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Teacher Grading Off to Uneven Start Evaluation Systems Vary Widely by District, and Most Have Not Yet Reached Agreements With Unions on How to Do It

Reader Comment:I went thru the public school system in New Jersey back in the 1950's and early 1960's. Our teachers, mostly unmarried women and men who had gone to college as middle-aged adults after military service under the GI Bill, had for the most part Bachelor's degrees from third tier state teachers' colleges. We learned to read and write and studied literature and foreign languages and physics and chemistry and advanced math and went on to university and became doctors and dentists and lawyers and college professors and, as the 80's approached, computer programmers and software engineers.

There were no standardized tests in those days. Our teachers were undereducated and underpaid. Many of them worked second, part-time jobs during the school year and full-time jobs during summer break. Tenure was pretty much automatic after a set number of years as long as the tenure candididate had not ended up on the front page of the local newspaper on a morals charge.

How did the educational system ever function without standardized testing, teacher evaluations and multiple levels of government statisticians and bean counters parsing student test results and graduation rates.?

By Lisa Fleisher

New York state's first system to grade teachers using students' standardized test scores is turning out to be anything but standardized.

More than two years after a new law required a complete overhaul of teacher and principal evaluations, the state Education Department has begun approving dozens of agreements hammered out between local districts and unions.

Of the state's roughly 700 school districts, 75 had plans approved as of Friday. New York City and its teachers union, which accounts for by far the largest portion of the state's educators and students, have not reached a deal.

A review of the first approved plans shows a hodgepodge of methods for determining which teachers deserve to stay and which don't. While the law outlined a broad framework for the job-performance reviews—40% based on tests or other gauges of student learning, and 60% based on principals' observations and other subjective measures—the details were left to the local districts and unions.

Teachers unions are pleased that they retained collective-bargaining power over the negotiations, which means the evaluation systems cannot be imposed without union consent.

"These teacher and principal evaluations honor local control and the ability of local communities to decide what's best for their teachers," said Carl Korn, spokesman for New York State United Teachers.

In places such as Schenectady, state math and English tests will count for 40% of a fourth-grade teacher's final rating, but they'll only count for 20% in Binghamton. Teachers in upstate Odessa will be visited seven times by administrators for classroom observations, which will count for a full 60% of their final rating. But in nearby Newfield, principals will observe teachers just twice a year, and those visits will make up 35% of their ratings. In Syracuse, 6% of teachers' evaluations are up to students, who will fill out surveys.

That means teachers could receive very different grades than if they were teaching the same students in the same school setting in a different district. Some fear there will be little way to distinguish effective teaching across the state.

"The potential here is for the entire idea of recognizing great teaching in New York state to be watered down to the idea that it's meaningless," said Joe Williams, executive director of Democrats for Education Reform, a national group that pushes for tougher teacher evaluations. "If you cross the border from one town to another, the definition of great teaching shouldn't be all that different."

State Education Commissioner John King, whose office vets all plans, said the system allows districts to maintain local control. Mr. King, who is fond of baseball analogies, said it's as if one team were looking for a home-run hitter, while another needed a player with a solid batting average.

"The notion that teachers might be highly effective in one setting and only developing in another, that actually makes sense to me," he said. "It may be that the districts have different priorities. It doesn't trouble me."

State lawmakers guaranteed there could be wide variation in districts' plans when they passed the requirements for new evaluations in 2010 as part of an effort to get federal funding. With only a general framework in place, and a requirement to negotiate with unions, state officials said they expected differences. Advocates of judging teachers more stringently said New York was on track.

Joel Klein, former chancellor of New York City schools, said Friday that a single evaluation system statewide would be a big, easy target for unions to go after and pick apart.

"As long as they're meaningful systems that have effective criteria for evaluation that are transparent and will lead to meaningful accountability, that's where we learn from each other," said Mr. Klein, who now works for News Corp., which owns The Wall Street Journal.

In 2011, however, when Mr. King tried to give more weight to state standardized tests, the union sued and slowed implementation across the state as districts waited for courts to decide the matter. In February, after Gov. Andrew Cuomo put a spotlight on the issue and threatened to push through an alternate resolution, the state and the New York State United Teachers settled. Meanwhile, Mr. Cuomo set a deadline of January 2013 for districts to have their local plans in effect or lose up to 4% of their state aid.

Carol Burris, a principal in Rockville Centre who is an outspoken opponent of standardized testing, said her district was working on a system that included some schoolwide averages to blunt the effect of a single test score and recognize that children are influenced by all of their teachers. That is a pattern popping up in other districts, too. In the Long Island hamlet of Bellmore, state English exam scores will be factored into the performance reviews for sixth-grade science teachers.

"Science teachers do contribute to literacy in English," Ms. Burris said. "Even the phys-ed teacher who keeps kids fit and healthy...in a sense affects the performance of that child on other exams."

Meanwhile, the appeals process for poor ratings—which had been a major sticking point between city officials and the union in New York City—also varies from district to district. In Kings Park on Long Island, the superintendent has the final say. But in Schenectady, the superintendent doesn't have as much power. Appeals go to a four-person panel, with two members chosen by the superintendent and the other two by the union.

Distinguishing good teachers from poor ones is no easy task. Research in the field is in its infancy. Administrators and district officials say any method is better than the one it replaces in most districts: a simple thumbs up or thumbs down on job performance, with nearly all teachers receiving a "satisfactory" rating. In New York City, less than 1% of teachers were rated "unsatisfactory" in 2005-06.

There is agreement that effective teaching can best be measured through several different methods, such as pairing analysis of student test scores with principals' observations.

The new system is supposed to serve two purposes. Unions say it will be more instructive for teachers, giving them insight into what they need to work on and guiding them through required professional development for poorly rated teachers.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and others pushing to remake the system also hope getting rid of bad teachers will be faster and easier. Whether it will work in practice remains to be seen, and it relies on principals and superintendents effectively using the plans they've created, said Sandi Jacobs, a vice president with the National Council on Teacher Quality, a nonprofit organization.

"Administrators are going to have to use the system well," she said. "They're going to have to be willing to have hard conversations. It's not just about documenting it on a piece of paper."

— Lisa Fleisher
Wall Street Journal


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