Bowen testimony in support of educator effectiveness bill

The Maine Legislature’s Education Committee held a public hearing March 14 on legislation that takes a number of steps to ensure an effective corps of teachers and school leaders who are well prepared to enter the classroom and receive regular feedback that helps them improve their practice.

Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen delivered the following testimony supporting LD 1858, An Act to Ensure Effective Teaching and School Leadership.

Testimony of Stephen Bowen, Commissioner of Education

My name is Stephen Bowen, Commissioner of the Department of Education, and I am here today representing the Department of Education and the Governor in support of LD 1858, An Act to Ensure Effective Teaching and School Leadership.

I did a quick search the other day and found that this Committee had more than 160 bills sent its way over the last two years, and I know that you have done a tremendous amount of work on a host of issues impacting teaching and learning in Maine. I submit to you today that no other bill you’ve heard has the potential to impact education in Maine in the way that this bill does. I say this because this bill goes to the very heart of what we know has the greatest impact on learning: the effectiveness of teachers and school leaders.

The strategic plan we released earlier this year puts the student at the center of all of our efforts. Those efforts were organized into five broad focus areas, with the first being learner-centered, effective instruction. It is the teaching and learning that goes on in our classrooms, we argued, that should be our core area of focus. None of that teaching and learning happens, though, unless we also pay attention to the second focus area, great teachers and leaders. The best curriculum and learning materials in the world are of no use to us unless we have effective educators in our schools. Supporting great teaching and school leadership is what this bill is all about.

Broadly speaking, the bill before you does five things.

  • It sets standards for teacher and leader evaluation and professional growth systems and lays out a process by which such systems are to be developed and implemented in districts across Maine over the next few years.
  • It allows the Department to collect and report data on the state’s educator preparation programs.
  • It directs the State Board of Education to more fully develop alternative pathways to teacher certification.
  • It establishes in statute that teachers must successfully complete a student teaching experience before being granted provisional licensure.
  • It requires that teachers at the elementary level develop a solid background in math and evidence-based reading instruction.

I’ll describe each of these provisions in more detail.

The bulk of the bill and, I think, the bulk of the controversy around the bill, relates to a new chapter of law it seeks to create on educator effectiveness. At the heart of this proposal is language establishing standards for teacher and leader evaluation and professional growth systems. Such systems, the bill proposes, must have the following features:

  • They must be based on defined standards of professional practice.
  • Effectiveness must be determined through multiple measures, including student learning and growth.
  • Evaluation systems must have rating scales with four levels, with professional growth opportunities and employment consequences tied to each level.
  • Data from these evaluation systems must be used to inform continuous improvement conversations and professional development.
  • Evaluations must be done on a regular basis and they must be performed by trained evaluators.
  • Ongoing training must be provided to ensure that both the evaluators and those being evaluated understand the system.
  • These systems must contain a peer review component as well as opportunities for educators to learn, collaborate and improve their practice.
  • Such systems must be reviewed regularly by a local steering committee comprised of teachers, administrators and other staff, who are tasked with continually refining the system to ensure it meets local needs.

Developing such systems will be a huge undertaking, which is why the bill phases in the development of these systems over the next few years.  It won’t be until the 2015-2016 school year before these systems are fully implemented.

The bill also provides for targeted funds, within (the Essential Programs and Services funding formula), to support the development and implementation of these systems. Our goal is that in the next Biennial Budget we will propose that, if possible, additional state resources be dedicated to providing targeted funds for this purpose.

Once these systems are in place, we want to ensure that they are used to make important personnel and professional development decisions.  The bill requires that superintendents use the evaluation systems to make decisions about “recruitment, selection, induction, mentoring, professional development, compensation, assignment and dismissal.”  The bill does propose that ineffective ratings two years in a row constitute just cause for nonrenewal of a teacher contract (though it does not require that districts not renew a contract on this basis), and if teachers feel that the evaluation process was not followed as laid out in the law and in district policy, those evaluations can be the subject of a grievance. The bill also requires that evaluation data be used in reduction-in-force decisions, along with other factors to be negotiated locally.

These last few components of the bill have generated a good deal of controversy and so it is important to take a moment here to describe why we have included these elements in the bill.

As someone who was evaluated a number of times over the course of my teaching career, I can tell you that the vast majority of those evaluations, though generally well intended, did very little to help me get better.  In my talks with the Maine Education Association (MEA), they report that the teachers they represent sometimes go years without any kind of evaluation, and are sometimes subject to evaluations that are perfunctory at best. Teachers and school leaders want to be evaluated and want to be given feedback that helps them improve their practice.

