Committee Vets Teacher Evaluation Bill


State Education Secretary Ron Tomalis

State Education Secretary Ron Tomalis

Under the state’s current evaluation system, teachers fall into one of two categories: satisfactory or unsatisfactory.  99.4% of teachers currently receive a satisfactory rating, and overhauling the system is one of the Corbett administration’s top education reform priorities.  “The success in meeting the mission of our public education system, ensuring that all children reach academic achievement, is dependent upon the quality of the teacher,” Education Secretary Ron Tomalis said in his testimony before the House Education Committee. 

Legislation has been introduced in response to the teacher evaluation plan that Governor Corbett laid out, last month, in York.  State Rep. Ryan Aument’s HB 1980 would base half of a teacher’s evaluation score on student achievement.   It would also expand the current rating system to include four categories: distinguished, proficient, needs improvement or fails. 

A variety of stakeholders had their say at Thursday’s Education Committee hearing, including the state’s largest teachers union.  “Using standardized tests as 50% or more of a teacher’s evaluation will not produce evidence of teacher effectiveness that is strong or fair,” said Pennsylvania State Education Association board member Linda Cook.  She does say, however, that PSEA wants to improve the current system in other ways. 

The Pennsylvania School Boards Association supports the development of the new teacher evaluation standards, but raised concerns with the proposed timeline. “Being forced to move according to the deadlines set in legislation could inadvertently undermine the system that [the Pennsylvania Department of Education] has moved so methodically to create,” said Kathy Swope, President of the Lewisburg Area School Board, who testified on behalf of the PSBA. 

The Corbett administration wants the new teacher evaluation framework in place for the next school year.  HB 1980 currently awaits committee action.

Capitol View from East Wing

Senate Approves Education Reform Bill

A revamped version of SB 1 attempts to address three of the four tenets of the governor’s education reform agenda.  Throughout hours of Senate debate, Wednesday, there appeared to be broad support for the expansion of Educational Improvement Tax Credits and updates to the state’s charter school law.  However, a school vouchers program proved controversial.  

“Over 90% of the kids are still going to be at the old school,” said Sen. Daylin Leach (D-Montgomery).  “They are just going to have less resources to try to eke out an education.”  

The amended voucher program in SB 1 would make the per-student state education subsidy available to low-income students, in the worst-performing 5% of schools, to help them attend the public or private school of their choice.  Students whose families earn up to 130% of the federal poverty guidelines would receive a full voucher, while students whose families earn up to 185% of the federal poverty guidelines would be eligible for three-quarters of the per-student state subsidy.  The impacted schools are located primarily in Philadelphia, Harrisburg, Allentown, Pittsburgh and Reading. 

“If this bill was a bill that would require statewide vouchers, I would vote against it,” said Democratic Education Chairman Andy Dinniman (D-Chester).  “But this bill is a very limited bill that is aimed to help students in 143 buildings in this commonwealth, out of thousands of school buildings in this commonwealth.”

 The bill ultimately passed 27 to 22,and now heads to the House.  Governor Tom Corbett has not yet endorsed SB 1, but says he has been working with lawmakers behind the scenes. 


Vouchers: The Most Controversial of the Education Reforms

School choice is not a new issue in PA, and it was no surprise when Governor Corbett included school vouchers in his education reform agenda. In fact, several protesters gathered in York in anticipation of what they were about to hear.  “65% of Pennsylvanians do not support using public money to pay private school tuition and only 11% of Pennsylvanians strongly support a voucher program,” says Cumberland County parent Susan Spicka.  “If the majority of Pennsylvanians do not support vouchers, I don’t know why he does.”  Spicka was citing a recent poll released by the Pennsylvania School Boards Association (PSBA).    

The Corbett plan calls for opportunity scholarships to be made available to low-income students in the worst performing 5% of schools.  The Opportunity Scholarship Program would allow eligible students to use state tax dollars to help pay tuition at the public or private school of their choice.  “What moves to the new school is the state subsidy, the old school still keeps its taxes in their school district,” Corbett says.  Students whose families earn 130% of the federal poverty level would be eligible for the full scholarship.  “To give that to you in dollars and cents,” Corbett says, “That’s a family of four earning $29,000.”  Students whose families earn 185% of the federal poverty level would be eligible for 75% of the scholarships. 

