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News Opinion Editorial

Changing the rules at North Avenue [Editorial]

Football fans would be aghast at an umpire who moved the goal posts back while the game was still in play. So, it's no wonder city teachers are up in arms over a school system decision at the very end of the year raising the bar that determines whether they get a pay raise or not. The teachers union calls it a classic bait-and-switch and is demanding the issue be renegotiated. Given that the last-minute change could significantly reduce the chances that even very good teachers move up the salary scale, they are right to do so.

If the goal of recruiting and retaining excellent teachers is to mean anything, the process for rewarding effectiveness in the classroom has got to be both transparent and fair. In this case it was neither. What happened instead was the equivalent of promising students in September that a score of 92 on a scale of 100 would earn them an A, then suddenly making it worth only a B-plus in June. Kids who worked hard all year to get that A might well feel cheated, and who could blame them?

The system for evaluating teacher effectiveness that school officials started out with last year was also based on a scale of 100, with teachers scoring 80 or above rated "highly effective." But after the 11th-hour change, a teacher would have to earn an 86 to receive the highest rating, with similar score increases required for all the categories below it. In effect, teachers who thought were being evaluated on a scale of zero to 100 ended up actually being judged on a scale of zero to 106. As a result, many teachers who were considered "effective" suddenly found themselves labeled as underperformers in the classroom.

The problem arose from legislation that wasn't signed until May that prohibits the use of student test scores in teacher evaluations until 2016-2017 school year. That was reasonable given that schools were administering tests based on a curriculum that is no longer being taught. As an alternative to using standardized tests to measure growth in student achievement, the school department decided to raise the standard for judging teacher effectiveness instead.

Yet it's not at all clear that the two systems are equivalent or whether they are even measuring the same things. Moreover, it's obvious in retrospect that the school system should have consulted more carefully with all the relevant stakeholders in the process before springing a change in policy that had such potentially serious financial and professional consequences for the teachers affected.

Interim schools chief Tisha Edwards says it was never her department's intention to circumvent the school system's agreement with the union tying teacher pay increases to performance evaluations. We're willing to accept her claim that the system was responding to an unanticipated change in the law rather than acting in bad faith, but the perception that the change in scoring is being used to unfairly deny pay raises to teachers who otherwise would have earned them under their contract is still troubling. It sends a signal to younger teachers that their efforts won't be appreciated or adequately compensated, and it suggests to more experienced educators that they might do better in a suburban school system if they want opportunities for career advancement.

Attracting and retaining a corps of energetic, highly motivated and well-trained teachers is crucial if educators are to make the kind of improvements in the quality of classroom instruction that Baltimore needs. Glitches like the last-minute change in the way teacher effectiveness is scored are counterproductive and a distraction from the long-term goals of the city's school reform effort. Ms. Edwards has indicated that the school department is eager to sit down with the teachers' union to discuss how to move forward and, if necessary, modify the evaluation process to address its members' concerns.

That's the right thing to do, but unfortunately time is also running out: Ms. Edwards is leaving her post at the end of the month when Gregory Thornton takes over as the city's new schools CEO. It may be too much to hope that the system's present leadership can resolve this matter before then, which is indicative of the difficulties school systems across the state are experiencing due to the transition to teacher pay-for-performance contracts and the introduction of the higher academic standards embodied in the Common Core. But it is certainly better to try to fix this problem now rather than leave it on the plate of the next person in the job.

To respond to this editorial, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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