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Teacher evaluations: Officials 'cautiously optimistic'

Districts expect improvements

Monday, March 5, 2012
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— Now that a new deal for tougher teacher evaluations has been reached, local school districts are cautiously optimistic that the new system will cultivate better teachers. Superintendents say they believe that if the focus is on improving teacher performance rather than shaming teachers, it could lead to improvements in the classroom.

“Being fearful of this is the wrong attitude,” said Susan Swartz, superintendent of the Scotia-Glenville Central School District.

Lynn Macan, the superintendent of Cobleskill-Richmondville Central Schools, agreed. “We’re having a conversation about making this a meaningful process, so that teachers feel supported in their professional growth and so that it’s not a gotcha game,” she said. “We’re trying to make it collaborative.”

The new teacher evaluation system aims to determine which teachers are effective and which are not, and will assign each public schoolteacher a score based on a number of factors, including how their students perform on standardized tests. This use of standardized test scores to evaluate teachers is new; in the past, teacher evaluations were mainly based on classroom observation.

The new teacher evaluation system will provide a lot more detail than assessments used in the past, said Drey Martone, an assistant professor of teacher education at the College of Saint Rose. “In the past, a principal would see what was going on in the classroom,” she said. “Now [districts] are going to be gathering a lot of evidence, and using that evidence to come up with ratings for teachers. It’s a very formal process.

“This is about sharing evidence in a way that can help the students in the classroom.

“We’re moving away from a teacher-centered evaluation, which focuses on what the teacher covered in the classroom, to a student-centered evaluation, which focuses on what the student learned.” She said that the information could do a lot of good if used to help teachers improve rather than punish them.

John Yagielski, interim superintendent of the Schenectady City School District, said the teacher evaluation deal reflects a sea change in how people think about assessing teacher performance. In the past, the emphasis was in teaching, but now it’s on whether the students are learning, he said. The payoff will be getting every student into a classroom led by a highly effective teacher.

The new teacher evaluations will make student performance 40 percent of a teacher’s grade, while classroom observation and other, more subjective and collectively bargained measures will be worth 60 percent.

Test scores

The testing piece has two components: Twenty percent of an evaluation will reflect student progress on state tests, while another 20 percent will reflect student performance on a test chosen by the district. Districts can select a test from a list of three options: state standardized tests; third-party assessments or tests approved by the New York State Department of Education; and locally developed tests that require state approval.

The more subjective piece of the evaluation “must consist of tightly defined, research backed measures,” according to the state, and at least 31 percent of it must be based on classroom observations by a principal or trained administrator. Multiple observations are required, and at least one observation must be unannounced. This piece will also include observations by independent trained evaluators, peer classroom observations, student and parent feedback from evaluators, and evidence of performance through student portfolios.

Districts will also be required to use a state-approved rubric to guide their non-test-based evaluations of teacher performance. A rubric provides a framework for assessing a teacher’s effectiveness in the classroom and typically asks an evaluator to determine whether a teacher is familiar with their students and their material, among other things.

Under the new evaluation agreement, teachers will be rated as ineffective, developing, effective or highly effective based on a scale of 100 points. A score of 64 percent or lower would rate a teacher as ineffective, while a score of 65 percent to 74 percent would mean the teacher is developing and in need of an improvement plan. Teachers rated developing or ineffective will get assistance and support to improve performance, while teachers who remain ineffective can be removed from classrooms. Appeals “must be timely and expeditious,” according to the state, and districts may terminate probationary teachers and principals or grant or deny tenure while an appeal is pending.

Districts are waiting for more information about the parts of the teacher evaluation deal that are open to negotiation within the district — mainly, the more subjective measures that comprise 60 percent of a teacher’s assessment.

“We don’t actually know what the deal looks like,” Swartz said, noting that a hard copy of the requirements has not been disseminated by the state. “We don’t have anything in print.” She said that she’s been having informal conversations about the new teacher evaluation system with teachers and administrators. “We’re ready to move,” she said.

One of the district’s questions involves the rubric requirement. Scotia-Glenville uses a rubric that was designed in-house, but is based on one of the state-approved rubrics. Swartz said the district wants to know whether, with a few tweaks, the rubric it currently uses would be acceptable.

Right now, “A lot of it is unknown,” Macan said.

Improvement goal

District leaders said test scores have been providing schools with feedback on student performance for years, but that using those scores as part of a formal evaluation is new.

“We want our teachers to be good teachers,” said Valerie Kelsey, superintendent of the Schalmont Central School District. “We want to work with them to help them become better. We’re looking at this data already. We’re incorporating it into homework and teaching. The difference is the formality and reducing it to a number.”

“We haven’t seen [the new system] operational,” Kelsey continued. “We don’t know what it’s going to produce.”

Swartz said she thinks the new system makes sense.

“I don’t know how anyone can do a job and not think that at some point they’re going to be held accountable for their work,” Swartz said. “It’s not an illogical conclusion to think that part of an assessment of success is looking at the success of students. ... The intent is not to punish. The intent is to improve instruction, and as educators we should try to embrace that.” But she added that student performance is impacted by a variety of factors that are beyond the control of the school, such as home environment.

Macan, of Cobleskill-Richmondville, said she worried that the rankings would be misused and misinterpreted.

“I think it’s really hard for someone who doesn’t work in a school to understand a single number,” she said.

The teacher evaluation deal is similar to a system already in place in New York City.

That system came under fire last week, when the rankings of 18,000 schoolteachers were released to the media, stirring controversy. Some officials called for shielding the scores from view, even as legal experts said that a series of court rulings had made it clear that the number-based components of teacher evaluations are public information.

Labor issue

The Schenectady City School District recently had a $1 million School Improvement Grant reinstated after reaching a deal with teachers over performance evaluations. School Improvement Grants are federal grants administered by states, for the purpose of school improvement efforts at low-performing schools.

Yagielski said that the deal, which applies only to teachers at the high school, would have to be modified to meet the state’s new teacher evaluation requirements, which apply to teachers at every grade level. But he said that the work the district had already done would help lay the groundwork for its new teacher evaluation system.

“We’re positioned well to getting this accomplished,” Yagielski said.

The statewide teacher evaluation deal was reached last month by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, teachers unions and state Education Commissioner John B. King Jr., after two years of talks. Cuomo has said that the system will reward good teachers and eliminate bad ones. It will also enable the state to access $700 million through the federal Race to the Top program, which provides grants to states that implement certain education policies.

When the deal was announced, New York State United Teachers President Richard Iannuzzi said, “We believe today’s agreement is good for students and fair to teachers. It includes two principles we believe are essential. First, a child is more than a standardized test score. While there is a place for standardized testing in measuring teacher effectiveness, tests must be used appropriately. Secondly, the purpose of evaluations must be to help all teachers improve and to advance excellence in our profession. This agreement acknowledges those key principles.”

 
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