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Buffalo district, teachers should give up attempt to weaken evaluation system

Children in the Buffalo Public Schools are once again caught in the middle because self-interested adults will not follow the rules set out by state officials. At risk is millions of dollars in aid flowing to this broken school system.

That money – the increase in aid over the previous year – was contingent upon getting teacher evaluation plans approved in time to meet Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s Jan. 17 deadline. Buffalo submitted its evaluation plan on Jan. 17 and received quick approval. Now it turns out that approval could be in jeopardy.

Buffalo, along with Rochester and who knows how many other districts, struck a side deal with its teachers agreeing not to use the teacher evaluations as grounds for terminations. Superintendent Pamela C. Brown signed a letter promising not to use evaluations from 2011-12 or 2012-13 in employment decisions. That could end up being a costly signature for district students.

State Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. said there can be no side agreements, which he said violate the intent of the law. Union officials don’t seem to want to believe him. Carl Korn, a New York State United Teachers spokesman, said the agreement is permitted under the law. If King is right, Buffalo stands to lose its $33 million increase in state aid, and nearly $14 million in various other funding. That’s according to the executive director of the state’s Office of Teacher and Leader Effectiveness, Policy and Programs. Moreover, the side deal could jeopardize tens of millions in future funding.

A side agreement undercuts the purpose of teacher evaluations, which is to improve teacher performance and, thus, student academic achievement. The reluctance of teachers and their unions to agree to any kind of evaluation system has been well documented over the years.

Taking student progress into account is the sort of outcomes-based job evaluation that is required for many employees. Good teachers with good outcomes should want the same for their colleagues; school principals should demand the best and brightest in front of their classrooms. To help accomplish that, the state set up an evaluation program that needs to be followed in full. Districts can’t be allowed to decide which parts to ignore.

Evaluating teachers is not some plot to fire large numbers of teachers. Besides, existing protections make it very difficult for a district to terminate a teacher. The goal is to identify teachers who need help, and deliver that help.

The Buffalo School District has far too many low-performing schools. A side deal can’t be allowed to weaken efforts to improve those schools.