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Teacher assessment at high school 'ahead of the curve'

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A transition is underway at Sunnyside Community Hospital, as recently retired CEO Jon Smiley (L) is replaced on an interim basis by Bob Brendgard at right.

The Washington state senate recently passed a bill that would establish criteria and procedures for evaluating teachers and other certified staff, building on the work of a law passed in 2010 which was piloted at a number of schools and districts around the state during the last two school years.

Sunnyside School District has a distinct advantage with regards to the new bill, along with some possible disadvantages, as the district has been piloting a system of evaluation based on the earlier law.

Because Sunnyside High School received a school improvement grant from the federal government, it was required to formulate an evaluation system for its teachers. At the same time, the state had passed its evaluation law, so the high school attempted to align its new evaluation program as closely as possible to the state law while still working with the federal requirements.

The result has been a successful meld of several methods that has gotten a positive response from both teachers and administrators in the district, but may not meet the new state standards currently under consideration.

The system was designed by administrators and teachers working together. The goal was to create a way of fairly assessing teachers that would encourage development in teaching skills.

Sunnyside High School Principal Chuck Salina describes the system that resulted as one in which "everyone has some skin in the game."

Teachers at the high school are organized into professional learning communities. Each individual teacher has a professional growth plan, and the community as a whole has a plan as well. The individual plans contribute to the group plan.

The administration also has a stake in the process. Each administrator works with a community of teachers to help them reach the goals of their plans.

Salina likened it to a baseball team. Each player's individual performance contributes to the team's success. But the coach wants all the players to succeed as well.

The evaluation program at Sunnyside High School gives teachers one of four rankings: unsatisfactory, basic, proficient or innovative. The district has eight criteria that teachers are judged on, each with sub-criteria.

The district decided that the most important criterion is number 6.4: student growth. This is determined via a variety of assessments throughout the year, including at least one state required test. To get a basic ranking, a teacher must have 70 percent of students show academic growth.

But the teachers aren't left alone to fend for themselves. The learning communities are there for support, as is the administration. And assessments throughout the school year will show if a teacher is off track in time to get help.

At least one legislator has suggested simply firing the bottom percentage of teachers based on their evaluation. Salina thinks that's counterproductive.

"If I fire my ninth batter, I'm still going to have a ninth batter to deal with," he said. "It's better to work with what I have and get my batter to improve."

The program the local district has created helps teachers to become better at their jobs instead of simply penalizing them, according to Salina. That makes for a better environment for teachers, which makes for a better learning environment all around.

"Fear-based evaluation programs don't work," said Salina. Dan Thomas, head of the teacher's union, said the system is excellent.

The legislation currently under consideration would limit school districts to one of three models, including the model the Sunnyside School District chose to use. But the legislation may not allow for the modifications Sunnyside has made to the base model. If that happens, the district may have to change its program, which has been successful so far.

Thomas believes the school's program will pass muster at the state level.

"We'll have different paperwork," he said. "But it should be the same program."

Salina is cautiously optimistic.

"We're ahead of the curve," said Salina. "But the state may mandate some changes."

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