JACKSON (AP) — Mississippi lawmakers are learning about teacher evaluations, possibly as preparation for basing educators' pay on their performance. But some lawmakers may not realize the state Department of Education is in the midst of an intensive effort to create a statewide evaluation system.
Andy Baxter of the Southern Regional Education Board made a presentation Tuesday to members of the House Education and Appropriations committees on general principles of how an evaluation system should work, but only briefly touched on Mississippi's plans.
House Education Chairman John Moore, a Brandon Republican, agreed that many lawmakers don't know about those plans.
"There's a lot of stuff that goes on over there that isn't revealed over here," Moore said after the hearing.
The state is still recruiting districts to pilot the teacher-evaluation system this school year. Officials plan to examine results and do another year of field testing before a statewide rollout in 2014.
Baxter suggested that an evaluation system could include observation by teachers, experts and administrators, as well as a teacher's self-assessment. He said student surveys can also be a valuable tool.
"Their observations are far more reliable than the principal's," Baxter said, noting that students spend more than 180 days with a teacher, while principals might only spend four hours in a classroom.
He also recommends that test scores be used to measure how much a teacher's students learn in a year.
That's pretty similar to what Mississippi has planned. Half a teacher's score is supposed to be based on observations, while half is supposed to be based on test scores — both how much students learn and whether they are performing on grade level.
Daphne Buckley, who has helped develop the evaluation plans, said Mississippi's system doesn't call for a student survey to be formally incorporated into the evaluation and that other teachers may not be part of the process unless a district trains them as evaluators.
"I'm not sure it's all that different," Baxter said of how Mississippi's plan lines up with what he recommended. "It does seem very similar."
Baxter, though, warned that Mississippi shouldn't rush into tying teacher pay to evaluations. Republican Gov. Phil Bryant is pushing a new merit pay law for Mississippi.
"There is a desire to get to compensation, but there is a concern about putting the cart before the horse," he said. "Get this part right and the compensation reform, if that's what you're aiming for, that part will come."
He also warned that research shows that monetary bonuses don't improve teacher performance. The state's current merit-pay law, which has never been used, calls for payment of such bonuses.
However, Moore said he still wanted to give bonuses to high-performing teachers. Both he and Bryant say they believe more money will motivate teachers to improve.
"It would sure make a nice carrot," Moore said. "It seems to work in every other aspect of life."
It's also not clear whether the state Department of Education will get enough time to roll out its planned system before Bryant and lawmakers intervene.
"Of course it is good to have a proper evaluation system, Bryant said. "I would certainly intend for this to be a part of the debate, as I will ask the Legislature to consider performance-based compensation in the next legislative session.
Moore said he thought it was possible he would introduce a bill concerning teacher evaluations in the 2013 session, although he said he didn't want one to pass before he'd gathered input from teachers.
Baxter also warned against using evaluation systems to fire large groups of low-performing teachers.
"I think threatening to fire them is not going to improve their performance," he said
That sounded good to Kevin Gilbert, the president of the Mississippi Association of Educators, which represents 8,000 teachers statewide.
"I would hope it would lead to building more-effective teachers, but not lead to getting rid of teachers," Gilbert said.
Several black lawmakers said they feared that evaluation systems and merit pay would penalize students with uninvolved parents or from poor households.
"The teachers that get the good schools are going to get the reward," said Rep. Willie Perkins Sr., D-Greenwood. "Teachers who get the difficult schools are going to be shut out of the reward."
Baxter said that by measuring how much students learn in a year, as opposed to just how high their test scores are, good teachers can be rewarded everywhere.
"When we looked at the data, we found we had highly effective teachers in every school," Baxter said.