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Tackling Special Education Teacher Evaluation

For several years now, teacher evaluation has dominated education-policy discussions in statehouses and otherwise. But for the most part, the country's 430,000 special education teachers have been left out of the discussion.

The Council for Exceptional Children is trying to change that. In October, the advocacy group released a paper detailing its position on special education teacher evaluation. And today, about 30 leaders from membership organizations, state and local education offices, and schools gathered in Arlington, Va., to discuss the CEC's recommendations.

The topic is quite complicated—even more complicated than, well, general teacher evaluation. As the CEC President Margaret McLaughlin explained, special education teachers can serve in any number of capacities—as intervention specialists, co-teachers, lead teachers, and consultants to general education teachers—and with students who have a wide variety of needs. The central issue, McLaughlin said, is figuring out how to evaluate performance in a way that "can accommodate the breadth and variety of experiences and expectations we have for the teachers of these students."

At the same time, Lindsay Jones, the CEC's senior director for policy and advocacy, emphasized that, ideally, schools should be able use only one evaluation system for all teachers. "We hear too much that special education and general education can operate in silos," she said. "One system has to be in place for everyone to ensure that everyone shares common goals, common language."

"We don't want to exclude these teachers any more than we want to exclude the children [they work with] from these reforms," said McLaughlin.

Some of the elements the CEC identifies as necessary for special ed teacher evaluations are the same as those that stakeholders have generally agreed are necessary for all teacher evaluations: They should be based on multiple measures, designed to align with professional development and support programs, and conducted by trained evaluators. Jones also emphasized the importance of making sure principals understand special educators' unique roles and duties.

The CEC also supports the more controversial (but ever-expanding) practice of including student-growth measures in teacher evaluations. However, the organization's position statement warns that value-added data based on student test scores are "invalid for two teachers in a co-teaching environment" and that "most state data systems are not sophisticated enough to account for innovative models of instructional organization."

The CEC's position paper doesn't offer a specific list of growth measures that should be included in an evaluation instead or suggest the percentage of a teacher's evaluation those measures should account for. When pressed on this at the meeting, Deborah Ziegler, CEC's associate executive director for policy and advocacy, said, "I don't know that there's any magic percentage, but I can tell you we don't believe it should be 50 percent. Wherever it is—at the lower levels of 20 to 30 percent—it should use multiple measures." While standardized test scores would likely need to make up part of that, she said, measures such as student surveys, parent surveys, and portfolios could also be used.

One of the panel members at the meeting, Alexandria, Va., school district special education director Jane Quenneville, said her district is allowing special ed teachers and administrators to agree on teacher-administrated assessments to use for student growth (which currently accounts for 20 percent of a teacher's evaluations). The district offers a list of assessment options, including the Scholastic Reading Inventory and the Phonological Awareness Literacy Screening.

Meanwhile, the CEC contends a student's progress on his or her individualized education plan goals should not be used as a measure of growth. "Doing so may compromise the integrity of the IEP, shifting its focus from what is designed to be a child-centered document to the performance of the teacher," the group's position paper states.

Jones expanded on that point at the meeting. "We've seen, throughout the nation this year, cheating scandals," she said. "We don't want to create a system that incentivizes someone to lower their expectations for children." An evaluation should, however, include a measure of how well special education teachers develop and implement IEPs, according to the CEC.

Much of what was said at the gathering pointed to the fact that determining best practices for special ed teacher evaluation is an ongoing, iterative process. Both Jones and McLaughlin made pleas for increased funding for research around value-added scores. And McLaughlin said she is hopeful that the new assessments based on the Common Core State Standards will offer more accurate measures of student growth. "It is so important that we get this right," she said.

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