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Schools try out competing systems for gauging teacher performance

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By Bill Lueders/Wisconsin Center for Investigative Reporting
September 2, 2013

School districts in Wisconsin, faced with a new mandate to evaluate the effectiveness of teachers and other educators, must make a choice.

They can use an assessment model developed by the state Department of Public Instruction, or an alternative. Currently, the only districts with an approved alternative are using a model offered by an educational service agency known as CESA 6.

Most of the state's school districts plan evaluation-system pilot runs this school year. All must decide, by the end of September, which model to use in 2014-15, when the system will have a full-scale debut. The cost to the state is roughly $7 million a year.

So far, the DPI model has more takers, including the state's largest school districts, in Milwaukee and Madison. But nearly a third of the state's 424 districts are on board with CESA 6. Districts must commit for only one year at a time.

DPI says its model is backed by more research; CESA 6 bills its model as easier to implement. Both have advocates, and the state teachers union has not indicated a preference for one or the other. But the union is concerned that the evaluations, under both models, will be used to reward and punish educators, which DPI has cautioned against.

Rachel Strauch-Nelson, spokeswoman for the Madison School District, which has about 2,300 teachers and 27,000 students, said her district picked the DPI model because it follows “a comprehensive, nationally recognized model for teacher practices” that the Madison district is already using.

Mary Pfeiffer, superintendent of the Neenah Joint School District, with 431 certified staff members and 6,300 students, felt that the CESA 6 model was more advanced. It aligned with the district's new pay-for-performance approach, allowing it to “determine the performance level of the teacher and merge it with the salary schedule.

CONFLICT OF INTEREST?

The requirement that alternative models be allowed was included in legislation crafted by state Sen. Luther Olsen, R-Ripon, chairman of the Senate Committee on Education. The agency administrator of CESA 6, which stands to receive about $1 million a year in taxpayer money from selling this model to schools, is Olsen's wife, Joan Wade.

CESA 6, based in Oshkosh, is part of a statewide network of 12 nonprofit quasi-governmental agencies created by the state Legislature in 1964. The CESAs, or Cooperative Educational Service Agencies, receive most of their money from school districts in exchange for various programs and services.

Wade has a 2013 salary of $131,821, plus $53,809 in benefits, which puts her toward the top among state CESA administrators.

State ethics officials ruled in an earlier case that Olsen is allowed to take actions that benefit CESAs, despite the connection to his wife, because these agencies serve a public purpose. Wade, a former state legislator, does not see her husband's role in helping pass legislation that allowed her agency to compete for tax dollars as a conflict of interest.

“I don't make more more because we're doing this,” Wade said. “Actually, I have more headaches.”

But Jon Bales, executive director of the Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators, observes that CESA 6 has been “very proactive” in trying to sell its model to districts.

“The CESAs are service agencies,” Bales said. “Their whole survival is based on identifying needs and serving those needs.”

DPI officials have also raised concerns about the research base and compatibility of the CESA 6 model. But Wade argues that her group's model is just as valid as the one used by DPI, and may be a better fit for some districts.

“I think it's good for districts to have a choice,” Wade said. “I think that, honestly, it makes us both better.”

EDUCATORS WILL GET COMPOSITE SCORE

The Wisconsin Educator Effectiveness System, of which the evaluations of teachers and principals is a critical part, was developed by a team of educators and stakeholders convened by DPI.

“This really is a big deal,” said Sheila Briggs, DPI's assistant state superintendent for academic excellence. “This system, coupled with implementation of Common Core (curriculum standards), have the potential to be real game changers for students in this state.”

DPI is barring districts from using the results during the pilot phase for “high-stakes decisions,” like awarding merit pay or termination. But the agency does expressly allow the system's eventual use “to inform the full range of human resource decisions.”

Betsy Kippers, president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council, the union representing state teachers, said her group will be working with members across the state to monitor how the evaluations are being used.

The educator effectiveness system has two parts: student outcomes and educator practice, each of which will count as 50 percent of a composite score for the state's approximately 72,000 educators.

DPI will gauge student outcomes using multiple measures, including standardized tests now aligned to the new Common Core curriculum standards adopted by Wisconsin and other states.

The two models are significantly different in terms of complexity, said CESA 6 project head Keith Fuchs. The CESA 6 model scores just six basic standards, compared to the DPI model, which employs more than 20 measures.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's 2013-15 budget allocates $6.9 million in 2013-14 and $6.7 million in 2014-15 for the new educator evaluation program. Most of this money will go to school districts at a rate of $80 per educator per school year.

The districts will then use this money to pay for educator effectiveness software and training, as offered through DPI, or an alternative provider such as CESA 6.

DPI education consultant Katharine Rainey said 210 districts will be taking part in a pilot of its program this year. Fuchs said CESA 6 is piloting its program in about 130 districts this fall.

The nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (www.WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.



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