February 2012 Issue
January 31, 2012

The truth about teacher evaluations

Author: Sylvia Saunders
Source: NYSUT United
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Caption: Union demands release of SIG funds While the Regents met inside, NYSUT leaders joined teachers, parents and school administrators from as far away as Buffalo and Long Island on the steps of the State Education Department building. They were protesting SED's decision to suspend much-needed School Improvement Grant money for 10 districts, citing — unfairly — that districts did not have adequate teacher evaluation systems in place. NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi, center, said SED's suspension of the federal money threatens direct help to students, such as smaller classes, extra tutoring, after-school and intervention services, technology and courses they need to prepare for college. Joining Iannuzzi, from his left, are NYSUT Secretary-Treasurer Lee Cutler, Vice President Kathleen Donahue and Vice President Maria Neira. Activists used NYSUT’s website to send more than 50,000 emails to Board of Regents members, urging them to unfreeze the SIG funds. NYSUT continues to work with the districts to reverse SED’s decision and free up the funding. The majority of the districts submitted negotiated teacher evaluation plans prior to the Dec. 31 deadline. Photo by El-Wise Noisette.

Don't believe the education "reformers" when they say teachers are blocking the new evaluation law. The truth is: Teachers have led the way in supporting objective, comprehensive teacher evaluations. It needs to be done right.

The reality is that NYSUT pressed for a new evaluation system that is rigorous, objective and fair — one that relies on multiple measures of student growth and teacher effectiveness.

And while the governor claimed the law is a "failure," with "zero" school districts adopting a plan for implementation, the truth is 90 districts have already negotiated an implementation plan and about half the state's 750 districts have made progress negotiating key provisions.

In addition, six districts involved in the NYSUT Innovation Initiative pilot program are having significant success phasing in a teacher evaluation system designed by labor/management teams. In an effort to set the record straight, here are some key facts about the teacher evaluation law and where NYSUT stands:

• Under the new law we supported, teachers must be evaluated annually against rigorous state standards. Evaluations must include how our students do on state and local assessments. In fact, in a recent report by the National Council on Teacher Quality, New York was one of 17 states and the District of Columbia Public Schools cited for "giving student achievement a significant, objective, meaningful and measurable role in how teacher performance is assessed."

• The groundbreaking law brought U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan to New York in September 2010, praising state lawmakers and NYSUT for "tremendous courage, tremendous leadership and a real commitment to changing the status quo." As a result, the federal government awarded more than $700 million in Race to the Top funding to New York (The state’s application ranked second place in the second round of funding.)

• Regrettably, before the ink on the new law was dry, the State Education Department tried to rewrite the law through regulations issued last year. NYSUT was forced to sue — not to block the law, but to stop portions of regulations not consistent with the law. One of the most problematic regulations would have allowed school districts to increase the weight of students' standardized test scores on a teacher’s evaluation — or double count a single assessment.

• The state Supreme Court agreed with NYSUT that SED’s regulations went beyond the intent of the law. SED put the $700 million at risk because it appealed the court's ruling.

• Talks between NYSUT and SED to settle the lawsuit began in October, with the union pressing SED to correct the problematic regulations that the court found were in violation of the law.

• In his state budget proposal, Gov. Cuomo issued an ultimatum, threatening to impose his own process if NYSUT and SED cannot reach agreement on evaluation language within 30 days.

• The Executive Budget also links increases in school aid to compliance with the implementation of a new evaluation system. Under Cuomo's plan, school districts would not be eligible for aid increases unless they fully implemented a new locally bargained teacher evaluation system by Jan. 17, 2013. The governor implied that a district that implements a system by Sept. 1, 2012, would receive additional "points" to be eligible for a performance grant, although a specific rubric for the award of these grants has not been released.

• In numerous media interviews, NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi has made it clear that SED — not the union — bears responsibility for delays in implementing the law. SED has been slow to issue guidance to help districts negotiate details. Due to SED's delays in building an adequate data management system, there are many questions about how student achievement growth will be measured.

(The federal government cited statewide data management delays as a major concern in January.)

• NYSUT's primary goal is for the teacher evaluation system to help all teachers continually improve. The current law avoids a punitive "gotcha" approach by requiring coaching and professional support for teachers who need to improve. It also provides support for effective teachers to improve even further.

• The state's new law makes sense because it requires multiple measures of teacher performance. That's the right way to assess students, and the right way to assess teachers. A recent report by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation highlighted that multiple measures, including a combination of classroom observations, student feedback and student achievement gains, along with trained observers, were essential evaluation tools. The report essentially debunks the top-down, test-driven strategy that makes test scores the principal evaluation tool for teachers.

• It's important to use multiple measures of teacher effectiveness because experience has shown that flaws in state tests too often have resulted in inaccurate and unfair grades for student performance. No student — or teacher — should be judged solely on standardized tests.

• A statewide one-size-fits-all approach cannot work. The state's law gives local school districts the flexibility to negotiate a portion of the evaluation to reflect community priorities. The law also includes significant changes to streamline the teacher disciplinary process.

• It's important to do teacher evaluations right, and that takes time. New York state is ahead of most states in developing quality teacher evaluations. Scrapping the law and starting from scratch would set back all the progress local school districts have made in developing rigorous, fair and objective systems to evaluate teachers.

"We think there are better ways to achieve implementation rather than tying it to funding increases that benefit students," Iannuzzi said. "After the court decision, NYSUT gave the State Education Department a proposed settlement that meets the department’s needs, and would immediately jump start the process in many school districts."

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