Jessica Kerber is about ready to say goodbye to her Kauai public school classroom for good.

The 29-year-old Hanalei Elementary School educator is at her wits’ end, insisting she’ll abandon her job unless the Hawaii Department of Education drastically changes the way it treats its teachers.

“I just want to give up,” she told Civil Beat. “I wouldn’t tell anyone right now to be a teacher. I would tell them to have a backup plan.”

What has caused so much distress to Kerber — and other teachers who’ve reached out to Civil Beat — is a new, multifaceted evaluation system that’s sparked plenty of controversy since it went into development two years ago.

Under the Educator Effectiveness System, teachers are evaluated on a range of rigorous metrics designed to assess the quality of their instruction and its impact on student achievement. To comply with each of five metrics, educators have to devote significant time over the course of the year collecting data, designing and implementing goals and meeting with administrators outside of class, among myriad other requirements. Teachers’ performance on all of these requirements will ultimately affect their pay.

That’s all on top of the other demanding tasks they’re expected to carry out as part of broader reform efforts through programs such as Race to the Top, the new Common Core State Standards and the state DOE’s Strategic Plan.

Now, the results of a recent survey, conducted jointly by the DOE and the teachers union, show that while 18 percent have responded that they completely grasp the new teacher evaluation system, a slightly larger number, one in five, have little to no understanding of it. The other three-fifths of those surveyed fell somewhere in the middle, suggesting that as many as four in five respondents do not have a very positive view or an extremely firm grasp of it.

While a key objective of the survey was to provide information on how union members “are experiencing” the new evaluation system with an eye toward improving it, the survey also asked respondents to assess elements of the new evaluation system.

The results suggest that concerns range from confusion over how the system works to skepticism about its fairness.

Just one out of every five educators said they’re applying what they learn during the current evaluation process to their teaching.

One criticism of teachers who spoke with Civil Beat is that the teacher evaluations — which will soon factor into more than 13,000 public school teachers’ salaries — are far too time-consuming and detract from quality classroom instruction.

DOE Deputy Superintendent Ronn Nozoe suggested that growing pains are common to such reforms.

In an email response to questions from Civil Beat, Nozoe said, “As with any new initiative, it is normal at this stage of implementation to have some teachers who are still familiarizing themselves with the system and experiencing some level of apprehension.”

The Survey Says

The survey summary that was released to the public contains limited breakdowns of the statistics included in it, focusing on respondents who expressed strong feelings, such as sharp agreement or strong disagreement. It doesn’t offer numerical breakdowns of the many respondents with more graduated responses to the questions. The results themselves belong to the market research firm that conducted the survey.

But the survey summary does offer insights into the thinking of a large sample of members of the teachers union. About 30 percent of the state’s public school teachers participated, so the results don’t necessarily reflect how all educators feel about the evaluations. But the study by Ward Research, Inc. — which was conducted between Feb. 25 and March 11, about halfway through the first year of the new system — included responses from 4,280 out of 14,343 members of the teachers union. Ward Research calculates the margin of error at just 1.3 percent.

With that in mind, large percentages of teachers surveyed were troubled by key elements of the new system.

McKinley High School journalism teacher Cindy Reves prepares for her class.
McKinley High School journalism teacher Cindy Reves prepares for her class. PF Bently/Civil Beat

The most clear-cut numbers deal with whether instructors believe that the children as young as 5 years old who evaluate them will put “thought and effort” into their answers, a metric that has caused outrage among some teachers. They say it’s unreasonable for the state to factor the students’ responses into their salaries. The students’ evaluations account for 10 percent of a teacher’s overall rating.

Nearly 64 percent of the 4,280 teachers who responded to the recent HSTA-DOE questionnaire indicated great concern over that element of the evaluations, while just 6 percent believed strongly that the students would take their teacher evaluating duties seriously.

More than twice as many respondents strongly believed that administrators will not be data driven and objective when assigning student learning objectives ratings, 40 percent, than those who do strongly believe they will, 19 percent.

And 43 percent strongly believe that the classroom observations component will be subject to bias.

In terms of whether observers who conduct classroom observations will be knowledgeable and fair about the framework for evaluations, more respondents, 35 percent, strongly disagreed than strongly agreed, 29 percent.

And while the survey summary says more than half of respondents strongly disagree that the “working portfolio requirement accurately reflects their professional responsibilities,” just one in ten felt very good about that.

The survey also suggests that the DOE may need to improve understanding among teachers about how they are being judged; just 16 percent of respondents said they have a very strong sense of what their final performance evaluation rating is based on.

The survey results offer “a good starting point to better identify areas for improvement,” Nozoe said.

“We know more work needs to be done to ensure” all teachers understand the system, he said, noting that about one out of every five of the survey respondents indicated they understand the system very well.

But Michael Kline, a veteran special education teacher at Kauai’s Kilauea Elementary School, described the new evaluations as “too much, too fast.”

“It’s like drinking from a fire hose,” said the 52-year-old Kline, who’s one of the 469 teachers in Hawaii with national teaching board certification, considered the most prestigious credential in the teaching profession. “It’s taken the fun out of teaching.”

The reaction to the evaluation system has been so negative, according to Hawaii State Teachers Association President Wil Okabe, that the union is concerned that the evaluations will exacerbate teacher turnover.

About 55 percent of new-arriving teachers in Hawaii already leave the district within five years on the job.

Controversial From the Start

The new system was implemented at the state’s 255 public schools this academic year after being piloted with a portion of teachers at about a third of schools the year before.