The legislation we are putting forward requires just that. Districts will have to develop and deploy comprehensive evaluation and professional growth systems that use multiple measures of effectiveness.  Evaluations will have to be based on rigorous standards for teacher and leader effectiveness, will have to be done regularly, and will have to be completed by trained evaluators.  The data collected will have to be used to direct professional development and training, and the entire evaluation system will have to be overseen locally by a steering committee tasked with reviewing and revising the system to ensure that it meets the needs of the school community.

The MEA has expressed concern that teachers will not have a voice in the development or use of these systems. I disagree.

  • We intend to create a stakeholder group, with teacher representation, that advises the Department on the development of the rules governing these systems.
  • The rulemaking process will allow for public input, including the input of teachers.
  • The rules governing these systems are to be major and substantive, which means that they will come back to the Legislature for its consideration, including the consideration of this Committee, providing teachers with yet another opportunity for input.
  • There is nothing in the law that prevents districts from partnering with teachers and their representatives during the development of these systems locally. We’ve seen such partnerships emerge in the Maine Schools for Excellence districts where new evaluation models are being developed already.
  • Existing law requires that school districts “meet and consult” with teachers and their representatives with regard to changes to education policy, including evaluation policies.
  • Once these systems are in place, districts are required to form steering committees, with teacher involvement, to review and refine the systems moving forward.
  • While the bill would require that evaluation ratings be used as a factor in reduction-in-force policies, those policies will still be negotiated locally and additional criteria can be included in those policies. The MEA reported to me that teacher evaluation ratings are already a part of reduction-in-force policies in a number of school districts.
  • If a teacher who has been evaluated feels that any of the steps in the evaluation process were done improperly—if they feel that districts failed to comply with this long list of requirements we have outlined—they have the opportunity to file a grievance on those grounds.
  • If a teacher is ultimately given notice that his or her contract is not going to be renewed because of evaluation ratings or for any other reason, existing law gives that teacher a right to a hearing before the local school board, at which the reasons for the non-renewal must be presented.

Despite what you may hear today, the goal of this bill is not to target teachers or to get rid of teachers. The goal of the bill is to ensure that we have effective evaluation and professional growth systems in every school district that give teachers the tools they need to improve their craft continually, and we think this bill does that.

The bill does have several other elements, and I’ll touch on these briefly.

One of the ways we hope to improve educator effectiveness is to track the outcomes of our educator preparation programs. On page 5 of the bill, you will see that we add some language requiring the Department to collect data on our educator preparation programs, including the number of prospective teachers completing their programs, the number who go on to be certified to teach, both provisionally and professionally, and the number who are still teaching in schools at the three-year and five-year marks. We’ll gather all this information by using data from the higher education institutions themselves, the state’s teacher certification system and the state’s staffing data system, and we think this data will be extraordinarily valuable as we work with our higher education partners to constantly improve our educator preparation and support programs.

The bill also puts us on a path to develop a true alternative pathway to teacher certification, by requiring the State Board to develop a process whereby those who can demonstrate subject matter competency that is directly related to the subject matter they want to teach, obtained through prior academic achievement or work experience, can have access to an accelerated program that gets them into the classroom under the mentorship of veteran teachers. We have been continuing to work on this language since the bill was first drafted and will bring the Committee some updated language that gives the Board more specific guidance on what we are looking to do to build an effective alternative pathway.

The bill makes two other changes to certification language.  It puts in statute a requirement that prospective teachers complete a student teaching experience of at least 10 weeks, (though I would suggest a friendly amendment that we amend that to read 15 weeks, which is what is in our rules) and also strengthens math and evidence-based literacy instruction in the elementary grades by requiring coursework and exams in those core subjects for all K-8 teachers.  These provisions are designed to strengthen initial preparation programs and ensure that teachers have the content background and classroom experience necessary for them to be effective.

As I said at the start, we know that effective teaching and school leadership is critically important to student success.  We feel that by strengthening our preparation programs, by revising our certification standards, and by implementing rigorous, standards-based teacher and principal evaluation and professional growth systems, we can move closer to our goal of having great teachers and school leaders in every school and classroom.

It is for these reasons that the Department is testifying in support of LD 1858, An Act to Ensure Effective Teaching and School Leadership.  I am happy to take any questions the Committee may have, and I will be available for the work session on this bill.

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