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Four Reasons Why Lawmakers Should Stay the Course with Compass

It appears that some of our lawmakers in Baton Rouge have gotten cold feet when it comes to moving forward with the education reform measures many of them voted for only a few years ago.

During the 2010 legislative session, lawmakers overwhelmingly passed what became Act 54, the law that authorized the establishment of a statewide teacher and administrator evaluation system. Over the next  two years, state education officials, working in collaboration with various stakeholders, researched, developed and piloted the evaluation model known as Compass, which was officially launched with the start of the 2012-13 school year.

However, now that districts across the state are tallying their first end-of-year Compass ratings of teachers and administrators, some legislators are having second thoughts and have thrown their support behind House Bill 160. H.B. 160, sponsored by Rep. Gene Reynolds (D – Dist. 10), would delay the full implementation of the state’s teacher evaluation program until the 2014-15 school year. In a rare example of unity across party lines, the bill was passed unanimously by the House, 102 – 0 (with three absent). But what’s even more surprising (or, more accurately, disturbing) is the about-face of 47 representatives who supported Act 54 in 2010, only to vote for H.B. 160 two weeks ago:

Lawmakers Who Voted for Act 54 (2010) & H.B. 160 (2013)
Burns, H.FoilLambertSimon
BurrellGeymannLandry, N.Smith
ChaneyHarrisLorussoWilliams, P.
ConnickHazelMorris, Jim
* Rep. Hoffmann originally sponsored H.B. 1033, which was signed into law as Act 54.

Louisiana has garnered national recognition for “putting students first in its education policies,” and in particular, for the bold steps our state has taken on teacher evaluation. Thus, it is profoundly disappointing that so many lawmakers are vacillating now that Compass is finally up-and-running. H.B. 160 is currently up for consideration by the Senate, where hopefully legislators will show more backbone than their colleagues in the House. Below are four reasons why lawmakers should stay the course with Compass and reject House Bill 160.

1. Claims that teachers will be unfairly terminated as a result of their Compass evaluations are baseless.

Two of the loudest voices in support of H.B. 160 – and in opposition to Compass – come from the state’s largest teachers unions: the Louisiana Federation of Teachers (LFT) and Louisiana Association of Educators (LAE). LFT and LAE have sought to misleadingly portray Compass as a “terminally flawed” system aimed at placing the blame on teachers for all of the ills in our education system. They have also resorted to fear-mongering, as exemplified by LFT president Steve Monaghan, who inaccurately stated, “We are learning that many of the state’s finest teachers will be labeled ‘ineffective’ because of a flawed rating system which squeezes teachers into predetermined results or outcomes.”

Actually, nothing could be further from the truth. A March report to the Senate and House Education Committees on Compass noted that “of the nearly 26,000 teachers observed so far, administrators put only 1 percent in the lowest category, ‘ineffective.'” [N.B.: If anything, the fact that so few teachers have been rated “ineffective” is a reflection of the challenge we face in changing the prevailing culture in our schools, where previously, a teacher’s evaluation consisted of a perfunctory write-up by their principal every three years.]

Furthermore, much of the unions’ misinformation campaign around Compass has focused on its incorporation of value-added measures (VAM) of student performance. LAE president Joyce Haynes maintained that the use of VAM in Compass evaluations “is the kind of thing that would cause a good teacher to look bad and a bad teacher to look good in any one year.” However, since VAM is only used in determining the performance of educators in tested subjects, it does not apply to the vast majority of teachers in the state. Even LFT conceded that, “The Value Added Model will only apply to one-third of all teachers, those who teach courses measured by standardized tests.”

Finally, even in the unlikely event that a teacher is incorrectly rated “ineffective,” state law already requires that districts have a grievance procedure through which educators can appeal their evaluation ratings. The law ensures that:

  • Teachers receive a copy (written or electronic) of their evaluation results within 15 days after the final rating is determined (the evaluator may share this feedback via the Compass Information System or another method of their choosing);
  • Teachers may provide a written response to the evaluation, which will become a permanent part of their personnel file;
  • Teachers may request a meeting with their evaluator after the final evaluation results are determined;
  • If a conflict with their evaluator is not resolved, teachers may file a grievance with the superintendent; and
  • Any evaluation results and related documentation are confidential and not part of the public record.

In short, lawmakers should ignore the Chicken Littles out there screaming that the sky is falling. Education officials are not “making it up as they go along” as some hysterics have claimed and there are safeguards in place to ensure that educators are evaluated fairly and equitably.

2. Delaying the implementation of Compass would, by extension, also delay the important package of reforms set forth in Act 1.

