New model seeks to account for divergent student backgrounds and learning environments

Test scores that measure the progress students make each year will now be used as part of a new evaluation system that determines how effective teachers are in the classroom. But not everyone with a stake in the public education system is pleased with the change.

The new methodology divides some of the candidates seeking open seats in the Nov. 19th run-off elections for the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE). The state’s teachers unions have also expressed opposition to the changes.

Beginning in the 2012-2013 school year, 50 percent of evaluations for teachers in academic classes will be based on the LEAP and iLEAP test scores, while the other 50 percent will be based more on subjective criteria built around classroom observations to determine how effective instructors are in motivating students. A pilot program that involves nine school districts and one of the charter schools is already underway.

“This is historic change and an important step forward for our education system,” said  Brigitte Nieland, vice-president and communications director of the Education and Workforce Development Council for Louisiana Association of Business and Industry (LABI). “For the first time, teachers will be evaluated based on how their students perform. This is about transparency and accuracy.”

The 33 member Advisory Committee on Educator Evaluations (ACEE), which includes teachers, administrators, elected officials and union representatives, is charged with making recommendations to BESE, which is guiding the program’s implementation.

The committee is considering a series of proposals for the non-test portion of the evaluation that examines how well teachers integrate lesson plans with the curriculum and how well their instructional strategies lead to student mastery of the subject matter. Another committee proposal calls for teachers to be assessed on how effectively they communicate with family members and colleagues as part of ongoing efforts to advance academic achievement.

BESE is also responsible for approving the evaluation formula that will be used to evaluation teachers in non-academic subjects without testing such as music, art, physical education and library instruction. A series of workgroups have been set up that includes instructors from non-academic classes. They are expected to submit their recommendations to BESE between now and the end of the year.

The “value-added teacher evaluations,” which were enshrined into law under Act 54 during the 2010 legislative session drew intense opposition from top figures within the Louisiana Federation of Teachers (LFT) and the Louisiana Association of Educators (LAE). Instead of mandating test scores as part of the evaluation, some union officials preferred a “mentoring system” that was already in use in some districts known as the Teacher Advancement Program (TAP).

Chas Roemer, the District 6 BESE incumbent (who is also the son of the former governor and current presidential candidate)  is unimpressed with the union position.

“What they are talking about is more of the same and that just doesn’t cut it anymore,” he said. “I support the value-added model because it gives us valuable information and it tells us how much progress a teacher is making with their students. It is not meant to be punitive because it can lead to merit pay for teachers who are doing an outstanding  job and we can also use the evaluations to see where we need to offer better support and training.”

Roemer has been endorsed by the LABI in his re-election effort. His opponent, Donald Songy, a former principal and superintendent of schools in Ascension Parish, has been endorsed by the Coalition for Public Education, which includes the Louisiana School Boards Association, the Louisiana Association of Superintendents, the state’s teachers unions and other public education stakeholders.

Songy views the value-added system as a flawed model that does not properly measure all the factors that go into effective teaching.

“In my opinion this is not the best way to evaluate teachers,” he said. “The best way to evaluate teachers is with a trained professional who understands the function of observing the teacher in action. The other problem I see here is that the majority of teachers do not teach in a subject where tests are given. I don’t have a lot of confidence that the methods that are being developed now to measure teachers in these areas will be very meaningful.”

Les Landon, the director of Public Relations for LFT, a Coalition member, also has misgivings about the value-added method and the measurements that will be used for teachers operating in non-academic areas. He points out the majority of teachers fall into “non-core” areas that do not involve tests. Sixty-five percent of Louisiana teachers oversee classes without the standardized tests, according to the Louisiana Department of Education.

“Nobody was satisfied with the way teachers were being evaluated, that’s where we are in agreement because it was entirely subjective,” Landon said. “But the idea that everything can be quantified and measured in this way is something that a lot of researchers do not support.”

Landon also said that his organization is not irrevocably opposed to the inclusion of testing as a part of the evaluation picture. But at the same time, he is concerned that Louisiana officials have over-weighted the use of tests in comparison to other states that are also experimenting with the value-added approach.

“Having the tests score set at 50 percent of the value-added evaluation is something that was done without any data ,” Landon said. “That’s why we didn’t want to see this put into law. Fortunately, the legislature did put some brakes on and this program will be revisited once it is piloted.”

Roemer, the BESE member from District 6 disagrees. He views the 50 percent threshold as very “restrained, moderate and balanced.”  He also credits education officials for including teachers from non-academic classes to be involved with the work groups making evaluation recommendations to BESE.

Union critics who suggest that teachers may be unfairly judged overlook some key factors, Rayne Martin, deputy superintendent of innovation for the Louisiana Department of Education (LDOE), said. The new model, for instance, does take into account the fact that not every teacher begins from the same starting point in their classrooms,  points out. The student’s background and learning environment factor into the assessments, she said.

“There is an understanding here that schools start in different places and the new system is very intuitive to that because it is based on student growth and that is what is really being measured,” Martin said. “Every student starts at a different place based on their academic history and other indicators and characteristics. The system acknowledges this reality. That’s why each year we look at how much students grow from where they started. This is something I think the critics need to step back and consider.”

One key advantage of having teachers involved with the work groups is that they see where assessments should be tailored and crafted to fit the unique needs of each and each district, Susan Benedetto, a library media specialist for the St. Charles Parish School Board, said. She is a part of the work group for educators working on the non-tested subjects.

“When we started our goal was to come up with a common assessment and share our package with all librarians in grades K-12,” she said. “But after our initial study we found we couldn’t do this because every district is different and there are certainly differences between what’s happening at the elementary and the high school level. But we can set goals for student growth and we are going to back at which ones are rigorous and which ones can be improved.”

The pilot program includes the International School of Louisiana, a charter school, and the following school districts: City of Monroe Schools, Jefferson Parish Schools, Lincoln Parish Schools, Orleans Parish Schools, St. Bernard Parish Schools,  St. James Parish Schools,  St. Martin Parish Schools,  Terrebonne Parish Schools and   West Baton Rouge Parish Schools.

Kevin Mooney is an investigative reporter with the Pelican Institute for Public Policy. He can be reached at and followed on Twitter.