JACKSON, Miss. – Teacher evaluations are controversial in many parts of the country and the South is no exception. But in Mississippi, every public-school teacher and principal will soon be plugged into an evaluation system that’s being implemented largely without public scrutiny. In the absence of teacher unions and legislation, Mississippi’s plan for teacher evaluation is quietly making its way to a federal desk for a signature.
Unlike states with teacher unions – states such as New York and Wisconsin– Mississippi has had little public debate about teacher evaluations. In lieu of a union, Mississippi’s teachers association is often considered one of the weakest teacher organizations in the country, and it is not challenging the new proposed policy that will put some teachers out of work.
Vicksburg science teacher Teandrea Rowell says the association’s mission is less about challenging and more about informing. I asked her if she thought was enough of a conversation around teacher evaulations.
“I do not,” says Rowell. “And that’s why we are here today. We want our communities to know, our teachers to know. If you are not aware, this is going on. And it is going to affect you.”
But another reason civic discussion may be scarce is because the evaluation system is bypassing the state legislature and the governor’s desk – the normal legislative process that would have received heavy media coverage. Instead evaluations are proposed by the Mississippi Department of Education under the state’s No Child Left Behind waiver application as requested by US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.
Fredrick Hess, an education scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, says bypassing the legislative process on a federal and state level, policy loses its chance to be democratically informed: there isn’t a forum for the teachers’ organizations, parents, students and other stakeholders to weigh in.
“This is why policymakers get frustrated with democracy,” says Hess. “When they have to argue things in public, people misrepresent them, people say nasty things, the public can get confused. It’s much easier if you are a policymaker to do what you want, because presumably what you want is the best interest of kids.”
Last year, the Mississippi Department of Education did invite public comment during town halls – events all waiver-seeking states were required to do. Still, some states instead chose to propose teacher evaluations through the legislative process.
For example, next door in Louisiana, Deputy Education Superintendent Erin Bendily says Louisiana legislators wanted to make sure teacher evaluations had legal teeth – that they took into account student test scores and forced what they considered failing teachers out the door.
“We actually had a law that was passed back in 2010,” says Bendily. “Even before the waiver process was announced, Louisiana had started reforming the way we evaluate teachers.”
The Mississippi Department of Education is hoping its proposed waiver to the federal No Child Left Behind Act will undergird the state’s evaluation policy, despite the fact the act doesn’t mention evaluations. The department is planning for teacher evaluations to gain legitimacy as a point of negotiation tied to its waiver application
When Mississippi first submitted its teacher evaluation plan for federal review earlier this year as part of the waiver request, no one expressed concern about the absence of state law. But they did question Mississippi’s headway. Dr. Lynn House, Deputy State Superintendent at MDE who oversaw the submission of the teacher evaluation plan to the US Department of Education says she hopes the new waiver request is more convincing than the last
“I don’t think for whatever reason that they believed,” says House. “That the really believed that we were sincere and dedicated to this process. I think they’ve changed their mind about that now.”
Still, some question whether a waiver to a federal law can support Mississippi’s proposed system of evaluating teachers. After all, even if the state’s teachers’ organizations won’t challenge the evaluations now, without a state law behind them, an employee discharged under the system just might take them up in the courts later.