MIAMI — U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan is urging Florida to quickly address any problems with its new teacher evaluation system, which grades instructors in large part on students' standardized test scores.
In an interview with The Associated Press on Monday, Duncan said Florida is one of many states instituting ambitious education reforms and finding it needs to make corrections along the way.
"If something doesn't make sense, we should move rapidly to fix it," he said.
Teacher unions have sued Florida and three local school boards over evaluations that grade some teachers on subjects and students they don't teach.
The lawsuit is backed by the National Education Association and the Florida Education Association and includes seven teachers around the state as plaintiffs. None of the plaintiffs instructs math or reading in the grades that the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test is given.
Under the Student Success Act passed in 2011, 50 percent of a teacher's evaluation must come from statewide assessments like the FCAT. The plaintiffs argue the new evaluation system unfairly judges instructors who don't teach subjects or grades covered by the FCAT by grouping them all together as an "instructor team" and judging them based on the collective FCAT scores of students at the school.
Duncan said he can understand the rationale behind creating incentives for every adult in a school to work together in ensuring a child's success. But he's not convinced 50 percent is the right measure.
"I'm a big believer of working in teams," he said. "That makes a lot of sense. So again, there's a real nuance here. Should it be 50 percent? I'm not quite sure on that one."
In a statement issued after the lawsuit was filed last week, Florida Education Commissioner Tony Bennett noted current bills before the Legislature "would make improvements to the Student Success Act, including ensuring that teachers are evaluated only on the students and subjects they teach."
More than a dozen states passed laws to reform how teachers are assessed and include student growth as a component in order to qualify for a slice of the U.S. Department of Education's $4.35 billion Race to the Top grant competition. Florida won $700 million to help close achievement gaps, increase the number of students graduating high school and going to college, and improve teacher development.
The Department of Education provided some general guidelines for what criteria should be included in teacher evaluations but let states decide how to measure student growth.
Duncan said he would encourage officials to look at examples from across the country of what is working.
"Our goal was to try and unleash a lot of creativity at the local level," he said.
Duncan added that with many reforms underway, including implementation of the Common Core academic standards and new assessments, "It's going to be a hard, choppy couple of years." For that reason, he said, it's important for states to be able to adapt and make changes where needed.
He pointed to Tennessee as an example of a state that made significant mid-course corrections.
"I think Florida can get to a much better place," he said.
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