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Monday, June 5, 2017

Mitchell Robinson on Teacher Evaluations

Some unpopular thoughts on teacher evaluation

by Mitchell Robinson

I’ve been working on teacher evaluation for most of my career as a teacher, administrator, and teacher educator; first being evaluated, then doing the evaluation as an assistant principal and subject area coordinator, then helping design a state-wide beginning teacher evaluation initiative. After nearly 40 years in education, all I can say is that the current system is the worst I’ve ever seen.
If the goal of these systems was to get rid of the so-called “bad teachers” that supposedly exist in great numbers in our schools, it has been spectacularly ineffective. Every form of teacher evaluation winds up identifying only between 1-3% of teachers as “ineffective”–yet we continue to spend precious money and time in the vain attempt to purge the system of these “bad teachers”.
Here’s the truth–it’s a colossal waste of time to keep pouring good money after bad in this attempt. Why?
Not because there are zero weak teachers–there are some, though as most will acknowledge, a surprisingly small number.
Because bad teachers self-select, and weed themselves out of the classroom well before any evaluation system “catches” them. Why?
Because the job is too hard to do it without finding any level of satisfaction or fulfillment–and the money isn’t good enough to keep them in the classroom, unlike other jobs where people report low satisfaction, but remain in the job for the financial rewards.
Here’s another truth–we know quite a lot about how to evaluate teachers. And we, quite simply, don’t have the stomach to do it. Why?
Because it requires time, money, and effort. It also requires knowledgeable experts to spend copious amounts of time in teachers’ classrooms, watching them teach, talking about teaching, providing professional development to address the teacher’s reflections on their practice, and targeted feedback on matters of content, pedagogy, and instruction.
I’ve helped design such a system, and even though it wasn’t perfect, it worked better than just about any other approach. It still didn’t “catch” large numbers of bad teachers, though. Why?
Because they just don’t exist.
What this approach to teacher evaluation did do was empower those teachers to “own” their own practice, and to be responsible for their own improvement. It was also a valuable form of professional development for the experienced teachers who served as the “evaluators,” many of whom reported that they learned more about teaching from participating in the process than from other forms of professional development.
You know what isn’t very useful? For non-experts to provide their “feedback” on teacher quality–which in our current environment is most of what we get. All-knowing policy pronouncements from folks who have never attended a public school, never sent their own children to a public school, have no degrees in education, and have never taught anyone anything, but are now–because of how much wealth they have squirreled away, in positions of authority over public education in our country. (Psst…that’s you, Betsy…)
At the risk of sounding rude and condescending, unless it’s about providing evidence of a teacher abusing a child or committing some sort of crime against a child–in which case, as a court-mandate reporter, I’m obligated to go to law enforcement with those claims–I really am not interested in “your thoughts” about how well you think your kid’s teacher is doing. because you don’t know. Why?
Because the teacher one parent thinks is awful, another parent thinks is a hero. It’s why we don’t have the relatives of crime victims serve as the judge and jury for the persons suspected of committing those crimes.
Because they aren’t objective–and they aren’t supposed to be. Parents are supposed to see the world through their kids’ eyes. It’s not their job to evaluate teachers. And unless you are a teacher, or an administrator in your kid’s school, it’s not your job either.
I’ve been teaching since 1980, and get asked to do evaluations of music teachers all the time–and I always say no. Why?
Not because I don’t know what “good teaching” looks like–I do. But that’s just *my* opinion of what good teaching looks–or sounds–like. Because I don’t feel qualified to judge another teacher if I haven’t worked in their context; understand their students, their colleagues and principals, understand their building and district “culture”, who had their job before they did, what are the community’s expectations, what that teacher’s background is, and dozens of other specifics that can’t be captured on the 4-point scale we currently use.
And now, two final notes:
With respect to parents as “consumers”: When you make this comparison it only reveals your misunderstanding of the complexity of teaching and learning. Education is not a business. And it should not be run like one.
My kids have had teachers I thought were great, and ones I didn’t think were so hot. It happens. And when it does, it’s my job to do what I can to help my child keep learning. Not to pretend I know better than them how to do their job–because guess what? I don’t. And neither do you.
With respect to improving parental involvement: You know what teachers want you to do?
§         help their kids do their home work
§  make sure they practice their instruments
§  make sure they get to all school events, concerts, plays, sporting events, etc.
§  travel with them
§  take them to museums and art galleries
§  watch movies
§  read to them
§  feed them healthy meals
§  spoil them with ice cream
§  sing to them
§  play with them
  §  let them know that all those tests they are forced to take don’t tell us anything about how much they know, or who they are

Try to support what their teachers do with them for 7-8 hours per day. And tell them that they should respect their teachers–and model that respect by not complaining about them at home in front of their kids.

