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R.I. legislation would free highly ranked teachers from annual reviews

Principals have to conduct evaluations for every teacher in their school every year. Envisioned as a way to make sure teachers are doing their jobs adequately, the evaluations have resulted in a large expenditure of time for administrators and teachers alike, and in many cases, are unnecessary for the teachers rated “highly effective” or “effective,” according to one state lawmaker.

Rep. William O’Brien, D-North Providence, a math teacher at Hope High School in Providence, has introduced legislation (H7096) that would require “highly effective” teachers to be evaluated every four years, and “effective” teachers every three years.

“Why do we evaluate the Teacher of the Year every year?” O’Brien asked. “It seems like a waste of time.”

Teacher ratings have four levels. Only those teachers rated at the highest two levels would be evaluated less often, O’Brien said. Teachers rated at the lower two levels still would be subject to annual evaluations, according to the bill, as would any teacher with less than three years classroom experience.

O’Brien, who has been a public school teacher since 1998, said principals spend anywhere between 10 and 15 hours on every teacher evaluation. There are more than 11,000 public school teachers in Rhode Island, meaning school administrators spend between 110,000 and 165,000 hours of their work time just on teacher evaluations. Cutting down on that will free administrators to be more effective in their jobs, O’Brien said, and result in better schools.

Teachers also spend hours on the evaluation process, as they submit their lesson plans to the principal and meet several times with their principal to discuss their performance. Forcing teachers who are consistently rated highly to undergo the process every year takes time away from their classroom work, O’Brien said.

Timothy Duffy, executive director of the Rhode Island Association of School Committees, said he doesn’t disagree with O’Brien’s goal. But it probably should be guided by departmental regulation rather than state law, Duffy said.

“It’s not a bad concept, but I don’t know that it really belongs in statute,” he said. “When things change, you would then have to change state law. That’s not as nimble.”

James Parisi, field representative and lobbyist for the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals, disagreed. The General Assembly got involved in the process last year when it enacted legislation that exempted teacher evaluations from the public records law, he said.

“The current method of teacher evaluations is excessively burdensome on teaching administrators, and is unnecessary bureaucratic paperwork for highly performing teachers,” Parisi said. “It could be regulated but it is absolutely appropriate [to be codified in] state law as well.”

While not commenting directly on the legislation, state Department of Education spokesman Elliot Krieger said all teachers should be evaluated annually.

“Commissioner [of Education Deborah A.] Gist believes that it is important that all educators, herself included, receive annual evaluations, based in part on evidence of student achievement,” Krieger wrote in an email sent in response to a request for comment on the bill. “Through evaluations, educators receive valuable feedback regarding their performance, which leads to continuous improvement of teaching and learning.”

Representatives from the Department of Education meet regularly with teachers and administrators, Krieger said, and frequently discuss the evaluation process.

Through that input, Gist recently approved the use of “differentiated evaluations,” which could reduce the number of classroom observations and evaluation conferences for teachers who receive high ratings, he said.

O’Brien’s legislation was sent to the House Health, Education and Welfare Committee, which has not scheduled a hearing on it.

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