Opponents say vouchers don’t work.  “Vouchers, as proposed, would still leave a large number of students in those underperforming buildings,” says PSBA Director of Research Services, David Davare, who released a new research paper touting alternatives to raise student achievement in underperforming schools. 

“The issue is not that vouchers don’t work, the issue is the current system doesn’t work,” says Otto Banks, executive director of the REACH Alliance & Foundation, who says many students are trapped in failing schools simply because of their ZIP code.  “Vouchers are simply a means to an end,” Banks tells Radio PA.  “It gives a child an opportunity, or access to a quality education.”  REACH strongly supports the governors’ education reform agenda.

Governor Tom Corbett

Corbett Unveils School Reform Agenda

The new education paradigm that Governor Tom Corbett envisions would put students first.  While visiting the Lincoln Charter School in York, Corbett put forth a four point plan that he wants to see implemented in time for the 2012-2013 school year. 

It starts with a revamped charter school law in Pennsylvania.  “My plan calls for a state commission to approve and to oversee the charter schools of Pennsylvania,” Corbett says, adding that the commission of experts would also have the power to pull the plug on charter schools that aren’t meeting educational standards. 

Controversial school vouchers also make an appearance, but they would only apply to low-income students in the lowest performing 5% of PA’s schools.  “Students whose families earn 130% or less of the federal poverty rate would be eligible for these scholarships,” Corbett says.  “To give that to you in dollars and cents, that’s a family of four earning $29,000.”  Students who come from families earning slightly more would be eligible for a portion of the so-called opportunity scholarships. 

The new teacher evaluation program that Corbett envisions would include student performance.  “Right now the evaluation system is merely a rubber stamp, and it must change if our students are going to be the beneficiaries of good, committed educators,” Corbett says.  The current system allows only for a satisfactory or unsatisfactory rating.  The new system that’s currently being piloted would allow for ratings that range from distinguished and proficient, to needs improvement and failing.

The state House has already passed a bill that encompasses Corbett’s fourth goal of expanding the Educational improvement Tax Credit (EITC), which is awarded to businesses that fund scholarships and other educational improvements. 

Corbett concluded that he’s not happy with the status quo.  “When we have failing schools, we have failing students,” he says, pointing to the School District of Philadelphia’s 45% drop out rate.  Reaction to the Corbett agenda is rapidly pouring in; check back later for a recap.

State Education Department Reviews reports from School Districts Flagged for PSSA Results

State education officials are reviewing reports from the nearly three dozen school districts and chartered schools flagged in a review of 2009 standardized test scores.  All but one of the schools has responded with a review of areas flagged in their Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) results. State Education Department spokesman Tim Eller says that school was given an extension.

Eller could not discuss what was specifically in the reports, because the department’s investigation is not complete.  He did say that the reports will be used in conjunction with the department reviewing the data in detail, going over it with a fine toothed comb.  He says the department will decide if the investigation is closed or if further investigation is warranted.

The department is also awaiting the results of forensic reviews of the 2010 and 2011 PSSA results. Eller says while the 2009 report does stand on its own, the other reports will provide a trend analysis.

Eller says the 2009 report is not an indication cheating occurred; it just raised areas that needed review.   He says they’re also looking at whether there needs to be any change in the way the results are analyzed due to shifting school populations.

Report Ranks PA 20th for Child Well-Being

The new “Kids Count” data book from the Annie E. Casey Foundation ranks Pennsylvania 20th among states for children’s health and overall well-being.  That may be an improvement over PA’s previous ranking of 23, but it’s not all good news.  “The poverty rate for children in Pennsylvania is now 17%,” says Patrick McCarthy, President and CEO of the Annie E. Casey Foundation.  “That was an increase in Pennsylvania, compared to the year 2000, of 13%.”

McCarthy says Pennsylvania is generally following national patterns in which the five health indicators are headed in the right direction, and the five economic indicators are headed in the wrong direction.  Two indicators in particular alarm Joan Benso, President and CEO of PA Partnerships for Children.  “The number of teenagers who are not in school and not working, and the number of children living with at least one unemployed parent jump out at us as indicators that we need to really address and do more to help families overcome,” Benso says. 

