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Teacher and principal voices

“It’s interesting that Dr. Starr is fighting so hard — that he is really trying to be thoughtful about what is best for the county. I think that should make it easier for us to transition, to see that we have leadership that is being thoughtful about our practice and what is best for us.”

Robin Wheeler, world studies teacher, Thomas W. Pyle Middle School

“Anybody who is in education, we are in it for the kids. It is so important for us to do the best that we can every day for kids.”

Carol Goddard, principal, Gaithersburg Middle School

“I don’t know how a typical social studies teacher would be measured by test scores. ... It is hard to say a student has grown by 3.15 percent in their political cartoon analysis skills.”

Alison L. Serino, principal, Westland Middle School

“It is cheaper to talk about how a teacher is doing than to talk about social service issues. They both sound just as good, but one is a lot cheaper to make laws on.”

Amy Soldavini, English teacher, A. Mario Loiederman Middle School

Related story: Montgomery teacher evaluations fail on state tests

It’s 8:45 a.m. on a Friday in January, and Saanura Haskett sits at the back of Room 119 at Benjamin Banneker Middle School.

She’s watching Bryan Lanham as he tries to hold the attention of 20 or so preteens during a lesson on Roman Republic politics.

He is rambling a bit, and his lesson is a bit scattered, she notes.

Lanham is nervous. He is the one being graded today, not his students.

When it comes to proving himself an effective first-year teacher in Montgomery County Public Schools, Lanham, who teaches Advanced World Studies, said, “It’s not all cupcakes and candy canes.”

Yet next year, the criteria for what it means to be a good teacher in Montgomery County could change drastically.

The changes would chisel away at what Superintendent Joshua P. Starr said is the “bedrock” of the school system’s work — its Professional Growth System.

Last week, Maryland Superintendent Lillian M. Lowery told Starr that the system would need to use the state’s model for evaluations next year, in which half of teachers’ evaluations are based on student growth measures.

That’s the default plan, unless a compromise can be reached.

But Starr is persistent. He told principals in December he would fight for the integrity of the system, which he said is proven to be effective, and has become a national model for evaluations.

Defining effective

Halfway through his lesson on Friday, Lanham picks out Popsicle sticks with names written on them to call on students.

It’s one of the practices that Haskett, his consulting teacher and evaluator, taught him.

When Haskett talks about Lanham’s incremental success, she talks in anecdotes. National education reform wants her to talk in test scores.

“There is a huge national movement to try to make sure teachers are held accountable for student growth, using student test scores,” said Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, a nonprofit focused on teacher quality reform. She ended a more than four-year term on the state’s Board of Education in December.

Walsh’s organization believes that 30 percent to 40 percent of teachers’ evaluations should be based on test scores, based on the latest findings of the Measures of Effective Teaching study by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

While some may argue that state tests are unreliable measures, Walsh said there are ways to make it work, such as using three years’ worth of data for one evaluation.

Doug Prouty, president of the Montgomery County Education Association, the county’s teachers union, argues that Montgomery does hold teachers accountable, and that the system is “more rigorous than any out there right now.”

Montgomery’s Professional Growth System was cutting edge when it was first developed in the late 1990s, said Jon Saphier, founder and president of the Acton, Mass.-based education consulting group Research for Better Teaching.

The system, which Saphier and his group helped develop, was one of the first to make professional development a key part of the evaluations, and include student growth, he said.

Now, Saphier said Montgomery’s model is being used in “dozens” of districts across the United States.

The system judges teachers on six standards, including knowing the subjects they teach, being committed to their students, assessing student progress and adapting instruction to improve student achievement.

Under Montgomery’s Professional Growth System, first-year teachers and teachers identified as not meeting standards are assigned consulting teachers, who provide extra support, and are placed in the Peer Assistance and Review program.

If the teacher is rated as underperforming, a panel of 16 principals and teachers decides if the employee has improved enough to be out of the program, should be given another year of support, or should be fired.

In the 11 years that the program has been used, 266 teachers have been let go, and about 285 teachers have resigned or retired while awaiting the panel’s decision, Prouty said.

Before the development of the system, one teacher had been dismissed for underperformance in 10 years, he said.

Last year, 3,093 teachers were evaluated, including 798 first-year teachers, Prouty said. Of the teachers evaluated, 61 were presented to the PAR panel as underperforming, and of those, eight were recommended for non-renewal and 13 for dismissal.

Starr said the school system moves people out of the system “who don’t deserve to be working in the system,” and —– more importantly — provides support for teachers to help them become better.

“Right, and isn’t that the goal — to make people better at their job?” he said.

Considering the school system employs more than 11,000 teachers, pushing out 266 over 11 years seems low, Walsh said.

Starr said that was an easy, sweeping statement to make.

“Those kind of statements defy logic and are overly simplistic,” Starr said.

Saphier stands by Montgomery’s system.

“I think it would be a mistake to take one of the most proven professional growth systems in the country … and disassemble it,” he said.

Uncertain measures

After class, Lanham looks through his students’ papers with Haskett. Haskett notes that most students did not answer the back of the worksheet correctly.

But she points out that Lanham did a great job of engaging students, and managing his classroom.

In classes such as social studies, art, physical education and music, it’s hard to judge student growth, because it is difficult to determine what measures to use, Prouty said.

Also, for teachers working with students with severe and profound special needs, sometimes the kind of growth you see is not measurable within a year, said Joshua Rubin, a special education teacher at Albert Einstein High School.

“Most of the time, parents understand that, and they are grateful to see any minute change,” Rubin said.

If teachers are judged more on their test scores, they may be more likely to want to work at a school where students are more likely to succeed, said Amy Soldavini, an English teacher at A. Mario Loiderman Middle School.

Absenteeism is a big factor in student success, she said.

“My students — when they are in front of me — they progress,” she said.

It’s confusing, Prouty said, why the state is requiring Montgomery to use test scores at a time when state tests are changing. Schools also are being measured by a new progress index this year.

Jennifer Webster, principal at Thomas W. Pyle Middle School, said the uncertainty of new measures makes her nervous.

“I think we are going down a dangerous path,” she said.

Until final word, principals say they are trying to focus on their job of seeing students succeed.

“I haven’t talked to my staff a lot about this,” said Alison Serino, principal at Westland Middle School. “I think because I have been really hopeful that Montgomery County can make a case for our current model … I’m keeping my fingers crossed.”

As the school days pass, Starr will work in the background.

He said there are much better ways to present a more “holistic and accurate picture” of what improves education.

“Unfortunately the increased use of standardized test scores that shame and demonize teachers does not do it,” he said.

At the end of Lanham’s evaluation, Lanham and Haskett agreed he wasn’t at his best.

But Haskett isn’t worried. She told him that his commitment to his students is noticeable, and his energy is refreshing.

“You seek to grow,” she said.

jbondeson@gazette.net