Moving Forward After a Deal’s Demise

There is every reason to bemoan the lost chance of a teacher evaluation deal last Thursday night, not the least of which is the hundreds of millions of dollars now derailed from educating children. Even more dollars may be at stake. Equally important, New York City has stalled in adopting a new evaluation system that can and should benefit teachers and students alike.

A strong, meaningful process for teacher feedback is critical to teacher development and retention. A great number of teachers, especially in their early years, suffer from the sinking sense that they are flying the plane alone with no support. I can attest to the feeling from my own personal experiences as a rookie teacher years ago.

The evaluation and feedback system that the teachers' union and New York State had apparently agreed to could have offered a strong starting point. While many teachers rightly fear value added analysis, which has been shown to be unreliable when used alone, this evaluation system offered multiple measures, including the use of local measures which could be designed to capture gains that may not show in state tests.

Just in the past month, the Gates Foundation issued a report that promoted a three-part methodology in evaluations, consisting of student performance, student evaluations of teachers, and observations of teachers in the classroom. The Gates research showed that evaluations that go beyond student test score measures, treating them as an element of multiple sources of evidence, render a much more reliable system of evaluation. And the other sources of evidence suggested by the Gates report were valuable not only because they increased evaluation reliability. These evaluation tools of peer observation and student feedback offer critical opportunities to change the culture and the conversation in schools so as to deeply benefit the teaching profession.

As we regroup and consider where we go from here, our premise is that evaluation and feedback processes are useful, and also will require a significant influx of time and resources to do well. To be most productive, they shouldn't be formulated and valued as a tool for firing bad teachers. Instead, they must be oriented toward setting and supporting a high standard for instruction.

The parties are being urged back to the table, and may reach an accord. Even if new negotiations do result in a deal, New York City is now lagging behind other jurisdictions. All but four New York Counties reached evaluation agreements by the January 17th deadline. We have lost, or at least jeopardized, a timely opportunity to have a common conversation about what really works. But whatever gets done in the state's largest city, that doesn't mean we can't glean lessons from the myriad different approaches that will be put into operation elsewhere. We can and will look to the experience of other districts across New York as they strive to implement a strong rigorous system for teacher evaluation and feedback. The information could prove very instructive.

As we move forward, here are some of my questions about the evaluation landscape, and how we can make the ground more fertile:

  1. Can local measures help resolve the tremendous fear among teachers whose students are being tested on material multiple grades ahead of where they are developmentally and content-wise? A non-teacher can't easily understand the anxiety associated with teaching to a 10th grade test, with students reading on a second to fourth grade reading level. Is it possible to develop an evaluation system that would reward and offer incentives to those teachers? Could local measures include items like relative movement in reading level?
  2. Do student evaluations work consistently in actual practice? Gates' research showed when student evaluations of teachers were included as one measure of teaching effectiveness, there was a significant increase in ratings reliably. It turned out 30 students with 180 hours of exposure to a teacher were more reliable than a single adult observation. But teachers are rightly skeptical of this idea on the ground. What if you are teaching in a classroom or a school where the culture is broken down? Will some students use this tool to further undermine teacher authority? I personally think this might be a very meaningful way for teachers to get feedback, and perhaps districts that embraced this measure will find that teachers ultimately consider it useful, leading us to revisit the question.
  3. What kinds of changes will districts make to their current evaluation systems as information filters in? One of the apparent sticking points in the New York City negotiations was the notion of reconsidering evaluation plans every two years. We know, though, that modifying plans to accommodate what is learned from the evaluation process is predictably necessary. Can we build in evaluation system revisions every two years without rendering the past evaluations null and void? Having that expectation in place, we could construct a process of continuous improvement.
  4. In the coming Common Core era, there are sure to be some challenges. Evaluation is every bit as necessary, but complicated by shifting curricula and tests that measure what may not have been taught as students "catch up" to the expectations of Common Core. Literally in the shift to Common Core, students going from fifth to sixth grade math this year may never learn adding and subtracting fractions. Furthermore, the teacher that slows down to teach those missing standards is penalized if she doesn't get to later standards. There needs to be due acknowledgment of that reality.

Finally, to move forward in the most productive manner, we need to ratchet up trust throughout our school systems. The way toward trust is fairness and transparency. Teachers must feel that a new evaluation system will give them a fair shake, and a meaningful opportunity for growth and improvement. That will lead to a better atmosphere for all.