The fight about new evaluation and compensation proposals for Charleston County teachers is heating up again.

Three teacher advocacy groups will hold a press conference Wednesday to denounce the school district's plans and ask that it give up the federal grant that funds them.

"It's past time to turn away from this direction and turn away from this grant," said Patrick Hayes, a third-grade teacher at Drayton Hall Elementary and director of EdFirstSC, one of the groups behind the Wednesday event. "There was never serious public discussion about it, and it was never voted on by the board. We're very far down the road that was never openly talked about."

District officials are committed to creating the new evaluation and compensation systems, dubbed BRIDGE. South Carolina leaders are moving toward mandating a new statewide system that will use students' test scores in teachers' evaluations, and Charleston County Superintendent Nancy McGinley said this gives the district a chance to create a model that works for teachers, rather than having one imposed on them.

"As far as we are concerned, there is no appetite on the part of the school board or on the part of our community to lose an opportunity to shape our own evaluation," she said. "I feel this is fair. I feel this is a way for teachers to get involved, and to meet the community and school board's mandate for accountability."

What is BRIDGE?

The school district has been working on BRIDGE since it learned in September 2012 that it won a $23.7 million, five-year federal Teacher Incentive Fund grant. Charleston County was the only district in South Carolina to win the money.

The district's proposal has been met with resistance from some teachers, who fear that it will be an unreliable way of judging and firing teachers and that it eventually will be used to eliminate teachers' step increases, or the annual raises given to teachers based on their experience.

District officials repeatedly have said those claims aren't true, and they aren't firing teachers based on unsubstantiated scores or withholding promised salaries.

The new evaluations will include at least three components - classroom observations, teachers' evaluations on the state-authorized ADEPT system, and value-added scores, which are the most controversial part. Value added is calculated by using a formula to determine the difference between what students' scores would have been with an average district teacher compared with their actual scores. Thirty-five percent of teachers' evaluation in 14 pilot schools will come from value-added this year.

Changes in the works

The pilot evaluation system that's being tested in 14 schools this year was slated to be rolled out to all core academic subject teachers in 2014-15.

Those who are opposed to that system feel as if they notched a small victory in this fight in that the district will delay the expansion of value added for at least one year.

The district received permission from U.S. Department of Education officials to use student learning objectives into core academic teachers' evaluations in lieu of value-added for one year.

Student learning objectives are measurable academic goals that teachers set for students. Those kinds of goals can be used to measure student learning in grades and subjects that don't have standardized tests, but they also can involve students' test scores for tested areas.

The student learning objectives concept won't be foreign to teachers, said Michael Ard, project director for BRIDGE.

"It's not anything new," he said. "It's a little more rigorous, and ... we want them to be as rigorous as possible to help teachers grow professionally and so that we are challenging students."

He said he understood the concern that the district was moving too fast, and he viewed it more as fear of the unknown.

"Things tend to get blown up a little bit if information is unclear," he said. "Once they see it, I have no doubt they will feel very comfortable."

Hayes disagreed, saying there was almost no research on student learning objectives, and what was available doesn't inspire confidence. Hayes' group, as well as the Charleston Teacher Alliance and the S.C. Education Association, planned to voice their opposition Wednesday.

"How are your psychic powers?" he quipped. "Quick version of (student learning objectives): teachers and principals try to guess how many students should hit a data target. Teachers are judged on whether or not they were right. Not kidding."

Judging teachers

The new teacher evaluations that will be used in the 14 pilot schools, as well as with core academic teachers in 2014-15, will be in addition to those mandated by the state. Regardless of teachers' scores, their district pay or contract won't be affected by the BRIDGE evaluations that year.

The district would have to receive state approval to replace the state-required evaluations with those in the BRIDGE program. Outside Charleston, the S.C. Department of Education and lawmakers are making similar efforts to change the way teachers statewide are evaluated.

The state has proposed a plan that would use students' test scores as part of teachers' evaluations, and that is being tested in 49 schools this year. At least one bill has been filed that would mandate a new teacher evaluation system too.

In Charleston, the 14 pilot BRIDGE schools will continue with the use of value-added in 2014-15, and they will receive ratings based on their performance in this school year. Bonuses will be provided to some, but their base pay won't change.

The federal grant requires that value-added be a significant part of measuring teachers' effectiveness, so the district will continue to work on value-added so that it can be used in the new evaluations. That new system will be used with all teachers by 2016-17.

"We're not going to jump back and forth changing folks' evaluation just because there's opposition," Ard said.

Differing perspectives

Although some of the most prominent teacher advocacy groups have been vocal in their opposition to BRIDGE, some teachers are supportive of the proposed evaluation. StudentsFirst is a national education reform group that launched in South Carolina last year, and its members are in favor of using value-added.

Samantha Blake, a fifth-grade teacher at E.B. Ellington Elementary in Ravenel, isn't a member of StudentsFirst, but she said she is supportive of using value-added too. She's chairwoman of the value-added work group that's working on that issue for BRIDGE.

Value-added will take into account the things that students must deal with, such as poverty or special needs, she said. That's good because the current system doesn't, Blake said.

She's always taught at high-poverty schools, and her students often lag their peers. The new system would factor in her students' growth, rather than just expecting them to achieve at the same level as those who started the year further ahead, she said.

"As long as my kids are moving in the right direction, that reflects on me as a teacher doing good," she said. "Nothing is perfect, but I feel that this is a step in the right direction."

She recognized that teachers would be nervous about something that's different, but she said her school's teachers understand that this is a pilot year and the evaluation can change.

"We're at a stage where we're comfortable being a part of this process and relieved we're a part of this process to say what worked and what didn't," she said.

Still, others say value added and student learning objectives shouldn't be used to hold teachers accountable. Hayes said he's interested in how those results could be used to inform his instruction, but he doesn't want them to be used to determine his career path.

"It just needs to go away," he said.

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