While it’s unclear if San Francisco teachers will be affected by a new state law that ties student test scores to teacher evaluations – local union contracts forbid such a tie – many teachers and principals said the current evaluation system is fragmentary and often ineffective.

President Barack Obama’s Administration pushed forward the idea of using test scores when it made clear that states that forbid such a connection would be ineligible to vie for some $4.35 billion in federal funding, part of the Race to the Top initiative.

A 2006 state law prohibits the use of student performance data, such as tests, to evaluate teachers. The bill sitting on Schwarzenegger’s desk, SB 19, would bring California into compliance with the federal reform effort. But individual districts have their own evaluation processes in place, often created through collective bargaining agreements with local teachers unions, as exists in San Francisco.

“It’s unclear right now whether the changes will mandate the use of student performance in evaluations,” said Matthew Hardy, spokesperson for United Educators of San Francisco. “But they are creating an atmosphere where it would be putting pressure on districts.”

Mission District teachers and principals spoke pointedly of failings within the current system, and suggested possible improvements that wouldn’t further assert standardized testing data.

“The evaluation process needs to expand – be more holistic,” said Dyalma Morales, a special education teacher who has worked at Horace Mann Middle School for the past 19 years. “They are like a picture in time. Evaluations don’t take into account the teacher as part of the community, or whether they stay late or volunteer.”

As it stands, teachers are evaluated by administrators within the school, generally the principal, through scheduled in-class observation.

“[Most principals] don’t want to confront bad teachers,” said Peter Avila, principal of Marshall Elementary School. “Evaluations are a pain in the ass. They’re really time-consuming, … (and) pretty arbitrary.”

Teachers voiced similar sentiments.

“It’s very subjective. I got an outstanding the other year,” said Horace Mann social studies teacher David Starr. “It’s like come-on. I don’t know if I deserve an outstanding.”

“They don’t always amount to much,” Avila continued. “It has to be a tool to provide support for teachers that need it.”

Under the union-negotiated contract, the evaluation’s express purpose is “to assess teacher performance in order to maintain and improve the quality of education.”

But Mark Sanchez, principal at Horace Mann, said not all schools have the resources to help struggling teachers that he has.

At Horace Mann, Morales said she doesn’t always see the necessary resources. “I don’t think teachers, especially newer teachers, are getting all the support they need,” she said.

“I think the downfall of the current evaluation process is that it doesn’t happen often enough,” said Priscilla Owren, a science teacher in her fifth year at Horace Mann, referring to the written assessments that happen every two years for permanent teachers.

For a two-year probationary period, teachers entering the field face yearly evaluations, always conducted by administrators from within the school.

“I think they should come in throughout the year and get snapshots of the teacher,” said Erica Cipriani, an English language teacher at Marshall. “But that’s really time-consuming and I don’t think administrators want to do that.”

A more thorough system exists at George Moscone Elementary School, the only school in the area to meet statewide performance targets.

Gillian Bowley, a third grade teacher at Moscone, spoke glowingly of her school’s unique evaluation process. “The way we do it here is a bit different. We have ongoing evaluations which I think are better than the formal evaluations. We come together to make collective decisions.”

“My growth comes from this ongoing, collaborative process,” Bowley continued.

While the effect the bill may have on local school districts is uncertain, tension and dissent throughout the state remain, along with concerns the federal reform effort may be misguided.

“Testing has a place, but it’s taken on such high stakes, disproportionate to what it does,” said Horace Mann principal Sanchez. “If we put it in proper perspective it could make sense. But we’d have to come up with a better system.”

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Born in the central valley of Massachusetts and raised in Tidewater Virginia, Garrett attended public schools before graduating from the University of Virginia. Wandering and working in various national parks, tutoring kids on the playgrounds of Dublin, and teaching English to 3rd graders in China eventually led to some temporary confusion, and a re-settling as a community journalist.

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