Senate panel considers adjustment to Snyder-era teacher evaluation standards

Ryan Ridenour, a social studies teacher in West Bloomfield testifies in favor of changes to Michigan’s teacher evaluation system at a meeting of the Senate Education Committee on Oct. 10, 2023. | Kyle Davidson

By Kyle Davidson, Michigan Advance

The Senate Education Committee at its Tuesday meeting discussed bills that would change the standards schools use to evaluate the performance of teachers and school administrators. 

Senate Bill 395 and 396, introduced by Education Committee Chair Dayna Polehanki (D-Livonia) and state Sen. Kristen McDonald Rivet (D-Bay City), would change the criteria from student performance district-adopted tools and objective criteria beginning July 1, 2024. Teachers would be rated as effective, developing, and needing support, with the bill requiring at least one year-end evaluation for all teachers.

The current teacher evaluation system originated in 2011 as a package of tenure reform bills signed into law by Republican former Gov. Rick Snyder, with 50% of a teacher’s evaluation based on student growth. Student growth now makes up 40% of an evaluation. 

Polehanki’s Senate Bill 395 received supportive testimony from the Michigan Education Association (MEA), the Fenton Education Association and the Holt Education Association. Both Senate Bill 395 and 396 received support from the Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals, the Detroit Federation of Teachers, and the Dearborn Federation of Teachers. 

During their testimony, supporters of the bills argued that the current evaluation system was unfair to teachers and students.

“What we have right now is an exercise in checking boxes that does nothing to help me become a better educator for my students to succeed,” said Ryan Ridenour, a high school social studies teacher in West Bloomfield. 

There are two parts of the bills which would have the largest impact on teachers and students, Ridenour said: removing requirements that 40% of a teacher’s evaluation is based on student assessments, and removing highly effective ratings for educators. 

Of the 40% of student assessment data used in evaluations, 20% is from a teacher’s classroom and 20% is group data from previous school years in the district. 

“When we test in the spring, we don’t get the results until June or July. So kids I’ve never seen before are part of my evaluation,” Ridenour said.

“Because the bar is so high for that group data to be rated highly effective, it means that I have to score perfect on my classroom evaluation data just to be in the running for highly effective overall. So before the school year has even begun, the deck is stacked against me as a teacher,” Ridenour said. 

Additionally, many students do not try their best on standardized tests as there is no incentive, which invalidates the tests as a measure of student abilities, Ridenour said. 

Supporters also highlighted how other factors like a student’s home environment, mental health, socioeconomic status and other factors can influence standardized test data.

“Teacher evaluations as they are currently are highly subjective. Subjective in the sense that it depends on someone else’s interpretation of their effectiveness. Subjective in the sense that it depends on the performance of minors who are completely dependent on someone else, their parents,” said Lakia Wilson-Lumpkins, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers. 

“We are not evaluating the teacher, we are evaluating socio-economic demographics,” Wilson-Lumpkins said. 

Kathi Martin, president of the Dearborn Federation of Teachers and a speech pathologist, said the current teacher evaluation system has discouraged teachers from wanting to take in students who may not speak English or who have autism. 

“I have these fabulous teachers and I’ll go up to them like, ‘Hey, little Johnny would be a great fit in your class, but he has autism and sometimes flips desks. Can you take him?’ And the teacher’s like, ‘I had a tough kid last year, let me get a good evaluation this year,’” Martin said. 

“We are preventing students from getting the best possible education because we’ve created these numbers that are hindering our system,” Martin said. 

The Michigan Association of Superintendents and Administrators (MASA) opposed the bill in its current form and expressed support for working with lawmakers to streamline the evaluation process. Matt Schueller, the association’s director of government relations, argued the bill’s provision for grievance procedures complicated  the evaluation process, and that mediation procedures outlined in the bill would take up additional time for administrators. 

Schueller also expressed concerns at the bill changing the language on misconduct, arguing this part of the bill should have its own legislation separate from teacher evaluations. 

Polehanki addressed concerns about the language change at the beginning of the meeting, in response to a letter she received opposing the bill out of concern that it would impact background checks. 

“I would not put my name on a bill that would weaken background checks for teachers. My bill does not change background checks. My bill more accurately defines what unprofessional conduct is,” Polehanki said. 

“My bill simply removes the word misconduct and replaces it with an act that ‘endangers the safety of any student and directly leads to the separation of employment,’” Polehanki said, reading from an updated version of the bill adopted by the committee. 

While other organizations both in support and opposing the bills attended the meeting to testify, time constraints prevented them from sharing testimony. The committee did not take votes to move the bills.

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