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Somerville to purge low teacher evaluations

Guided by a belief that everyone can improve, Somerville school leaders imposed a harsh “needs improvement” rating on scores of teachers last year, a near-failing grade that placed them on a potential path to termination.

It was a highly unusual assessment for a public school district, coming at a time when teachers nationwide routinely receive high ratings. An uproar erupted. Many Somerville teachers felt embarrassed and confused about their lackluster ratings, just one grade above unsatisfactory. The union filed a grievance with the School Committee.

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Now, in an unprecedented move, Somerville school officials have apologized, acknowledging they mishandled the state-mandated evaluations. Officials will be purging all related documents from the personnel files of its nearly 500 teachers, according to a copy of the settlement agreement obtained by the Globe.

The teacher-evaluation dispute highlights the struggle some school districts are encountering as they attempt to inject more rigor into job evaluation systems and wrestle with whether they are judging teachers and administrators too harshly or too lightly.

An informal union straw poll estimated that about 75 percent of the Somerville teaching force received the “needs improvement” designation. The School Department on Monday disputed that estimate but declined to release the actual number.

“Teachers welcome honest feedback about their performance, but unfortunately that didn’t happen in this instance,” said Jackie Lawrence, president of the Somerville Teachers Association. “Overall teachers were demoralized and felt devalued.”

In the settlement agreement, finalized last week, school officials admitted they had “caused significant anxiety for members” of the union. Superintendent Tony Pierantozzi said he never intended for the “needs improvement” designation to be considered a negative, but more reflective of the need for continuous professional growth.

“I apologize to my staff,” Pierantozzi said in an interview Monday. “Our teachers are definitely as good as anywhere else.”

School districts have been under pressure in recent years to overhaul their evaluation systems, pushed strongly by the Obama administration and many education advocates, typically those tied to the business community. Those advocates argue school districts are handing out too many rosy performance reviews to the detriment of their students.

In May, Boston confronted such criticism after disclosing that 92 percent of its teachers received a “proficient” or “exemplary” rating — the two highest designations — under its year-old teacher evaluation, put in place to comply with changes to state regulations. One School Committee member, Meg Campbell, who is also a charter school leader, questioned whether Boston was suffering from a possible case of “grade inflation.” She too raised the argument that everyone has room to grow professionally.

But Somerville stands apart by going to the other extreme and over-identifying teachers for improvement.

“Most people will gravitate to the old way of doing things, but others will take it seriously and perhaps become overly enthusiastic about how to implement the new system,” said Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, an education organization pushing for teacher evaluation overhauls. “I can certainly understand why teachers reacted with dismay over it.”

Paul Toner, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, which represents Somerville teachers, said Somerville administrators probably had good intentions when applying the philosophy that “everyone can improve.” Teaching, after all, is a craft, which can be nurtured and refined throughout someone’s career regardless if they are the best teacher around, he said.

“I really do think it may have been a misunderstanding of what the term ‘needs improvement’ means in this new evaluation system,” Toner said.

In fact, Massachusetts education officials rebuilt the state’s educator evaluation system on the premise that everyone can improve. The two-year-old regulations require that even teachers deemed exemplary and proficient identify at least two goals for improvement.

But designating teachers “needs improvement” can be a high-stakes move.

Teachers can be in that category for just a year and they are subject to more frequent observations and must complete a “directed growth plan.” Evaluators then must decide whether to declare the teachers proficient or unsatisfactory, the latter of which could lead to their dismissal in a matter of months.

Somerville teachers began to grow nervous in May that a slew of needs-improvement ratings were going to be handed out by administrators. They had just heard a presentation from school officials, which included a video message from Pierantozzi, who stressed that everyone can improve.

Then came the evaluations. Teachers would read positive comments and constructive feedback on how to improve their performance that would seem to indicate they would be getting an overall rating of proficient, but all too often the reviews ended with a dreaded needs-improvement rating.

The teachers’ union began filing grievances for individual teachers. But complaints from teachers kept coming in. The union, working with the Massachusetts Teachers Association, filed a class-action grievance, out of a belief that the entire evaluation system was fundamentally flawed.

Under the resulting agreement, all administrators will be retrained on conducting evaluations and teachers have the right to keep their evaluations from last year in their personnel file if they contact the School Department by Sept. 20 before the purging begins.

JC Considine, a spokesman for the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, said the agency was aware of the problem in Somerville. He characterized it as an exception, saying that the implementation of the evaluations appears to be going well across the state.

Toner said, “We just want a fair and transparent evaluation system.”

James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.
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