Struggle over how to evaluate special ed teachers

By Christine Armario

Associated Press

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

In New York and Illinois, recently passed laws require districts to base a significant percentage of each teacher's evaluation on student growth. Both are still working to determine how that will be done for special education students, a category that encompasses a vast range of conditions, not all of which negatively affect academic performance. In Florida, the process has already begun, with a committee examining a broad range of conditions, from dyslexia to traumatic brain injuries, and analyzing the effect on test scores.

"The performance varied quite a bit based on disability," said Kathy Hebda, Florida's deputy education chancellor.

Because of that, the committee decided students with similar disabilities who can take Florida's statewide math and reading assessment should be compared to one another. The student's prior academic achievement will also be factored in. Teachers will then be evaluated based on how much above or below the average their students performed.

That, however, won't work for students such as those in Campbell's class. For now, most of them are too young to take Florida's statewide assessment, but when they are older, they'd likely take an alternate test. Officials are still deciding how that exam could be used to measure student growth.

"A large number of special education students are able to make learning gains," said Will Gordillo, administrative director for the division of special education at Miami-Dade County Public Schools, the nation's fourth-largest school district.

Those with the most significant cognitive disabilities, however, may not.

"There's concern with this group," he said.

All three states are running up against deadlines: In New York, districts will use a growth component in this year's evaluation, and transition to a "value-added" measure like the one being used in Florida and other states next school year. Chicago will also begin implementing a new teacher evaluation system in the fall.

Some have already expressed concern that the process is moving too quickly, and that it could have negative repercussions for disabled students.

Kevin Kumashiro, a professor at the University of Illinois in Chicago, was one of 88 professors who recently signed a letter raising questions about Chicago's plans. In an interview, Kumashiro said there has been a trend when high stakes are placed on standardized test scores: students who require special services are either turned away or not tested.

"And neither situation is really good," Kumashiro said.

In Florida, the stakes have already been set: 50 percent of teacher evaluations this school year will be based on student growth. For Campbell, that will consist of the school-wide average of students who do take the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test — students she has no involvement in teaching.

"We're trying to implement something that wasn't well thought out and now the clock is ticking," said Mark Pudlow, a spokesman for Florida's statewide teachers union. "It's a real problem."

On a recent morning, Campbell took her students at Amelia Earhart Elementary School in Hialeah, Fla., through their exercises. She put on a song and spent time with each student, saying their name, and encouraging them to look into a mirror and repeat it. Next she read from a giant book, about a third her size, about farm animals causing a ruckus in a house.

She went around the room with a small board that had images of a cow, horse and duck. She asked them to point to the cow. Some of the students chose the right image, but others didn't. Some looked off in another direction, delighted by the attention, but unable to respond to the question.

For others she helped guide their hand to the right answer.

"It's taken them a long time, and they're just starting to get these three," she said.

Campbell marvels at what others might see as tiny, insignificant improvements. She likes teaching students others might give up on, sometimes even their parents. One autistic student in her class came in unable to say his name and hardly spoke any words. Now he's reciting many letters of the alphabet and words such as window and couch. Another child, confined to a wheelchair, used to scream and cry all day. Now she stays calm and follows the activities. A child with Down syndrome has begun correctly identifying pictures.

"These are little things," she said, "but it's a lot."

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