State education leaders have asked Fresno Unified School District to help devise better ways to evaluate teachers -- methods that may include linking test scores to teacher performance.
Measuring how individual teachers improve test scores, known as the "value-added" method, is highly controversial and has been strongly opposed by unions.
The California Board of Education, meeting Wednesday in Sacramento, asked the Fresno, Long Beach and Los Angeles districts to consider it and other methods as they create an online database to share information about local, state and national efforts to measure teacher effectiveness.
All three districts were involved in drafting California's second-round "Race to the Top" application for federal stimulus money.
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The district's newly collaborative relationship with the 4,200-member Fresno Teachers Association is another reason the state board sought Fresno Unified's help. It was the only major school union to endorse the state's Race to the Top application. Union president Greg Gadams even joined Fresno Unified associate superintendent Kim Mecum at Wednesday's meeting.
Although California ended up losing out on the educational reform funds, the reform momentum is still alive, and proposals on how to better evaluate teachers are a major part of it. The talk isn't going away, Gadams said, so it's better for the union to be involved in the process than left out.
Exactly how the state would use the online database is unknown, but teachers are keeping a close eye on it, Gadams said.
"There is always the fear the state would go in and make some ludicrous rule and muck things up," he said.
The inability to adopt teacher evaluation standards linked to testing is one reason California lost out on $700 million in Race to the Top funds last month, some teachers union critics said.
But Fresno Unified Superintendent Michael Hanson said he believes that teachers unions and school districts don't have to be at odds over evaluation.
"It was important for the state board to know that big unions are working with big district management teams collaboratively," he said.
Hanson declined to provide specifics on how far the two have come in developing potential teacher appraisals, saying they won't discuss new evaluation methods publicly until they are finalized.
The value-added concept is not in use by Fresno Unified, Gadams said. He said the union will be involved in discussions with the state as Fresno Unified and the Fresno Teachers Association move forward in formulating local plans to improve teacher performance.
"We are at the beginning; we are just talking," Gadams said.
Some initiatives are already under way, however. Hanson pointed to the district's Skillful Leader Project, now in its third year, as an example of moving in the right direction. The project centers on the training and supervision of classroom instruction and writing of evaluations. It includes principals and vice principals observing teachers in action.
"Critical to the discussion of teacher effectiveness and instruction improvement is quality supervision," Hanson said.
There have been some discussions in Fresno Unified about how to improve teacher performance, including videotaping lessons that could be shared with other teachers.
"Not as an evaluation tool," Gadams said. "It would be demonstration lessons to be used as a resource for other teachers." Teachers, he said, would have to consent or volunteer to be taped.
So far, there aren't many concrete proposals for using the value-added method and test scores to rate teacher performance. Value-added analysis provides a painstaking, statistical approach that attempts to measure how student test results are affected by each teacher.
"We want to use data to help and support teachers, not get rid of them," Gadams said. "We are trying to find something that works; we don't believe a single test score is a fair assessment." The concept has its share of critics.
"They [state board] are coming in with an agenda to link teacher performance to standardized test scores, and their further agenda is that value-added is the way to go," said A.J. Duffy, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, the union representing 45,000 Los Angeles Unified school employees.
"Why would we at UTLA accept one flawed system in place of another flawed system?" he said.
Because test scores can have wide variations, he said, this year's "great teacher" may be a poor teacher the following year.
Judging teachers based on their students' test scores, Duffy said, "continues us down the road of narrowing the curriculum so we can test the kids on about 15% of what they learn in a classroom and take large chunks of the instructional day for four to six weeks on how to prep kids on how to take the test."