High-poverty PBC schools twice as likely to give teachers low ratings

7:46 p.m Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2018 Local
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Palm Beach County public school leaders admitted Wednesday that their system for evaluating teachers is rife with disparities and disproportionately gives low ratings to teachers at high-poverty schools, resulting in smaller salaries for those teachers.

Responding to reports showing tremendous differences in how schools rate their teachers, School District leaders acknowledged that principals at schools with high numbers of low-income students are far less likely to give high marks to their teachers than principals at wealthier schools.

Countywide, just 30 percent of teachers at high-poverty schools received top evaluations from their supervisors last year, while 64 percent of teachers at more wealthy schools earned top marks, the district said.

RELATED: While some PBC schools give all teachers top marks, others give none

Supervisor evaluations are combined with student performance figures to create an overall rating for each teacher, which determines the size of their raise and bonus.

While saying the reasons for the disparity were not completely clear, district leaders vowed to work to fix the problem.

“The system will never be free of subjectivity no matter how much training we provide,” Superintendent Robert Avossa told board members. “But we have a long way to go.”

The discussion took place a month after an anonymous teacher published data on Facebook revealing vast disparities between how schools rate their teachers. On Wednesday, The Palm Beach Post published its own analysis revealing similar disparities.

The controversy centers on how schools determine whether to rate a teacher “effective” or “highly effective,” the two most common ratings public school teachers receive in Florida.

Under state law, teachers with “highly effective” ratings must receive larger salary increases than “effective” teachers. This year, “highly effective” teachers received 3.5 percent raises in Palm Beach County’s public schools, while “effective” teachers received 2.75 percent raises.

Also, this year for the first time all “highly effective” teachers became eligible for $1,200 bonuses from the state government, while “effective” teachers will receive bonuses of no more than $800.

Overall, 62 percent of the district’s roughly 12,000 teachers received “highly effective” ratings last year, up from 54 percent the previous year, the district said.

But a Post analysis of 2016 evaluations showed huge variation from school to school. At two traditional schools, for instance, every single evaluated teacher earned a “highly effective” rating, while at one school not a single teacher received the top rating.

Word of the disparity angered many teachers already resentful of the 2-year-old state requirement that their salaries be tied to their evaluations.

Katie Labossiere, a math teacher at West Boca High School, told board members that disparities in how administrators rate teachers were evident even within individual schools, depending on which administrator was doing the evaluation.

“Our ability to feed our families is based on our ratings,” she said. “I believe there is too much room for personal discretion.”

In a video message to teachers earlier Wednesday, Avossa sought to focus the blame on the state government, which requires that evaluations be tied to teacher salaries.

“We’re going to continue to work together with you, but let’s be really clear about something,” he said. “We are micromanaged from Tallahassee. A lot of things that we are forced to do with teacher evaluations is dictated by the Florida Department of Education and our Tallahassee elected officials.”

But the data presented to School Board members Wednesday indicated that the disparities were being driven by decisions made by leaders at the district’s roughly 180 schools.

Chief Academic Officer Keith Oswald said that some of the disparity may be explained by the fact that new teachers — who tend to get lower ratings than more experienced teachers — also tend to start their careers at high-poverty schools.

But he said he believed that could account for only a portion of the disparity, and that bias among individual administrators was surely another key factor.

“I think it’s all of the above,” he said.

Teachers union leaders have speculated that some principals intentionally withhold high ratings to pressure teachers to raise students’ test scores.

Oswald said the district is planning to improve training for principals so they have a clearer idea of the proper distinction between “effective” and “highly effective” teaching.

Board member Frank Barbieri called the disparities at some schools a sign that the system is “ludicrous,” pointing out that at Jupiter High School 96 percent of teachers were rated “highly effective” in 2016 while at some high-poverty schools less than 10 percent were.

“You can’t say that this system is working,” he said.