AUGUSTA — Teachers in Regional School Unit 12 received performance pay averaging $2,707 over the summer as part of a new program to reward good teachers and identify those who struggle.

“What I’ve told the staff is this is a grand experiment,” said Superintendent Howard Tuttle. “It’s messy, it’s not perfect, and we’ll get better at it. As far as performance pay, I think it does have the potential to really help districts to meet their goals and to improve student achievement.”

RSU 12, which covers Alna, Wiscasset, Westport Island, Palermo, Somerville, Whitefield, Windsor and Chelsea, is leading the way in the development of a system that will recognize and foster good teaching and its contribution to student achievement. RSU 12 piloted its teacher evaluation and professional growth system last year. Sixty-eight percent of the district’s teachers were rated “distinguished,” 25 percent as “effective,” 5 percent as “developing” and 2 percent as “ineffective.”

Teachers received performance pay, which was paid with money from a federal grant, based on their evaluation scores, including student growth on various types of assessments. The district distributed $378,995 in performance pay, with the average award being $2,707.

A law passed in 2012 requires school districts to develop evaluations for teachers and principals this year so they can pilot them next year. When the evaluations are fully implemented in 2015-16, they will produce ratings that affect educators’ assignments, compensation and dismissal.

School districts in the Augusta area are at widely different stages of the development process. While RSU 12 has already launched a program, others, such as Hallowell-based RSU 2, have yet to form the committees that will design the evaluations.

When it comes to the most contentious part of the evaluations, however, all of the districts are aiming at a target that doesn’t yet exist.

“The barrier right now is student achievement and the value of student achievement in the teacher evaluation process,” said Donna Madore, Augusta Public Schools’ assistant superintendent.

Madore said a committee in Augusta met a handful of times last school year, but their work ground to a halt in June after the Legislature failed to approve the guidelines that the locally developed evaluation systems must meet.

Democrats in the Legislature took issue with the Department of Education’s recommendation that at least 25 percent of a teacher’s rating be based on student growth data from standardized tests and other sources.

A bill that would have weighted student growth at 20 percent — no more or less — did not receive the two-thirds approval it needed as an emergency measure.

The Department of Education will have to restart the rule-making process and submit a new proposal to the Legislature in January, but in the meantime, the timeline laid out for school districts in the 2012 law is still in effect.

Several other elements of the evaluation systems are either in the 2012 law or were non-controversial in the Department of Education’s proposed rules and thus are good candidates for school districts to start working on now.

That includes adopting a set of professional teaching standards, devising a schedule for observations and evaluations, and setting consequences for each rating on the effectiveness scale, including supports for educators in need of improvement.

“I think we can do a lot of work around the teacher evaluation process and just hold off on (student growth) until that gets clarified some more,” Madore said. “We can work on the language and the meat of the evaluation process in the meantime.”

Madore said she thinks Augusta can still adhere to the required timeline, especially because they’ll be able to learn from school districts that are already piloting their own evaluation systems, thanks to the help of the federal Teacher Incentive Fund grant.

How it works

RSU 12 was one of five school districts chosen to receive part of Maine’s Teacher Incentive Fund grant in 2010. Four more school districts, including Gardiner-based RSU 11, became part of the program last fall.

In RSU 12, each building had its own goals and scorecard. At Chelsea Elementary, for example, some of the measures of student growth included average daily attendance, percent participation in Accelerated Reader, scores on the New England Common Assessment Program tests and a physical fitness rating.

This year, teachers will develop their own student learning objectives. A draft of the evaluation system, which will be considered by the school board next month, calls for 24 out of 84 points — or 28.6 percent — on the evaluation to be determined by student progress on the student learning objectives.

That would meet the Department of Education’s proposed criteria, but would be too high to comply with the rules that Democrats in the Legislature tried to pass.

The rest of teachers’ scores would be based on their achievement of their own goals for professional growth and how well their teaching practices align with a set of evidence-based standards.

Whitefield Elementary Principal Josh McNaughton, a member of RSU 12’s TIF steering committee, said it was difficult to evaluate all of the district’s staff last year because of the amount of time it took for observations and the newness of the system. There will be a lot more training for evaluators and teachers this year.

McNaughton said one of the main things he’d recommend for school districts that are not as far along is to investigate tools like RANDA Tower, an electronic system for taking and sharing notes from observations.

“I think they really need to dig into some of the TIF schools and see what they’ve already done,” he said. “A lot of that information is out there. Obviously, they need to adjust it to meet their specific district’s needs, but I think a lot of that initial legwork is done for them.”

Other districts close behind

RSU 11 is a year behind RSU 12, so they will pilot their evaluation system this year.

Superintendent Pat Hopkins said they plan to rate half the teachers this year, using an evaluation that’s 60 percent professional practice standards, 15 percent personal growth and 25 percent student growth. RSU 11 covers Gardiner, Pittston, Randolph and West Gardiner.

Like RSU 12, RSU 11 is gathering feedback about teachers from students surveys but not incorporating it into a teacher’s score.

Hopkins said being part of the TIF project is very exciting. It’s providing money for expensive, time-consuming work that the state is requiring but not funding this year.

“Without this grant, we never would have been able to put such an emphasis on professional development around teacher effectiveness, best practices, teaching strategies,” Hopkins said. “And I think it’s just going to be one of the best opportunities that our district has seen in a really long time.”

Readfield-based RSU 38 — Manchester, Mount Vernon, Readfield, Wayne — started revamping its evaluations process before the state law was passed in 2012 but has proceeded deliberately, Superintendent Donna Wolfrom said.

Last year the district’s evaluations committee researched and debated three sets of professional practice standards and chose the one they thought was the clearest. This year they’ll decide which other factors to incorporate and how much each should be weighted.

“We want to make sure that our system really addresses our two prongs, accountability and professional growth, that it’s research-based and that everybody really understands and has input of how it’s going to work,” Wolfrom said. The district has purposely taken it slow, she said “And I think that was a good move.”

Wolfrom said the biggest challenge will be incorporating student growth data, both because the state guidelines aren’t set and because their options for measuring student growth are limited, especially in subjects without standardized tests.

“It was said at one point that local assessments could be used, but we don’t have local assessments in all content areas, so it would mean developing those,” she said. “We’re moving toward that with the Common Core (curriculum standards), but that is a lot of work that would have to be done within that fairly short deadline. And it has to be done well because people’s jobs depend on it.”

Susan McMillan — 621-5645
[email protected]