With federal officials watching, state lawmakers are demonstrating their commitment to keep $75 million in Race to the Top money to reform Hawaii’s ailing educational system.

But legislation creating a program to evaluate teachers and educational officers is coming over the objections of the Hawaii State Teachers Association, which represents some 13,000 members.

The Senate Ways and Means Committee on Thursday advanced a bill requiring the Hawaii Department of Education to establish a performance management system that includes an evaluation component, among other things.

“We recognize this is a somewhat contentious issue,” Sen. Jill Tokuda, said after the 11-2 vote. She added that the proposed law represents a “larger issue” than just Race to the Top.

The House version of the bill has been amended since its January introduction, but has remained mostly intact since it crossed over to the Senate in early March. The Senate version, which is waiting for a hearing to be scheduled in the House Finance Committee, has been tweaked less and contains fewer prescriptions on how the evaluation system should function.

Regardless of the final shape of this likely law, the legislative effort to mandate teacher evaluations is just another component of Gov. Neil Abercrombie‘s determination to develop the reviews through whatever means necessary. And with Race to the Top funds at stake, lawmakers and Board of Education members seem to share his motivation.

HSTA President Wil Okabe has said the union’s primary objection is over the method. He said HSTA opposes a system affecting the compensation and re-employment of teachers that is not arrived at through collective bargaining procedures.

“Any bill that excludes educators from the design and implementation process, as this bill does, is destined to not only ostracize incumbent and prospective teachers, but also discount the insights and experiences of those professionals most heavily involved with the day-to-day instruction of students,” Okabe said in his March 19 testimony.

But others have viewed the legislation and its intent differently.

The Hui for Excellence in Education says in its March 15 testimony that the bill “establishes a framework for an evaluation system, but is not too prescriptive so that teachers and the department can select a model that works for both parties.”

Tokuda said the language in the bill is “intentionally general” in part so the state and union could “bargain around the law” if necessary.

Seemingly every side seems to agree on one thing though: The bill in its current form is not quite there yet.

Okabe said he is worried the bill isn’t specific enough when it comes to defining what “multiple measures” will be used to relate student achievement to teacher effectiveness. In particular, he doesn’t want to see standardized tests as the sole form.

The Hawaii Educational Policy Center echoed some of these concerns, particularly regarding how student achievement would be measured.

“It is crucial for student learning in the 21st century that student achievement not be limited to scores on high-stakes tests, but also include multiple measures of success that incorporate student growth as determined by classroom work, project-based and inquiry-based learning, attendance and other factors,” HEPC’s March 19 testimony says. “This is the time to move beyond ‘teaching to the test’ not only for students but also for teacher and principal evaluations.”

Tokuda, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, also shared HSTA’s concern that evaluations not be limited to a single form of measurement.

“There needs to be multiple measures to determine our students’ learning,” she said. “It can include student assessment tests, but not just that.”

Another concern over the bill is how much weight to give student learning and growth as part of the evaluation rating. The House bill prescribes 50 percent. But assuming that is an acceptable amount, as many seem to agree, the legislation doesn’t say what should comprise the other half.

IMUAlliance, a nonpartisan group dedicated to eradicating educational inequality among other things, recommended the Legislature hold off on the 50 percent part until the state sees how its pilot teacher evaluations program fares.

Tabitha Grossman of the National Governors Association suggested a solution in her testimony last week. She said the state should assign the BOE the task of determining the other 50 percent of a teacher’s overall evaluation rating, and making it law that the individuals assigned to evaluate educators are trained to do so.

A Ph.D candidate at UH-Manoa, Trina Orimoto, had a similar idea. She proposed an amendment that could address the Office of Hawaiian Affairs‘ concerns about the lack of expert input. The language she put forward in her March 16 testimony says the department “shall contract with external expert consultant(s), who shall assist in the development of the performance management system and analysis of associated data.”

With the bills before each chamber’s money committee, Tokuda said it’s time to “seize the opportunity.”

“The signs are there that performance evaluations are going to be a part of federal programs going forward,” she said Wednesday. “Whether it’s No Child Left Behind or block grants … it’s coming.”

She pointed to a survey of teachers that showed they are not opposed to performance evaluations, they just want the details.

“This is not an anti-teacher bill in any way,” she said. “This is about supporting teachers to create a better environment for students.”

The senator said she has challenged HSTA and other opponents to look at legislation as a chance to engage in the process.

“Yes, you can oppose. But what would be agreeable? Is there anything?” she said. “Straight opposition alone is not extremely productive. I’ve encouraged them to seize the opportunity to work with us on this.”

Connected to this legislative push for teacher evaluations is a resolution calling for a working group to look at the Reinventing Education Act passed in 2004.

Tokuda says it’s been seven years and it’s time for a report on the effectiveness of Act 51, including where the state stands on its weighted student formula. The Education Committee plans to hear the resolution at 1:15 p.m. Friday.

Meanwhile, House Bill 2527, one of some 70 bills the Ways and Means Committee decided Thursday, is expected to head to a vote on the Senate floor April 10. Due to some differences with its companion piece, Senate Bill 2789, the legislation will likely be ironed out in conference committee.

“A decision of should we be more detailed or less detailed will be at the crux of conference,” Tokuda said after the hearing Thursday.

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