NYC evaluation deal dials back teacher observations to account for pandemic

The deal could require more teachers to be judged by test scores they don’t directly affect

Ashanty Peralta sitting at her desk while Math teacher Austin Ha writes on a whiteboard.
Bronx teacher Austin Ha delivers a math lesson. Under a new evaluation agreement, most teachers will receive a minimum of one observation from a school administrator. (Alex Zimmerman/Chalkbeat)

New York City officials are pressing forward with plans to evaluate educators this school year, after reaching a deal with union leaders that will reduce the minimum number of observations administrators must conduct and tweak the way student assessment data is used.

The changes mean administrators will not have to scramble to conduct lots of evaluations by June and also mean that more teachers may be judged based on assessments of students that they don’t directly teach.

The city will use the new evaluation system this year only to comply with the state requirement to assess teachers and principals while acknowledging that the pandemic has upended teaching and learning.

Last school year, Gov. Andrew Cuomo paused a state law that mandates those evaluations. But he has so far declined to issue a similar order this school year, despite ongoing pandemic-related disruptions and a request from the state’s education department. The evaluations are meant to help improve instruction, play a role in teacher tenure decisions, and may also be used as grounds to fire educators. (In practice, very few teachers are denied tenure or terminated due to poor ratings.)

The new agreement means that most teachers will be observed by an administrator at least once this school year at a minimum. Teachers who received lower ratings in their most recent evaluation, during the 2018-19 school year, will have a minimum of two observations. In the past, teachers received a minimum of between two and five observations, depending on their previous ratings or whether they had earned tenure. Teachers who received informal observations earlier this school year and earned an effective or highly effective rating do not need to be observed again, according to union guidance.

Union officials said the lower number of minimum observations was meant to keep formal feedback mechanisms in place without overemphasizing a moment when most teaching is being conducted remotely.

“The idea of spending a lot of energy on an evaluation that has the potential to have very little impact on instruction after we get through the pandemic seems like the wrong way to spend our energy,” said Mike Sill, director of personnel for the United Federation of Teachers.

Some educators previously expressed concern about how evaluations would be conducted virtually since they often pay close attention to the level of meaningful interaction and discussion among students, who may not be working as closely in socially distanced or remote classrooms. 

The deal tweaks the traditional rubric used to evaluate teaching to reflect some of those worries. Evaluators should “focus on what the teacher says and does, not what students say and do,” according to union guidance shared with teachers, noting they should not be dinged if remote students don’t have their cameras or microphones on. Teachers will also be allowed to submit video lessons of 20 minutes or less in lieu of one of their more traditional observations.

The other main ingredient of a teacher’s rating — student assessments — will also change this school year and will make it more likely that teachers are rated in part based on students they don’t actually teach, which may happen to a large share of educators even in a normal year.

Schools may rely on a range of assessments to measure student progress, including state tests, high school exit exams, essay-based tasks, or “running records,” which evaluate students as they read increasingly difficult texts — assessments which are either in flux or may be more challenging to pull off during the pandemic.

Under this year’s agreement, teachers will be assessed either on school-wide measures or a newly created citywide measure, meaning that more educators will likely be evaluated based on performance of students in other classrooms or even other schools that a particular educator did not teach, union officials said. (Education department officials said they have not yet determined what those citywide measures will be.)

Some observers said the use of citywide figures was likely the easiest way to comply with the strictures of state law and that the student assessment data is typically not that useful in understanding a teacher’s performance in the first place.

“Using something random like citywide numbers is sort of saying, ‘we’re paying tribute to the compliance requirement here as opposed to trying to invent something that would work better because there isn’t good solution,’” said Shael Polakow-Suransky, the president of Bank Street College of Education and a former chief academic officer for the city’s education department. “This is a moment where performance evaluation needs to take a second seat to keeping everything afloat.”

Danielle Filson, an education department spokesperson, said this year’s evaluation system was calibrated to assess teachers while accounting for the effects of the pandemic. “Evaluations this year hold our teachers and principals to high standards and identify areas for support, while also taking into account the challenges and trauma they have faced,” she wrote. 

Educators largely said the changes to the evaluation system made sense, given the requirement to have some kind of evaluation. Matt Brownstein, an assistant principal at P.S. 330 in Queens, said the pared-back number of observations that will be required at this point in the year “is not extraordinary or excessive” and is similar to the number of evaluations his administration would conduct at this point in the year.

Bobson Wong, a high school math teacher in Queens, said school leaders have already been giving feedback and making efforts to improve remote learning outside of the formal evaluation system – though he wondered why there wasn’t more emphasis on sharing ideas between schools.

“One of my biggest frustrations as a teacher is we haven’t gotten any real guidance from the city about remote learning,” he said. “Everything I’ve learned about remote learning has been done on my own with my colleagues.”

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