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Blocking better evaluations is no favor to teachers

In the debate over Buffalo's struggle to adopt a new teacher evaluation system, it's easy to forget why our schools need better teacher evaluations in the first place.

Nothing our schools can do for students matters more than giving them great teachers. We know this from more than 40 years of research as well as our own direct experience.

For too long, though, teachers have worked in isolation. We put them in classrooms, close the door and rarely look back. In most school districts, "teacher evaluation" means drive-by classroom observations and an annual rating of "satisfactory" given to virtually all teachers, regardless of how well they actually teach. It's a process that denies teachers the opportunity to reach their full potential as educators -- and denies students the chance to reach their full potential as well.

When schools get evaluations right, it benefits teachers and students alike. We recently surveyed almost 5,000 teachers nationwide about their experiences on the job, including their experience of the evaluation process. We found that teachers want to be in schools where all educators share a clear vision of great instruction and there is a commitment to making teachers better. When those elements are present, schools keep more of their best teachers and students achieve higher academic results.

Critics argue that schools are wrongly focused on evaluating teachers' performance when they should be providing teachers with more support. The truth is, supporting good teaching starts with meaningful information about teachers' strengths and weaknesses. Without that, we can't even begin to meet a teacher's needs. And for decades, Buffalo has had precious little information about the quality of teaching in its classrooms.

Across the country, things are finally changing. School districts and unions are coming together to support fair and accurate evaluation systems that combine frequent classroom observations with evidence of student progress. These new systems provide teachers with quality feedback that allows them to improve and help school leaders see which teachers are making meaningful gains with their classes.

Sadly, this is not happening in Buffalo. Despite positive national trends, Buffalo Public Schools and its teachers union, the Buffalo Teachers Federation, have repeatedly failed to agree to an acceptable approach to evaluation. Because of the stalemate, the district could lose out on substantial federal funds for school improvement and eventually find itself at odds with state law.

New York State Commissioner of Education John King is right to insist that Buffalo's teachers deserve better. When evaluations are done well, they shed light on great instruction. They strengthen the teaching profession by promoting a culture of excellence. Defending outdated, unhelpful policies keeps teachers and students in the dark.

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Tim Daly is president of the New Teacher Project, a Brooklyn-based nonprofit.