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Teachers must make the grade under new guidelines

When Ohio's new teacher evaluation system kicks in starting next year, teacher Tammy Schmidt may be joining her third-grade students in preparing scrapbooks of their classroom accomplishments.

Teacher portfolios, which could include lesson plans, student work, photographs — even videos — are among the tools that states are considering as a way to better rate educators and to meet the conditions for federal funding. Other approaches being developed and tested across the nation may include parent reviews, student surveys, classroom observations and student growth measures including standardized test scores.

Teachers with consecutive poor ratings will first get help and then could lose their tenure. Teachers who consistently excel would be evaluated less frequently.

The push for reform has emerged from a growing bipartisan consensus — joined by the Obama administration — that the old advancement model based on tenure and seniority wasn't always working, with union-negotiated agreements viewed as sometimes protecting bad teachers or blocking opportunities for young talent.

Tim Melton, legislative director for the education reform group StudentsFirst, said parents and teachers alike had become frustrated with evaluations that ranged from lackluster to nonexistent.

"The biggest factor in school by far is an effective teacher in the classroom," he said. "Everyone in the building knows who those people are. The difference now is there is a lot of robust data to show how things are going. The question is once you have it, what are you going to do with it?"

Most states pledged to establish new teacher and principal evaluation systems to gain points on their applications for the Obama administration's Race to the Top grants. States that wanted a waiver from some of the No Child Left Behind law's requirements also had to pursue certain policies, including basing teacher evaluations in part on student achievement.

Michelle Exstrom, education program principal at the National Conference of State Legislatures, said in most states, teachers weren't evaluated annually and, when they were reviewed, almost all received satisfactory ratings.

"These evaluation systems are meant to be much more authentic in assessing how students are doing," she said. "And make no mistake: Teachers, parents and students all want this. It doesn't do a teacher any good to get a positive evaluation that's not accurate."

But measuring good teaching isn't easy — particularly when nearly 8 in 10 public school educators nationwide don't teach subjects measured using standardized tests. When the U.S. Department of Education offered waivers last summer to extend the deadline for states to start up their evaluation systems, more than half of states applied, according to a department spokeswoman.

In Ohio, Schmidt, who teaches in the Columbus suburb of Hilliard, is one of nearly 109,000 teachers statewide who will fall under new teacher evaluation criteria that kick in next July.

The evaluation system the state is developing will base half a teacher's rating on student growth, measured through test scores and other criteria; the other half will be based on teacher performance, as measured by more frequent classroom observations, among other things.

Ohio has no current plans to use student surveys as evaluation tools, but Schmidt has a hard time imagining how that would look for educators of 8-year-olds elsewhere.

"As teachers, we respond to student feedback on a constant basis," Schmidt said. "It's that look on their face like, 'Oh my gosh, I have no idea what you're talking about,' to, are they engaged in this unit or are they daydreaming?"

She said parent feedback — another tool some states are considering — could be just as variable, with those unhappy with a child's poor grade or a teacher's demeanor potentially turning in low marks.

James Martinez, a spokesman for the National Parent-Teacher Association, said it's valid nonetheless.

"Parents' perspectives should be considered in every kind of decision and in any kind of evaluation, not even just teachers," he said.

Michele Wimship, an education reform consultant to the Ohio Education Association teachers' union, said decisions on how Ohio's evaluation system will look is being delegated to local school boards. She fears that will produce a patchwork of approaches for different types of teachers across the state.

"It's going to be very complicated and confusing," she said. "We are watching with interest given the fact this new law was passed with no input from teachers, no input from administrators and no input from the state Department of Education."

In Missouri, after months of deliberations, the complexity of the issue prompted state lawmakers to leave for the summer without passing their teacher evaluation bill. Last winter, Virginia lawmakers rejected Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell's proposal to make it easier to fire teachers by phasing out continuing contracts, which are akin to tenure, and replacing them with three-year contracts.

Elsewhere, teachers' unions and reform groups are waging legal battles over the movement.

In Florida, the statewide teachers' union and two individual teachers have filed suit over the new state plan, which replaces seniority with merit pay. They argue it's vague, arbitrary and doesn't match the law that was passed. The state contends it conforms to the 2011 law, which also ends tenure for newly hired teachers.

A judge in Los Angeles ruled preliminarily that the city school district is violating state law by not including student achievement measures, including test scores, in teacher evaluations. The suit was filed by an anonymous group of families sponsored by EdVoice, a Sacramento-based education reform group, and awaits a final outcome.

Behind such fireworks, states and districts are hard at work hammering out how exactly the new evaluation systems will work.

Pennsylvania's new law replaces the current performance evaluations for public school teachers that are based solely on observations by superiors. The new system would rely on those observations for half of the rating, and the other half would be based on multiple measures of student achievement, including standardized test scores, classroom activities and quiz scores.

Colorado's law, passed in 2010, lays out four ratings for teachers: highly effective, effective, partially ineffective and ineffective. It says half the ranking should be based on student test scores, and that teachers ranked ineffective for two straight years would risk losing tenure, the status that protects them from getting fired.

Texas has developed a new, tougher standardized test — the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR — to measure for how well students, teachers and school districts perform. Starting next year, teachers and school districts will be evaluated on students' passing rate.

The new exam is designed to be far more difficult than its predecessor, and critics say it puts even more pressure on teachers to teach to high-stakes standardized tests.

Defenders of the exam, including those in the business community, say it's the only way to ensure Texas has a workforce that's properly educated for the jobs of the future.

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Associated Press writers Kristen Wyatt in Denver; Marc Levy in Harrisburg, Pa.; Will Weissert in Austin, Texas; Chris Blank in Jefferson City, Mo.; and Larry O'Dell in Richmond, Va., contributed to this report.

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