BY EDDIE KIM – Evaluating teachers on their effectiveness in the classroom can be tricky and controversial.  Countless factors contribute to the learning experience of a student, and throughout America, school districts have struggled to develop reliable systems of measuring a teacher’s performance.

With the goal of creating such a system in mind, Hawaii legislators on Thursday held a joint House and Senate informational briefing on teacher evaluations, featuring national researcher and teaching expert Laura Goe.

Goe discussed strategies for effective teaching evaluations and noted trends and difficulties that faced any school district attempting to elevate the performance of both teachers and students.

“Policy decisions by schools and school districts are way ahead of research on how to properly evaluate teaching,” she stated.  “And I see a lot of policies that aren’t based in any sort of statistical fact.”

Goe said that for a state like Hawaii, which is essentially developing teacher evaluations from square one, will have a lack of data, ultimately creating obstacles.  Goe also told state legislators that with Hawaii’s limited resources, setting up an evaluation systems will take time, money and personnel to execute properly.

Perhaps most importantly, Goe stressed that evaluations should be firmly rooted in factual, objective evidence as opposed to a general “judgment” of a classroom environment or teaching style.

“If teachers believe that the person who is evaluating them is trained and effective, they will buy into the process more and there will be better, more useful data in the end,” she said.

Goe recommended a hybrid system that could track individual teacher-created “learning objectives” from the beginning of the school year to the end, combined with teacher collaboration within subjects to form more standardized overall measurements.  On the flip side, she discouraged evaluation systems that placed too much emphasis on standardized test results.

“It’s great for a student to know content, but it’s more important that they gain real world skills, because that’s what will really help them in the future.  Employers look for the ability to apply knowledge,” she said.

While gauging teachers’ performance in the classroom has been considered challenging in Hawaii, other states have figured out a system by focusing on student achievement.

Incentives such as the federal Race To The Top grant, a $4.35 billion federal program which awards grant funding to states that demonstrate effective teaching through reform, has been an added incentive to improve student results.

Hawaii was awarded $75 million in the second round of the program, which concluded in August of 2010.  Up to $700 million was awarded by the program, although only the largest states, such as New York and Florida, were eligible for the biggest grants.

Though Hawaii has shown educational success, the state still has a long way to go to craft a evaluation program that will ultimately help maximize both teacher and student potential in the classroom, she said.  Goe was quick, however, to praise one element of the state’s educational system: Collaboration between teachers, schools, administrators and unions. “This sort of collaboration is very powerful and something some other states could learn from,” she told legislators.

However, Hawaii has had challenges on that front too. The teachers’ union, the Hawaii State Teachers Association, which public school teachers must join, has filed a complaint against the state administration with the Hawai’i Labor Relations Board over the latest teacher compensation package.

In fact, just hours after her statement about cooperation, the State of Hawai’i filed its response to the Hawai’i State Teacher Association’s complaint to the Hawai’i Labor Relations Board.  Afterward, Gov. Neil Abercrombie, Department of Education Schools Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi and Board of Education Chairman Don Horner issued the following joint statement:

“The Attorney General has provided details of how the state bargained in good faith for many months to reach agreement with negotiators representing teachers. Our focus remains on working together with educators and parents to make this upcoming school year a truly outstanding one for Hawai’i’s students.”