President's perspective

Teacher ratings rate!

UFT President Michael Mulgrew

We have successfully negotiated an agreement on teacher evaluations that rejects the wrongheaded goals of the “blame the teacher” crowd. Their vision is one where schools are nothing more than test-prep factories, where we ignore the breadth of a student’s work during the school year and the challenges that so many students face outside of the classroom. That same “blame the teacher” crowd wants New York State to judge a teacher’s performance solely on test scores.

We couldn’t let that happen, and we didn’t.

This system will rely on the multiple measures that we have been fighting so hard for; that we as educators know are so important. This system also forces the city Department of Education to negotiate many of its provisions with us. That will mean much more voice — and therefore much more objectivity — than what we have.

Now New York is the only state where the unions were able to set a cap on the use of test scores. Too many other states are bowing to intense pressure from Washington and imposing bad plans on their teachers.

We set the cap at 20 percent. From Delaware to Colorado, from Florida to Indiana, from Washington to Illinois, the benchmark is (or soon will be) 50 percent or more.

How did we get to this point? In a nutshell, the political climate has shifted. The federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act — now up for review in Congress — is a lifeline to states. It provides billions of dollars in critical funding to New York; money that every district in this state depends on. And in this current political environment, Washington won’t just allocate money without strings attached. And in the case of education funding, that means tying it to test scores, student performance and teacher accountability measures, changes that done incorrectly will have an adverse effect on our profession for a long time. The Race to the Top competition has a similar approach.

I’m certainly no fan of our current teacher rating system, which doesn’t capture the complexity of our work. Often called (not so fondly) “drive-by” evaluation, its criteria are so amorphous that most of the time it ends up being a measure of whether or not your principal likes you this year, rather than your effectiveness as a teacher. So I knew it had to go.

But the alternative put forth is worse: using student test scores as the main or only measure of teacher effectiveness. Many states, vying for those Race to the Top dollars, have already revised their teacher evaluation methods, basing at least half of the rating on students’ standardized test scores.

The Board of Regents had already voted to change the Annual Professional Performance Review at its April meeting to now include four categories of teacher performance. The measuring of student growth was a major component of that emergency regulation. And when Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch and Commissioner David Steiner asked me and Richard Iannuzzi, president of our state affiliate, to talk with them about their ideas for evaluating teachers, we were eager to have a say in shaping the plan. We realized having something on the books would give us much more leverage in the ESEA reauthorization debate and, from the start, they were very open to talking about a plan that not only assessed teachers’ skills but also helped teachers to improve them. The conversations were productive and collaborative.

And when The New York Times ran a front-page story on May 11 that we saw was missing some details, I took the proposal to our Delegate Assembly the very next day. There it was subjected to a thorough airing, and once the delegates heard about the multiple measures and the development program for struggling teachers, they overwhelmingly agreed it was a far more objective and supportive approach than we have now.

In fact, of the 100 points on the rating sheet, the local negotiations would determine 80 percent. They can include such things as traditional observations, lesson plan reviews and peer evaluations, if desired. Twenty of those points must be some kind of locally determined evidence of student achievement, such as student work, class grades, etc. State test scores account for the last 20 percent; that rises to 25 percent two years later, but the total for all measures of student achievement is still capped at 40 percent.

But that’s not the best part of it.

The proposal would require schools to provide real support and assistance to struggling teachers. (The specifics of the kind of help must be negotiated.) The teacher has to sign off on this Teacher Improvement Plan, and it is enforceable. No help, no disciplinary charges against the teacher.

The agreement also calls for negotiations with us over student metrics and rubrics, and when that moves forward, it’s an opportunity to get the membership involved. Finally, not only would the proposed system limit the influence of standardized test scores on teacher evaluations, it would also end the focus on absolute test scores. Instead, it relies on the students’ growth or progress from the point when they enter your class to the end of the year.

For those of you who teach at-risk kids, as I did, you know how important this is. It removes the bias that favors more affluent schools, thus giving teachers of the neediest students a fair way to demonstrate their effectiveness. (A value-added method, such as is envisioned for after 2014, could go even further to level the field among teachers in different communities, but the state has not yet developed such a system. We already know there are serious flaws with the School Progress Reports, and we have the same fears about the city’s Teacher Data Reports.)

All in all, this is a system that recognizes the complexity of teaching and the full spectrum of learning. It acknowledges that standardized tests reflect only a small portion of what we do and don’t tell nearly the whole story. And maybe, just maybe, it could stop some of the test-prep madness.

Most important, with this system we will have taken a major step toward controlling our profession, as other professionals do. Experience with similar systems in some states shows that no one insists on higher professional standards for teachers than teachers themselves. And making our schools better places for us to work also makes them better places for kids to learn.

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