Struggle over how to evaluate special ed teachers

By Christine Armario

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, April 24 2012 9:35 a.m. MDT

In this April 3, 2012, photo, student Devin Sanders plays with a puppet in a special education class at Amelia Earhart Elementary School in Hialeah, Fla. More than a dozen states have passed laws to reform how teachers are evaluated and include student growth as a component. For special education students measuring that growth is complicated.

Lynne Sladky, Associated Press

MIAMI — Since the first day of class this school year, Bev Campbell has been teaching her students how to say their names.

Some of the children in her class have autism. Others have Down syndrome or other disabilities. "People don't understand where they've come from," she says. "It's slow."

Just one has learned how to say his name. Still, the South Florida teacher sees signs of growth in the nine kindergarten to second-grade students in her class.

Those little steps are what teachers like Campbell consider major leaps for students with the most significant physical and cognitive disabilities — and what are the most challenging to capture on a test. Yet that will be a significant part of the way school districts in Florida and in many other states will evaluate teachers.

Spurred by the U.S. Department of Education's $4.35 billion Race to the Top grant competition, more than a dozen states have passed laws to reform how teachers are evaluated and include student growth as a component. For most students, that growth will be measured on standardized tests. But for special education students that is considerably more complicated.

"I don't know how they would ever do that for my students," said Campbell, who has 28 years of experience teaching special ed.

In its guidance to states applying for the funds, the Department of Education set as a priority increasing the number of effective teachers in special education, language services, and hard-to-staff subjects such as science and math. Effectiveness would be determined, in part, by whether students reached "acceptable rates" of academic growth. Federal officials provided some criteria for what should be included in teacher evaluations, but left states to decide how student growth should be measured.

The result is that in Illinois, Florida, New York and other states, education leaders and teachers unions are trying to create evaluations that take into account factors such as a student's prior performance, socio-economic background and English language skills. Creating those measurements for general education teachers has proven challenging enough, but for special education teachers, it is even more trying, as officials try to find a way to evaluate growth that often can't be measured on a test.

"The great concern right now in many states is they're using the same criteria for the general education teachers that they're going to use for the special education teachers and there's real resistance to that," said George Giuliani, director of the special education program at Hofstra University's Graduate School and executive director of the National Association of Special Education Teachers.

In a survey by the National Comprehensive Center for Teacher Quality, 63 percent of special education teachers said they believed student achievement gains should be a component of their evaluations, but only 21 percent thought standardized test scores were an appropriate measure.

Seventy-eight percent said their state hadn't determined how to measure the growth of students with the most profound disabilities. Complicating matters is the very limited research available on special education assessments and evaluations. That means states will have to study and modify their systems as they go along.

"It's a very complex process and it's kind of trial and error," said study co-author Lynn Holdheide, a research associate at Vanderbilt University.

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