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The Lawrence school district will begin negotiating with its 900 teachers this week on a new contract for the 2014-2015 school year, the first year teachers will start being evaluated on the basis of student growth and achievement.
So far, officials from the Lawrence Education Association, the local teachers union, say they don't think the new evaluation methods will be a major sticking point in negotiations. Nor do they think they will cause problems when they go into effect next year, even though they haven't yet pilot-tested the part that counts student performance.
“I don't think it'll be a hard sell,” said LEA president Charlotte Anderson. “I don't think (the student achievement factors) are going to make or break anybody. If you're a good teacher, it's not going to hurt you, even if you're in a bad school. And if you're a bad teacher in a good school, it's not going to save your job.”
But state officials acknowledge anxiety among teachers throughout Kansas about new evaluation standards, which are required as part of the federal waiver from No Child Left Behind that Kansas received in 2012.
That waiver says Kansas schools are exempt from the requirements of that law, as long as it agrees to adopt other education reforms, including one that requires student growth and achievement count as a “significant factor” in teacher evaluations.
Those new evaluation systems must be in full effect starting next year. But the data on student performance won't be used as a basis for making personnel decisions — renewing or not renewing contracts, granting tenure and promotion –— until at least the 2016-2017 academic year.
“There's a lot of anxiety about new evaluations and moving away from (No Child Left Behind),” said Bill Bagshaw, assistant director of teacher licensure and accreditation at the Kansas State Department of Education. “Everybody's nervous and concerned about it. The point to remember is it's going to be OK. It's change and transition. Some things are controversial about it, and we're aware of that at KSDE. Our role is in helping people understand what the expectations are.”
In other states, and in some major cities like Chicago, teachers unions have been pushing back against the new evaluation requirements, arguing they put too much at stake in the outcome of standardized tests that students take each year.
That's been less true in Kansas, at least so far, in part because the department and the Kansas State Board of Education refused to require that student performance count as any set percentage of a teacher's overall evaluation score. Instead, Bagshaw said, Kansas only requires that it count as a “significant factor,” and that it be based on multiple measures of student achievement, not just standardized test scores.
In Lawrence, Anderson said the plan now is to use three measurements. One will be a standardized test, either English language arts or math, chosen by the district. The other two will be the teacher's own choice and could include such things as unit tests taken throughout the year, examples of students' writing, or portfolios of their work collected through the year.
Those other kinds of measurements will also be used for those who teach subjects like math, art, physical education, and other classes that don't have state assessments.
What does make teachers and some administrators in Kansas nervous is the fact that the new evaluation systems are coming into effect at the same time the state is shifting to new curriculum standards in core subjects – the Common Core standards for English and math, the Next Generation Science Standards, and new state standards for history and government – as well as trying to adapt to a new online testing platform being developed by Kansas University.
For that reason, Bagshaw said, the state is asking the U.S. Department for a one-year extension – until 2017-2018, before districts have to use student achievement as a basis for personnel decisions.
Anderson said the subject of teacher evaluations is scheduled for discussion in May, near the end of negotiations.
Meanwhile, the district and union have exchanged formal letters outlining other items they plan to discuss this year, including the perennial subjects of salary and fringe benefits.
Both sides are watching the Kansas Legislature closely as they wait to see how much funding will be available in the upcoming year. And LEA officials say implementation of the federal health law known as Obamacare will result in increased costs for employee health benefits.
District and teachers representatives have scheduled six negotiation meetings through May 19. The first will be at 5 p.m. Monday at the district administration building.