State granted delay in implementing teacher evaluations

schoolJACKSON — The federal government has granted Mississippi permission for a one-year delay in the use of evaluations to hire and fire teachers.

The decision was announced yesterday by the U.S. Department of Education. Mississippi and Nevada became the first two states to win approval for a delay.

When Mississippi won a waiver from federal education law in 2013, it promised local school boards would start using new state teacher evaluations in personnel decisions in 2015-2016.

The state is still perfecting that evaluation system, called MSTAR. It’s not supposed to go live statewide until next fall. Even then, some officials have expressed reluctance to instantly incorporate it into high-stakes decisions on employment and merit pay, saying they want teachers to regard the evaluations mainly as a path to improvement.

Half of a teacher’s grade under the system would be based on how much their students learn that year, as measured by tests, while the other half would be based on observation of teachers. That’s a problem, because the state is also planning to switch its main standardized test. As part of its adoption of the Common Core academic standards, which are supposed to encourage more analytical thinking, Mississippi plans to adopt a new multi-state test to be first administered in spring 2015.

When school boards decide which teachers they will retain for an additional year in spring 2016, that first year of Common Core test data is what would be used in evaluations.

Mississippi Department of Education spokeswoman Patrice Guilfoyle said officials want another year of test data, waiting until 2017 before using evaluations to hire and fire.

“You don’t want to make a decision based on the first year you implement a new test,” Guilfoyle said.

As the state makes the transition, leaders could also be looking to use evaluations to make decisions on how teachers get paid. Gov. Phil Bryant has announced his support for paying teachers based on merit, allowing every district to design its own pay system. Four districts are trying out merit pay plans this year, in addition to merit bonuses that the state had been paying to teachers and principals at 10 elementary schools for meeting certain goals.

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