While the Louisiana Supreme Court has yet to issue a decision on the constitutionality of Act 1, the progress of H.B. 160 has complicated efforts to pass the state’s “backup plan” in the event the court strikes down the law – i.e., the three bills that, when taken together, are identical to the components already in Act 1.

These three bills were recently deferred by the House Education Committee because they are all based, in part, on the results of Compass evaluations. Thus, if H.B. 160 becomes law, the policies outlined in the bills could not go into effect until SY 2014-15 – if at all – and, even if the Louisiana Supreme Court allows Act 1 to stand.

By establishing teacher and administrator evaluations, Act 54 laid the foundation for the much broader shift in human capital policies promulgated in Act 1. Passed by the legislature in 2012, Act 1 establishes performance objectives for local superintendents; limits the meddling of local school boards in personnel decisions (and obviates the potential conflicts this entails); and prohibits districts from using seniority as the primary factor in reduction-in-force decisions. In addition, Act 1 sets a much higher bar for teachers to meet in order to receive tenure, which all but guarantees teachers a job for life.

The policies established in Act 1 are essential to the long-term success of our public education system. They move us away from a system in which teachers are treated as interchangeable “widgets,” to one which recognizes and rewards those educators who have a lasting positive impact on children. In sum, the potential downside posed by H.B. 160 are far bigger than many of the bill’s supporters have conceded; it would effectively derail the momentum that Louisiana has made in education over the past decade.

3. The stated benefits to be gained from delaying Compass implementation lack substance.

Admittedly, the roll-out of Compass this past year was not without flaws and substantive issues were raised about some aspects of the Compass model. However, as the Council for a Better Louisiana (CABL) noted, implementation issues are “expected and something we warned about soon after the legislation passed, but problems are made to be solved and first-year glitches are not evidence that new policies have failed.” Further, the concerns voiced about Compass did not fall on deaf ears. Early on, Supt. White acknowledged certain adjustments needed to be made to Compass and vowed to act on them. In January, White made good on his promise, when BESE passed a series of common-sense revisions to the evaluation process based on his recommendations.

So once we acknowledge the glitches, but recognize that LDOE and BESE have been willing to make adjustments to Compass, we’re still left with an important question: What tangible benefits are to be gained by delaying the full implementation of Compass until SY 2014-15? The answer: very little – a fact that becomes clear when one considers the reasoning of those who support H.B. 160.

For example, a recent editorial by The Advocate urged the legislature to support HB 160 in order to “give BESE and the state Department of Education time to show the evaluations’ relevance, and also time to demonstrate the leadership’s sincerity.” Sincerity? Really? Teachers don’t need to be coddled – they’re adults and professionals. While they certainly deserve our respect, that doesn’t mean important policy initiatives should be sidelined until everyone feels warm and fuzzy about them.

Likewise, Rep. Frank Hoffmann, the legislator who originally sponsored the bill that became Act 54 in 2010, justified his support for H.B. 160 with an equally kumbaya rationale: “Unfortunately some good teachers don’t have such great morale right now. This will help that.” In effect, what Rep. Hoffman is saying is that the feelings of adults should take precedence over the educational welfare of children, which is a big step backward from the “putting children first” policies that have set Louisiana apart.

One crucial point that has rarely been mentioned in the debate over H.B. 160 is that Act 54 states that educators must receive a rating of “ineffective” for two years in a row before they face dismissal. Therefore, if H.B. 160 becomes law, it is not inconceivable that a teacher could be rated as “ineffective” for three consecutive years before a principal could take the steps necessary to remove them from the classroom…which leads us to number four…

4. A child cannot get back the time s/he spends in the classroom of an ineffective teacher.

There is a large body of research that demonstrates that teacher quality has a huge impact on a student’s future success. This is especially true for low-income students who are already well behind their more affluent peers when they enter school (a fact that is especially pertinent in a state with one of the highest child poverty rates in the country).  Every year that a child spends in the classroom of an ineffective teacher diminishes the chance they will graduate from high school, to say nothing of college. Given the high stakes involved for our kids, we have a moral obligation to take every step we can to provide them with a high-quality education and that process must begin by ensuring that every child has an effective teacher.

Written by Peter Cook

Pete became involved in education reform as a 2002 Teach For America corps member in New Orleans Public Schools and has worked in various capacities at Teach For America, KIPP, TNTP, and the Recovery School District. As a consultant, he developed teacher evaluation systems and served as a strategic advisor to school district leaders in Cleveland, Nashville, Chattanooga, and Jefferson Parish, Louisiana. He now writes about education policy and politics and lives in New Orleans.


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