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Originally published Sunday, February 5, 2012 at 7:05 PM

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Bills would reshape how state teachers evaluated

A host of proposals for changing how teachers are evaluated contain only a few differences, but they concern major issues — including the use of evaluations in hiring decisions.

Seattle Times education reporter

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Washington state already has a law, approved two years ago, to reshape the way public-school teachers are evaluated.

Now it's looking at several proposals that would reshape the reshaping — one pushed by the business community, another backed by the state teachers union, one from Gov. Chris Gregoire and yet another from state Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn.

So how do all of these differ from yet another system — one recently put in place by the state's largest school district, Seattle Public Schools?

There are only a few differences, it turns out, but they concern major issues, especially pertaining to how the evaluations can be used in hiring decisions — a flash point because some think the evaluations are too subjective for that.

All of the systems involve moving from a two-level rating — satisfactory or unsatisfactory — to a four-level rating system that would give teachers more feedback and thus help them improve. Under the earlier system, almost all teachers were rated satisfactory.

The current law leaves the specifics up to individual districts, while the bill supported by the union would fill in some details and provide training. The reform-minded bill, on the other hand, would require student test scores to be used in evaluations and evaluations to be used in hiring decisions.

The proposals from Gregoire and Dorn are similar to the bill backed by the union but have not generated much discussion this session.

Seattle's new system, crafted through collective bargaining in the summer of 2010 and still being rolled out, is considered innovative for the middle ground it strikes. It makes test scores a factor, although indirectly, and gives the new evaluations some teeth.

The disagreements mirror a debate taking place across the country: Making what have often been superficial evaluations more rigorous has become a focus of national education reform and is a major priority of President Obama. But the details of how to do that have sparked controversy across the country, and Washington is no exception.

Here — based on documents and interviews with district officials, union leaders and lobbyists — is a more detailed breakdown of Seattle's system compared with the current law and the two main bills:

The law now on the books put the state on a path toward more rigorous evaluations but does not spell out many specifics.

It established pilot evaluation programs and required districts to move to a four-level evaluation system by the 2013 school year, but it left most details up to individual districts. Seattle is not one of the pilots — it started moving to its new system before the state law was passed — but it meets the requirements of the law and then some.

Lytton-Frockt proposal

The bill supported by the union, sponsored by Rep. Kristine Lytton, D-Anacortes, and Sen. David Frockt, D-Seattle, would mostly fill in details to the current law.

Under the legislation, the state would develop three different options of four-level rating systems, and districts would be required to choose one to put in place by 2013. Under this measure, Seattle may have to alter its system but not significantly.

The state would also be required to provide funding for evaluation training.

The bill backed by the business community, sponsored by Rep. Eric Pettigrew, D-Seattle, and Sen. Rodney Tom, D-Bellevue, would shake things up the most.

It would require the use of student test scores as a factor in evaluations. The bill does not lay out specifics; Seattle's system would probably fit the bill.

In addition, the proposal would require evaluations to be considered along with seniority in hiring and transfer decisions. Seniority now is the only factor.

It also would give principals the power to refuse "forced placement" by the superintendent of bad teachers transferring from other schools.

Finally — and perhaps most alarming to unions — the bill would allow for veteran teachers to lose their right to due process if they receive the lowest rating two years in a row.

Unions view that as unfair, but those advocating for change consider being able to more easily get rid of bad teachers a necessity.

Seattle Public Schools

Seattle's system is based on evaluations by principals or assistant principals during classroom visits at least twice per year.

Evaluators use a rubric that includes four categories — planning and preparation, classroom environment, instruction and professional responsibility. Each area is made up of specific components. In each category evaluators classify the teachers as either unsatisfactory, basic, proficient or innovative.

The system is designed to provide feedback to teachers surrounding specific goals they set for themselves at the beginning of the year. Struggling teachers receive extra mentoring and funding.

But the structure also allows for using the evaluations to identify ineffective teachers.

Veteran teachers must be proficient on all domains or risk being placed on a performance improvement plan. If they don't improve, they can be placed on probation and eventually fired after an administrative hearing.

New teachers are allowed to work toward proficiency. But if they don't get there fast enough, they can be fired without even getting probation.

As for the use of test scores: If a teacher's students perform poorly two years in a row, additional evaluations are triggered. If students perform well, the teacher can become a mentor, which comes with additional pay.

Finally, as part of the agreement on the new system, the district also agreed to end forced placement in the city's lowest-performing schools.

Brian M. Rosenthal: 206-464-3195 or brosenthal@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @brianmrosenthal.

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