LNP education forum 6

From left, Eastern Lancaster County School District Superintendent Robert Hollister, state Sen. Ryan Aument, McCaskey High School teacher Bryan Hower and Pennsylvania State Education Association President Rich Askey meet with the LNP Editorial Board on Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2019.

THE ISSUE

State Sen. Ryan Aument, R-Mount Joy, is the author of Senate Bill 751, legislation that would reform Pennsylvania’s educator evaluation system by placing greater emphasis on direct classroom observation, and reducing the impact of student standardized testing scores. The bill passed the Senate by a vote of 38-11 in June and is now in the House Education Committee. A companion bill was introduced in the House by Republican Rep. Jesse Topper of Bedford County. Aument met with the LNP Editorial Board on Tuesday, along with Eastern Lancaster County School District Superintendent Robert Hollister, McCaskey High School teacher Bryan Hower and Pennsylvania State Education Association President Rich Askey.

Today, we’re going to discuss how Pennsylvania’s public school teachers are evaluated.

Please don’t stop reading. This is more interesting than you might think.

It involves use of taxpayer money, the quality of the education our kids are getting, and a lawmaker who genuinely listens — and admits when he’s gotten something wrong.

We know. That is unusual.

That lawmaker, of course, is Aument.

Aument wrote the 2012 legislation that created the state’s current teacher evaluation system. He told the editorial board last week that he initially was defensive when that system drew frank criticism from educators, including Hollister and Hower.

Among the criticisms: The ratings of underperforming teachers are inflated by the positive ratings of the buildings in which they teach.

And excellent teachers are punished when their students score poorly on standardized tests, even if those students have learning disabilities, or come from low-income households where they have none of the advantages — books, private tutoring, vocabulary-enriching vacations and other resources that increase school readiness — that middle-class students have.

This is causing highly skilled teachers to hesitate before taking on the classrooms that need them the most: those in poorer schools.

Hower, for instance, wondered whether it was a good career choice to teach in the School District of Lancaster, where 90% of students are economically disadvantaged.

“I am a better educator and a better person for making that choice,” Hower said. “It’s not a coincidence that one of the first things I did as a teacher at School District of Lancaster was contacting Sen. Aument.”

Hollister, who in addition to his primary role at Elanco served for a time as Columbia Borough School District’s superintendent, said high-quality teachers in Columbia had scores “nowhere close” to their suburban counterparts.

“Clearly the poverty issue was masking some realities in terms of performance,” Hollister said.

Concerns about the evaluation system were heightened “after a 2017 state law that required schools to consider performance, not just seniority, when laying off teachers, passed without the governor’s signature,” LNP’s Alex Geli reported last week.

Teachers and administrators no longer trust the current teacher evaluation system and the data it produces.

This is a problem not just for teachers, who need positive evaluations if they’re ever to be promoted. A fair and effective evaluation system helps struggling teachers to get better, and affirms the efforts of good teachers.

Impact of poverty

When Hollister, Hower and others brought their concerns to Aument, the senator balked at first. He said he absolutely would not amend the evaluation system to account for poverty — he feared poverty would be used as an excuse for poor teaching.

And he was adamant: Standardized testing and other objective factors would not be reduced to less than 40% of the equation in assessing teacher performance.

Aument visited classrooms. He spoke to educators. He listened. “I’ve learned,” he said, “that humility in authorship is more important than pride of authorship.”

Try to come up with another politician who isn’t afraid to use the word “humility.” We couldn’t.

But Aument isn’t your usual politician. Because of his willingness to engage with people with different ideas and experiences, this Republican has developed a teacher evaluation proposal that has bipartisan support — and the backing of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the commonwealth’s largest teachers union.

As LNP’s Geli noted, 50% of a teacher’s evaluation is currently based on observation. “The other 50% is based on student and building-level outcomes, such as standardized test scores,” Geli wrote.

Under Aument’s legislation, he explained, “That ratio would shift to 70% and 30%, respectively.”

And student poverty — the element Aument initially resisted — would be factored into the 30%. Having been convinced by educators such as Hollister and Hower of poverty’s impact, Aument now believes it’s a “groundbreaking” addition that could serve as a national model.

We do, too.

Teachers shouldn’t be penalized for working with low-income students. Just as they shouldn’t pay a price for taking on the challenge of teaching students with disabilities. We want educators who are drawn to those challenges to be able to embrace them without worry.

Putting test scores in their place

We also cheer the greater emphasis on direct observation, and the reduced emphasis on standardized testing scores.

We’d rather see classroom teachers get timely feedback from a highly skilled and educated administrator than for them to wait for student scores that the test vendors don’t send for months. When a teacher’s principal is in her classroom, observing how she teaches, she will get meaningful feedback she can put to quick use.

Like Aument, we believe standardized testing has a role to play in measuring student performance. But in recent years its role grew to be outsize, seriously stressing students and squeezing out subjects (like the arts) not included on the tests.

Aument said his legislation “strikes the right balance between holding folks accountable and unleashing innovation, entrepreneurship, creativity in the classroom and in our schools.”

Hollister said he thinks teachers will feel less pressure to teach mostly to the tested subjects and will have more freedom to experiment.

Askey, of the teachers union, predicts that teachers will be able to personalize their teaching more, so that the needs of both high- and low-achieving students are better met.

These all are outcomes that parents, students and taxpayers — who want to see their tax dollars used effectively — would welcome.

In the editorial board meeting, Aument said that “folks in my line of work are afraid to say they’re wrong. I actually think it gives you a great deal of credibility with people when you do that.”

He’s right. We wish other elected officials would learn this lesson.

The House Education Committee will hold a hearing on Aument’s bill and Topper’s companion bill on Oct. 28. We hope the legislation makes its way through the process without unnecessary delays.

A teacher shortage looms in Pennsylvania, as elsewhere. We’re going to need effective teachers. Aument’s new and improved evaluation system will help ensure we have them.