State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said Sunday that New York's teacher evaluations should be geared more toward helping them improve their work - but state law emphasizing results on standardized tests probably would have to be changed to accomplish that.
"I'm intimately involved in visiting and talking with teachers, principals, school board members and others about what we need to do to shift our assessments to a productive evaluation that tells teachers what they need to know, so they can become better every day in the classrooms. That's what an assessment should be doing," Elia told an audience of about 150 at the state Parent-Teacher Association convention in Niagara Falls.
"If you've got somebody that's not a very good teacher, you need to help them to get better. 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," Elia said to applause.
Touching on other subjects during her speech and afterward, Elia said:
- The state is providing free supplies of Narcan, the opiate overdose antidote, to every school that requests it. However, she said, schools that accept Narcan must train a core group of staff members to use it properly. The usual excuse for not bringing in Narcan, Elia said, is that students who use opiates usually don't do so at school. "We only need one student in any of our schools across this state that could be saved by having Narcan to tell you that that's a good program, do it," Elia said.
- She will not make a recommendation to the Buffalo Public Schools on what to do with the B.U.I.L.D. Academy, the only school in the district that has not improved under receivership. It could be closed, taken over by a receiver or reopened with a new model. "They have 60 days to come to us with their plan," Elia said. "I'll be part of the solution, but they need to come to us with a plan."
- She cannot grant the Buffalo School Board's request for a moratorium on further charter schools. "The law does not really allow a moratorium on charter schools," she said.
As for teacher evaluations, the commissioner said she may need the State Legislature's approval for evaluations that are "supportive of continuous improvement," as she put it in a brief interview after her hourlong convention appearance.
"We're not there yet," Elia said. "We have to do the analysis and find out within the existing law what we can make changes to."
During a question period, New York City teacher Stephen Green took the microphone to complain about the current system of evaluations based on student English and math test results.
"When are we going to put the emphasis back on content as opposed to process?" Green asked. "We want content back in the schools."
"We cannot have everything revolve around English language arts and mathematics," Elia said. She said the Board of Regents has adopted new science and arts standards, and is working on standards for social studies.
"One of the reasons that you're saying what you're saying about teachers being evaluated that way is, that's what's in the law right now for the evaluation of teachers," Elia replied. "We have to shift that, and that's the process we're in right now."
She predicted that process might take 12 to 18 months.
"If the evaluation of teachers is only on English language arts and math, then that's what the emphasis is going to be on, isn't it?" Elia commented. "That's what we're trying to shift, OK? But we've got to change that evaluation, and changing laws in New York State that are on the books is not an easy task."
The Board of Regents also has approved new standards in several subject areas, created with input from teams of teachers. However, Elia said the new standards won't be reflected in statewide tests until 2021.
"We have to give teachers the time that they need to understand the standards, to change their lessons to implement them in their classrooms, and to be able to feel comfortable and be able to have conversations with their peers about what is the way to deliver and get their children to meeting those standards," Elia said.
In the meantime, teachers have become more involved in preparing the statewide tests.
"This coming April will be the first year that every question on the tests has been developed by New York State teachers," Elia said, drawing a round of applause.