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Thursday, January 26, 2012

Evaluating Teachers With Facts Is Overlooked For Political Purposes

When I worked for the UFT, my job was to look into the cases of members who were
charged with incompetency or misconduct in the classroom, or were being harassed
at their school. What became very clear to me very early, in 2005, (I started working
at the UFT in 2007) was that the agenda of the City of New York was to remove
highly paid teachers from their positions for any and no reason, and hire two lower
 paid teachers in their places.
Betsy Combier

Petty Differences Mask Consensus on Teachers

Popular culture has surely produced no more satiric a view of that great scourge of public progress, the Apathetic Teacher, than last year’s bluntly titled comedy “Bad Teacher.” In the film, Cameron Diaz plays Elizabeth Halsey, a junior high school teacher so incompetent and chemically regulated that she shows movies all day, barely registers one student’s slapping another with coleslaw and steals the answers to a state-administered exam. A bonus of $5,700 is to be given to the teacher whose students score highest on the test, and Halsey pursues it to pay for her adventures in plastic surgery. Perhaps you watched the movie wondering whether it had been subsidized by a political action committee aimed at dismantling the teachers’ union.
Regarding teachers’ unions with a certain distaste, maintaining the belief that they exist to champion inadequacy, is now virtually required for membership in the affluent, competitive classes, no matter an affiliation on the right or left. Over the past two weeks, as Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg have aggressively pushed for phasing in a new, more rigorous teacher evaluation process — with tens of millions of dollars in state and federal aid to schools at stake — they have deployed a rhetoric of enmity, one meant to suggest that the state’s teachers’ unions are committed to keeping talentless hacks in jobs they can’t handle. As the governor put it on Monday, “Our schools are not an employment program.”
What has been lost in these performances of reproach and imperiousness is the extent to which the city and state, and the related unions (the United Federation of Teachers in the first instance and New York State United Teachers in the second) are generally in agreement over how classroom evaluations ought to be held and what, in fact, constitutes sound teaching. As it happens, the state union was at work devising substantive evaluation reform more than a year before Mr. Cuomo even took office.
The history unfolds as follows: In 2010, the state passed a law requiring school districts to institute new teacher evaluation systems to replace the thumbs-up-thumbs-down, Siskel & Ebert model that previously prevailed. The new system would tie 40 percent of a teacher’s rating to standardized test scores and 60 percent to observations of the teacher in class.
Keeping the new assessment protocols from operating right now — something the mayor and governor seem so desperately to want — are not vast differences in philosophy but nagging disagreements over bureaucratic implementation: at the city level, a dispute between the United Federation and the Department of Education over how appeals of poor teacher ratings might be arbitrated, and at the state level, a lawsuit filed by the union against the Board of Regents for pushing the 2010 law beyond its intent. A decision handed down last summer in State Supreme Court in Albany sided largely with labor, but the state chose to pursue the time-depleting course of an appeal nevertheless.
Where a great deal of consensus lies is around the ideas of a woman named Charlotte Danielson, who 16 years ago created a method for evaluating teachers that judges them according to four domains, each with numerous categories and subcategories: the quality of questions and discussion techniques; a knowledge of students’ special needs; the expectations set for learning and achievement; and the teacher’s involvement in professional development activities. The section for assessing the strength of the classroom-learning environment has 15 criteria — down to the placement of furniture.
Ms. Danielson’s program, which also trains principals in how to properly execute the evaluations, is already being used in several states and on a pilot basis in 140 New York City schools (though in the experimental phase the outcomes will have no consequence). In November, a study out of the University of Chicago that looked at Ms. Danielson’s method as it was practiced in Chicago schools determined that it was not only a considerable improvement over an old evaluation system but that, just as significant, it established a shared definition of what good teaching was.
Ms. Danielson, who runs her own educational consulting firm in Princeton, N.J., is perfectly suited to appeal to potentially opposing sides in the debates about education reform. As an Oxford-trained economist, she thinks both entrepreneurially and progressively. In the late 1960s she gave up research stints at the Council of Economic Advisers and the Brookings Institution to work as a teacher in Washington’s ailing public school system.
“If all you do is judge teachers by test results,” she told me when I visited her this week, “it doesn’t tell you what you should do differently.”
Michael Mulgrew, the president of the United Federation of Teachers, speaks about Ms. Danielson almost as though he were producing an infomercial for her. “I taught for 13 years, and I would have loved to have been trained in this method,” he said. “I have no doubt it would have made me a better teacher.” And yet he, too, is capable of the kind of retaliatory small-mindedness that so often halts the momentum of winning ideas. So offended was he by the mayor’s “obnoxious” attitude toward the union in his State of the City address that Mr. Mulgrew disinvited the Education Department from sessions in which principals were being trained in Ms. Danielson’s methods.
While the intensity around evaluation reform is ultimately a very good thing, it sidesteps something crucial: that we can’t attract the best and the brightest teachers without drastically changing the status of the profession. Paying good teachers more is important — and the mayor, admirably, has committed to doing that — but money isn’t solely at issue. Each year hundreds of intelligent people in their 20s move to apartments in Astoria and lofts in Greenpoint with their degrees from Oberlin and Brown and the University of Michigan to pursue glamorous work that often pays excruciatingly little — assisting documentary filmmakers, assisting assistants at prestigious magazines. Some of their friends may go to Teach for America, but many of them will do their two years and move on.
Maybe what teaching needs is a new movie that makes it seem as hot as Condé Nast.


