After four years of preparing for a massive overhaul of how Ohio teachers are evaluated, paid and fired, the state legislature is in the process of making another change.

A bill unanimously passed by the Senate last week on its way to the House, proposes flexibility to the Ohio Teacher Evaluation System (OTES), a process of placing teachers into four performance categories by using student test scores and principal observations.

While the exact number of schools already using OTES is unknown, Akron and 25 other schools are piloting the system, providing feedback on the benefits and costs, including the need to add staff to perform the time-consuming observations.

Since its first passage by the legislature in 2009, lawmakers have made changes in five different bills, not counting the latest.

The most recent proposal by Sen. Randy Gardner, a Bowling Green Republican on the Senate education committee, would reduce the number of evaluations for high-performing teachers.

“Skilled” teachers would be evaluated every other year, instead of yearly. And “accomplished” teachers would be evaluated once every three years. In off years, principal observations would still be conducted.

The proposal lessens the stress on good teachers, and in turn gives principals — who spend as much as 24 hours a year evaluating a single teacher — more time for other administrative duties.

Gardner’s bill also would loosen a requirement that student test results should determine half of a teacher’s worth. No other state more heavily weights student performance in assessing teachers.

The bill changes the student performance component of an evaluation from 50 percent of the total score to a range of 35 to 50 percent, allowing local school boards “to utilize any measures it deems appropriate with the new 15 percent flexibility provision,” including supplementing the gap with student surveys.

The changes would take affect next school year, should the bill become law.

Teachers’ unions and educators have lauded the proposed flexibility as “absolutely a move in the right direction.”

“The amount of time we’re spending on preparing for OTES, as it stands now, is absolutely taking away from instructional time within the classroom,” said Pat Shipe, president of the Akron teachers’ union.

Shipe and others, including the state’s largest teachers’ union and the several public school lobbying groups, have taken issue with OTES. They argue that multiple tests over multiple years would better indicate a teacher’s worth. But the state only requires a single test taken yearly. Also, using combined building data instead of test scores from a single classroom would promote collaboration among staff.

The evaluation

Laurie Thompson is one of the “accomplished” teachers who would be evaluated less often under the proposed change.

A 16-year educator and runner-up for teacher of the year in Akron, where she teaches fifth grade at Ritzman, Thompson recently spent two hours planning a lesson that later would be evaluated by her principal, Larry Bender.

She’s familiar with OTES and has cut the planning time in half.

Thompson then spends an hour in the principal’s office discussing the lesson. Following the state’s guidelines, her principal sifts through 23 state-recommended questions.

“That’s really intimidating for the teacher,” said Bender, who has boiled down the meeting to five questions, or topics.

“What is it I’m going to see? ... What does the lesson entail? ... Why are you doing this lesson now? ... Tell me about your kids. ... As a professional, what is it you would like me to look for to develop your skills?” he asks each teacher.

He’ll then observe the teacher for about 35 minutes, jotting notes and asking students for perspective. However, if his schedule is interrupted and he can’t view the teacher on the day she is acting on the lesson plan they already reviewed, the process will have to start over again.

He grades the teacher based on a state-provided rubric and shares the results during another hour-long conference.

The whole process is repeated later in the year. That’s two evaluations for every teacher at Ritzman. For new and struggling teachers who are placed on improvement plans, evaluations must be done three times each year.

Priceless feedback

Thompson takes her principal’s comments to heart. She embraces the feedback.

That’s the point.

“I find it useful. The old one was very much a checklist,” Thompson said of the previous evaluation system, under which most teachers ranked “satisfactory.”

“It really didn’t hone in on what we’re supposed to be doing in the classroom. Our lesson plans. Communication with the students. Do you know your students? The data,” she said.

Each evaluation takes Thompson, who is comfortable with the process, more than six hours.

For Akron schools, Thompson’s time is repaid in better teaching.

An avid educator, Bender’s advice may be invaluable, but his time can be monetized.

The Ohio Association of School Business Officials testified in May that a “conservative” 2.9 million hours would be consumed each year to evaluate 120,000 Ohio teachers. That time doesn’t include training principals on how to conduct the observations. If every school hired outside help, total state cost would be $144 million.

With 27 teachers at Ritzman, Bender would spend about 45 percent of his time, assuming he spends 40 hours a week at school, evaluating his teachers, according to OASBO’s estimate.

“The time it takes to complete the evaluation doesn’t leave much time for the principals to work on improvements based on the evaluations,” Sen. Gardner said, who added Wednesday before a Senate vote that his bill could save “tens of millions of dollars each year” in administrative expenses.

Worth the time?

Some applaud Ohio’s efforts to become one of the most stringent teacher-testing states.

“Given the pivotal role of teachers on student learning, surely it is appropriate for a principal to devote this kind of time to evaluating each teacher’s effectiveness in the classroom, and giving teachers support when and where necessary. And it is certainly worth the time for the teachers,” said Greg Harris, state director for Ohio StudentsFirst, an organization supporting quality school choice programs, such as charter schools.

Unless they accepted Federal Race to the Top funding, charter schools are exempt from the time-consuming evaluations. There are 148 charter schools participating in the federal funding and therefore required to conduct evaluations while 244 charter schools have not accepted the federal funding and are not required to participate.

“When it comes to charter, the issue isn’t so much making them operate more like traditional public schools. We should give them the greater flexibility, but shut them down when they don’t show results,” Harris said.

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