They were two high-rated public schools, separated by only a mile drive and a single letter grade on their state ratings. But in the view of their administrators, the schools’ teaching staffs could scarcely have been more different.
While A-rated Royal Palm Beach Elementary gave each of its teachers the highest possible rating in 2016, nearby B-rated Crestwood Middle School did nearly the complete opposite, denying the top rating to all but three of the 56 teachers it evaluated, a Palm Beach Post analysis of teacher evaluation scores shows.
Throughout Palm Beach County’s public school system, it’s the same story: vast differences from school to school in how teachers are rated, with no evident explanation apart from differing notions of what makes for an “effective” or “highly effective” teacher.
For the school district’s roughly 12,000 teachers, the stakes are high: Ratings determine the size of their pay raises, which can have compounding effects on their salaries for the rest of their teaching careers.
Long a source of complaints, the issue of uneven evaluation standards was rocketed onto the agenda of top school district leaders last month after an anonymous teacher took to Facebook to publish data revealing wide school-by-school disparities in teacher ratings.
The county teachers union used the data as the basis for an email campaign, after which the school board scheduled a workshop for today to discuss the district’s evaluation system.
The Post’s review of teacher evaluation scores suggests school administrators across the county use vastly different standards to evaluate their teachers.
Take two high-rated middle schools: Osceola Creek Middle in The Acreage and Wellington Landings Middle.
Both had A-ratings in 2016. But while Wellington Landings gave a “highly effective” rating to 92 percent of its teachers, records show Osceola Creek did so for just 29 percent of its teaching staff. The rest received ratings of “effective.”
In most cases, the disparity appeared to cut in a way that has the teachers union alarmed: Educators at schools with large numbers of low-income and minority students tended to receive lower ratings.
At Carver Middle School in Delray Beach – a D-rated school where 85 percent of students qualified for federal lunch subsidies – not a single teacher received a “highly effective” rating in 2016.
Justin Katz, president of the county teachers union, said union leaders suspect some principals at schools with low state grades withhold high evaluations in order to motivate teachers to raise student test scores.
“You can’t judge teachers in their evaluations on the school grade and put your thumb on the scale to their disadvantage,” Katz said.
“A teacher who teaches at a (poor) school and knows that their odds of getting a high evaluation are reduced, they can put a dollar value on that,” he continued. “People might start shopping around to only work at high-performing schools and then you run into this retention issue.”
Student test scores play a role in teacher evaluations, but they are mostly determined by administrators’ assessments of how teachers perform in the classroom.
Employee evaluation systems bedevil bosses and workers at workplaces nationwide. But for the county’s teachers, it’s not just a matter of ego. Since 2016, Florida law has required public schools to give larger raises to teachers rated “highly effective.”
In 2016, being rated “effective” meant a $1,365 raise for the county’s public school teachers, while a “highly effective” teacher earned a $1,715 raise.
The $350 difference is built into teachers’ salaries for the rest of their teaching careers, creating an earnings gap that can increase over time.
At that rate, being denied a “highly effective” rating for three consecutive years could cost a teacher more than $9,000 in missed income over the course of a decade.
Schools Superintendent Robert Avossa declined to discuss the disparities Tuesday but acknowledged in a statement that the school district has faced “challenges” in creating a fair evaluation system.
The state requirement that schools use evaluations to pay teachers “has resulted in a significant level of anxiety for teachers and challenges for districts across Florida to create fair, equitable and meaningful evaluation systems designed to improve classroom instruction,” he said.
“Despite these constraints,” he added, “we are working with the teacher’s union, schools and district administrators to continuously improve our teacher evaluation system.”