By Brenda Ortega
MEA Voice Editor
“Wonderful news!” “Here’s why we work hard to elect legislators who support public education.” “Elections matter!” “Let’s keep going!”
Hundreds of similar comments and shares on MEA’s social media echoed in celebration after the Michigan Legislature approved changes to the state’s broken teacher evaluation system starting next school year. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is set to sign the reforms into law within weeks.
MEA members have pushed for the changes over several years through lobbying lawmakers, doing on-the-ground work to elect legislators who support public education, and raising funds for political campaigns. The bills were also supported by the Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals.
Lisa Sutton, president of the Kalkaska Education Association east of Traverse City, said her members are pleased the legislation ends use of statewide standardized test scores to rate teachers – a purpose for which assessments such as the M-STEP and SAT were never intended to be used.
Because the new law also restores aspects of evaluation as a subject of collective bargaining, educators are ensured a voice in how their districts’ systems will operate and what are the best local tools to fairly measure student growth or performance on student learning objectives.
“This is one of the things our dues dollars pay for – making sure that we, the trained professionals who actually understand education and know our students, have a say in how we do our jobs and what is considered good teaching,” Sutton said. “The current system is a ‘gotcha’ system, and it’s driving people out of the profession.”
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. That system added student standardized test scores into teacher ratings and removed rights of appeal and due process.
Rep. Matt Koleszar (D-Plymouth), a former teacher and chair of the House Education Committee, agreed with Sutton that for both students and educators the system has amounted to “a failed experiment in a one-size-fits-all approach.”
In a House floor speech Koleszar delivered urging passage of the bills, he argued many other factors outside of teacher quality influence student standardized test scores – and punishing educators for those results doesn’t help kids.
“We can’t rely on a cookie-cutter standardized test taking a snapshot of one moment in time, a moment when a child’s parents are going through a divorce, or they’re hungry because their pantry at home is empty, or sad because their girlfriend dumped them,” he said in the speech.
“Students are human, and humans are complex. Teaching is about so much more than filling in a bubble on a single day.”
The new system will reduce the percentage of a teacher’s score based on student growth or learning objectives to 20% from the current 40% without requiring state testing data be used. How and what goals are measured will be locally bargained.
Other provisions 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 effective teachers to be evaluated triannually or biannually (subject to bargaining).
Many members are glad to see “highly effective” removed as a rating category, said MEA Local 1 President Heather Schulz, a Lakeview teacher who leads the Multi-Association Bargaining Organization representing thousands of educators in Macomb, Wayne and St. Clair counties.
The label has been highly subjective in its application, Schulz said, with some districts assigning it to every teacher who was effective and others rarely assigning it at all.
“Soon it will be: if you’re doing a good job, you’re doing a good job – as it should be,” Schulz said. “And people are also happy that evaluators will have to do rater reliability training, because the variation in scoring and interpretation has been extreme, depending on the administrator doing it.”
High-stakes evaluations have driven professionals out of districts that have a higher percentage of high-need students, said Matt Marlow, president of the Grand Rapids Education Association, where 115 teaching positions remained open as the Thanksgiving holiday approached.
“This current evaluation system has demoralized people who are doing great work that isn’t necessarily going to be reflected in test scores or even in the little boxes that the evaluator is supposed to be checking when they’re in your room for 10 or 15 minutes,” Marlow said.
“In districts with more at-risk students, teachers say to themselves, Gee – do I want to risk my evaluation working in a district with more challenges and less resources?
“That fallout has hurt public education, so yes—these changes are good. Having teacher input is good. Making evaluations less punitive is good. Giving people the support they need to do their jobs and develop into the best teachers they can be is good.”
Shifting from a punitive approach to a focus on developing educators throughout their careers is central to reforms in the bills sponsored by Sen. Dayna Polehanki (D-Livonia), a former teacher and chair of the Senate Education Committee, and Sen. Kristen McDonald Rivet (D-Bay City).
After the House vote approving the bills, Polehanki tweeted, “Oh my stars—we did it! #TeamTeacher”
MEA members stepped up to push hard for the changes in the closing weeks of the legislative session, offering testimony in hearings on the bills and through in-person lobby days.
MEA member Ryan Ridenour, a high school social studies teacher in West Bloomfield, was one of several educators who testified before the Senate Education Committee in October to stress with lawmakers that educator burnout is at an all-time high and morale is low across the state.
“I hope you understand the gravity of the situation and the opportunity that’s available to you today,” Ridenour told the Senate panel. “Districts across the state are hemorrhaging staff, and you can do something to stop the bleeding.”
Later that month, recently retired Farwell science teacher John Pakledinaz showed up in Lansing for an MEA Lobby Day to speak directly with lawmakers because the current system is “punitive and excessive,” and he worries about the future if society continues to treat its educators this way.
“I know this is one of the things that needed to change if we want to continue attracting quality young people to the profession,” the former local union president said. “Evaluations should be useful, not punitive.”
Now it’s important for educators to stay engaged in the policy debate, he added. “The importance of educators being involved in PAC drives and being involved in electing educators to be some of the people making decisions is critical.
“And if they don’t believe that, all they have to do is look at the first year of this legislative session – all the things that have been done to turn back 12 years of destructive education policies are huge. We can’t afford not to be involved in politics, because that’s where rules are made.”
See a list of what’s changing in teacher evaluation beginning in the 2024-25 school year, as well as other legislative victories won recently in Lansing as 2023 legislative action comes to a close.