Government & Politics

Despite pullback on ballot issue, push on teacher tenure, evaluations isn’t over in Missouri

Amendment 3 on the November ballot would require that student test performance data be the preponderant factor in a teacher’s evaluation.
Amendment 3 on the November ballot would require that student test performance data be the preponderant factor in a teacher’s evaluation. The Kansas City Star

It really should be hard to change the Missouri Constitution, Kate Casas says.

So the fact that the campaign behind the Amendment 3 ballot initiative abruptly pulled back last week doesn’t mean the movement is dead.

“We just need a longer runway,” she said.

The proposed amendment, which would etch teacher evaluation protocols and tenure restrictions into Missouri’s guiding principles, remains on the statewide November ballot. But the campaign behind it, led by Casas and the political action committee Teach Great, determined it was looking at a losing proposition.

Teach Great’s Missouri campaign, fueled by St. Louis multimillionaire Rex Sinquefield, is trying to push the state to join 19 others that require that student test performance data be the preponderant factor in a teacher’s evaluation — up from four states in 2007.

As it stands, says the National Council on Teacher Quality, Missouri is one of 35 that make student test performance at least a “significant” factor in evaluations.

“The landscape has changed from even a few years ago,” said Sandi Jacobs, managing director for state policy at the teacher quality council, which advocates for tenure limitations and student-performance-based evaluations.

Tenure and performance evaluation issues are hotly debated.

Teacher unions, school boards, administrator associations, PTAs and a host of other education groups have lined up against Amendment 3.

The proposal, said Mike Sherman, spokesman for the Protect our Local Schools campaign against the amendment, would burden school systems with potentially expensive demands for more assessments to create evaluation instruments with student test measures — which are also problematic.

He is not surprised that the Teach Great campaign was having trouble lining up support.

“It must be awfully hard to run a campaign when no one in the education community is on your side,” he said.

But there are educators and teachers who support Amendment 3’s reforms, Casas said. It is proving hard, however, to reach them and parents and community members throughout the state, she said.

The language in Amendment 3 posed some problems even for education advocates on the political right who might otherwise be inclined to support the reforms, said James Shuls, a fellow with the Show-Me Institute think tank and an assistant professor in education policy at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

“The fact that they (the amendment advocates) were going for a ballot initiative shows the difficulty of getting education reforms enacted or passed,” he said.

Shuls, though he is the former education policy analyst for the Show-Me Institute, which also is funded by Sinquefield, was not involved in the campaign or its planning.

There is support out there for the kind of reforms in the amendment, he said, but it is hard to accumulate a consensus, particularly when it comes to the weighty proposition of changing the constitution.

Several attempts to seek legislative action have run aground amid highly divisive debate.

In an election campaign, education organizations that disagree with the kind of ideas in the amendment can mobilize quickly, Shuls said. And the forecast is for a low turnout in November, giving those groups more advantage.

A survey Shuls conducted of state superintendents in 2013 showed they want some reforms in teacher tenure to give them more flexibility in hiring and firing teachers.

But the amendment was seeming too much like a “one-size-fits-all” mandate, Shuls said, that also grated against some conservative education groups.

Casas said the amendment’s language, while requiring a majority of the evaluation to rest on student performance data, does not specify what tests. It meant to let schools and local school boards make those decisions with the caveat they must be approved by the state’s education department.

By eliminating the state’s statutory requirements on tenure, Casas said, the proposal also would give local boards more control over their personnel.

Though Teach Great has called off its campaign, the campaigns against the amendment will carry on, Sherman said.

The education front, wherever one stands among its swarm of issues, is a difficult place to be, said Jonah Edelman, the co-founder and chief executive officer of Stand for Children, a Portland, Ore.-based advocacy group with chapters in 11 states. He will be in Kansas City on Thursday to speak at a luncheon in support of Kansas City’s Freedom Schools initiative.

“It’s challenging,” he said. “It’s messy. There’re disagreements … The politicization is unfortunate, but people are having real discussions … (and) that’s an incredibly promising trend.”

Stand for Children has supported various tenure reforms and performance evaluation efforts across the country, but such efforts can’t take “a narrow perspective to a multifaceted problem,” Edelman said.

“The goal (with teacher evaluation) is accuracy,” he said. “It requires a lot of inputs.”

And too often movements against tenure lose sight of what flexibility in teacher staffing is meant to accomplish, such as more supports for teachers and better teacher preparation.

“You can’t fire your way to excellence,” he said.

Edelman said he was not familiar enough with the Missouri effort to weigh in on its specific merits.

He said his Kansas City visit will divert him away from the politicized arena and back to where educators and children’s advocates are simply doing the work that needs to be done.

Like the Freedom Schools, which his civil rights-pioneering mother Marian Wright Edelman helped start after the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964.

“That’s one of the great things about America,” Jonah Edelman said. “People can band together and help out. That’s not possible everywhere in the world.”

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