Taxpayers need to know their education dollars are being spent effectively. That’s one of the reasons Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo pushed hard for a system of teacher evaluations. Education is one of the two costliest parts of the state budget, yet there have been insufficient measurers to test the system’s performance. What you can’t measure, you can’t improve.
But, just as it was with the initial efforts on statewide student tests, there was never any reason to believe that Albany hit on the best possible formula the first time out of the gate. The State Education Department has been adjusting those student tests, and now Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia says she also wants to improve the state’s approach to evaluating teachers. It’s the right approach, as long as the goal remains evaluating performance as an essential tool for delivering a high-quality education to New York students.
Teacher evaluations were already designed to help teachers improve, not simply punish them. But at a forum in Niagara Falls on Sunday, Elia said she wants to bend them further in that direction. No one should have a problem with that, assuming that at some sensible point, they produce either sufficient improvement or a decision that a different career ought to be in the cards.
“If you’ve got somebody that’s not a very good teacher, you need to help them to get better,” Elia said. “And if they really aren’t very good and can’t seem to get better, then you need to help them into another career. We don’t need to beat up people.”
That change may take some time, and will require revisions in state law, Elia said. Her aim is to create evaluations that are “supportive of continuous improvement” and that use more than student evaluations on English and math as their benchmarks.
The Board of Regents is already working on that, she said. It has adopted new standards on science and arts education and is working on a set of standards for social studies. Together with appropriate tests on English and math, they will provide a more complete picture on the performance of school districts, individual schools, teachers and students.
Regarding teachers, those evaluations will then be used to help poor teachers improve. That’s fair. Few New Yorkers would support a system whose goal is simply to deprive teachers of their livelihoods. As with any industry, some people need time to grow into their jobs.
It’s not that the current system has been chasing underperforming teachers out of the profession. Nevertheless, a system that overemphasizes two subject areas is, by definition, out of kilter. Elia and the Regents are on the right track in seeking to create an evaluation system that does a more thorough job of identifying weaknesses in teachers and then working to help shore them up.
What the state cannot do is to give up on its commitment to providing a solid education to New York’s students. Part of accomplishing that is ensuring that the state’s teachers are up to the task. Necessarily, that requires assessing how well these public employees are doing their jobs.