The rules that will govern Maine’s new teacher evaluation system remain unclear, hung up in the Legislature in a political disagreement about the role of student achievement in the evaluation formula.

That puts school districts behind as they each prepare to test out pilot evaluation systems in the 2014-15 school year, for full implementation in 2015-16.

Fortunately, a number of districts are working under a federal grant that has allowed them to formulate and implement evaluations already. Those districts, which include Regional School Unit 12 in Somerville and Gardiner-based RSU 11, will be called upon to share their experiences, as the truncated timetable and challenges of implementation stress resources already drawn thin by tight budgets.

That ticking clock makes it imperative that legislators finalize the rules as soon as possible. And considering that these kind of evaluations are in their relative infancy, the rules should be kept flexible, so that districts are given the opportunity to test the formulas as they see fit.

Legislators also should consider how the districts will pay for the professional development that is needed once the evaluations are in place. Without funding for programs that allow teachers to improve, the evaluations themselves are meaningless.

Student progress

The teacher evaluation law passed in 2012 mandated that each school district put in place its own system for regular teacher reviews under basic statewide guidelines, but it left some of the details to the rule-making process.

The Department of Education worked with legislators and others, including the superintendent and teacher unions, to draft the rules. But when the rules were presented to the Legislature, lawmakers split along mostly partisan lines on one key issue — the use of student growth in measuring teacher effectiveness.

Republicans supported a recommendation by the department that at least 25 percent of the evaluation formula be hitched to growth in student achievement, including test scores. Democrats said that number should be no higher than 20 percent. Absent a consensus, the matter was held over to the next session.

The use of student growth in evaluations is a sticking point across the country. Teachers in many cases are wary of including measures such as test scores and graduation rates, which they argue are influenced largely by factors outside the classroom.

In Maine, school districts are testing out different formulas. RSU 12 has an 84-point evaluation, with 24 points — or 28.6 percent — coming from student progress. The formula RSU 11 is using this year takes 25 percent from student growth, with 60 percent from professional practice standards and 15 percent from the teacher’s personal growth.

The percentage breakdown can be misleading, however. What really matters are the factors included under each part of the formula. For the first year in RSU 12, for instance, each school decided for itself what would be included under student progress. One elementary school used daily attendance and physical fitness along with test scores and participation in a reading program.

The rules adopted by the Legislature should allow districts to set their formulas across a wide range of percentages, based on input from their own teachers and administrators. Not only will this ensure that the educators trust the system used in their district, but it also will serve as an experiment on best practices.

Catching up

The districts involved in the federal grant are, for the most part, well ahead of other schools. The grant mandated which set of professional teaching standards the districts put in place, and it provided funding for implementation and professional development.

Among the other districts, some have started formulating the less-controversial parts of their evaluation system. But in large part, they are waiting for the Legislature to act.

“We need guidance,” Donna Madore, assistant superintendent of Augusta schools, said Tuesday. “I’d hate to put something together and find out it doesn’t fit the letter of the law.”

Even after the rules are in place, districts may find it difficult to proceed without proper funding.

That’s where the experience from the federal grant program can be so useful. Schools throughout the state should use districts such as RSU 12 as a resource, to see how the evaluation system should be built and implemented.

“It would save them a tremendous amount of time in the beginning,” said Josh McNaughton, principal at Whitefield Elementary in RSU 12.

That input would help districts get the evaluations in place, leaving the professional development necessary to make the systems effective.

Here, the Legislature comes back in the picture. The Appropriations Committee earlier this year removed from the budget $5 million that was to be used for the teacher evaluation system.

That money has to come from somewhere, and it is unlikely most school districts can find it in their own budgets. Lawmakers should reconsider the funding, or the schools will be left without any way to make use of the evaluations.