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Editorial: Reforms bring new system for evaluating Valley teachers

School districts in Hampshire County have wasted no time putting together new state-required teacher evaluation plans. It is heartening to see that administrators and teachers alike are embracing changes which combine more classroom observations of teachers at work with individual achievement goals and test scores.

Amherst-Pelham Education Association President Elizabeth Elder called the plan her district is working on a more meaningful process. Michael Morris, director of educator evaluation and assessment analysis in Amherst, noted that observers watching authentic teaching, rather then prearranged lessons, will provide better advice to instructors. Northampton School Superintendent Brian Salzer, who has already been reviewed under the new system, said he liked having a chance to present a detailed self-evaluation.

In the past, a teacher evaluation in Amherst, for example, consisted of a principal watching each teacher conduct a 45-minute lesson that was agreed upon in advance, then meeting with the instructor later. This occurred every other year.

Under the new state model, observations will not be scheduled. The observation visits will be shorter and more frequent. For new or low-performing teachers, they will occur over the course of a year. For teachers with three or more years of experience, they will be done over two years.

Teachers will set goals for themselves and for their students. And their progress in achieving those goals will be charted, along with their students’ test scores. Each will get a progress report halfway through the evaluation period. If at the end the teacher receives a poor rating, he or she will be placed on an improvement plan, observed more frequently and given more support. If the individual still don’t make the grade, he or she can be dismissed.

The improved oversight is prescribed for the entire school system. Teachers will be evaluated by principals; principals by central office staff or the superintendent; central office staff by the superintendent; and the superintendent by the School Committee.

If done well, the plan should shine the spotlight on excellent teachers and administrators while allowing districts to ask the poor ones to move on. That will clear the way for talented, energetic new staff. It will also go a long way in ensuring that our children get the top-quality guidance and education they need.

This is the first time since 1995 that the state has required an overhaul of the evaluation systems in its schools. The change springs from Massachusetts accepting $250 million from the federal government under the so-called Race to the Top educational initiative. Along with the new evaluation rules, the state has had to adopt national curriculum guidelines for math and English, as well as strategies for turning around low-performing schools.

Though all local school districts are diligently moving ahead with the evaluation plans, they note the new approach will require a lot more time and effort. That may be burdensome, particularly for small districts. Hampshire Regional Superintendent Craig Jurgensen, for one, said his district is up to the challenge. In South Hadley, Superintendent Nicholas Young said that although teachers and administrators will have to reorganize their time to meet the added demands, he is happy that the change puts the focus squarely on providing better instruction for students.

“I think it’s an exciting period in education,” he said. We agree.

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