evaluation.
John McClelland, spokesman for the Senate Republicans, said the education committee listened to a number of people. “Their belief was that we could drop that number to 35 percent, which is what we did.”
The Senate also acknowledged factors beyond a teacher’s control. Absenteeism was one.
“How many days can a student miss and still be around enough to benefit from classroom instruction?” McClelland asked.
The Senate decided that if a student missed 30 days — the equivalent of six weeks — then his or her academic results should not impact the teacher’s evaluation. That was a reduction from 60 days — a third of a school year — under existing law.
However, in a closed-door conference committee rewrite of the bill, House leadership objected to both Senate amendments. They compromised at 45 days of absence, but returned student performance on tests to 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation.
In a matter of hours, the bill moved to both houses, was passed and two days later signed by Gov. John Kasich.
Meanwhile, every public school district was attempting to devise a teacher evaluation system that had moving targets.
“This is just one more case where last-minute alterations in major policy matters are being thrown into budgets without any serious policy review,” said State Sen. Tom Sawyer of Akron, one of two Democrats on the six-member conference committee.
Rep. Ron Amstutz, R-Wooster, chaired the conference committee. He said he “really didn’t work that issue” because it was “school related.”
Mike Dittoe, spokesman for the House Republicans and Speaker William Batchelder of Medina, said he would look into the matter, but offered no response by Friday.
Beyond the classroom
Sawyer, like McClelland, recalled educators questioning the heavier reliance on student test data. He said student performance, like attendance, is affected by socioeconomic conditions beyond the classroom and the teacher’s control.
“Where [students] live, where they learn, where they grow up — the kind of conditions they face going to school and at home — they make enormous differences,” Sawyer said. “Can they be overcome? Of course. But do they make a difference? You bet they do.”
Others who oppose the heavy emphasis on student performance say high-stakes tests were never intended to measure teacher performance.
“That’s the problem with the law,” said Randy Flora, director of education policy research and member advocacy at the Ohio Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union. “Student tests have not been validated for that purpose.”
He said there is a general consensus that the use of multiple sources of information over at least a three-year period produces a more accurate picture of student performance, but, reiterating his concern about existing tests, added: “three years of data that aren’t valid doesn’t add up to valid data.”
Flora encourages union leadership to work with school administration in developing the new evaluations.
He also pointed out the new financial burden of the assessment system.
Proficiency tests are administered in only 40 percent of Ohio classrooms because most grade levels aren’t tested, Flora said. So the state has mandated that schools purchase additional testing services from private vendors.
In addition, there is no testing for such subjects as gym, music or elementary math and English. And so student performance data is not available.
Akron spent $233,999 to acquire new tests that will be administered this school year to comply with the new mandate.
Doug Livingston can be reached at 330-996-3792 or firstname.lastname@example.org.