The state developed the system — as part of its promise to the federal government under its $75 million Race to the Top grant and local efforts to reform education — to make teachers more accountable for their students’ learning.

But the evaluation effort got off to a rocky start, eventually prompting a deadlock in contract negotiations between the state and the teachers union, delaying an agreement for months.

The union finally approved the current four-year contract last April in part because the agreement guarantees that teachers can provide input on its components through means such as a joint HSTA-DOE committee.

The HSTA’s Okabe touted the DOE and union collaboration, emphasizing that the system is a work in progress.

“It’s part of a collective process to help understand the strengths and identify areas of improvement,” he said. “In order for us to go forward we have to be able to work together to make it fair.”

The joint committee is one of several groups offering feedback on the evaluations.

But some teachers, including Kerber and Kline, say they still haven’t been given a say.

Educator Effectiveness

Each of the evaluations’ five components — classroom observations, student surveys, professional reflections, student learning objectives, working portfolios and students’ academic growth — are aimed at improving either instruction or student achievement. Some of the components are more controversial than others.

One of the most popular parts seems to involve classroom observations, which account for 25 percent of teachers’ final ratings. For this component, administrators observe teachers in their classrooms twice during the year, after which they conduct one-on-one conferences with the teachers.

Christopher Martin, a veteran English teacher at McKinley High School, described that component as particularly “enlightening,” noting that the vice principal who observed him helped to identify shortcomings he wouldn’t have otherwise noticed.

One of the least-popular components, according to the survey and conversations with educators, is the “Student Learning Objectives” — customized long-term goals that teachers set for each class before compiling data showing the students are achieving those objectives — which also account for 25 percent of teachers’ ratings.

Performance on each of the five components is tied to pay; for most teachers, next year’s evaluations will affect their salary for the 2015-16 year, and that will become standard going forward. For example, a teacher with several years of experience who gets a good rating for the 2014-15 school year will receive a roughly $1,000 raise the following year.

Teachers who earn good ratings are eligible for salary increases, while those who get poor ratings don’t get raises at all and, depending on their track records, are subject to penalties as severe as termination.

All tenured teachers — as well as non-tenured teachers who receive a decent rating this year — will receive an initial raise this July, as outlined in the new contract agreement.

Less Time for Students?

The irony of the student-driven evaluations is that they could end up taking a toll on student learning, some teachers told Civil Beat.

The HSTA’s Okabe said he’s heard the same concern from many union members. The evaluation process follows a model aimed at improving teaching for the sake of student learning, Okabe said. “If that’s the model we’re following, the concern is, ‘Is this evaluation process doing that?’”

“Teachers, because they’re teachers, are going to put the students first,” Okabe continued. “But when they have to put hours upon hours into the (evaluation) process, it does take away from student time, too.”

McKinley High School journalism teacher Cindy Reves during class. 4.11.14  PF Bentley/Civil Beat
 PF Bently/Civil Beat

Many teachers pointed to the student surveys, which are conducted during class time. Students of all ages and learning types have to fill out one survey for each of their teachers.

Kline, who’s taught for 14 years and holds a master’s degree in instruction and curriculum, said the evaluation system’s biggest setback is that it obliges teachers to prioritize testing over more constructive forms of teaching. Students’ performance on standardized tests factors into teachers’ ratings.

Kline pointed out that his students have to take twice the number of exams this year because the state is testing out new exams, while still formally assessing students with the old tests.

Kline’s students were so fed up with the testing, he said, that they even boycotted the exams at one point in a small protest at school.

The evaluations have also had a negative effect on Kline’s relationships with his students, he said.

“I have been more short at school, and I’ve never been short with my students,” he said. “I’m just running on fumes right now.”

‘Like a Bad Dream’

In a recent letter to state education officials and several legislators, Kline and several other Kilauea Elementary School teachers wrote that the evaluations have “been harmfully thrown at us in a chaotic and very confusing manner.”

Many Kauai teachers have highlighted the “Student Learning Objectives” as symptomatic of the evaluation’s haphazard implementation, particularly because they were initially given incorrect instructions about how the component works. After two training sessions, the teachers found out that the process they had learned was backwards.

Kerber, who has taught various subjects and elementary grade levels for six years but currently serves as the school’s computer teacher and technology coordinator, said that the new system is just too much on top of her other responsibilities.

She that the arduous new objectives hardly boost student learning, if at all. And in terms of the time commitment, she said it took her 10 hours just to type up and format the document explaining one goal and her plan for that goal.

Kline said it’s been “a mad dash” trying to comply with the student learning objectives requirements, adding that he’s developed health problems in recent months, including insomnia and a stress-induced infection. “It’s like a bad dream.”

Nozoe, of the DOE, said the department recognizes that fatigue “is being experienced” throughout the state’s public education system.

“While there is progress taking place, it will take time to build trust,” he said.

The joint committee, made up of four officials each from the teachers union and DOE, will be making recommendations for improving the evaluation system in the coming months, Okabe said.

One of the system’s biggest missing links, he said, is professional development opportunities tied to the teacher ratings.

Martin, the McKinley teacher, agreed, saying that while he supports the evaluation system he thinks decentralizing reform would bring about more “meaningful change.”

Kline said he wants an evaluation system that’s less demanding, allowing teachers time to actually reflect on their practice.

Kerber said she wants the DOE to leave it up to individual schools to decide how to evaluate their teachers, empowering local administrator and leadership teams.

As things stand, she said, “Teachers are being stretched to their absolute breaking point.”

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