With one set of reforms undergoing major changes and another set due to kick in despite widespread opposition, teacher evaluations are becoming an issue in the Hawaii governor’s race.

Civil Beat poll numbers show a surprising shift toward David Ige, the teachers union-backed gubernatorial candidate, in the Democratic primary race against sitting Gov. Neil Abercrombie, who aggressively pushed for the new evaluations as part of a 2013 contract deal that soured many educators on him. Abercrombie now appears to be backing out of the debate over evaluations, recently telling Civil Beat it’s up to the state Department of Education to clear things up.

Ige and Republican candidate Duke Ainoa, meanwhile, are openly skeptical of the current system.

Hawaii State Teachers Association President Wil Okabe said the candidates are “very conscious” that the evaluations have become a political leverage point. The HSTA for its part has come under fire for failing to address teachers’ concerns about the evaluations.

McKinley High School journalism teacher Cindy Reves empty classroom

McKinley High School journalism teacher Cindy Reves prepares for her class last April.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

The DOE recently announced sweeping changes to the system after receiving feedback from teachers and principals, some of whom said they felt so disempowered and overworked by the evaluations that they were considering abandoning their profession. Still, the evaluations are tied to the pay of all 12,500 teachers starting this school year.

And then there are the Common Core standards, new universal math and language arts learning benchmarks that are going live this fall across the country. In Hawaii, plans call for them to be used as a factor that determines teachers’ evaluation scores.

The Gates Foundation, the very organization that bankrolled the development of the Common Core standards, made national headlines earlier this month by calling for a moratorium on their use in evaluating teachers.

Hawaii’s multifaceted evaluation system is already based largely on new assessments aligned to these rigorous learning standards — despite the intensifying debate over whether they should be used. And so far the Hawaii DOE has shown no indication that it’s joining the growing number of states — including New York, Colorado and Florida — that have decided to hold off on using Common Core tests as an accountability measure.

Ige said he thinks Hawaii should hold off. Abercrombie didn’t say whether he agrees with the Gates Foundation, noting simply that the Board of Education is reviewing the letter.

Gov. Neil Abercrombie during an interview with Civil Beat.

Gov. Neil Abercrombie speaks with Honolulu Civil Beat in his office at the Hawaii State Capitol, May 28, 2014.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

The new standards are scheduled to go into full effect in Hawaii schools starting this fall, as are the evaluations. And they are just two of the new, interconnected reform initiatives being implemented in schools.

“They signed a lease for a car they never saw,” said Hanalei Elementary School teacher Jessica Kerber, referring to the state’s commitment to using Common Core in the evaluations despite the rocky rollouts of both. “It goes back to the union not doing the best job, and it goes back to the governor not supporting us.”

The political implications of the evolving evaluation system could stretch farther now that the verdict from teachers is in and the state DOE has agreed to temper it. The evaluations were piloted at select schools during the 2012-13 year and rolled out at all schools this past year, though without any penalties attached to them.

Evaluation System Still a ‘Work in Progress’

A survey conducted jointly in the spring by the teachers union and the DOE suggested that as many as four of five teachers lacked a full understanding of the version of the evaluation system used last school year. Nearly two-thirds of respondents said one component, which rated teachers based on student surveys, was unfair.

A separate survey that was independently conducted in April suggested that 94 percent of principals believed that implementation of the new evaluations had damaged faculty and staff morale.

“I do everything 100 percent, and that’s why the evaluation system was so mentally draining for me — because I did not believe it with an ounce of my being,” said Kerber, who was rated “highly effective,” the highest of four rankings. “Still, I jumped through all the hoops.”

Even the DOE now acknowledges that the earlier version of the system was far too time-consuming and rigorous.

Now, the evaluation system assesses teachers on four components designed to gauge their instructional quality and impact on student performance. Teachers still have to collect data, design and implement learning goals and consult with administrators outside of class.

Many teachers fear that the evaluation system revolves around new standards and tests that are setting them and their students up for failure.

The 18 major changes being made to the system will significantly streamline the workload — cutting its requirements in half — and focus intervention efforts on the teachers who are struggling the most, officials say.

