September 2, 2014
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Gist visit fails to soften pushback to teacher evaluation project

Education Commissioner Deborah Gist told more than 200 Warwick educators last Wednesday she intends to implement a new teacher evaluation statewide that Warwick has operated as a pilot, in spite of reports it is cumbersome and time consuming.

Gist’s visit came in the wake of controversy over whether the Department of Education really wanted Warwick’s input, or planned to go ahead with its system regardless.

And her visit seems to have done little to change opinions.

Warwick Teachers Union President James Ginolfi termed the rift between local educators and the state “a crisis of faith.”

Ginolfi points out that Warwick hasn’t operated the pilot for a full academic year and the critical component of teacher evaluations isn’t scheduled until the end of the academic year. On that basis, he asks how Gist can conclude the system is suitable for statewide implementation when it is at the mid-year conference.

“What we need to do is to continue the pilot for another year,” he said. That suggestion was made at Wednesday’s meeting that was to run for two hours at Toll Gate High but came to a halt after 90 minutes without a scheduled question and answer session.

“She’s going ahead full steam,” said Ginolfi.

Gist said Monday that initially she thought she would be attending a working session with the District Evaluation Committee [DEC]. She said she had no objections to opening the meeting and it later evolved into something bigger than envisioned and it wasn’t intended to be a public forum.

Further, she noted, implementation of a new system statewide has already been delayed by a year and that she plans to proceed with the system this fall. In order for it to be in place, evaluator training will start in June.

Superintendent Peter Horoschak is less troubled by the timing than what appears is a lack of attention to the “strong recommendations” that came out of the Warwick committee critiquing the system. He observes that, when the system is implemented on a statewide basis, Warwick will be a step ahead of other districts because it served as the pilot.

Horoschak pointed to the importance of relationships between teachers, administrators, students and parents for educational outcomes to improve.

“The student has to feel a part of the school and that the school is there for them,” he said. “An overall approach is good, but real improvement comes school by school. It doesn’t come from outside and dictating things.”

He said a business model to enhance production doesn’t fit for schools. He cited the importance for students to succeed even in non-academic areas and, from those accomplishments, gain the self-esteem that will give them confidence to take on other challenges. That is why he believes the arts are so important.

He has issues with establishing student learning objectives, as the plan would do. The Warwick report recommends student learning objectives should be realistic, attainable and worthwhile “and be based on the use of multiple measures of student growth.”

Student learning objectives were raised at the meeting.

The Warwick DEC proposed the plan incorporate one rather than the four learning objectives Gist proposes. Ginolfi said Gist agreed to reduce it to two, but underscored it would be increased to four in the future.

“How do you do that when you [teachers] don’t even know the students in the beginning of the year,” Ginolfi asked.

He said much of what Gist wants “makes no sense,” adding, “She’s not listening to the stakeholders. It’s simple; it’s her agenda and plan.”

Ginolfi is upset that Gist would not release the recommendations gleaned from principals in a focus session conducted by the department. At the meeting, educators were told that the session included Jamestown principals and individuals might be identified.

Ginolfi questioned the logic since, he said, individuals were not identified in the findings [he said he anonymously received information about the report] and that the commissioner’s stance further supports his claim that she is following her agenda.

Gist did not recall whether the information from the principals was released or not.

She said the process of reforming teacher evaluations started several years ago with an advisory committee that looked at systems across the country. A system was selected and field-tested and then last year, after pushing back her timetable for implementation, Warwick and Jamestown were chosen as district-wide pilots.

“I hear you and I empathize with the magnitude of what you’re taking on,” Gist said of principals, evaluators and teachers.

In response to what the department is hearing, Gist said the number of competencies that principals are to evaluate have been more than halved, to 16, and the times principals are to observe teachers in the classroom reduced. She said the process has been streamlined and it isn’t set in stone. She sees it evolving.

“Communications is something that never ends,” she said. “It’s building relationships and listening.”

While Warwick is one of two districts where the Rhode Island Model is being tested, the Rhode Island Department of Education posted recommendations to streamline the system on its website on March 30, two days before DEC submitted its report. Many of the recommendations were similar to what the Warwick group had concluded.

In an email to committee members and Horoschak, Gist said revisions were being prematurely circulated and, in response, she felt the state “needed to release a preview of the model changes under discussion at the time.” She went on to say the changes would not have been possible “without the thoughtful feedback and hard work of your teachers and leaders throughout the year.”

She reiterated that position Monday and said the department felt it necessary to post changes now under consideration, since they were being circulated by another source.

In its report, the DEC notes that, even with the assistance of the state, the district has encountered a variety of difficulties.

“We are concerned about the sustainability of this model, especially considering the required investment of time, effort, personnel and fiscal resources during this full implementation year.”

The teacher evaluation is part of the overall education reform to be accomplished with the $75 million Race to the Top federal grant won by the state. Of that total, $10.9 million is earmarked for development and implementation of a new teacher evaluation system.

To date, RIDE has trained about 500 teacher evaluators and 170 building administrator evaluators. Each group has attended multiple trainings and have additional training scheduled for this summer (four full days for teacher evaluators and two full days for building administrator evaluators).

RIDE spokesman Elliot Krieger said the department has hired about 13 trainers so far and that an additional eight to 12 trainers will be hired for the summer sessions.


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