Jan. 18, 2012, 3:59 p.m.
In the long-simmering debate over how to judge the quality of New York State school employees, there is one thing all sides agree on: a system should be in place.
The sticking point has been agreeing about how to do it. There is the fight between New York City and its teachers’ union over the parameters of an evaluation system that must be put in place in 33 struggling schools. And there is the fight waged in court by the state teachers’ union, which sued the Board of Regents last year over its interpretation of a law on teacher evaluations.
Some $800 million in federal money is on the line, as well as millions in state aid to local schools. On Tuesday, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo put everyone on notice when he unveiled the details of his budget plan, ordering school districts to settle on a new teacher evaluation system by Jan. 17, 2013, or lose their share of a proposed 4 percent increase in education spending.
He gave the Regents and the teachers’ union 30 days to resolve their lawsuit. It is either that, he said, or adopt an evaluation system that he would impose.
The sides are not as far apart as their public posture would indicate. Three weeks before Mr. Cuomo set the deadline, the union had already acceded to one of the state’s key demands. It agreed that most of the 60 points teachers could earn on subjective measurements should be based on classroom observations — something the state’s education commissioner, John B. King Jr., had been pushing for. Of the total score of 100, results from student testing would account for the other 40 points.
The union’s president, Richard C. Iannuzzi, sounded optimistic on Wednesday, saying in an interview that a settlement could be reached “in two or three days.” Dr. King, however, said there were many differences to be resolved.
“Conversations are ongoing,” he said, “but there’s a distance to travel.”
Last week, the federal Education Department warned New York that it could lose the $700 million in education financing it was awarded last year as part of the Race to the Top program if it did not adopt a system to evaluate teachers and principals statewide, one of the program’s requirements. By then, Dr. King had already suspended a smaller pot of federal money — $58 million in grants to help struggling schools in New York City, as well as nine other school districts in the state. The districts and their unions should have reached agreements on an evaluation process by Dec. 31, as the grants stipulated, but did not.
Mr. Cuomo’s hard-line message aims to resolve both problems, in part by applying renewed pressure on the Bloomberg administration and the president of the city teachers’ union, Michael Mulgrew, to go back to the negotiating table. Talks collapsed days before the deadline established by the grants, and the sides were so far apart, city officials said, that there was no point in further discussion.
At issue is the process by which teachers would be able to appeal a poor rating. The city proposed forming a three-person committee consisting of one representative from the city, one from the union and one who would be jointly selected by both to issue an advisory decision to the schools chancellor, who would then make the final call.
Mr. Mulgrew objected. He said the administration had forced teachers to go to court to have bad ratings reversed.
“They’re now using our objections to say we’re obstructionists,” he said. The appeals process is the only obstacle to a compromise, he said.
The appeals process will be a crucial issue for the union once the teacher evaluation standards go into effect. The new law scraps a “satisfactory/unsatisfactory” scale that has been used to judge teachers for decades and introduces a four-tiered rating: “ineffective,” “developing,” “effective” and “highly effective.” Teachers who are rated “ineffective” for two consecutive years could lose their jobs within 60 days. Under the current system, less than 3 percent of the city’s teachers are rated “unsatisfactory,” and it can take more than a year to fire a teacher.
The Legislature approved the new system unanimously in June 2010. Union and education officials stood side by side in Albany to celebrate their joint achievement, and Mr. Mulgrew traveled to Washington to testify on behalf of the state’s application for the Race to the Top money.
The disagreements that remain are, by and large, the subjects of the lawsuit by the state teachers’ union. For example, 40 points on the annual reviews for teachers statewide would come from students’ test scores. The union wants only half of those points to be based on standardized tests, but the Board of Regents, which sets state education policy, allowed districts to base all of the 40 points on standardized tests.
The law specifies that 20 points of the evaluation must be based on the state tests and the remaining 20 points on other exams, to be developed by local districts. The discrepancy between the Regents’ regulations and the legislation is the reason the union sued, Mr. Iannuzzi said.
“We never challenged the law. We only challenged their interpretation of the law,” he said.
Fernanda Santos covers New York City public education for The New York Times. Follow her on Twitter @fernandaNYT.

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