Schools headquarters

The city schools headquarters is shown in this file photo. (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun / April 25, 2012)

The Baltimore Teachers Union has filed a class action grievance against the city school system after the district made last-minute changes to its evaluation system, which knocked teachers down in ratings that are also tied to their ability to earn pay raises.

In an email to members, Marietta English, president of the BTU, said the union filed the grievance because of changes the district made to the "cut scores," which affect whether a teacher is rated "highly effective" "effective," "developing" or "ineffective."

For example, a teacher who scored an 80 or above out of 100 under the previous system would be considered "highly effective," but this year would need to earn an 86 to receive the highest rating. For some teachers, those six points mean not receiving an automatic pay raise under the union contract, which began tying evaluations to compensation in 2010.

"There have been a lot of concerns regarding the teacher evaluation," English wrote in the email. "The BTU never agreed to change the percentages within the evaluation."

Last week, when teachers began receiving their year-end evaluations, they were notified that the cut scores had changed.

The ratings also changed to rely heavily on classroom observations, which accounted for 85 percent of this year's evaluation in the absence of measuring student growth through test scores.

City school officials said Friday that they received a letter from the union stating concern about the new cut-score system and that they are willing to go back to the bargaining table to negotiate.

The issue stemmed from legislation that wasn't signed until May, prohibiting the use of test scores in teacher or principal evaluations until 2016-2017. The district decided that if it couldn't measure student growth by using scores from the state test, that it would raise the cut scores.

Interim CEO Tisha Edwards said the district thought that it had agreed upon that compromise with the union,

"This was not in bad faith," Edwards said. "I think teachers have a valid concern about the option that we chose and the notification, but the spirit of what we chose was in the best interest of teachers and students. Our partnership with the union is important, so we're open to revisiting it."

For Bobbi O'Brien, a ninth-grade teacher at Patterson High School, her score of 69 this year meant that she was no longer considered an "effective" teacher, but a "developing" one.

The changes also meant that if she hadn't taken a graduate course this year, which earned her credits called "achievement units" that teachers can use to move up a pay ladder, she would not receive a raise.

O'Brien, who has been teaching in the city for four years and has a record of proficient evaluations in the system, said the "developing" label she received was based largely on a classroom observation that she felt was subjective.

She said she didn't explain her class objectives in a way that her principal this year thought was exemplary, even though it was the same way that had earned her the highest marks on evaluations before.

"The city would have the public believe that the difference between a highly effective and developing teacher is that one doesn't have what it takes," O'Brien said. "When really it's whether or not I can showcase all of the skills I have as a teacher in two 90-minute periods of the school year."

She said the fact that this year's score, though disappointing, would have rated her as effective last year added "insult to injury."

Many teachers also questioned whether the cut-score changes were aimed at limiting the pay raises that would be required with a high number of "highly effective" teachers.

Iris Kirsch, of the Educators for Democratic Schools, a group that has challenged the pay-for-performance contract, said she believed system officials used evaluation data provided by principals last month to put a last-minute cap on "highly effective" ratings.

"Even the people who focused on all the things you could do to get a higher evaluation, who put all their eggs in one basket, are being robbed," she said. "It's just so demoralizing."

erica.green@baltsun.com

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