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Interim education commissioner Stewart defends new teacher evaluation system

 The state Department of Education is still in the process of updating the results of a teacher evaluation survey after a draft report released Wednesday contained duplications. Today, Interim Education Commissioner Pam Stewart found herself fielding questions from members of the Senate's Education Appropriations Subcommittee about the new evaluation system and whether the fault data indicates the system is unreliable.

“I think this is a painful year," Stewart said. I think anytime you implement something this large for the first time, there are growing pains.”

She said the report published Wednesday was a summary of the data submitted by each district, which were part of a larger survey on teachers and salaries. Because some teachers are paid out of multiple funding sources, some teachers' evaluation results were also listed two or three times.

"Obviously for teacher evaluation they should be reported once," Stewart said. "So some districts made the realization that they should report a teacher only one time for purposes of teacher evaluations. That’s the reason that it was pulled down and a re-evaluation done and we are validating those numbers.”

The department is still in the process of reissuing the report with more accurate data. But Stewart said it would be wrong to say the evaluations were erroneous.

"It didn’t change percentages; it changed numbers," she said after the meeting. "It didn’t change any teacher’s evaluation so it doesn’t speak to the validity of the teacher evluation itself.”

That still didn't stop her from being peppered with questions during the committee hearing, even though this panel is focused on education funding and not policy. That shows that legislators are concerned, Committee Chairman Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, said.

"I don’t know that at this point we can assign any specific cause, but it’s something that we need to vet through," he said. "I think it’s something that is going to continue to be an issue.” 

Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, said these issues were anticipated.

"We know there’d be problems with it," he said. "We knew the accuracy of it, if you will, it would be suspect. But again, this is just the first shot across the bow.”

Montford said he was most intrigued by the variations between similar districts, mainly a result of the various ways districts chose to transition to the new system. "When you take two similar districts, you may find a very different percentage in terms of teachers that have scored high and those who didn’t," he said.

But he also sees a more pressing issue facing schools, preparing for the 2014-2015 academic year when new tests will be implemented to gauge student performance on revised education standards. Teacher evaluations will be tied to student performance on these tests, and he fears that districts won't be ready in time.

"There's too much on the line," Montford said. "We have teachers’ futures, their whole career will be based on these evaluations. And they have to be done right. They have to be vetted correctly, and they have to be foolproof. And I don’t see it getting done in a year and a half.”

Montford said he will advocate for a revised timeline that will allow for a delay on implementing the new tests. "That's not a reatreat; that’s not an abandonment of what we’re doing at all," he said.