Portland schools working to link teacher pay to student performance

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PORTLAND — School officials are working on a new system for teacher evaluations and salaries that is based on student achievement.

Officials hope to have a pilot program for the new system ready for the 2011-2012 school year.

Earlier this month, Superintendent of Schools James Morse and teachers union President Kathleen Casasa attended the Teachers Union Reform Network’s conference in Chicago, which focused on the topic.

Casasa said there were between 200 and 300 people at the conference, which highlighted fewere than a dozen school systems that have tied student performance to teacher evaluations and compensation.

“It’s a hot topic nationally,” Casasa said. “Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of models to look at.”

The Obama administration has been promoting the effort to link student performance to teacher evaluations and pay, tying the initiative to federal grants.

This summer, Maine missed out on $75 million in federal Race to the Top funding for education reform, because the state does not allow the necessary type of evaluation procedure.

But the state has established a legislative committee to study the issue.

When the School Department accepted a three-year, $1.3 million School Improvement Grant to reform the persistently low-achieving Riverton Elementary School, it committed itself to developing a student performance-based evaluation for teachers.

Morse said the schools hope to roll out a pilot program, which would have to be approved by the legislative committee, next year.

“It’s really us stepping out in front of the state,” Morse said.

Casasa noted the difficulty of devising a new system. Areas that need to be addressed are defining evaluation standards, developing a process and figuring out how best to assess student performance.

“You have to find a way to do multiple measures in terms of assessing students,” she said. “One test, one time of year, doesn’t give anybody a good picture of what a student can do.”

Casasa said teachers are interested in having peer- or mentor-based reviews, rather than administrative reviews, which is the current practice.

Morse said he was honored to have been invited to the conference, which he described as “the inner sanctum” of teacher unions. The trip cost about $600.

One of the big takeaways from the conference, he said, was to develop an evaluation system that accounts for student progress within school buildings as a whole, rather than individual classrooms.

A building-based assessment of student learning will allow teachers to learn from one another, rather competing with one another, he said.

“It’s a different philosophy in that everyone is in on it, so when improvement occurs, everyone benefits,” he said. “A rising tide raises all boats.”

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net

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Schools seek donors for early childhood center in Portland

PORTLAND — The School Department is reaching out to local philanthropists to raise enough money to establish an early childhood development center.

There is currently only one so-called Educare Center in New England and eight others nationwide. A nearly 35,500-square-foot Educare Central Maine opened this year in Waterville.

Superintendent of Schools James Morse Sr. said educare centers work with children from low-income and immigrant families from infancy through preschool, offering a range of services, including social work, health care and education.

Centers, which are a private-public partnership, use low staffing ratios and early education so disadvantaged children can begin school on the same level as other students.

“You’re trying to erase that starting deficit,” he said.

Part of the planning process for such a center, Morse said, is to get the financial support of “anchor donors.”

Morse said he visited the nation’s first educare center during a recent trip to Chicago.

He met with school officials who were able to track the performance of students who came from one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.

“It actually did erase the deficit of poverty,” he said.

Morse said the Portland center would have to be on the peninsula, where most of the district’s poorest students live.

Unlike other educare centers, which are attached to existing elementary schools, Morse said a Portland center would have to be free-standing, since East End Community School and Reiche Elementary School don’t have room for additions.

Although the plan is in the “very, very early stages,” Morse said the center would be instrumental in lowering the district’s high school drop-out rate, as well as meeting the top priority in the district’s visioning process.

“It’s the long-term solution to Portland’s dropout issues,” he said.

Waterville needed to raise $10 million for its project and Morse said Portland would have to raise at least that much.

He said anyone interested in contributing to the center should contact him through the district’s Central Office.

“The key is to see if we can get local donors,” he said. “In a recession, you can’t expect that funding to come from the taxpayers or the state.”

— Randy Billings

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