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Teacher assessments lack balance, critics cry

As state lawmakers push for a bill to extend the timeline for implementation, school districts across New York must prepare to manage a new teacher evaluation system imposed as part of the state budget—or risk losing increased state aid.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo and other supporters of education reform maintain that the new evaluation system is necessary to shift from a seniority-based plan to one focusing on performance. Others, including teachers and school administrators, say the changes are too drastic and too rushed to be fair.

The teacher evaluation changes are part of a larger education reform package called the Education Transformation Act of 2015. Cuomo included it in the state budget and intentionally tied its reforms to a 6 percent increase in school spending—to a record high of $23.5 million. He said packaging the reforms with the increased school aid ensured their implementation.

“The reforms we have included will move us to an education system that rewards results, addresses challenges and demands accountability,” Cuomo said. “This year we are finally ensuring that New York’s education system will be about the students it is intended to serve, instead of just perpetuating a bureaucracy.”

The bureaucracy, he said, is an evaluation system that weighs too heavily on peer reviews and ensures tenure through seniority. Under the new law, teachers will be assessed through a matrix system based on a four-point scale, including evaluation of student performance and observations of the teacher.

New York State United Teachers union leaders are strongly opposed to the changes, they said, because they are not based in research and the timeline for implementation is not realistic. The state budget agreement sets a Sept. 15 deadline for school districts to finalize an evaluation plan using the new system to submit to the state Education Department. It would need to be approved and in place by Nov. 15.

“This is just a different version of the same issue that got Common Core implemented,” said Thomas Gillette, regional staff director of the Rochester chapter of NYSUT. “It was a rush. It was implemented before the proper review could be made. This is the sequel to that same movie.”

Using student test scores to determine teacher effectiveness is a hot point. Teachers fear what could happen if pressured to teach to a test and alter their curriculum to ensure student performance shows favorably.

“There are too many outside factors that go into student test scores to ever use this single number—really, just a one-day snapshot—fairly in a teacher’s evaluation,” said John Kozlowski, a 15-year veteran teacher in the resource room at the Cosgrove Middle School in Spencerport.

“If one half of your annual job evaluation was dependent on someone else’s work over a few hours on a random day in April, and you had no control over that person’s performance on that day, would you support such a system?” he said.

With the ultimate end goal of improving student performance, the best approach is to address the root causes of student low achievement, he added.

“If a child does not have access to health care, is homeless, is from a broken home or lives in a high-crime neighborhood, that certainly is going to have an impact on that child’s academic achievement,” he said. “New York needs to make a serious effort to fix the root causes of poverty by investing in health care, nutrition programs and other supports for our most vulnerable students.”

There is a correlation between poverty rates and graduation rates, which are a better measure of a student’s performance, said Jody Siegle, executive director of the Monroe County School Boards Association. She questions the basis for the governor’s stance on education reform given the direction graduation rates have been taking across the state.

“Graduation rates have been going up,” Siegle said. “The Monroe County average is 88 to 89 percent, and the city is seeing a 12 percent increase to 51 percent.”

Under the terms of the new evaluation system, many school districts will have no choice but to initiate termination proceedings against teachers who score an ineffective rating two years in a row, she said.

“There’s a real concern in districts that teachers will have trouble keeping their jobs—especially special ed teachers—if the law requires them to be dismissed,” Siegle explained.

Fear of intense scrutiny and job instability could make education a less attractive career track for high-schoolers, she said, adding that the governor has not been a strong proponent of public schools because of his staunch support of charter schools and other alternative education.

Supporters of StudentsFirstNY, which advocates for charter schools as part of education reform, say the new evaluation system is a good balance between subjective and objective performance measures.

“Critics are trying to water down the new evaluation system pushed by Governor Cuomo and passed by the Legislature. We’ve seen this story play out before. On principal observations, 98 percent of Rochester’s (city school) teachers are rated effective when virtually every child is below grade level,” said Jennifer Sedlis, executive director of StudentsFirstNY. “We have a choice: We can keep pretending that our kids are getting a great education or we can accept reality and use evidence from an accurate evaluation system to make the real changes our kids deserve.”

Teachers see value in some of the changes that affect them, but many argue that the methods being used for assessment are not based on valid, proven research.

“My perspective is there’s nothing wrong with the Common Core learning standards and people who want to raise the bar to get all students college- or career-ready,” explained Joy Martin, a primary literacy coach at West Street Elementary School in Geneva, Ontario County. Martin has taught for 31 years.

“But the tests students are taking are not created or even seen by teachers. Their reliability and validity are highly suspect,” she said.

The standardized tests the students take will be designed by Pearson, the largest testing company in the country, estimated by Fortune to control 60 percent of the market. Martin claims the company knows more about test making than it does education.

Districts can continue to use school administrators to observe teachers as part of their evaluation, and that pleases Martin.

“Principals come in and see us a couple times a year—one planned visit and one unplanned,” she explained. “There should be more emphasis on that and less on student testing.”

Jody Siegle noted that many educators welcome including student test scores as part of a teacher’s evaluation, but the scores’ weight in the equation should be closer to 25 percent than the 40 percent it could be under the new matrix system.

“The new evaluation system … prohibits the use of lesson plans, student portfolios and professional goal-setting tools (mutually agreed upon by the teacher and the principal) as part of what they could consider in how to observe a teacher,” Siegle said. “Why would you not want to consider a professional’s plan for growth when evaluating them?”

Advocates of the governor’s system say some administrators may not be objective. StudentsFirstNY supports the notion of paid, third-party observers, an option districts can include in the finalized plan they submit to the Education Department.

Some educators question a one-size-fits-all formula for assessing a teacher’s performance.

“I don’t think that there is one best way because our communities are so diverse,” explained Kozlowski of Spencerport. “The criteria for evaluating an AP chemistry teacher in the city of Rochester can, and should, be different than, let’s say, evaluating an art teacher in a tiny rural district in Ontario County.”

The state Board of Regents on June 15 voted 11 to 6 to follow the governor’s mandate for a matrix-style review based about half on student performance and half on classroom observations of the teacher.

“I don’t believe any of us is very happy with the evaluation system we are obligated to enforce by law,” Board of Regents Vice Chancellor Anthony Bottar said in a statement.

Republicans in the Senate are considering a bill similar to the one passed by the Democrat-controlled Assembly that removes the link between the reform measures and school spending and extends the timeline for the development of the evaluation criteria. Cuomo would need to approve the changes when and if a bill is presented.

7/10/15 (c) 2015 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.


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