States struggle over how to evaluate special-ed teachers

“The great concern right now in many states is they’re using the same criteria for the general-education teachers that they’re going to use for the special-education teachers, and there’s real resistance to that,” said George Giuliani, director of the special-education program at Hofstra University’s Graduate School and executive director of the National Association of Special Education Teachers.

In a survey by the National Comprehensive Center for Teacher Quality, 63 percent of special-education teachers said they believed student achievement gains should be a component of their evaluations, but only 21 percent thought standardized test scores were an appropriate measure.

Seventy-eight percent said their state hadn’t determined how to measure the growth of students with the most profound disabilities. Complicating matters is the very limited research available on special-education assessments and evaluations. That means states will have to study and modify their systems as they go along.

“It’s a very complex process, and it’s kind of trial and error,” said study co-author Lynn Holdheide, a research associate at Vanderbilt University.

In New York and Illinois, recently passed laws require districts to base a significant percentage of each teacher’s evaluation on student growth. Both are still working to determine how that will be done for special-education students, a category that encompasses a vast range of conditions, not all of which negatively affect academic performance. In Florida, the process has already begun, with a committee examining a broad range of conditions, from dyslexia to traumatic brain injuries, and analyzing the effect on test scores.

“The performance varied quite a bit based on disability,” said Kathy Hebda, Florida’s deputy education chancellor.

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Because of that, the committee decided students with similar disabilities who can take Florida’s statewide math and reading assessment should be compared to one another. The student’s prior academic achievement also will be factored in. Teachers then will be evaluated based on how much above or below the average their students performed.

That, however, won’t work for students such as those in Campbell’s class. For now, most of them are too young to take Florida’s statewide assessment, but when they are older, they’d likely take an alternate test. Officials are still deciding how that exam could be used to measure student growth.

“A large number of special-education students are able to make learning gains,” said Will Gordillo, administrative director for the division of special education at Miami-Dade County Public Schools, the nation’s fourth-largest school district.

Those with the most significant cognitive disabilities, however, may not.

“There’s concern with this group,” he said.

All three states are running up against deadlines: In New York, districts will use a growth component in this year’s evaluation, and transition to a “value-added” measure like the one being used in Florida and other states next school year. Chicago also will begin implementing a new teacher evaluation system in the fall.

Some already have expressed concern that the process is moving too quickly, and that it could have negative repercussions for disabled students.

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