Data contained in the “Kids Count” report show that 10% of Pennsylvania children have at least one unemployed parent, and 8% of PA teens are neither attending school nor working.  Both numbers are slightly lower than the national averages of 11 and 9%, respectively. 

Benso says the report demonstrates the need for an aggressive strategy to reengage Pennsylvania’s dropouts, so that they can become productive members of the workforce.  She adds that now is not the time to reduce funding for programs that help kids develop.

Summer Camps Focus on Science

Hundreds of Pennsylvania middle schoolers are wrapping up a “Summer of Innovation.”  Project director Dr. David Morgan, with the Chester County Intermediate Unit (CCIU), says they were one of only nine organizations, nationwide, selected to receive NASA grant funding for the Summer of Innovation (SOI) camps:  “To encourage students to get engaged in STEM careers: science, technology, engineering and math; because our country, to continue its competitive edge, needs to have its students involved in those kinds of careers.”

CCIU is partnering with Immaculata University, Bucknell University, Lycoming College and the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg to bring ‘out-of-this-world’ science to 2,000 students in 20-school districts, and two cyber charter schools, throughout the state.  “Everything’s hands on, and they are activities selected from NASA, which are considered to be best practice,” says Morgan.  This is the first year of the four year program, and Morgan says the 20-participating school districts will be with them for the duration.    

Women Empowered By Science

Students and instructors enjoy a WEBS science lab at Wilkes University.

SOI isn’t the only summer camp getting students excited about science this summer.  At Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, the Women Empowered By Science (WEBS) program is focused on girls entering the seventh and eighth grades.  “We’re choosing this age because they still are excited, they still want to investigate and they still have the joy of learning.  We can play off of that, put them in our labs and – in a very fun way – continue the learning process,” says WEBS coordinator Debbie Chapman.  The two-week WEBS summer camp at Wilkes University is funded by a grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.  

The girls have been doing everything from dissecting frogs, to programming robots to dance.  Soon-to-be seventh grader Meghan Cook enjoyed the pharmacy lab the best.  “I think I want to be a pharmacist because they’re the ones making the new medicines.  I want to make a new allergy medicine for my mom, because she has lots of allergies,” Meghan says.  “I loved what we did the past two weeks,” adds fellow WEBS camper Gabriella McElhattan. 

The WEBS camp started out with 15-students, before doubling to 30 last year and 60 this year.  “We’re happy to have 120 [next year],” Chapman says.  “Just working on word of mouth I think we’re going to be able to achieve that goal.”

State House Committee Holds Hearings on School Choice, Charter Schools

The State House Education Committee opened two days of informational hearing today on school choice and charter schools today.   The state education secretary has laid out the Corbett administration’s views on school choice.

Ron Tomalis told the Committee we must ask ourselves why we force parents to send their children to a particular school rather than allow them to choose another school that might meet their needs.  He says students in the lowest 5% of schools, based on the combined math and reading scores in the Commonwealth, should have the opportunity to use state funding to attend another public school or a participating nonpublic school.

Tomalis says the program must be targeted to students trapped in failing schools and be accountable to taxpayers. He says only the state portion of funding would follow the child.   He says the administration believes choice needs to be phased in.

Tomalis says students taking advantage of choice should be held to standards and should be required to take an assessment to measure their academic achievement.  

Tomalis says school choice is not just public to private.  He says public to public choice is an important aspect of the choice program. He says they should promote the ability for students to transfer across district lines. He believes school districts will embrace the potential for public to public choice.  But he says it would be difficult for him to support a mandate that schools participate.

Tomalis also told the committee the administration is looking at taking the growth of student achievement into account when identifying whether schools are hitting their targets.  He says growth has to be part of the mix.

The head of the Pennsylvania State Teachers Association  is questioning how the Corbett  administration could support school vouchers.  In a statement, James Testerman said “This kind of spending is reckless, ill-advised, and dangerous for the students who learn in Pennsylvania’s public schools.”

There are several school choice measures before the legislature, including Senate Bill 1 and several measures in the house.