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Grading teachers: What would it look like?

Parents want more transparency, the govt. wants improvements, and the union wants 'regular' reviews

Is the New Westminster School District doing enough to evaluate teacher performance?

A surprising source says no. New Westminster Teachers' Union president Grant Osborne told The Record that his members embrace performance evaluations, and they aren't done as "regularly" as they have asked.

"We've put it on the record that we are completely supportive of evaluations," he said. "Young teachers are often asking for evaluations because if they were to move to another district, very often another district wouldn't hire them unless an evaluation had been done."

The district's contract with the union has strict language around how the district can evaluate teachers. It calls for school based administrators to be involved and also allows a bad evaluation to be removed from the final report if the teacher makes improvements.

"We've certainly been on the record saying there's evaluation language there," Osborne said, referring to the union contract. "We think it's good language, and yes, we would encourage it."

The provincial government recently passed Bill 22, a legislated "cooling off" period for contentious contract negotiations between the British Columbia Public Schools Employers' Association and the British Columbia Teachers' Federation. Bill 22 mentions evaluations but says nothing about how they would be implemented.

It's a topic that Education Minister George Abbott danced around in a March 19 op-ed piece in The Vancouver Sun, where he wrote about "clarifying" the government's position on evaluation.

"We need to work with the BCTF to design an evaluation system that helps teachers know what they are doing well and what they may need to improve," Abbott wrote. "I am hopeful the mediator can work with the parties to design a positive approach to teacher evaluation."

But Osborne said there is little certainty around what the government has in mind.

Merit pay - performance related pay - is something Osborne opposes because there are so many "variables" involved.

"I mean, how do you choose merit pay between a kindergarten teacher and Grade 9 PE teacher?" he said. "Because it's so complicated, any sort of formulaic structure to figure it out isn't going to capture what teaching is about. It's about relationships, and it's really about trying to reach the kids.

"We should be and are committed to professional growth. That's something that we've always encouraged," he said.

Lisa Chao and Kal Randhawa are two local moms who also want the district to review and evaluate teacher performance. They have been speaking out about what they believe to be an unusually high failure rate in classes taught by a particular teacher.

The women want the district to track school performance by class, including the class average, median, number of withdrawals, and a 15 per cent or higher grade change. They want classes with a low success rate to be reviewed and interventions made to help staff.

At this point, it's unlikely that parents would ever find out how a teacher stacks up in an evaluation.

District administrators refuse to answer "personnel questions" on staff performance, instead citing legal reasons.

"We cannot legally talk about individuals in public. They (parents) can't see what's happening because we can't do that in public," board of education vicechair Michael Ewen told The Record last month, when the math moms raised their concerns.

While formal evaluations aren't the routine in New West, board of education chair James Janzen said informal evaluations are happening on an ongoing basis.

"It's always a bit of balancing act, of course, because if you announce to any employee, teacher or otherwise, we are going to do a formal evaluation, often they will think, 'Oh, we're in trouble now,' so it's a bit of balancing act," he said.

Janzen acknowledges the benefit of formal evaluations and said a culture where there is a routine evaluation is "healthy."

Assistantsuperintendent Al Balanuik said when he worked in the Nanaimo/ Ladysmith school district 15 years ago, they performed routine teacher evaluations every five years.

"I wrote well over 100 evaluations," he said.

Balanuik echoed Janzen, saying informal reviews in New West are routine.

"This is an unusual year because of job action, but typically there are ongoing conversations between/ among teachers and administrators. We talk about what is happening in the classroom, and what are the strategies, and what are some of the evaluative tools, how are we reporting out to parents - all of those kinds of things on an ongoing basis. Principals and vice-principals do sit in on classes and do sample lessons."

Allan MacKinnon, an associate professor in the education department at SFU, believes teachers are the best judges on what to do in the classroom. He encourages a more "organic" sharing of knowledge between teachers instead of outside evaluation. He cites the New Westminster school district's development of Smart Learning/ Reading - district-developed teaching programs - as a good example of what he means.

"In New Westminster, there's a long history of very successful teacher collaborations," he said. "It's not evaluating teachers per se, but it's engaging teachers in a support mechanism, which is thought out in a systemic way or organized in a way that's not hurtful. It's really enriching."

MacKinnon warned against going the way of the United States, which is putting more and more emphasis on evaluating teacher performance and merit pay.

"I wouldn't want to go anywhere near where the States has gone," he said, adding that in some areas schools are funded on the performance of students.

On the other side of the discussion, Peter Cowley, an education policy researcher at the Fraser Institute, a right-wing think tank, supports evaluations and merit pay for teachers.

"I certainly believe that effective teachers should be paid more than ineffective teachers," said Cowley, author of the annual controversial school rankings that irk the BCTF.

Public education should follow the private sector, where most people are paid for their performance, and principals should be able to fire teachers who aren't performing, he said

"That's merit pay," Cowley said.

It's a model that many other industries in the country follow, he said.

Cowley opposes union contracts that call for teachers to be paid by seniority over job performance.

"Why do we do that? It doesn't make any sense to me," he said.

It remains to been seen which way the government will go when it comes to teacher evaluations. Uncertainty seems to be the only certainty in public education these days.