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New evaluation system gives school districts, teachers less say in reviews

School leaders are feeling a bit of déjà vu.

Three years ago, school districts across the state were told to negotiate teacher evaluation plans with their unions or lose state aid. The result was an evaluation system Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo derided as “baloney” after most schools gave their own teachers high marks.

Now, Cuomo has sent school leaders back to the negotiating table to come up with new agreements. This time, however, school administrators and union leaders will have far less discretion in deciding how teachers are rated.

But they face the same threat: Get a deal done by November or risk losing state aid.

“That’s a difficult one, because you’re really holding the state aid hostage,” said Williamsville Superintendent Scott Martzloff.

The state budget approved last week included a framework for a new teacher evaluation system intended to remove some of the local wiggle room for school districts in scoring how teachers perform in the classroom. The state education commissioner will have until the end of June to finalize the details of the evaluation system before school districts negotiate local plans to carry out the new rules.

Already, school board members, superintendents and teachers have expressed concern about the latest plan to rate teachers and principals.

“The governor’s policies aren’t going to create the professional dialogues that we need, that are essential to help our teaching force become stronger,” said Ashli Skura Dreher, a special-education teacher in the Lewiston-Porter School District who was named the state’s 2014 teacher of the year.

Like the existing plan, the new teacher evaluation system will be based on student performance and classroom observations. But the new system is designed to give school districts and teacher unions a lot less latitude in determining how teachers are scored and what types of evidence they can use to show their teachers are effective.

School districts also will have greater power to fire teachers who don’t perform well. Under the new plan, a teacher who gets the lowest rating – “ineffective” – for two years in a row could be fired by a school district.

If a teacher gets an “ineffective” rating three years in a row, the school district must fire the teacher.

Teacher evaluations also will play a role in whether teachers get tenure. Changes in education policy included in the state budget require new teachers hired after July 1 to receive ratings of “effective” or better in three of their first four years before they will be eligible to receive tenure. Previously, teachers could get tenure after three years.

While teachers who receive repeated low ratings will face tougher penalties, the state will also revamp how teachers are rated and make it more difficult for a teacher whose students show little growth in state test scores to receive an “effective” rating.

“The tests are the only standard objective,” Cuomo said during an Albany radio interview with Capitol Pressroom last week. “You want to be able to compare Buffalo and Manhattan.”

Tests are a key issue

Debate over the teacher evaluation system leading up to the budget’s approval last week focused largely on Cuomo’s proposal to increase the use of state standardized test scores to provide half of a teacher’s evaluation in classes where state tests exist. That proposal was met with steep opposition from teachers, who pointed to studies that have shown the limitations of tying a teacher’s job to statistics that can fluctuate widely from year to year and are based on one test.

Under the new evaluation system, the education commissioner will decide how much state standardized tests will count toward a teacher’s evaluation. But lawmakers included specific language in the state law to ensure that teachers whose students do not show growth on test scores will have more difficulty obtaining better evaluation ratings.

Under the current system, 20 percent of a teacher’s evaluation is based on the growth of student scores on state tests compared to similar students across the state; another 20 percent is based on measures selected by local school districts; and 60 percent is based on other measures such as classroom observations negotiated by the school district and teachers unions.

Teachers in classes where there are no state tests must set “student learning objectives” that set goals by which schools can measure the progress of their students.

The new plan also will base teacher evaluations on state test scores and teacher observations, but it will change how that is done.

The state Education Department will determine how the state tests are used in the evaluations and will offer a list of state-approved tests that can be used for an optional second round of tests.

Teachers who had hoped the state would rely less on standardized tests – not more – were disappointed by Cuomo’s initial proposal and the final budget deal.

“Teachers don’t mind being observed. They actually enjoy being observed, because it gives us the opportunity to reflect on our practice,” said Todd Hathaway, an East Aurora history teacher. “But a single test – I can’t control that. I don’t know what the child is going through at home or what they’ve prepared for or what their priorities are.”

Classroom observers

For classroom observations, school districts will be required to bring in an “independent” observer – which can be a principal from another school building – to rate teachers in the classroom, in addition to observations done by a teacher’s own principal.

That idea has raised concern among superintendents and school board members about the amount of time it will pull principals out of their buildings.

For many superintendents, the observations done in the existing Annual Professional Performance Review of teachers and principals were one of the few positives of the evaluation system, because it could be used to start a dialogue about how to improve teaching in the classroom, said Bob Lowry, deputy director for the New York State Council of School Superintendents.

“If you talk to superintendents, you’ll hear them say, the independent evaluators, they think it will be costly and complicated to administer,” said Lowry. “And in fact it undermines something that has been working.”

Having to bring in outside principals to conduct evaluations could place a burden on small elementary schools where the principal is sometimes the only administrator in the building, said Martzloff, the superintendent in Williamsville.

“With the number of observations that need to be completed, that’s very problematic, because you’re asking now for your principals to be out of their schools for days, if not weeks, to observe teachers in another school,” Martzloff said.

Thrown a curve

School administrators anxious to hear the final details of the new evaluation system this June were thrown another curveball last week by Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch’s comments.

Tisch, who will oversee how the state education commissioner completes the new regulations, told the news website Capital New York that she would like to see high-performing school districts exempted from the new evaluation system.

The comments added even more uncertainty to a new evaluation system Martzloff called a “moving target” for school administrators. While final details won’t be available until the end of June, one thing is certain: School districts will be back at the negotiating table with the unions this year or risk losing state aid.

“We just have a real fundamental concern with a requirement that the districts have to go back and renegotiate new agreements and do it by November with the threat of state aid hanging over their heads,” said David Albert of the New York School Boards Association.

“November really is not that far down the road.”