Published February 26. 2014 4:00AM Updated February 26. 2014 11:50PM
Montville - School administrators and Board of Education members made their displeasure with Connecticut's new teacher evaluation requirements known to state legislators Tuesday during a breakfast sponsored by the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education.
The new evaluation system, which requires increased observation time and ties teacher ratings to student test performance, "is sucking the time and energy and, frankly, the spirit out of our system," said East Lyme Superintendent James Lombardo.
"I've got principals who are turning into stenographers," Lombardo said, because they spend so much time recording and justifying teacher evaluations. He recently proposed a budget that includes three new staff positions to help share the burden imposed by the evaluation requirements.
Starting next school year, the state will require that each teacher be evaluated every year, but for this year, school districts had the option of evaluating only one-third of the staff. Some districts, including Salem, chose to evaluate all teachers nevertheless.
"We felt it was equitable for everyone to be in the same boat," explained Salem Superintendent Joseph Onofrio. Administering the new evaluation for all teachers at the same time gives a baseline for everyone, he said.
Although teachers have always been evaluated in some way every year, Onofrio said, the previous system involved a cycle of observation for tenured teachers with some sort of performance review every year but a rigorous evaluation only every four years or so.
The new evaluation requirements from the state include three observations per year for each teacher, and each observation has at least three components, Onofrio said.
The increased workload caused by the evaluations amounts to an "unfunded mandate," according to Lombardo.
Superintendents and board members from other districts voiced concern with the state's decision to include student standardized test scores as a large percentage - 45 percent - of a teacher's evaluation.
There's some value in considering student achievement during evaluations, said Madison Superintendent Thomas R. Scarice, but "doing it the way we're doing it is malpractice" because it does not account for other factors that influence students' scores.
"It's a travesty to hold teachers' careers to an instrument like (standardized tests)," added Cindy Luty, a member of the school board in Preston who was a teacher for 36 years.
"We test our kids to death. We test to prepare them for testing," said Luty, who said her middle school students were usually exhausted by the time they sat down for the actual Connecticut Mastery Test. "I have had kids tell me many times, 'Ms. Luty, I try for the first 20 minutes, then I just color in the bubbles.'"
The state legislators who attended Tuesday's breakfast - Rep. Timothy Bowles, D-Preston, Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, Rep. Betsy Ritter, D-Waterford, and Rep. Brian Sear, D-Canterbury - appeared receptive to the criticism of the state's education policy and asked CABE to bring specific objections to the governor's office.
"Is there anything salvageable?" Bowles asked local officials, saying he'd heard nothing positive about the policies being discussed.
A few people responded that the evaluation system might work if it were more flexible and could be adapted to the needs of individual districts, and school board member Aaron "Al" Daniels spoke in favor of the uniformity enforced by the changes.
While Daniels said he has questions about the teacher evaluation program, he supports the state enforcing education standards.
Without that, "we get to forget places like Norwich" and push their problems to the side, he said. "And let me be straight up - (that happens) because there's too many people who look like me there," said Daniels, who is black.
"All we're asking is that third grade in Lyme be the same as third grade in Norwich," he said.