Among the changes: the role of student surveys will be drastically reduced for most educators and completely eliminated for those teaching kindergarten through second grade. And the 2,000 or so teachers who, like Kerber, were rated “highly effective” this past year can carry their scores over and are exempt from participating during the 2014-15 year.

Starting with the upcoming school year, evaluations will affect teachers’ salaries. For example, a teacher with several years of experience who gets a good rating for the 2014-15 school year will receive a raise of about $1,000 the following year. Those who are deemed “unsatisfactory,” the lowest ranking, are subject to termination, while those who get the slightly better “marginal” ranking are given opportunities for improvement. (Only two teachers received an “unsatisfactory” score this past year.)

Kerber supports the changes but thinks this evaluation system as a whole is broken.

Michael Kline, a teacher at Kilauea Elementary School, agreed, saying he thinks it’s “fundamentally flawed” because it connects student performance to testing.

The HSTA’s Okabe was more tactful, perhaps because the union has played a big role in getting the system to where it is today.

“It’s a work in progress,” Okabe said, emphasizing that the union has done its part to weigh in on the process and get feedback from teachers. “This is just the beginning … It’s not reasonable to think that an evaluation system can be changed 100 percent overnight.”

The HSTA filed a class-action grievance with the DOE in early June, contending the implementation of the evaluations was unfair — but that was before the department announced the changes. Now, the two are trying to come to a compromise.

The evaluations have been contentious since they first went into development more than two years ago as part of Hawaii’s $75 million federal Race to the Top grant and local efforts to reform education. Abercrombie said then that he was determined to secure the grant by any means possible — and implement an evaluation system.

Abercrombie said his role was to encourage a dialogue between the DOE and teachers and contribute to efforts to improve the teaching profession.

“From the beginning there was and continues to be collaboration among” everyone involved, the governor said in an email to Civil Beat.

Many teachers disagree and fear that the evaluation system revolves around new standards and tests that are setting them and their students up for failure.

A candidate’s position on the evaluation process could become a litmus test in politics, particularly at the state level where much of the education decision-making takes place.

Gubernatorial Candidates Chime In

Abercrombie says he’s confident that the DOE “will meet and deal with its challenges” and create a fair evaluation system, highlighting the ongoing dialogue that’s happening among all parties.

At least two candidates for governor — Ige and Aiona — say they’re skeptical about the evaluations even in their newest version, pointing to the immense dissatisfaction they’ve heard from teachers in the field.

Mufi Hannemann, who’s running as an Independent, did not respond to Civil Beat’s inquiries.

Aiona, who worked as a substitute teacher during the past two years, said he’s “seen firsthand how the evaluation system has impacted teacher morale.”

Ige, whose wife is a public school vice principal, was more scathing in his criticism of the evaluation system, suggesting that ongoing controversies are the symptom of an overly centralized public education system.

Gubernatorial candidate Sen. David Ige Morning Glass Coffee Manoa

State Sen. and gubernatorial candidate David Ige discussed teacher evaluations with Civil Beat.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Ige said he’s always supported a comprehensive evaluation system but not one that absorbs resources and time without making much of an impact and leaves teachers feeling neglected.

“What I keep hearing is that it’s labor intensive but that no lessons have been learned, that the data systems are clunky,” he told Civil Beat, referencing the series of visits he’s made to schools across the state. He shared similar concerns with the DOE back in January during a briefing.

Ige, who chaired the Senate Ways and Means Committee through the end of the last session of the Legislature, said he believes in school-driven rather than state-driven education reform, a philosophy that he says reflects his efforts to give individual schools as much discretion as possible over spending. And now, he says, it’s “premature” and “unfair” to tie the Common Core to teachers’ salaries.

His reservations concerning both sets of reforms — demanding standards matched with highly controversial evaluations — could win him some favor this election.

“Governor Abercrombie has not been very supportive of teachers or our students and schools through all of the misguided and mismanaged reforms, and I think the public is starting to realize this,” Kline said. “I think more parents are understanding that the drive for more testing, more data, for an education system that too narrowly focuses on just reading and math … is not the education system that they want.”

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