Charleston County school leaders are forging ahead with plans to change the way teachers are evaluated, despite criticism from some in and out of the classroom.

The pilot year

The BRIDGE program will target 14 high-need schools this school year. Each has a professional development or training coordinator to help teachers. The full-time staff member is working and supporting them in the classroom to ensure that they are growing and have the skills they need.

Schools also are part of a school-improvement network that can give teachers help in specific areas.

The pilot schools are Baptist Hill High, Blaney Elementary, Jane Edwards Elementary, Ellington Elementary, Minnie Hughes Elementary, North Charleston High, Military Magnet Academy, Morningside Middle, Burns Elementary, Hursey Elementary, North Charleston Elementary, Pinehurst Elementary, Midland Park Primary and Dunston Primary.

Source: Charleston County School District

Teachers in 14 Charleston County schools will be judged this year using their students’ growth, classroom observations and their evaluations on the state ADEPT system. Those results eventually will be used to make decisions on whether they receive raises, promotions or are fired.

District leaders are in the early stages of rolling out the new evaluation system, and it’s being met with a mixture of optimism and opposition. Discussions haven’t started yet on teachers’ future compensation.

The new evaluation and compensation systems, dubbed BRIDGE, are being developed with the help of a $23.7 million, five-year federal Teacher Incentive Grant. Charleston County was the only district in South Carolina to win the money.

Superintendent Nancy McGinley said the new evaluation method, specifically the part that involves students’ test scores, has been slow in gaining a foothold in education, and that can be attributed in part to its complexity, which leads to a lack of confidence, she said.

But the school board has been pushing for this, and the majority of her evaluation already is tied to students’ results.

“As the superintendent, I have to balance the morale of teachers with the business leaders who are saying, ‘Let’s apply a business model to education,’” she said. “The whole thing is a tricky balancing act.”

Officials said they have made some difficult decisions on the new evaluation system, and they are interested in receiving more teacher input.

“It was a major hurdle to get to where we are right now,” said Audrey Lane, the district’s deputy for human capital development. “The major target was what will be the components, and that has been achieved with herculean effort. Now we’re getting into what that means.”

The BRIDGE plan

Teachers and administrators in 14 Charleston County schools will be judged this year in part on teachers’ contributions to students’ learning. Some version of this system will be used for all teachers in all the district’s 82 schools by 2015-16.

Those results will be used in the new pay-for-performance system, which will be used with all teachers by 2016-17. Officials have said no teacher will lose money.

The biggest development this fall has been decisions on the components and weightings for the new evaluation system. The state Assisting, Developing, and Evaluating Professional Teaching system will count for 30 percent of teachers’ evaluations, classroom observations will make up 35 percent, and teachers’ value added, or their contribution to students’ learning, will be 35 percent.

The system for principals will be slightly different: 30 percent from their state evaluation, 25 percent from their school-wide proficiency, 25 percent from their school-wide value added and 20 percent from parent and employee surveys.

Officials still are working on how value added will be calculated, as well as how the components will work together to create an overall rating.

Value added

The most controversial and least understood part of the new evaluation is value added, which officials calculate using a complicated formula. For each teacher, the formula will estimate what his or her students’ test scores would have been with an average teacher in the district. Those scores will be compared with the actual average scores they received. The difference between the hypothetical and actual scores represents the teacher’s value added to students’ achievement.

Value added will count for 35 percent of teachers’ evaluations.

The BRIDGE steering committee, which is a 26-person group of teachers, school leaders and district administrators that is making recommendations on the new evaluation system, initially asked that value added count for 50 percent of teachers’ evaluations. McGinley said that was too much.

“We believe we have to be cautious and go slowly rather than jumping in to something,” she said.

Lisa Trott, a fourth-grade teacher at Ashley River Creative Arts, said she thought the percentage weighting of the different evaluation components was a good starting point.

“It’s a pretty fair split,” said Trott, who has served on a BRIDGE working group and is the district’s Teacher of the Year. “At this point, if it isn’t fair, teachers have the ability to give input, and things can be tweaked. That’s the beauty of starting with a pilot.”

The BRIDGE system includes professional development opportunities for teachers, and Trott said that’s important because teachers with weaknesses will have resources to help them improve.

Others didn’t think the percentage weightings were appropriate. Patrick Hayes is a third-grade teacher at Drayton Hall Elementary and founder of EdFirstSC, an education advocacy group. He called the 35 percent for value added an alarming figure.

“It’s not the majority, but if everything else goes perfect and that doesn’t, you’re at 65 percent and not a passing grade,” said Hayes, who also served on a BRIDGE working group. “We’re introducing something brand new that has real serious questions about reliability.”

He didn’t think value added should count for more than 20 percent of teachers’ evaluations. Research has shown that this kind of value-added comparison has an error rate of 35 percent when only one year of teachers’ scores are used, and 25 percent when three years of scores are used.

Giving and using input

Some teachers initially questioned whether and how much their feedback was being used in developing the new evaluation system, but they since have said they feel as if district officials are hearing them and addressing some of their concerns.

Teachers’ evaluations were slated to include school-wide value added and parent and school-wide surveys, but district officials removed those because teachers were overwhelmingly opposed.

“We heard them loud and clear,” said Michael Ard, project director for BRIDGE. “Those were big and they were in the original grant, but we did have the flexibility to not use them ... and we promised that we would listen.”

The lack of teachers and parents serving on the BRIDGE steering committee and attending its work-group sessions also has been an issue. Only three of the 26 members of the committee are classroom teachers this year.

Hayes said the work-group meetings require a substantial time commitment, and teachers have to attend those on their personal time. Sometimes, only a few teachers have been present, and those faces have changed from meeting to meeting.

Trott said the district has begged teachers to be involved. She has seen different evaluations in her 20 years as a teacher, and some have been mandated. This time, it’s more collaborative and teachers are having a say, she said.

“They really are listening,” she said. “We’re going to come up with something that we’re proud of and that’s successful and works.”

Lane said the district wants more teacher input than it has received, and more teachers will be invited to be on the steering committee. Another problem has been the timing of the meetings, so they’re exploring solutions, such as hosting webinars or giving teachers credit hours toward renewing their teaching certificate.

Some parents, such as Sarah Shad Johnson, have questioned why parent feedback and outreach haven’t been a part of this process.

“The school district has shown a pattern of deciding what action to take and then asking for a little public input to make it all seem kosher,” said Johnson, who helped start Charleston Area Community Voice for Education, a local Parents Across America chapter.

Since then, at least one parent has been added to the steering committee. Lane said they planned to talk with parents this spring, and the priority thus far has been reaching teachers at pilot schools affected this year.

What’s next

District officials will see how the evaluations work this year, and they likely will be changing it for next year. The evaluations teachers receive this year won’t count on their personnel record.

McGinley said she doesn’t think the evaluation system that will be used for teachers has enough components, and she hopes to add more, such as gauging how well they are engaging parents and teaching creatively.

“I’m empathetic to teachers feeling as if this may be more than they’re ready for, and I’m sensitive to it,” she said. “Because overall, I believe 95 percent of teachers give 100 percent every day, and I don’t want them to think that what they do to develop the human side of the whole child isn’t important.”

She pledged that she wouldn’t support a system that she thinks is unfair or indefensible, and that teachers won’t be thrown under the bus.

“If I sound hesitant, it’s because the more you know, the more you realize how complex these systems are,” she said. “Just because they’re complex doesn’t mean they’re not worth doing.”

Reach Diette Courrégé Casey at @Diette on Twitter or (843) 937-5546.