Negotiations over a new contract for Seattle teachers are stuck on how best to evaluate the job that teachers do. The district wants to measure student academic growth with test scores. The union says that's unproven, unfair and inappropriate.

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For months, Seattle Public Schools and the city’s teachers union have kept a strict silence over their negotiations on one of the hottest topics in public education: how to evaluate and pay teachers.

That ended when the district, rejected at the bargaining table, went public recently in the fight over its proposal to make Seattle one of a small but growing number of school districts across the nation to judge teachers, in part, on their students’ academic growth, measured by test scores.

With just a little more than three weeks before school starts, many worry the stalemate could lead to a teachers strike, although neither side will comment on how likely that may be.

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But it’s clear the two sides remain far apart in what appears to be the first major showdown in Washington state over a system that, while not merit pay per se, moves in that direction.

The district is now appealing directly to teachers — and the public — to promote its plan, which combines increased accountability with increased support for teachers who volunteer to be a part of it. The plan also offers opportunities for highly rated teachers to earn higher pay. Only new teachers would be required to join.

Union leaders have responded by blasting the district for jumping on the national bandwagon for a controversial, unproven idea. The union says it already had agreed to overhaul the way teachers are evaluated, and to put those rated “basic” or “unsatisfactory” at risk of dismissal.

“Here we have … what we think is historic change taking place,” said Glenn Bafia, executive director of the Seattle Education Association. “But instead, they want to lop some things on top of it, and stop us from going forward.”

The conflict mirrors the national debate on how best to raise the quality of teaching. Research increasingly shows a good teacher has a greater impact on student achievement than any other school-based factor, including class size or curriculum.

It’s not clear whether tying teachers’ evaluations to student growth will help. The research that exists is thin, said Dan Goldhaber, a University of Washington research professor who has studied teacher-evaluation systems.

That’s one reason the Washington Education Association, the statewide union for public-school teachers, says it is against tying teacher evaluations to test scores, and why the union fought to keep that from becoming state law last spring.

In Seattle, union leaders say the tests students take aren’t designed to evaluate teachers. They want the district to try what the two sides had already agreed to: a four-tier evaluation system that would require teachers to be in the top two levels to ensure keeping their jobs.

“Teachers aren’t afraid of accountability,” said Jonathan Knapp, the union’s vice president. “Teachers are afraid of a system that isn’t a fair analysis of what we’re doing in the classroom.”

The union also wants to wait to see what happens in three low-performing Seattle schools where, on a trial basis, test scores will be part of how teachers are evaluated, a requirement of a large federal grant to improve those schools.

Spreading across U.S.

Despite opposition, the idea of tying teacher evaluations to how much students learn is gaining momentum across the U.S., with advocates saying the research, while not conclusive, is promising enough to give it a try. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has thrown its considerable financial clout behind the idea, giving about $300 million to five school districts — none in this state — to help them experiment with new ways of evaluating and paying teachers.

The Obama administration also is promoting the idea through its Race to the Top grant competition, giving points to districts for using test scores as one objective measure in evaluations.

The idea is to look at paying teachers based on how well they teach, rather than the current system, in which their salary largely depends on their level of education and how long they’ve been on the job.

Districts such as Denver, New York, and Washington, D.C., already use student data as one factor in teachers’ annual ratings. In D.C., School Chancellor Michelle Rhee recently dismissed roughly 75 teachers who fell at the bottom of a new, four-level evaluation scale, causing an uproar. The way this state’s law now stands, all districts will be required, by fall 2013, to revamp the evaluations of teachers and principals. Test scores can be used, if available and appropriate, but are not required.

But school districts can go beyond the law, and Seattle is certainly seeking to do so.

That’s part of the accountability push Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson started when she arrived three years ago.

“We have teachers who are doing this already. This is not punitive,” she said. “Why not be held accountable? Why not be given additional support? Why not be able to opt in? That’s good for kids.”

Community backing

Parents have mixed feelings, but Goodloe-Johnson has backing from a number of community groups, such as the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce, the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle, and the Alliance for Education, a nonprofit group that, among other things, raises money for the school district. They’ve sought to influence what’s happening at the bargaining table by writing letters and sponsoring polls they say show the community wants teachers to be paid based on performance.

“Business as usual hasn’t produced the kind of results for kids we would all like to see,” said Chris Korsmo, executive director of the League of Education Voters, a nonprofit that also is part of the coalition.

“How are we going to treat our teachers like the hardworking professionals that they are,” she said, “if we have no way to gauge whether they’re able to help students move the needle on achievement?”

In comparison to places such as Washington, D.C., and Colorado, what Seattle’s administrators are proposing seems modest. The evaluation system would be voluntary for all but brand-new teachers, so teachers could see how it works before signing up.

Student growth would at most make up 25 percent of a teacher’s evaluation and would be measured with a combination of tests, not just one. And some teachers — those who teach subjects that don’t have district or state tests — wouldn’t have student test scores figured into their evaluations.

The district also emphasizes it wants to pair the increase in accountability with an increase in support for teachers. Teachers who struggle would get more help. All teachers would get more planning time — although that’s turned into a little controversy in itself: The district has proposed students be dismissed two hours early every other Friday, which is alarming many working parents who must figure out day care. That provision wouldn’t start until fall 2011 at the earliest.

Teachers who signed up for the new evaluation would get a 1 percent raise for each of the next two years, while those who didn’t would not. If teachers earn high ratings, they’d also have a chance to make extra money by teaching in a school with a high level of students living in poverty, or, if they reach the highest rating, by taking on additional responsibilities such as mentoring peers.

Teachers’ mixed feelings

Some teachers like the idea of tying their evaluations to student progress.

“We hold students accountable for test scores, which determines a lot of their opportunities,” said Laurie Morrison, an instructional coach who would be covered under the new contract. “I advocate for all parts of the system, including teachers, to be accountable for that data as well.”

But many teachers have deep concerns, questioning whether test scores capture enough of what students learn or whether they’re an ineffective shortcut for doing what it really takes to assess how well teachers teach.

Richard Katz, a teacher at Roosevelt High, says student performance depends on many factors — what he does, yes, but also what happened in their classes in previous years, and at home.

The union and the district are scheduled to return to the negotiating table Tuesday. Even if the union were to approve the plan, many of the details would still have to be worked out. The district expects administrators would work with the union to fill in the details over the coming year, and phase in the new system starting in fall 2011.

Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359 or

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