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APNewsBreak: Ybarra, auditors planned new evaluation system

January 4, 2017 GMT

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Documents show Idaho’s top schools chief was quietly working with a company that was auditing the state’s teacher evaluation system to build a replacement model while the audit was still underway.

Emails from Idaho Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra, obtained by The Associated Press through a public records request, show Ybarra and her executive staffers were working closely with McRel International to build a new system for several months in 2016.

This all took place at the same time as McRel — an educational consulting group based in Colorado — was reviewing the state’s teacher evaluation system for possible inconsistencies. Less than a month after the McRel audit found that 99 percent of the evaluations reviewed were incomplete and inconstant, the state officials started drafting a contract to give to McRel.

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Meanwhile, Ybarra also asked another company, Life Sciences Marzano Center, to submit a proposal for a new system, but that proposal wasn’t received until after the audit was done.

Ybarra’s office said Wednesday they didn’t believe there was any conflict of interest created by working with McRel while the audit was underway.

“Both of those entities were there,” said Pete Koehler, Ybarra’s chief deputy. “And had there been a strong support for another model, we simply wanted to be in a position where we could go forward on that.”

A spokesman for McRel did not immediately return a request for comment.

According to the emails, McRel had been hired by the state education department in the spring of 2016 to conduct the audit of Idaho’s teacher evaluations. By June, Ybarra and top members of her staff were discussing drafting a separate contract with McRe to create an entirely new system.

McRel then finished their audit in July, which the department did not disclose to the public for months. Instead, Ybarra’s staff finished writing a preliminary contract with McRel in August — the cost of which was not discussed.

Koehler says that McRel never reviewed the contract, but did pitch their ideas to the cabinet on Nov. 2 and 3.

“I wanted to pass it by you and the executive staff prior to having McRel look at the contract,” wrote Lisa Colón, the department’s director of teacher certification and the professional standards commission, to Ybarra on Aug. 12.

Two weeks later, Ybarra’s team had decided to scrap the entire effort after listening to feedback from the cabinet — made up of primarily school superintendents — who didn’t want their staff to learn a new system.

Ybarra announced later that month the state would continue using the same system, known as the Charlotte Danielson model.

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“A good State Superintendent of Public Instruction comes in and constantly looks for ways to improve, and this desk review was an example of just that,” Ybarra said in a prepared statement to AP. “Teachers, Superintendents and stakeholders alike were part of the process, as well as gathering feedback from Superintendents in a two-day meeting.”

Meanwhile, the audit wasn’t released until December after Idaho Education News requested the audit.

The review found that nearly all of the selected evaluations were incomplete during the 2014-15 school year under a specific teacher evaluation model that Idaho teachers can comply with, but are not required to follow.

School administrators have criticized the audit, arguing that the state set the consultations to compare apples to oranges and thus inadvertently undermined the trust that schools are properly vetting their teachers.

In her statements following the release of the report, Ybarra offered her support to school officials but has not mentioned her previous attempt to build a new performance system for Idaho schools.

Idaho’s teacher evaluation system is increasingly becoming more important as teacher pay will become more closely tied to specific performance criteria starting next year. The change is part of a five-year pay plan designed to attract and retain teachers. Idaho lawmakers approved the so-called career ladder in 2015.

In 2017, lawmakers will be asked to approve the most expensive section of the plan yet — which would increase teacher funding by nearly $58 million.