The legislature enacted an evaluation method for teachers and principals with passage of Act 1209 of 2011. A pilot project was used in 11 school districts in 2013 and put in place in all Arkansas schools in the 2014-2015 school year.
To follow through, legislators have been evaluating the evaluation system.
Specifically, the legislature is studying the system it created in 2011 known as TESS, for Teacher Evaluation and Support system. Legislators on the Senate and House Education Committees analyzed surveys of school superintendents, principals and teachers to determine the strengths and weaknesses of the TESS evaluation system.
In response to its findings, legislators have amended several provisions of Act 1209. Due to the intensive paperwork requirements of the evaluations for teachers, they now must be completed every four years instead of every three years. However, evaluations are done annually if the teacher is a novice, on probation or needs extra help from being on an intensive support track. This change was in Act 1091 of 2015.
Act 1091 also reduced the importance of "external assessments" as factors in teacher evaluations. The common external assessments are national standardized tests, such as the ACT. This change reflects the concerns of some legislators that students from extremely poor families, who get little if any academic support at home, generally don't score as high on standardized tests.
Officials of the state Education Department told legislators that student progress is a factor in evaluating teachers. Students from both poor and prosperous backgrounds will show academic progress under good teachers.
The superintendents of smaller school districts who were surveyed said the TESS system was too time consuming, and that they lacked the administrative staff to fill out all of the required paperwork.
Principals liked the fact that TESS is more rigorous and objective than previous evaluation systems, but they too said that it was very time consuming.
The teachers who were surveyed had similar opinions about TESS. They appreciated its clarity and objectivity and the fact that it removed the subjectivity of previous evaluation methods. However, teachers said it took up too much time and added too much paperwork to their busy work days.
Experienced teachers with advanced credentials and degrees said it was demeaning to repeatedly have to prove their worth as professionals. On the other hand, the system could be tweaked to offer more support for new or struggling teachers.
The Education Committee also heard a report on Arkansas teacher salaries. In 2015-2016 the Arkansas minimum salary was right in the middle when compared to surrounding states.
The minimum teacher salary in Mississippi, Oklahoma and Tennessee was higher than in Arkansas ($30,122), while the minimum teacher salaries were lower in Texas, Louisiana and Missouri.
Arkansas teachers fared slightly better in a comparison of average salaries of all teachers, not just those earning the minimum. The average in Arkansas was $48,220, which was lower than two neighboring states - Texas ($51,758) and Tennessee ($48,708). It was higher than the average teacher salaries in Missouri ($47,849), Louisiana ($46,733), Oklahoma ($44,921) and Mississippi ($42,744)