Teaching Profession

Race Is on to Ready Teacher Evaluations in New York City

By Stephen Sawchuk — June 11, 2013 5 min read
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Administrators and teachers in New York City have just three months to adapt before the expectations of a new teacher-evaluation system kick in.

State Commissioner of Education John B. King outlined the system’s criteria in an arbitration ruling issued last week, putting an end to years of bitter disagreement between city school officials and the local teachers’ union.

Now comes the hard part.

While a small fraction of the teaching force has had training in some elements through pilot programs in place for several years, the final system demands execution on a far larger scale. When it rolls out in August, it will probably be the country’s largest revamped evaluation system, used for 75,000 teachers.

The final system also has more components than the pilot programs and delegates more authority to schools. It requires teachers at every school to help design the measures of student learning that will be used to grade them.

A Long Road

2010
MAY: State legislators pass a law establishing new parameters for the annual evaluation of teachers, including four categories of ratings.

AUGUST: The state wins $700 million in Round 2 of the federal Race to the Top program, which also requires revision of teacher evaluations.

SEPTEMBER: The New York City education department begins to pilot a teacher-evaluation system based on the Danielson Framework for Teaching. By 2013, 300 schools have participated.

2011
JUNE: New York State United Teachers sue over evaluation regulations adopted by the state’s board of regents, saying they conflict with the law and put too much emphasis on state tests over locally designed measures.

AUGUST: A judge sides with NYSUT in the lawsuit, overturning the regulations.

DECEMBER: The New York City district and union lose out on $60 million in federal School Improvement Grant funding after failing to reach agreements on teacher-evaluation details.

2012
JANUARY: Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s budget request specifies that districts will forfeit increases in state aid if they fail to agree on a teacher-evaluation system by the following January. Lawmakers later approve the budget.

In a report, the U.S. Department of Education raises concerns about the state’s RTT progress.

FEBRUARY: NYSUT and the state strike an agreement on evaluations.

MARCH: Lawmakers approve the deal. The measure includes several appeals processes for New York City teachers with low ratings.

2013
JANUARY: New York City and the UFT are one of six districts and unions to miss the state-set evaluation deadline. The city forfeits more than $250 million in promised state-aid increases.

MARCH: A New York state court issues a temporary injunction against the penalty after the state is sued by a group of parents.

A budget law gives state Commissioner John King binding-arbitration power to set a new evaluation system if New York City and the UFT cannot compromise. It also specifies that teacher-evaluation plans remain in place until they are negotiated through collective bargaining.

JUNE 1: Mr. King issues a binding ruling on evaluations. Both the union and district praise the ruling.

And for those goals to improve how teachers plan and deliver instruction, teachers and principals will need intensive support, experts say.

“Over the next three months, the district needs to make this the primary focus of activity,” said William J. Slotnik, the executive director of the Community Training and Assistance Center, or CTAC, a Boston-based leadership and management organization. “You can’t give this to HR and say, ‘Issue some guidelines.’ Principals have to see this as core to what they’re doing instructionally. ... They have to be a step ahead so they can provide answers to the questions teachers are going to have.”

Back and Forth

Annual evaluations for each teacher in New York state are required under a 2010 law. That law specifies that 40 percent of teachers’ reviews be based on measures of student academic growth and 60 percent on the teachers’ classroom performance.

Gray areas in the law, though, led New York State United Teachers and the state board of regents into a lawsuit over the precise weight that could be given to students’ standardized-test scores in the evaluation system.

The fallout from that situation particularly affected New York City, where the district and the United Federation of Teachers quarreled against the backdrop of the complex rules governing two federal programs, Race to the Top and the School Improvement Grants, that require changes to evaluation criteria.

On-again, off-again negotiations eventually led the city to miss a Jan. 17 deadline for submitting an evaluation plan that met statutory requirements, costing the city some $250 million in additional state aid.

The June 1 binding-arbitration ruling by Commissioner King effectively ends the stalemate. Among other provisions, the system established by the ruling:

• Grants schools considerable latitude to tailor the evaluations, by giving panels of teachers appointed by principals and union-chapter leaders the ability to recommend growth measures for judging teacher progress;

• Bases 5 percent of each teacher’s rating on results from student surveys;

• Remains in effect until 2016-17 or until the district and union renegotiate terms through collective bargaining;

• Requires that the subjective portion of teacher reviews be based on a framework detailing 22 aspects of teaching and prescribes a minimum number of observations of each teacher; and

• Sets a timeline for hearing appeals.

Most of those aspects were among the issues contested by the city and the UFT, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers. The final ruling did not represent a clear win for either party.

A 2012 revision to the original law, however, does establish more safeguards for teachers. The UFT will be allowed to appeal 13 percent of low ratings each year, to protect against ratings given to harass teachers. And teachers on track to get a second low rating, which can lead to dismissal, will have an outside “validator” observe lessons. New York City is the only district in the state with those special elements.

UFT President Michael Mulgrew praised the overall spirit of the rules, while acknowledging its complexity.

“If we do this correctly, ... it will force principals and teachers to see that they’re in this together and have to work together, and that it has to be about actual instruction,” Mr. Mulgrew said.

And yet, he said, “I was not expecting a 241-page decision. That has me quite concerned.”

District officials, meanwhile, point to the work the school system has engaged in even before a final evaluation system was set. Some 300 schools have taken part in a pilot program on the teacher-evaluation framework. In addition, the district estimates that every school has had seven to 10 hours of training so far.

“It’s a large cultural change for a lot of schools, and they’ll be asked to do things they’ve never been asked to do before,” said David Weiner, the district’s deputy chancellor for talent, innovation, and development.

Dolores Lozupone, a 26-year veteran elementary teacher at PS 185 in Brooklyn, expects certain elements of the system will have to be refined over time. But she’s giving the system the benefit of the doubt for now.

“I don’t want to say we’re looking forward to this, but we understand that it’s designed to help us,” said Ms. Lozupone, who is also her building’s union-chapter chair.

The district will provide additional training to principals this summer. And it says it has doubled the amount of professional-development funds sent to schools for the 2013-14 school year to $100 million, which they can spend on extra training. Schools that struggle in the fall will have “talent coaches” to help them implement the new system, Mr. Weiner said.

Challenges Ahead

There are a few wrinkles, though. Much will depend on how principals apply the Framework for Teaching, a teacher-observation tool created by education consultant Charlotte Danielson in 1996. The framework has been part of the pilots since 2010, but educators focused only on a subset of its objectives.

Ms. Danielson said the district will have to be creative in ensuring training on the complete framework reaches everyone, given the limitations of time and purse.

“There aren’t enough consultants in the world, or enough money in the world to pay the consultants, to do that training face to face” in three months, she said.

Also tricky: the development of achievement measures for all the content areas. Under the ruling, those measures can take a variety of forms, from simple—such as using a schoolwide gauge of academic achievement—to complex: “student learning objectives,” or SLOs, that are set individually by each teacher.

Though research has linked high-quality learning objectives to student achievement, CTAC’s Mr. Slotnik, whose center has worked with districts and unions across New York to implement them, warns that they can’t be crafted well on the fly.

“It absolutely can’t be done as a compliance activity,” he said. “If so, you’ll end up with lower-quality SLOs, lower-quality results for student achievement, and a lower-quality evaluation system.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 12, 2013 edition of Education Week as Race on to Ready N.Y.C. Teacher Reviews

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