Bill to fix Michigan’s educator evaluation system gets first hearing

By Brenda Ortega
MEA Voice Editor

A photo of educators smiling
MEA members (from left) Ryan Ridenour, Leah Porter and Megan Ake testified at Tuesday’s Senate Education Committee meeting

When MEA member Megan Ake changed school districts from Farmington to Fenton five years ago, the first teaching tasks she felt pressured to master involved massive classroom-practice checklists and student-growth data mandates in the state’s evolving educator evaluation system.

Instead of learning her students’ names, delving into a new curriculum, or creating relationships with new colleagues, the high school English teacher worried about how to manage and prove herself under the system’s burdensome demands, she told members of the state Senate Education Committee on Tuesday.

“Despite having 11 years of experience in teaching at the time, I felt like a rookie transfer to the Red Wings being tasked with taking home the Stanley Cup at the end of the season,” Ake testified.

“Blame is not to be placed on the individual teacher or administration but rather the faulty system that really speaks for all of us here,” Ake said. “It’s a hyper focus on the numbers, the data, the percentages. It turns teaching – which is this organic, relationship-oriented art – into a numbers game.”

Sen. Dayna Polehanki (D-Livonia), Education Committee chair and a former high school English teacher, is the primary sponsor of Senate Bill 395 which got its first hearing Tuesday. The bill would shift educator evaluations away from a punitive focus toward an emphasis on teacher learning and development.

SB 395 is expected to move soon. Decisions are being made on this vitally important topic, so make your voice heard! Learn more and contact your lawmakers today.

The measure would remove current mandates tying an educators’ rating to student growth and assessment data – in particular scores from state standardized tests such as the M-STEP – and ensure decisions about the role of student assessment data are made at the local level.

Other provisions would reduce ratings categories from four to three: effective, developing and needs support; require observations for at least 15 minutes with timely written feedback; and allow teachers who earn three effective ratings in a row to be evaluated every three years instead of annually.

The current educator evaluation system was enacted as part of changes made under Gov. Rick Snyder in 2011 to weaken teacher tenure and make it easier to fire teachers. The new system based 40% of a teacher’s rating on student test scores and removed rights of appeal and due process.

Reading her analysis of problems with existing law at the meeting’s outset, Sen. Polehanki outlined solutions in the legislation which include mechanisms to allow flawed results to be challenged before an educator is dismissed. “Due process: We need some,” Polehanki stated bluntly.

MEA member Ryan Ridenour, a high school social studies teacher in West Bloomfield, thanked the committee for hearing educators. “Across the state educator burnout and turnover are at an all-time high; morale is low, so I hope you understand the gravity of the situation and the opportunity that’s available to you today,” he testified.

“Districts across the state are hemorrhaging staff, and you can do something to stop the bleeding.”

Removing student test scores from educator ratings would improve fairness and validity, Ridenour said.  Many variables – beyond teacher effectiveness – influence student performance on standardized tests, and use of individual classroom data in ratings makes it unfair to compare teachers for purposes of layoff and recall.

In addition, combining “highly effective” and “effective” rating categories would reduce staff competition and encourage collaboration and teamwork vital to schools’ success, he said, noting there is little difference between the two ratings, but many districts limit “highly effective” to a select few.

“Removing ‘highly effective’ would eliminate unnecessary paperwork and stress that saps teachers of our energy that we would rather use teaching and supporting our kids,” Ridenour said.

“The simple question you should all ask yourselves is this… Do you want more paperwork, burnout and turnover, or do you want to remove burdensome regulations that haven’t achieved what they promised?”

Research over the past decade has shown the failure of a nationwide experiment in high-stakes evaluation as a means of improving student success, causing many states to pull back. Numerous studies have demonstrated negative effects, including educator shortages – especially in high-need areas.

Sen. Kristen McDonald Rivet (D-Bay City), an Education Committee member and sponsor of companion bill SB 396, said the growing evidence of “pernicious effects” from changes to Michigan’s educator evaluation system over the past decade shifted her perspective.

McDonald Rivet said she supported the evaluation changes years ago as a state representative, but she now believes “it’s important that we get back to the building blocks and think about how we can have an evaluation system that supports and allows teachers to grow.”

MEA member Leah Porter, a Holt third-grade teacher and 2021-22 Michigan Teacher of the Year, agreed in testimony before the committee that even as educators have been asked to do more and more in recent years, the “out-of-touch” evaluation system has done nothing but add “tremendous stress and disconnect from the urgent needs of the classroom.”

Porter called SB 395 “an affirmation to teachers across the state that the legislators in Lansing empathize with the complexity of the current education landscape and want to build systems that will benefit students and provide teachers the opportunity to learn and develop in a way that will continue to develop their practice.”

Sen. Erica Geiss (D-Taylor), a former educator and member of the Senate Education Committee, thanked Polehanki for her work shaping the bill and explaining the nuances of needed changes so non-educators can understand what’s happening and what’s at stake if improvements aren’t made.

The bill’s provisions are still being debated—please contact your state senator and representative today! Share your story about how the current evaluation system is broken and why these important changes are needed to support teacher recruitment and retention, as well as student success.

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