Seattle Creates a New Model of Teacher Accountability

Across Seattle and Washington, and increasingly across the country, the description of the new Seattle public schools contract comes in a single word – “historic.” Despite talks that went lengthy and late for many days, concerted opposition from the Superintendent and the pressures of back-to-school, a district bargaining team agreed with its teaching staff, represented by a team from the Seattle Education Association, that collaboration, not confrontation, is a more effective way to bring historic change to public education in Seattle.

Specifically:

  • Final evaluations for teachers and other certificated staff will not be based on test scores.
  • Final evaluations for teachers and certificated staff will not be based on opinion surveys from students, parents or peers.
  • Individual staff will not be evaluated on an entire school’s academic growth.
  • Existing seniority provisions will not be sidestepped by using those performance measures in the district’s RIF and layoff decisions.Annual salary increases (step increases and across-the-board 1 percent increases each year in the contract’s second and third years) will not be based on whether student test scores improve.

Seattle’s educators have been consistently clear that they welcome accountability and a renewed focus on student achievement. When it came to a final vote, numbers for the certificated contract were not overwhelming amid continuing concerns about using test scores for any part of evaluation, and about a misguided education reform agenda nationwide. The contract was approved on what appeared to be about a 70 percent majority of those who raised their voting cards.

On the same day SEA members voted to ratify the historic three-year contract, they also overwhelmingly backed a vote of no confidence in Seattle Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson’s leadership. The superintendent’s proposals were described as out-of-touch with good classroom practice, increasing the testing culture that narrows curriculum, wastes instructional time and forces schools to teach to the test instead of focusing on lifelong critical thinking skills.

Seattle’s contract does represent true change. It creates a framework where teachers in every classroom must be exceptional. Under the new evaluation plan, average is no longer good enough. Teachers must be ranked in the top two tiers in a four-step performance scale or else face demands to improve. It encourages good teachers to become even better. It’s a historic change in the national debate over academic excellence, accountability and avoiding the misuse of student test data.

“I believe this is going to be looked at as a new day among unions across the country,” said SEA Executive Director Glenn Bafia. “We’re definitely willing to talk about education reform, but it doesn’t have to be an either/or situation — either you do nothing or you go down the road of unresearched, untested reform.”

The district’s goal, that student achievement based on test scores be a measure of teacher quality, is reflected in a compromise developed by the teachers union. Bargainers for the local union suggested that test scores could be used appropriately to help identify teachers who may be struggling so that they can build the skills they need.

Unlike Goodloe-Johnson’s plan to use test scores as a basis for RIFs or termination, the Seattle contract uses test scores only to trigger conversations with the principal and the possibility of additional classroom observations. The goal is to identify whether a teacher actually is struggling, or whether it’s simply a case of a great teacher whose class faces academic challenges that aren’t related to the specific teacher.

Some SEA members at the ratification meeting wore T-shirts with “Hu” in a box from the chemistry periodic table of elements. The message: the human element is essential in teaching, and cannot be replaced by the district’s ill-conceived plan to mash surveys and test scores into a computerized number that purports to identify struggling teachers. Students are more than test scores, SEA members noted, and so are teachers.