MTA Board votes to support Race to the Top application

The Massachusetts Teachers Association’s Board of Directors voted Saturday to support the state’s Phase 2 Race to the Top application and to communicate that support to the organization’s local association presidents. Local union presidents, superintendents and school committee chairs have until noon on Thursday to sign onto the process if they did not sign on in the first round. That is the same deadline for those who no longer want to participate to withdraw.

            “Our staff and leadership have been working very closely with state officials and other education groups to craft an application that we believe is appropriately focused on supporting teachers and schools,” said MTA President Anne Wass. “On balance, our board believes the potential benefits of participating outweigh the risks.”

            Wass added that the board’s vote is intended to provide guidance to local affiliates, but that ultimately they must make a decision based on local circumstances and the views of their own members.

            Wass said that the state’s application, which is in near-final form, contains several provisions that will be useful to school districts, including new teacher-developed curriculum and instruction resources, more professional development offerings through Readiness Centers, incentives to encourage experienced teachers to work in hard-to-staff schools, and more training for supervisors in how to conduct effective evaluations.

            “We believe that some of these provisions will make our very good schools even better,” said Wass, who noted that the phrase “race to the top” doesn’t really apply to Massachusetts since Massachusetts students already post the highest scores in the country and also do very well on international comparisons.

            Wass said another plus is that it will inject some new funding into the state, although the funding is short-term and will not offset the impact of state and local budget cuts. The state is applying for $250 million over four years. If approved, half would go directly to districts to implement the program. The other half would go to the state, which plans to distribute some of its share back to districts, as well.

            “A major reason our board is supporting the application is we believe that teachers need to be at the table when decisions are made about how to attract, retain, support and evaluate teachers and principals,” said Wass. “The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has promised that this will be an open process involving all of the major education groups. We have been gratified by how responsive the department has already been to our suggestions and concerns.”

            Wass said that the most controversial section of the grant program involves use of student test scores in educator evaluations.

            “The U.S. Department of Education has made it clear that they expect student performance to be part of a teacher’s evaluation,” said Wass. “Teachers recognize that we play an important role in student academic achievement. At the same time, teachers are very clear that it would be grossly unfair to hold us solely responsible for our students’ growth scores on MCAS tests since there are dozens of other factors that contribute to scores, including family income, parental support and the students’ own motivation and effort.”

            Wass said that the application carves out a reasonable approach. The application calls for revamping the evaluation system by creating a two-year cycle. Prior to the evaluation process beginning, educators will be rated in one of at least three categories of effectiveness. That rating will be based on multiple factors, such as supervisor observations and evidence of an educator’s knowledge and skills, as well as measures of student growth. Those measures of growth will include trends in MCAS growth scores, where they are available, as well as school- and district-based assessments.

            Once the rating is completed, the evaluator will complete a “formative assessment” – an analysis of strengths and weaknesses – and work with the educator to develop performance goals. The following year, the evaluator will conduct a “summative evaluation” to determine how well the educator has met the goals. In making that determination, the evaluator may look at multiple measures of student performance, but not MCAS scores.

            “We like to think of standardized test scores as a thermometer. They can indicate that there may be an issue, but can’t diagnose the problem or suggest a cure,” said Wass. “If Teacher A’s students’ scores are consistently lower than the scores of others teaching similar students, a good supervisor should ask why. It may turn out that Teacher A has more special needs students or English language learners in her class and she is actually doing an excellent job with the students she has. On the other hand, it may be that Teacher A has poor classroom management skills or is teaching a subject outside her area of expertise. The scores alone won’t tell you what is going on. Only observation by a skilled, experienced evaluator will get to the heart of the problem and form the basis of an improvement plan.”