With “grade-in,” St. Paul teachers keep an eye on lawmakers’ progress at Capitol

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As Minnesota lawmakers met this week to begin ironing out differences between the House and Senate K-12 education bills, two dozen St. Paul teachers staged a “grade-in” at the Capitol, letting legislators know they, too, will be evaluated on the basis of their work. The teachers arrived at the Capitol at 4:30 p.m. Tuesday and promptly claimed the rotunda floor as their workspace. Some sifted through sprawling stacks of papers divided into piles, while others worked on laptop computers.

According to St. Paul Federation of Teachers President Mary Cathryn Ricker, the teachers intended to stay until the K-12 conference committee adjourned for the day.

“It’s been really fun,” Ricker said. “We’re all in different buildings, so little spontaneous professional development opportunities have been bursting forth between the teachers.”

But the “grade-in” was about more than good fun.

Legislators who wandered from the conference-committee hearing into the rotunda got an earful from teachers, who are disappointed that their elected officials have taken up the business of establishing a statewide evaluation process for educators without bothering to consult them.

On the Web
You, too, can take a turn at grading the Legislature. The Minnesota AFL-CIO has set up an online grading tool.

“We feel like the only discussion around teacher evaluation is happening with non-educators,” Ricker said. “So one of the things we wanted to do was come to the Capitol and talk about what a fair and credible support and evaluation system looks like.”

Ricker’s union has been at the forefront of efforts to model such a system – one that balances the concerns of policy makers looking to increase teacher accountability and teachers worried about more top-down intrusion into their classrooms.

In its last round of contract negotiations, the St. Paul Federation of Teachers convinced St. Paul Schools officials to invest in a sweeping new system for evaluating and developing staff that gives teachers greater control over their professional standards.

“You can’t really construct a fair and credible teacher evaluation system without involving teachers,” Ricker said.

Unfortunately, that’s exactly what the House K-12 education bill attempts to do. It would establish a framework for teacher appraisal – using test scores and other methods – to divide teachers into four levels: “standard, advanced, distinguished, or exemplary.”

It is anything but a collaborative approach, and that’s cause for concern among teachers like Jennifer Christiansen, a first-grade teacher at Adams Spanish Immersion School in St. Paul.

“It’s really hard to lump everyone together and say we need to evaluate teachers based on standardized test scores,” Christiansen said, noting that students don’t take tests for classes like music and art. “I just think there are so many problems with that.”

Using standardized tests to evaluate teachers also fails to account for the challenges faced by teachers working with children with special needs, language barriers or disabilities.

Stephanie DeFrance, who teaches English as a second language at Phalen Lake Elementary, uses the requirement that non-native English speakers take the state’s standardized tests one year after they enroll in state’s schools as an example of how testing fails to show the progress students – and teachers – are making.

“By research it takes an average of seven years to catch up on academic English, and many of my students have no formal academic schooling before they come here,” DeFrance said. “If 50 percent of my teacher evaluation was based on a test, that could not even begin to show the extreme progress my students are making.”

DeFrance and other St. Paul teachers were quick to point out they are not against being evaluated. They just want to see it done fairly.

“I like being evaluated,” DeFrance said. “Having my principal come in and give me feedback this year, she had amazing feedback, and I learned so much.

“I think most teachers are open to being evaluated fairly. We like to get better. But we want evaluation methods to be fair and to take into account our students.”

Michael Moore edits The Union Advocate, the official publication of the St. Paul Regional Labor Federation.