The Alaska State Board of Education on Friday approved a controversial rule change that adds, for the first time, "student learning data" to teachers' job evaluations.
The action moves forward a plan to base 20 percent of a teacher's assessment on their students' growth and performance using criteria that includes at least one standardized test, starting in the 2015-2016 school year.
By the 2018-2019 school year student learning will make up 50 percent of the evaluation, a move state officials say is in direct response to a public request by Gov. Sean Parnell.
The proposal was one of the most hotly-debated the state education board has seen in years.
The public comment period before Friday's action generated more than 900 written comments from 462 people -- mostly teachers unhappy with what they see as a move to judge them on how well their students do on high-stakes standardized tests that don't take into account outside-the-classroom factors that influence student performance.
Friday's decision closes a heated public comment process that ended with the governor asking directly for more weight on student data.
In a Nov. 21 letter to the board, Parnell said that 20 other states already weighted at least a third of teacher evaluations on student learning. Alaska should do more than that and go to 50 percent, he wrote.
"I would like Alaska to lead in this, not bring up the rear," Parnell wrote.
On Dec. 3 the state Department of Education released a list of proposed revisions for the board to consider, said Sondra Meredith, a department administrator involved in developing the regulations.
Major changes included giving districts more flexibility if a teacher's performance requires a "plan for professional growth," defining "student growth," and adding the 50 percent figure Parnell had asked for within five years.
The NEA-Alaska teachers union and its local affiliates said the public didn't get an adequate chance to respond to the department's last-minute revisions.
NEA-Alaska president Ron Fuhrer said in a press release Friday evening that public comment should have been re-opened and the board's decision "appeared to confirm a foregone conclusion." "The changes don't seem to reflect the bulk of the comments from the public but they do seem to reflect what was asked for in Parnell's letter," said Andy Holleman of the Anchorage Education Association, a union representing Anchorage School District classroom teachers.
The revisions were all in response to public comments, including Parnell's request, said deputy commissioner Les Morse.
Drafters of the rule say they pored over hundreds of pages of feedback.
The comments, which came mostly from teachers and spanned big and small schools from Anchorage to Atmautluak, echoed a few themes.
Teachers worried that their evaluations would be made public record.
That's against state law and won't be changing, Meredith said.
The state will take steps to make sure data reporting on teacher performance stays anonymous even in small districts, she said.
One of the biggest concerns cited in the comments: That students' lives outside the classroom would affect their ability to do well on tests and in turn their teachers' evaluations.
Teachers wrote that their students came to school with fetal alcohol syndrome, ADHD, cognitive impairments and poor nutrition.
"How can you base 20 percent of my evaluation on that?" wrote one Ketchikan teacher.
A student with a stable family, a decent bedtime, a healthy dinner and a warm coat would outperform one who lacked all those things, another teacher wrote.
Several pointed out that studies show schools in affluent neighborhoods regularly outperform those in poorer neighborhoods. Some asked whether teachers serving poor students or those with extra problems would leave if they thought their evaluations -- and livelihoods -- would suffer.
"Students are not widgets," wrote an Anchorage teacher. "They do not come to us in standardized form."
During Friday's meeting, state education commissioner Mike Hanley said that the revised rule allows for teachers to be evaluated on student growth over time rather than performance at one moment in time.
"What this language is meant to do is recognize what a teacher has control over and doesn't have control over," he said.
The state says it knows it needs to do a better job communicating what the changes will mean for districts, teachers, students and their parents.
The overwhelmingly negative public comments revealed a break between what the state wants to do and what teachers perceive it will mean for them, Morse said.
"There was a lot of misinformation and it seemed to build and build," he said.
For one thing, the evaluations still won't dictate what teachers get paid.
Teacher evaluations impact retention and advancement, but pay scales are set by union contract bargaining.
Another big misconception, according to Meredith:
"That it's all about statewide testing data, which it's not."
Instead, she said, districts will be able to choose between two and four ways to measure student learning.
One of those has to be a standardized test. Just what that test will look like hasn't been decided. Other measures could include anything from a written evaluation to a project.
Not everyone buys the idea that evaluations will be holistic and take into account factors beyond a teacher's control.
Holleman said he sees evaluations heading toward more weight on standardized testing, despite what the state says.
"That clearly seems to be where it's going," he said.
Reach Michelle Theriault Boots at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4344.
Comments to state Board of Education on teacher evaluation changes
By MICHELLE THERIAULT BOOTS