Developing system to rate teachers proves challenging

Creating an objective system for evaluating Nevada teachers has proven to be a "gargantuan challenge" because 70 percent of teachers don't administer standardized tests to their students.

"This isn't as straightforward as we thought," said Pamela Salazar, chairwoman of the Teachers and Leaders Council of Nevada, which the state Legislature created in 2011 to develop the first-ever statewide system for evaluating performance of public school teachers and administrators. The new evaluations are part of several legislative reforms aimed at improving Nevada's low-ranked schools.

Evaluations in Clark County are 100 percent based on principals observing teachers in the classroom for at least 60 minutes a year, Chief Human Resources Officer Staci Vesneske said in a telephone interview. No student performance data are taken into account, and some believe the system is too subjective, she said.

Districts use exemplary evaluations to promote teachers and poor evaluations to justify firing teachers. Without the reasons for termination clearly laid out in an unsatisfactory evaluation, a teacher could legally fight the termination in arbitration and be reinstated.

Also, Clark County teachers who receive two consecutive unsatisfactory reviews would be the first let go in budget-cutting layoffs. Evaluations have no direct effect on raises, which are based on considerations including time with the district.

The Legislature is mandating that the new evaluation system - to be implemented in the 2013-14 school year - use student achievement data for at least 50 percent of a teacher's evaluation. But the only universal data come from the state's standardized tests taken in just English, writing and math courses in third through eighth grades and one grade in high school, said Rorie Fitzpatrick, council member and Nevada's deputy superintendent of Instructional, Research and Evaluative Services.

That doesn't cover six grades, or science, social studies, art, music and other courses in all grades. How will those teachers be graded?

"We've given you a Herculean task," Assemblyman Lynn Stewart said Wednesday after hearing the council give a progress report to the Legislative Committee on Education. "I don't know if it will be achievable."

The council is required to present the first draft of its suggested evaluation system to the State Board of Education on June 1. It must then bring back the final system on Dec. 6.

"This is a tall mountain to climb," said Assemblyman David Bobzien, who is chairman of the Education Committee. "I don't know if you're going to get there."

With most classes not taking state standardized tests, an alternative could be student surveys asking them how their teachers are doing, Fitzpatrick said. Washoe County School District is taking a trial run of the survey. Or students could take a test at the beginning of the year and again at the end to determine whether their growth meets objectives. This would be a natural fit in music and art classes, she said.

The council is still considering such details, and the best method may be unknown until the system is piloted for a school year, she said.

"I hear daily, 'You can't evaluate a teacher,' " responded Bobzien, emphasizing his disagreement but recognizing the challenge facing Nevada and 21 other states tackling their own data-driven evaluation systems.