A proposal to start overhauling Connecticut teacher evaluations so talented newcomers are less vulnerable to layoffs and seniority rules don't shield incompetent educators is splitting teachers, their unions and legislators.
The General Assembly's education committee took testimony Thursday on a bill to kick-start the overhaul, which could affect tens of thousands of Connecticut teachers.
The bill would direct an advisory council to create a model evaluation system that school districts could copy. The evaluation would use students' academic growth and other factors to measure teachers' effectiveness.
The committee will decide in the next few weeks whether to recommend the measure to the full General Assembly.
Advocates say better evaluation systems would help schools keep the most effective teachers, especially if they are vulnerable to layoffs because they lack seniority. They say it also helps districts identify and retrain ineffective teachers or, if necessary, start the formal dismissal process.
The topic has strong opponents, too. They worry whether the evaluations would be fair and objective, and whether the teachers might be judged on factors over which they have limited control.
Lawmakers say they've fielded another concern from some constituents: whether some districts might be tempted to use the evaluation process as a budget-balancer by targeting higher-paid senior teachers so they can keep lower-paid younger teachers.
"All teachers want is a fair process, and that's the issue -- one that really does give a full account of their skills and gives them the chance, if they need the chance, to improve in one or more areas," said John Yrchik, executive director of the 41,000-member Connecticut Education Association.
That group, the state's largest teachers' union, opposes the bill to create a model evaluation system this year. Yrchik says that since lawmakers last year mandated another in-depth study, that process should keep going and could lead to a more complete, equitable evaluation system.
The American Federation of Teachers, a union with more than 28,000 members in Connecticut, supports the move for a new study this year to create the model evaluation system, contrary to the rival CEA union.
Some districts already include several measures of students' progress, chronic teacher absenteeism and other factors as part of their evaluation of teachers, and do not rely solely on seniority when deciding on layoffs.
Others have strict "last in, first out" provisions when reducing staff.
The AFT recently negotiated a New Haven teacher contract containing several of the evaluation methods that likely would be included in the model to be drawn up if the proposed bill is approved.
"The bill spells out a process and leaves lots of room for local districts to negotiate over what should belong in their districts' evaluations. We're looking for one that provides a real opportunity for teachers to improve -- not a 'gotcha' process, but one that that really informs progress," said AFT President Sharon Murphy Palmer.
Tiffany Haley, a teacher at Middletown's Woodrow Wilson Middle School, told lawmakers in written testimony that while longevity and tenure still are important considerations, evaluations should also consider student growth, a teacher's specialized training, awards and involvement in the school.
"In order to ensure our students' success and close Connecticut's massive achievement gap, we need to support the next generation of teachers, too," she wrote.