BY NOEL K. GALLAGHER

Portland Press Herald

Maine is taking its first concrete steps to establish its first common standards for evaluating teacher performance.

On Thursday, a task force announced it had reached agreement on what system to use to rate teachers and principals, while state officials unveiled a proposed rule change that spells out how that new standard would be applied.

The task force was formed earlier this year after the Legislature passed a law establishing a standardized evaluation system that would be in place for the 2014-15 school year.

In addition to agreeing on the evaluation system, the task force began identifying which measures of student learning and growth could be considered as part of teacher evaluations, and which could not.

For example, the state will consider results from statewide, standardized tests, but only under specific circumstances, such as requiring the student take pre- and post-tests and using only “statistically reliable” samples, which may require three to five years’ worth of data.

The group also agreed not to consider certain factors as measures of student learning and growth, such as student, parent and community surveys or high school graduation rates.

Up to this point, teacher evaluations in Maine have been left to local school districts. The local districts will continue to oversee the process, but they will have to meet the new state standards, which will include a provision that teachers who are rated ineffective for two years can be dismissed.

Setting consistent standards for education was the driving force behind the federal No Child Left Behind Act and other sweeping education reform efforts. Just last week, the president of the American Federation of Teachers proposed a “bar exam” for teachers and referred to the “current hodgepodge approach to teacher certification and licensing.”

Maine began its effort to establish a statewide evaluation standard several years ago in part because the federal government required states to establish a standard in order to qualify for federal Race to the Top funds.

“It’s a huge push nationally. It’s bringing together Democrats and Republicans,” said David Connerty Marin, the spokesman for the Maine Department of Education.

“It’s a no-brainer that, in the schools, nothing is more important to student achievement than the teacher. So we need to evaluate them better and we need to support them better,” he said.

The group agreed that the state should use the Interstate Teacher Assessment and Support Consortium to evaluate teachers and the Interstate School Leaders Licensure Consortium to evaluate principals. Exemptions would be allowed, but they would be subject to state approval.

The proposed rule change now will start making its way through the legislative process, Connerty Marin said. A public hearing is scheduled for Dec. 27 in Augusta, and written comments will be accepted thorugh Jan. 7. The department then plans to write up by Jan. 11 a final rule proposal that will go before the legislature’s Education Committee, which will hold another public hearing and take written comments before making a decision in the upcoming session.

One recommendation already is raising red flags, according to Lois Kilby-Chesley, president of the Maine Education Association. The draft rule says 25 percent of a teacher’s score will be based on student learning and growth — even though the task force could not reach a consensus on that point.

“We had been saying (in the task force) that it should be no more than 10 percent,” Kilby-Chesley said Thursday. “We were terribly surprised when we saw that.”

She said student growth is only one of several factors by which to measure a teacher’s effectiveness, and it shouldn’t carry so much weight. She said there is no standard for how much a student’s performance should count toward a teacher’s evaluation.

“It’s really a huge range,” she said. “Seventeen states don’t even use student growth. Others use 10, 15, 25 percent. Florida uses 50 percent.”

Kilby-Chesley said she already has raised the issue with Maine Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen, but she declined to characterize the conversation or his response.

Connerty Marin said there are difficult, tough conversations about teacher evaluations, and he praised the task force for its work.

“As has been the case for a long time, teachers’ unions naturally have concerns about how evaluation systems will work,” Connerty Marin said. “There was a lot of discussion about ensuring that evaluation systems won’t be used to simply get rid of teachers that administrators don’t want, and that the evaluations would be fair.

“These are the kinds of things the council wrestled with and we wrestled with,” he said. “They are mindful and cautious about being assured that we do it right — that we don’t create a system that isn’t fair and doesn’t get us to where we want to be.”