Help on the way for schools struggling with evaluation changes

It’s never too late to help schools figure out how to implement a complicated teacher evaluation system.

At least that’s the theory at the Department of Education, which is planning to put out a comprehensive guide to navigating the city’s new evaluation system this week, more than four months after the details were set.

It’s now six weeks into the school year, and teachers and principals have been raising red flags about the new teacher evaluations since even before the first day of school. They’ve complained about not having enough time, resources, and information to confront logistical challenges related to evaluations.

Department officials are aware of the gripes, and this week they acknowledged that the process hasn’t always been smooth.

“I think we have done a somewhat decent job,” Chancellor Dennis Walcott said of the rollout this week.

They’re responding with a series of stopgap fixes to aid with the rollout. They’ve extended deadlines, allocated millions in overtime pay, and consolidated the state’s 243-page evaluation plan for New York City into a 45-page guide.

Even teachers eager for the new evaluations, which will judge teachers on a four-rating score and be based on multiple measures, say they feel overwhelmed by the many changes happening at once this year. At an event hosted this week by Educators 4 Excellence, which supports new evaluations and is generally optimistic about school reforms under the Bloomberg administration, nearly 60 percent of teachers said they had been “poorly informed” or “very poorly informed” about the evaluation system.

“I think it’s been a huge lift for us to get information out there,” said Deputy Chancellor David Weiner, who added that he was actually surprised at how many teachers said they had been informed about the changes.

One reason for the information gap, Weiner said, was that the department and the teachers union learned of the plan’s specifics just four months ago. Since the city and the union repeatedly failed to negotiate a deal on its own, State Education Commissioner John King imposed the plan on June 1, leaving officials to scramble to decipher the ruling and get the word out to teachers over the summer.

“We have done an enormous amount of work to try to get as many people as possible updated with information,” said Weiner. “But I think that this being the first year, that’s been a huge challenge.”

But United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew said that the city should have been prepared for a part of the evaluations that has perhaps been the biggest headache for teachers so far this school year, a series of new baseline tests required as part of an effort to measure student learning over the course of a school year. Measuring student growth over time was a requirement of the new evaluation system since legislators set its first contours in 2010.

“There was nothing new in John King’s decision about baseline assessments,” said Mulgrew. “You can’t say they didn’t know about that until June 1. That was in the law.”

The tests have taken up lots of class time, but scoring them is taking even longer. It’s an issue that has even alarmed state officials, who said this week that they want to make sure that districts aren’t testing students too much.

To make time, many principals have hired substitutes while teachers grade assessments during the school day. Others have asked teachers to do the scoring over the weekend.

The city is reimbursing schools for some of this work. In September, the department told principals their flexible spending accounts would be increased by $200. In addition, schools are receiving between $1,500 and $2,095 based on size, which amounts to at least $2.4 million across the city. Funding for the overtime pay is coming out of the $100 million that the city set aside to train teachers on new evaluations and to adopt Common Core learning standards.

But that still won’t be enough to cover all of the overtime costs associated with grading. So the city also announced this week that it was extending the deadline to complete grading by a week to Nov. 8.

Weiner said that the city would also be emailing teachers a “soup to nuts” guide to evaluations, which covers details about every step of the process beginning with initial and end-of-year meetings required between teachers and principals, “and everything in between.”