Legislature's auditor defends teacher 'despair' report
February 18, 2013
With feelings still raw over voter repeal of Students Come First, the Legislature's Office of Performance Evaluations reopened the wound for key proponents last month.
Presented on Jan. 8, the second day of the session, "Workforce Issues Affecting Public School Teachers," was received skeptically by the House and Senate Education Committee chairmen, both prominent backers of Propositions 1, 2 and 3.
Their complaint was about one aspect of the 74-page report, a survey of 2,800 teachers, principals and superintendents that auditors said raised red flags about the future quantity and quality of Idaho teachers.
The survey "revealed a strong undercurrent of despair among teachers who seem to perceive a climate that disparages their efforts and belittles their contributions," wrote the auditors. They added that the "vast majority" surveyed "express concern or dissatisfaction with specific aspects of their work or, more broadly, with conditions surrounding the public education environment in Idaho."
Left unchecked, "the state would run the risk of declines not only in the number of people who are willing to enter or remain in the profession, but also in the quality of the pool of prospective candidates."
The language troubled House Education Committee Chairman Reed DeMordaunt, R-Eagle, and Senate Education Committee Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d'Alene.
"Where I took issue was with the conclusion that teachers were dismal," said Goedde, the lawmaker who requested the study in March 2012 as the $6 million campaign on the propositions heated up. "I don't know that the data supported that conclusion."
MEETING WITH THE CHAIRMAN
On Jan. 28, DeMordaunt met with Rakesh Mohan, director of the office since 2002.
A businessman accustomed to quantitative not qualitative data, he had questions. "How do you discern that?" DeMordaunt said he asked Mohan. "Is there a percentage we can look at? Is there a relative measure?"
Mohan, whose office won the highest award of the American Evaluation Association in 2011, said the survey was a must to explore teacher recruitment, retention, turnover and future workforce needs.
"How could you do a study about workforce issues without talking to the stakeholders?" Mohan said last week, recounting his meeting with DeMordaunt. "That's impossible. If we had done this study without talking to teachers, people at American Evaluations would laugh. You just can't do it and 2,800 (survey respondents) is not a number to be ignored."
Mohan and DeMordaunt described their meeting as cordial and professional. DeMordaunt was pleased the audit rebuffed the claim of the Idaho Education Association that teachers were fleeing in droves.
Auditors found no "mass exodus" in 2011-12 and that Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna had exaggerated turnover. Rather than the 1,884 departures Luna reported, OPE said the figure was 1,112, about 6 percent, up from 5.4 percent in 2009-10.
"The Department (of Education) was overstating the issue, which is a bit ironic," said DeMordaunt. "You would think they would try to understate it, if anything."
Nevertheless, Mohan left feeling DeMordaunt was "disappointed" with the work of the eight-person office that costs taxpayers $720,000 a year.
"I want people to trust this office as independent, objective and nonpartisan," Mohan said. "I work for this Legislature and I want them to know we will do our very best to get the right information that meets their needs."
Feeling what he described as "crowded" and concerned, Mohan went to see the senior member of the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee, Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, who also is co-chair of the budget committee. JLOC, the only legislative committee divided evenly between majority Republican and minority Democrats, decides which audits will be performed and releases reports.
"He felt that he had poked the (education) committee chairs in the eye and he was very concerned," Bell said.
Bell said she reassured Mohan. "He has a very professional staff, uses proven methodology and has a record of doing a very professional, unbiased job."
But Bell took the matter a step further, conferring with House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, who has often used audits to make his case on policy. Audit reports have spurred reform across state government, including school finance and administration, health and welfare, transportation and parole.
Bedke had already met with Mohan after the teacher report, telling him he expected professionalism, accuracy and solid research - "all the things that I believe Rakesh has exhibited over the years."
"Performance audits are a tricky business," Bedke said. "You're calling balls and strikes."
Bell said she understood the reaction of DeMordaunt and Goedde, who are working to resurrect aspects of Students Come First in 2013. "I think it was the timing more than anything," she said. "But what can you say? He did what he was asked to do and he was asked to do it by Sen. Goedde."
Goedde invited Mohan to his committee to review the report. The "undercurrent of despair" language was broached, briefly. Goedde said he hopes auditors will "rethink how they make reports" and ensure "all the conclusions are supported by data."
Former House Speaker Bruce Newcomb authored the law that created the Office of Performance Evaluations. It took four tries in the 1990s because Democratic Gov. Cecil Andrus was suspicious of an arm of a Legislature meddling in the executive branch.
But partisan balance on the governing committee convinced then-Democratic Auditor J.D. Williams to support the bill (the post was subsequently renamed state controller). "Nobody can say that it's a witch-hunt committee," Newcomb said. "There's push and pull on that agency and in particular on Rakesh (Mohan) because the outcomes are not always what you were hoping."
Newcomb predicted any hard feelings will blow over. DeMordaunt said he has a deeper appreciation of the auditors: "They do very professional work and understanding their process was very good for me."
Still, DeMordaunt said he's not convinced "undercurrent of despair" was justified. "I certainly acknowledge there is a lot of frustration from teachers, which I would love to be able to address. I'm hoping over the next few years we can do that."
The "despair" phrase was thoroughly vetted, including quality control by Kathleen Sullivan, former director of the Center of Educational Research and Evaluation at the University of Mississippi. "We have to make conclusions based on our professional judgment and training," Mohan said. "That was our language and I stand behind it."
Mohan said his administrative coordinator and copy editor, Margaret Campbell, asked, "Are you sure you want to say that?"
Said Mohan: "If we don't say it, who else would? We have to tell the truth in the best possible way that we can. That means not to soften anything, not to take sides. We thought it would be constructive."
Dan Popkey: 377-6438, Twitter: @IDS_politics
The editorial posted here is provided by permission of its original publisher and does not necessarily reflect the views of Idaho Public Television.
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