Teacher evaluation bill on hold until fall session

Senate voted in favor of changes

HARRISBURG — The state Senate voted in favor of a bill to change how teachers are evaluated, but it never made it to a vote in the House.

Senate Bill 751, seeking to amend a 2012 state law, would decrease the weight of standardized tests, attendance and other student achievement measurements when evaluating teachers. It would also factor in a “poverty score” for each school, expected to work like a buffer for teachers in low-income neighborhoods.

Prime sponsor Sen. Ryan Aument, R-Lancaster, said he had hoped it would pass with the budget.

“While I am disappointed we could not accomplish a few important education policies with this budget, including educator evaluation reform, I am committed to doing all that I can to work with my colleagues in the House to advance this legislation and send it to the governor for his signature this fall,” Aument wrote in a statement.

SB751’s proposed changes to existing state law, which Aument helped to enact, came after he received complaints about the fairness of the law’s inclusion of student achievement in teacher evaluations. Currently, teacher evaluations are based half on observations by administrators and half on standardized test scores and student absences. SB751 seeks to make the observations worth 70 percent and student achievement worth 30 percent.

The Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, wholeheartedly supports the alteration and believes it is a “step in the right direction,”

“The current evaluation has not been working the way it should be,” said PSEA spokesman Chris Lilienthal. “We’re pleased to see that these bills are taking the first steps.”

He added that PSEA maintains that trained observation is the “best way” to evaluate teachers and including a poverty factor will begin to account for low standardized test scores in low-income communities.

Lilienthal said he is confident that the Legislature will bring the bill up again in the fall and said PSEA will work with lawmakers to pass it in the future.

But some education organizations, like the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (another teachers union) and Pittsburgh Public School District, say the bill does not solve enough of the problems besetting teachers and administrators.

“Philadelphia’s students and educators are facing dire environmental hazards in their places of learning, as well as persistent issues like teacher vacancies, and teacher recruitment and retention remains an urgent issue,” wrote PFT President Jerry Jordan in a statement. “To pass legislation that does very little to demonstrate a true understanding of what our educators need would be deeply problematic.”

The PFT conducted 348 trial evaluations using SB751’s system and found that 5 percent of teacher’s scores improved, while 11 percent decreased.

“Quite simply, the legislation proposed in SB751 does not move the needle for a significant number of educators,” Jordan wrote.

The PFT also said the student achievement rating, though worth less in the amendment, is based on “arbitrary” data points, according to the organization’s statement.

Aument said he did not eliminate the student achievement score entirely because it is the only objective factor in the evaluation.

“We want to ensure we have an apples-to-apples comparison across the state,” he said. “Without the student achievement data, my fear is that the system could be overly weighted with subjective measures.”

He added that he is “frustrated” with groups like the PFT because he feels it is their responsibility to voice their concerns. Aument said he does not foresee holding the bill if he hears from opposing organizations — though he said on the Senate floor he is willing to hear from them.

“Over the next few months I look forward to discussing the bill with anyone interested in this important issue just as I have done over the last two years,” he wrote in a statement.

The PFT declined to comment on Aument’s assertion that they should reach out first.