President's perspective

Taking back our profession

Michael Mulgrew - 155 x 230

We face many challenges this school year, starting with the hard realities of more budget cuts and austerity, exploding class sizes and increasing poverty and homelessness among our students. But in the face of challenges, the members of our union always make our schools work, and I cannot thank you enough for all that you do. 

Beyond these challenges we must also contend with the attacks on our profession by the so-called education “reformers.” It’s critical that we take these “reformers” on, especially on the issues where we can actually move education forward. One of those issues is teacher evaluations.

Throughout the country, those who have never been in a classroom are trying to use teacher evaluations as the latest way to punish teachers. If they succeed, it will be to the detriment of our students and our entire educational system. I firmly believe that until we start focusing on how we help teachers inside the classroom — where learning actually happens — we will never be able to truly move education forward in this country. 

The premise of a good evaluation system is that the most important people in an educational system are the professionals who deliver instruction, and its goal is to support those professionals so that they can deliver the best possible instruction. This is how it is done in countries with the best educational systems in the world, like Finland and Singapore, which have far better teacher retention rates than the United States and which surpass us on international test scores that the “reformers” allegedly care so much about. 

But even as the “reformers” are pushing evaluations as a tool for firing teachers, we have a unique opportunity here in New York City to redirect both the conversation and the policy away from a counterproductive, punitive mindset and toward a system built on educational best practices that support educators. I don’t think I could overstate how important this opportunity is or how crucial it is for the future of our children that we get it right.

It certainly won’t be easy. There are myriad obstacles, starting with the people who are more interested in trashing teachers, breaking teacher unions and privatizing education than in making genuine improvements. But there is too much at stake for us to lose this fight. 

The UFT has been working toward a new evaluation system on multiple levels for quite some time already. In 2010 we worked with the State Education Department and Albany lawmakers to pass legislation that defines the framework for a new system. This framework will allow us to build the kind of system we want and need. 

This past summer we reached an agreement with the DOE on a pilot evaluation system that is being used in 33 schools on the state’s Persistently Lowest Achieving list. Not only did we save these schools from potential closure for this year and channel much-needed resources to them, but we created a space for us to start to develop an evaluation system whose prime goal is to help teachers improve.

We fought hard to include an observation tool that actually looks at what we do when we teach instead of some checklist designed by a bunch of lawyers. The pilot uses Charlotte Danielson’s Framework for Teaching for observations, and the Danielson rubric drills down into everything we do as teachers. It can help foster the conversation about instruction that should be at the heart of the evaluation process. Using it also means administrators can no longer justify a bad evaluation by simply saying “it was my educational judgment.” They must substantiate specific critiques of relevant components of instruction. 

For administrators who come from the classroom, this will be a natural tool to structure their feedback. For administrators who lack experience in teaching, the rubric is a guide that can help them develop a better understanding. And for those administrators who are inclined to abuse an evaluation system, it acts as a curb on arbitrary judgments. 

Right now the Danielson rubric is also being introduced to principals in a group of pilot schools. The current evaluation system is still in place in these schools, but principals are being trained in how the rubric works. 

It’s like training wheels. You can’t use a new tool effectively or correctly if you don’t know how to use it. And herein lies one of the many challenges we face in creating a new evaluation system: There are some administrators out there who don’t have deep roots in teaching. Shifting gears to an evaluation system that is focused on instructional practices and dialogue among educators represents a culture change and requires people throughout the system to deepen their own learning. 

Then, too, we’re up against some bad and counterproductive management habits —  some networks’ and some principals’ first instinct will always be to shove something new down our throats rather than understand they must work collaboratively with educators. 

It’s not enough to have the right tool or a good framework — though that’s a crucial starting point. It also has to be implemented correctly, and that can be challenging when working with the DOE. 

But we are up for the challenge — we have to be.  An evaluation system that supports and respects the work we do and creates a safe, collaborative environment is the key to improving instruction and moving education forward. It is also the key to beating back the agenda of the “reformers” and keeping teachers as the professionals at the heart of education.

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