The Devilish Details of Teacher EvaluationsFebruary 12th, 2012
By Brian Backstrom
With a hearty round of congratulatory pats-on-the-back, Governor Andrew Cuomo, State Education Commissioner John King, and the most prominent leaders of New York’s teacher unions, state union head Dick Iannuzzi and New York City teacher union leader Michael Mulgrew, yesterday announced an agreement on a plan to require annual performance reviews for public school teachers.
That’s right: for the first time, New York is on the verge of actually being able to show whether classroom teachers do their job well. More common-sense than ground-breaking stuff, one could say.
While praise is certainly deserved for Governor Cuomo – who knocked-down the union blockade on this issue with the issuance of a drop-dead date after which he’d take the matter into his own hands – and Commissioner King – who pressed forward tirelessly to ensure the structure of the evaluations were meaningful – any legitimate analysis of what was accomplished here requires at least two components: a sense of context, and questions about the details.
First, some context.
In 2008, Iannuzzi’s NYSUT successfully lobbied the state legislature to prohibit the use of any student test score data at all to any degree in teacher evaluations. This law actually had to be repealed two years later to make New York competitive for, and eventually win, $700 million in federal Race to the Top education grants. The feds reasonably required the ability for states to show that teachers were able to be judged on whether they improved student learning. In addition to repealing the union’s blanket ban on the use of student-performance data, the State Education Department polled district superintendents, school board presidents, and local teacher-union heads and got 91 percent of them to sign a Memorandum of Understanding (essentially a contract) saying they agreed to a teacher evaluation plan based 40 percent on student-outcome measures.
After winning the federal funding, however, the teachers union shifted into full-reverse and sued the state, saying it really didn’t want teachers to be held accountable based on students test scores after all. In addition to objecting to nearly every other detail in the proposed teacher-evaluation plan, NYSUT wanted to avoid having state grade-level test scores count for 40 percent of the evaluation, and wanted to ensure that at least 80 percent of the entire evaluation could be based on factors negotiated between school districts and the teachers union. This clearly is not meaningful change.
New Yorkers should not be fooled into thinking that the union now fully embraces the use of data to judge whether classroom teachers are doing their job. No, instead union officials were dragged kicking and screaming to the table and forced to eat their vegetables by Governor Cuomo and State Education Commissioner King.
Second, the details.
The framework of the new teacher-evaluation plan sounds an awful lot like the plan proposed last year by the State Education Department and which was promptly litigated by the anti-reform teachers union. As negotiations on the new plan reached their final minutes, NYSUT’s Iannuzzi said that the parties involved were down to debating the use of one word here and another word there, noting that certain words conveyed one meaning to the unions but meant another to those that were seeking genuinely meaningful evaluations. Until the details of the plan become known, parents and students will not be able to tell how many and how large the loopholes are that have been left in the structure of teacher evaluations.
If there is not a heavy and unavoidable reliance on student performance data, the evaluations frankly will not be measuring whether teachers are causing students to learn. A December 2011 study by Harvard and Columbia universities found that the impact on test scores is a valid way to measure teacher quality. The study tracked 2.5 million students over 20 years, and found that even having a poor teacher versus an average teacher has a huge effect on a person’s future earnings (almost $300,000). Worse yet, having a poor teacher (as based on student test data) is equivalent to a student missing 40 days of school, or nearly a quarter of the entire school year. If indeed 80 percent of the entire teacher evaluation is subject to negotiations between school districts and the teachers union, there is cause to worry. A Buffalo school board member was recently quoted as saying: “No one wants to fight the unions, and this requires us to do that.” That’s some intestinal fortitude for you.
Using student test score data to evaluate teachers is not a novel concept: a dozen other states already require 50 percent or more of teacher evaluations to be based on student outcomes. New York isn’t breaking new ground here, it is late to the party.
Good evaluation structures include not only objective measures but subjective ones, too, as the agreed-upon plan does. Teachers should be repeatedly observed in their classrooms to see how well they’ve implemented the art of teaching. But we’re talking about real, meaningful observations, not the type that can be found in virtually every public school today. In fact, NYSUT itself rightly criticized the current process of classroom observations calling them “drive-by evaluations,” with an administrator briefly sitting in the back of the classroom checking boxes on a checklist. A solution to this would be to have an independent third-party expert observing classrooms guided by a comprehensive and meaningful rubric. Will local teacher unions allow this? Will local school boards demand this? Surely an important detail not to be overlooked.
Critical, too, is to see how the plan handles the four categories of teacher ratings: “ineffective,” “developing,” “effective,” and “highly effective.” Will those teachers rated “ineffective” be allowed to be fired quickly and easily? Why allow even one more class of children to suffer? How long will a teacher rated “developing” be allowed to languish there? Shouldn’t improvement be required in at least, say, two years? Will “highly effective” teachers be allowed to earn more than their lower-rated peers, a merit-based concept historically rejected by the unions?
There is little denying that this was a problem needing fixing: the National Council on Teacher Quality recently graded New York a D+ in delivering well-equipped teachers, a C+ in identifying effective teachers and C- in exiting ineffective teachers. The required use of teacher evaluations is a welcome step in the reform of public education in New York. Parents, students, and the public in general should be able to know whether teachers are getting their job – educating children – done successfully, and if not, why administrators are continuing to subject students to their classrooms.
Brian Backstrom is President of the Foundation for Education Reform & Accountability and may be followed on Twitter at @nyedreform.