Proposal aims to keep students from inadequate teachers

Indiana students wouldn't be stuck with poor-performing teachers for two years in a row under changes House lawmakers are considering to a bill requiring annual teacher evaluations.

Under an amendment that the GOP-ruled House Education Committee discussed Monday, a school district couldn't place a student for more than one year with teachers rated ineffective, the lowest of the four evaluation categories created by the proposal. If school staffing makes it impossible to assign another teacher, schools would have to send a note home with parents letting them know their child will have an ineffective one for a second year in a row.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett, a Republican, said students shouldn't be trapped with poorly-rated teachers year after year.

"If that has to happen, parents should know," Bennett said. "That would allow a parent to say, 'Do I want to take my child to a different school?'"

Committee chairman Rep. Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis, said he expects the committee to vote on the amendment and the changed bill Wednesday. If it clears the committee, it could be up for a vote next week in the full Republican-led House.

The legislation would link teacher pay to student performance. Teachers who fall into the lowest two evaluation categories wouldn't get automatic pay raises. Local districts would create their own evaluations systems but would have to include objective measures of student achievement such as scores on statewide standardized tests.

The merit pay bill is part of Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels' sweeping education agenda. It seems to have more support from Democrats than some of his other proposals, including a contentious proposal to use taxpayer money for private school vouchers.

Rep. Greg Porter, an Indianapolis Democrat who is a co-sponsor of the proposal, said the bill still needs work and he's concerned about the lack of specifics about how evaluations would work.

"There's no real clarity," he said.

Bill opponents fear student performance will make up too much of the evaluations and question whether large schools can handle evaluating teachers every year.

Bill supporter Emanuel Harper, a French teacher at George Washington Community High School in Indianapolis, said teachers crave evaluations. As a first year teacher, he said he's used feedback from his university advisor and his vice principal to improve lesson plans. He said he supports the proposal to prohibit students from being placed with ineffective teachers for more than one year.

"That's a wonderful idea," he said. "Students need to have effective teachers every single year."

The proposed amendment also changes the way teachers are classified. Under the current system, teachers become "permanent" after five years, and they can only be removed from the classroom for certain reasons, including general incompetence. Under the proposed changes, current teachers would be considered "established" instead of permanent, and new teachers would be classified as probationary or professional. Teachers would earn the professional status by getting three evaluations in the top two categories and could fall into probationary status if they receive an ineffective rating.

All teachers could be removed from the classroom if they earn ineffective ratings, though professional and established teachers would have more time to turn around their evaluations before they could be removed.

Behning suggested the ability for teachers to fall from professional status will help motivate them to keep up professional development.

"They can fall back and forth based on their performance," Behning said. "It's an earned situation. It really will require teachers to keep their skills up throughout their career, as opposed to saying, 'I'm here, I can coast.'"

An education group that supports the bill — Stand for Children, a national group with an Indiana affiliate — says the proposals included in the legislation have broad support from most residents. The group paid for a telephone survey of 600 Indiana voters conducted by DHM Research between March 10 and March 14. The poll, with a margin of error of up to plus or minus 4 percentage points, found that more than 80 percent favor annual evaluations for teachers and using student academic growth as a factor in evaluations.

Bennett said the bill should unite Republicans and Democrats who are on opposite sides of other education proposals.

"This is the issue in my opinion that really should bind us all together," Bennett said. "How do we make sure that Indiana children have high quality teachers?"

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