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Archive for Wednesday, October 17, 2012

First Bell: Science standards scrutinized; State board airs concerns about teacher evaluations

October 17, 2012

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New science standards that are being developed by a group of states including Kansas are already stirring controversy at the Kansas State Board of Education, but not for the usual concerns about the teaching of evolution and creationism.

John Richard Schrock, a professor who trains biology teachers at Emporia State University, told the State Board of Education he's worried the new standards put too little emphasis on individual disciplines, especially botony and plant life, human anatomy and zoology.

In fact, Schrock said, those subjects are not specifically mentioned in the new standards, the first draft of which was made public earlier this year.

Instead, Schrock said, the new standards emphasize "cross-cutting themes," scientific principles that are common to all disciplines and which many experts believe are critical to understanding any scientific discipline. Schrock said he believes that approach will give students too little exposure to individual disciplines and could leave them poorly prepared for college.

But agency officials are defending the so-called Next Generation Science Standards and the direction being taken by the multi-state group that is developing them.

"There's an issue of depth vs. breadth," said Matt Krehbiel, the lead staff person at the State Department of Education involved in the process. "Historically, we put everything into the standards to make sure every bit of content is covered. That was the direction we went in the past. The real effort at this point is to make sure students understand the core ideas in science. And that does mean we lose some bits of content on the side."

Krehbiel said a second public draft of the new standards will be published online in November, although he did not know the exact date. A final draft is expected in the spring of 2013. After that, it will be up to the state board to decide whether to adopt the new standards for Kansas, adopt them with revisions, or reject them for another set of standards.

• Some State Board of Education members are already questioning the value and validity of a new system under development for evaluating the performance of teachers, principals and school administrators.

And so far, they haven't even gotten a look at the truly controversial part: an element to be introduced later that will tie those evaluations to student achievement and growth.

The board got its first real look Tuesday at the nuts and bolts of how the system will work. So far, it involves grading educators across numerous criteria such as how well they maintain a positive classroom environment, their teaching techniques, professionalism and their own knowledge of the subjects they teach. Evaluators are supposed to look at dozens of indicators in each area and grade the employee accordingly.

The Kansas Educator Evaluation Protocol, or KEEP, is currently in its second year of pilot testing in 22 districts across the state. The Lawrence school district is not involved in the pilot test.

Agency officials who've been working on the project say all of the criteria are based on research that shows they are indicators of effective teaching.

Susan Helbert, assistant director of teacher education and licensure, said the ultimate goal of the new system is to improve teaching and learning in Kansas schools.

Board member Ken Willard of Hutchinson questioned whether the criteria used in the evaluations will actually lead to better teaching and improved student performance. He suggested the system should be based on standards used in other countries, such as Finland and Singapore, where students typically outperform their American counterparts.

"I'm feeling uneasy about the real value of what we're doing and whether it's really going to move the needle," he said. "Because if it does not, all we've done is an educational exercise."

Board member Walt Chappell of Wichita, meanwhile, questioned the amount of time and effort that will be required for evaluators to fill out the computer-based forms, and whether the criteria being used can truly separate an effective teacher from an ineffective one.

A separate team is working on adding a component that will determine how student achievement is used in the new evaluations. That team, called the Teaching in Kansas Committee, includes agency officials, school administrators and representatives from the Kansas National Education Association, the state's largest teachers union.

Including student performance as part of teacher evaluations was a condition for Kansas receiving a federal waiver from the No Child Left Behind law. Kansas was given until the 2014-15 school year to implement such a system.

Education Commissioner Diane DeBacker said that element of the KEEP system will be unveiled this spring and pilot tested next year.

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