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PREP Lacks Teacher’s Support

By Matthew Tyson

Last year, news of yet another controversial piece of education legislation from Senator Del Marsh began to circulate. At the time, it was known as the Rewarding Advancement in Instruction and Student Excellence (RAISE) Act, and it was, unsurprisingly, widely opposed by educators.

The bill went through multiple revisions, and on Tuesday, March 1st, it was filed under a new name, the Preparing and Rewarding Education Professionals (PREP) Act. But, despite the number of changes made to the language, the bill still struggles to find support from Alabama teachers—due mostly to the way it would affect teacher evaluations and tenure.

Now, in the spirit of fairness, I have to commend Senator Marsh on one particular portion of the PREP Act. If enacted, it will allocate $3 million to a mentoring program for new teachers. Considering how difficult the first year of teaching can be, I think this is a fantastic idea. And if Marsh were to submit a bill focused solely on that program, we might all be singing a different tune.

But he didn’t, and so we are not.

Possible Changes in Tenure

Among the more prominent reforms within the bill is an increase in the amount of time it takes a teacher to earn tenure. Currently, it takes three years. The PREP Act would raise that to five.

Tenure is a favorite target for many outside of the teaching profession (having already been “reformed” in a previous piece of legislation from Marsh). Detractors claim it gives sub-par or underperforming teachers undeserved job protection, while others see it as an unfair advantage not found in other professions. And while there is a level of truth to these criticisms, tenure remains a vital part of the teaching profession.

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As I have stated in previous columns, the value of a teacher cannot be measured in the same concrete metrics that it can in other professions. Teachers do not manufacture products, they don’t work to generate profit, and they do not serve the interests of a single company or CEO. They are beholden to the administration, the students, the parents, and their peers—all of whom have intersecting beliefs, opinions, concerns, and prejudices.

Tenure provides much needed job security within a diverse, and sometimes hostile, work environment. And considering that many teachers may not qualify for workman’s comp or unemployment insurance, it provides a necessary safety net. Without tenure, teachers are exposed and vulnerable—much more than they would be in a different profession. 

Unbalanced Evaluations

The portion of the PREP Act receiving the most scrutiny deals with teacher evaluations. According to the text of the bill, untenured teachers will be evaluated annually, while tenured teachers will be evaluated every other year. A teacher who receives two “below expectations” evaluations will be subject to discipline. The nature of this discipline could range anywhere between the loss of tenure to termination.

But the potential consequences of a negative evaluation aren’t the only target of criticism; there have been plenty of issues raised about the evaluation itself, which is based on student growth and makes up a full quarter of a the overall score. The teachers aren’t being judged on what they taught or how they taught it, but rather how the student’s learned. And that presents a problem.

We’ve all heard the saying, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.” That very sentiment applies here. There are factors outside of the teacher’s control that affect, and in some cases limit, how a student learns and performs in a classroom.

The “growth” on which teachers are being evaluated is to be measured by standardized testing, which presents another major problem. Not every subject is covered by standardized tests, and students don’t take a standardized test at every grade. 

As of now, the bill supplies no concrete language as to how these other subjects and grades will be evaluated, meaning the methods could be completely arbitrary at best. This has raised concern among educators who teach subjects besides English, Math, and Science—with many asking, “How can we expect to be evaluated?”

Will we judge physical education teachers on how well a student performs on the Presidential Fitness Test? What about those who teach theater, choir, band, journalism, career tech, Spanish, agriculture, auto body, computer science, health, fine art, or special education?

Even further, what happens when if we can’t find a proper method of evaluation? What will happen to those classes then?

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Bottom line: the application is distorted, and the implications are grave. 

What the Teachers Are Saying
As I have said before, I find it bewildering that an education reformer such as Senator Marsh can be so widely opposed by actual educators. There is an obvious disconnect between his office and the classroom, and it would seem that the teachers’ voices are not being heard.

So I asked real Alabama teachers what they thought about the PREP Act, and this is how they responded. At their request, some teachers’ identities have been kept anonymous.

“[P]lacing test scores as one quarter of a teacher’s evaluation is a mistake, especially to newer teachers or teachers in the most difficult subject areas. The life of a first-year teacher is, to say the least, difficult. You’re gathering resources, planning classes, making assessments all from scratch and usually all while going through a trial-by-fire from the students. To then say, “If you don’t perform well enough on this standardized test, you WILL lose your job” would probably have given me an extremely unhealthy level of anxiety. Deciding who is doing an acceptable job under each school’s unique circumstances should lie with the principal.” – Doran Smith, Ashville Middle School

“Research shows that professional learning communities perform best when {the teachers} voice is being heard. That’s what’s so demoralizing; our voices aren’t being heard.”Anonymous

“I hope you understand on a personal level why so many teachers are offended by the PREP Act. I am working on my 22nd year in education and have rarely seen an educator who wasn’t giving the state a bargain for his or her work. We work hard to meet the needs of a highly diverse student population and provide them with what they need to learn, whether that is classroom supplies, school supplies, clothing, shoes, or jackets & coats (at our own expense), and we have done it year in and year out with stagnant pay.”Sherry Beard, Ohatchee High School 

“The PREP Act does not take in to account factors such as socioeconomic status, student apathy, or how dangerous it is to grade a teacher on standardized tests that can vary greatly by year. Instead of enticing new teachers, this legislation will make teaching even less appealing during a time when we are already experiencing teaching shortages.”Anonymous

[The PREP Act] is an unfair bias against teachers that only allows teacher pay increase if student performance is up to par at a certain rate/percentage. It’s basically an unattainable goal to set for educators. Senator Marsh knows, and [he’s] putting it forth fully knowledgeable that not all teachers will get a raise—with exception of a few. It’s ridiculous.Anonymous
As of March 8th, the PREP Act was passed by a Senate committee and will soon be up for a vote on the Senate floor. Despite widespread opposition from educators, it seems the bill is actually being fast tracked, meaning the PREP Act could be signed into law within a matter of weeks.
Matthew is an Anniston native, a writer, and a representative of the Democrats for Life of America. If you want to support the DFLA cause in Alabama, you can contact him at [email protected]

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Matthew Tyson
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