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State education board wants to avoid new teacher evaluation plan

May 10, 2012 |  5:08 pm

The state Board of Education voted Thursday to seek relief from federal rules that label more than 6,000 California schools as failures, but in the process, it declined to authorize a new evaluation system for teachers and principals.

The federal government has said it's willing to waive rules that penalize too many schools but has insisted that, in exchange, states must develop employee evaluations that rely substantially on students' standardized test scores.

Teacher unions and other critics have faulted the U.S. Department of Education for taking this position. Gov. Jerry Brown, who appoints the state school board, also has expressed skepticism about the federal policy.

Most states also have sought waivers, but California may be the first to select which federal directives to follow in its application, state officials said.

Their reason is financial, they said.

“If we mandate an evaluation system statewide, we’d have to pay for it,” said state board President Michael Kirst, adding that the state has 320,000 teachers and 10,000 principals. “We cannot afford a statewide mandate, and we don’t want to make promises we can’t afford” during the state’s ongoing budget crisis.

Currently, school districts have broad latitude in how to evaluate employees.

For more than a decade, California, like other states, has managed two accountability systems -- one under state rules and another under federal guidelines. In its waiver, the state board wants to use only the state system in the future and pledged a series of steps to improve it. That does not, however, call for the use of students' test scores.

The board's action drew criticism from Education Trust-West, an Oakland-based advocacy and research group.

It said that California, unlike other states, wanted relief “for essentially doing nothing,” according to a statement. “Rather than committing to the development of concrete plans to improve student outcomes, close achievement gaps, and prepare all students for college and career, California’s education leaders will complain about the state budget crisis and rehash disturbing, old arguments about federal interference with states' rights and local control.”

Education Trust-West said California’s students continued to lag and the state had earned “a sinking national reputation on education issues.”

The state accountability system is best known for producing an Academic Performance Index number for every public school with test scores. Those with a number lower than 800 have an annual improvement target. Campuses that don’t hit the target face various forms of intervention.

The federal rules, by contrast, require nearly every student to test at grade level by 2014. Annual targets rise towards that goal. This system measures only those schools that receive federal aid.

Under the federal system, “a huge majority of our schools -- 70% to 80% -- will need intervention from the state,” said Kirst. He and other officials said the result would be a waste of resources and attention on some schools that are doing well or improving, while also falsely labeling such schools as failures.

Both of the state’s major teachers unions endorsed the action. Although teachers unions have supported President Obama’s reelection bid, many have criticized his education department.

A U.S. Education Department spokesman declined to comment “until we receive California’s waiver application.”

“But we reaffirm that states seeking flexibility ... must protect all children and meet a high bar,” said Assistant Secretary Peter Cunningham.

So far, the department has approved 11 waivers; 37 states and the District of Columbia have applied.

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-- Howard Blume

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