Matter of Anna Finkelstein v Board of Education and the Importance of the UFT Grievance Process

Decision by a Panel of the Appellate Division, First Department in Matter of Finkelstein v. Board of Education, __A.D. 3d__, N.Y.L.J. 5/15/17 p. 19 col. 3 [1st Dept. 2017] reversing Justice Alice Schlesinger’s ruling on behalf of a probationary teacher, appearing in the May 15th New York Law Journal.

It underscores the importance of availing oneself of existing grievance procedures set forth in the collective bargaining agreement (C.B.A.), and a willingness (at least by this appellate panel) to excuse (or ignore) the investigator’s written report as a perceived “technical violation” of the  C.B.A.

She was deemed entitled to nine days pay, pursuant to Education Law Sec. 3019-a, due to insufficient advance notice of her termination of employment.

Matter of Finkelstein v Board of Educ. of the City Sch. Dist. of the City of N.Y.
2017 NY Slip Op 03850
Decided on May 11, 2017
Appellate Division, First Department
Published by New York State Law Reporting Bureau pursuant to Judiciary Law § 431.
This opinion is uncorrected and subject to revision before publication in the Official Reports.

Decided on May 11, 2017 
Sweeny, J.P., Richter, Andrias, Feinman, Kahn, JJ.

3959 101540/14 

[*1]In re Anna Finkelstein, Petitioner-Respondent,


Board of Education of the City School District of the City of New York, et al., Respondents-Appellants.

Zachary W. Carter, Corporation Counsel, New York (Deborah A. Brenner of counsel), for appellants.
Office of Richard E. Casagrande, New York (Gregory M. Ainsley of counsel), for respondent.

Order and judgment (one paper), Supreme Court, New York County (Alice Schlesinger, J.), entered February 16, 2016, denying respondents' cross motion to dismiss the amended petition, or, in the alternative, to submit an answer, granting the amended petition, which sought, inter alia, to annul the determination of respondents, dated December 23, 2014, discontinuing petitioner's probationary employment, and ordering that she be reinstated with full salary and benefits retroactive to September 30, 2014, unanimously reversed, on the law, without costs, the judgment vacated, the petition granted only to the extent of awarding petitioner nine days' pay in accordance herewith, and the cross motion granted to the extent of dismissing the petition insofar as petitioner seeks reinstatement of her probationary employment, retroactive pay in excess of nine days salary and benefits.

Petitioner failed to avail herself of the grievance procedure set forth in her collective bargaining agreement before commencing the instant action seeking relief under CPLR article 78 (see Matter of Gil v Department of Educ. of the City of N.Y., 146 AD3d 688 [1st Dept 2017]; see also Matter of Sapadin v Board of Educ. of City of N.Y., 246 AD2d 359, 360 [1st Dept 1998]), and the court erred in relieving her of her obligation to exhaust her administrative remedies.

In any event, a probationary employee may be terminated for "almost any reason, or for no reason at all," as long as it is not "in bad faith or for an improper or impermissible reason" (Matter of Swinton v Safir, 93 NY2d 758, 762-763 [1999]; see also Matter of DeVito v Dept. of Educ. of the City of N.Y., 112 AD3d 421 [1st Dept 2013]). "[T]he burden falls squarely on the petitioner to demonstrate, by competent proof, that a substantial issue of bad faith exists, or that the termination was for an improper or impermissible reason, and mere speculation, or bald, conclusory allegations are insufficient to shoulder this burden" (Matter of Che Lin Tsao v Kelly, 28 AD3d 320 [1st Dept 2006] [internal citations omitted]; see also Matter of Witherspoon v Horn, 19 AD3d 250 [1st Dept 2005]).

The record shows that petitioner's dismissal was made in good faith and was based on substantiated findings after an independent investigation demonstrating that she neglected her duties and falsified records (see Matter of Thomas v Abate, 213 AD2d 251, 252 [1st Dept 1995]). The investigator's delay in publishing the written report amounted to a mere technical violation of the collective bargaining agreement, as petitioner received timely notice of the allegations, as well as an opportunity to respond, prior to the issuance of the report (see Matter of Freytes v City of New York, 146 AD3d 678 [1st Dept 2017]). The court's conclusion of bad faith stemming from the lateness of the report was purely speculative (see Thomas, 213 AD2d at 252).

However, petitioner is entitled to nine days' pay pursuant to Education Law § 3019-a [*2]because she was given inadequate notice of her termination (id.; see Matter of Tuckersee Matter of Tucker v Board of Educ., Community School Dist. No. 10, 82 NY2d 274 [1993]).

ENTERED: MAY 11, 2017