Heading into Thursday’s summit on teacher evaluations, Chancellor Merryl Tisch said she and her colleagues on the Board of Regents were listening for “threads of agreement” to guide their decisions about the final policy.
Two of those threads became visible during the day-long event in Albany, with a consensus building among speakers that the role of outside evaluators must be limited and the Nov. 15 deadline for adopting a new teacher-evaluation plan must be extended for many, if not all, of the state’s school districts.
“The timeline is the stupidest thing ever,” United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew said in an interview after the event, in a blunt summation of many speakers’ opinions.
The event was organized by the State Education Department to gather feedback from groups who represent the people in schools and districts who will be affected by the new evaluation policy. State education officials have vowed to consider the opinions as they begin to fill in the details of Gov. Cuomo’s new teacher evaluation system, and how officials decide to deal with the outcry over the deadline will determine whether New York City teachers are evaluated under the new system next year, or not until 2016-17.
Last month, Tisch said she would give districts a nearly one-year extension to implement the new evaluation system if they have endured “hardship.” The debate has now shifted to what qualifies for “hardship,” and several groups on Thursday said the department should offer a broad definition so that many districts can qualify.
“There wasn’t one group that did not talk about the strenuous nature of the timeline,” Tisch said. “So we have to look at this very carefully.”
The state’s superintendents association recommended that districts already negotiating a contract with their teachers unions qualify, to keep the state funding increases that are tied to evaluation agreements from becoming a bargaining chip in unrelated talks.
Under that criteria, New York City wouldn’t qualify. The city and the UFT agreed on a new contract last year that won’t expire until 2018, and Mulgrew said they would be eager to come to an agreement on evaluations. But the union chief noted that implementing a new evaluation system for 1,600 schools and more than 70,000 teachers present logistical challenges that should qualify the city school system for an extension.
“What no other local [union] faces is, once that agreement is done, is training all the schools on it, which is our biggest problem,” Mulgrew said.
Mulgrew also offered some hints about how the UFT is leaning on other parts of the evaluation system that it will have to negotiate with the city once state officials finalize their guidance. He assumed that the union would push to allow teachers to observe their colleagues, something already happening in some schools, he said.
The city and the union will also have to haggle over whether to allow a second set of assessments to count for measuring student performance, a move that could reduce the weight of state test scores in a teacher’s evaluation. Many schools in the city have opted to use state tests as the sole measure of student performance under the current system — a decision that reduces testing but has frustrated art and physical education teachers — while other schools use assessments developed by city teachers.
“We have a lot of schools using a second assessment,” Mulgrew said, although he said he would wait for final recommendations from the state before deciding which side the union would come down on. “I told the [Delegate Assembly], when all these regulations are set we’re going to have a real conversation,” he added.
Generally, the groups representing teachers, superintendents, school boards, and principals recommended giving districts flexibility to decide how to craft their plans. They also lobbied to limit the role of the outside evaluators now legally required to evaluate teachers as much as possible, with the state teachers union recommending that the outside evaluator’s observation count for between 1 and 5 percent of a total observation score, while a principal’s observation would count for between 95 and 99 percent.
The disdain for the outside evaluator is both logistical and philosophical, in part because their presence is seen as undermining principals’ role as instructional leaders. But it ran in contrast to the views of two top education researchers, Harvard University’s Thomas Kane and University of California Berkeley’s Jesse Rothstein. Kane and Rothstein were at odds over the use of a growth model to calculate a teacher’s impact on student learning, but they both supported outside evaluators.
“There may not be many times today where Tom and I agree, so I want to point to this one where I think he’s absolutely right about the importance of an external evaluators,” Rothstein said. Splitting observations between principals and independent observers is “much more likely to lead to a process where the teacher gets helpful feedback,” he added.
But whether the hours of testimony had any impact on the opinions of the Regents and state education officials is unclear. They didn’t for Regents Vice Chancellor Anthony Bottar, who said he wasn’t surprised by anything he heard Thursday.
“It’s information we’ve received episodically over the last several months,” Bottar said, “but I think it’s helpful for everyone to come together to hear it, so that the stakeholder groups are hearing what we have heard. So it provided a forum for people to share this information.”
The department is expected to release their recommendations for the state’s evaluation system on May 18 and they must be approved by the Regents by June 30. Officials said they’re planning to work around the clock between now and then.