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The Politics of Teacher Evaluations

February 1, 2012
By Marc Bussanich, LaborPress City Reporter
Some politicians are claiming that unless the state finalizes its teacher evaluation system, it is at risk of losing $700 million in Federal Race to the Top money. The state’s teachers union worked hard to create a comprehensive and fair evaluation system. But Governor Andrew Cuomo demanded more reliance on standardized testing. The full implementation now hinges on when an appeals court makes a decision in favor of the union’s version or Cuomo’s.
Carl Korn, a spokesman for New York State United Teachers, said that even before President Obama’s Race to the Top initiative, teachers complained to the union that evaluations were very subjective and also punitive, fostering something of a “gotcha mentality.”
“An assistant superintendent or principal sitting in the back of the classroom and observing a teacher were wrong as often as they were right. They didn’t bother to follow-up with ways to improve teacher effectiveness,” said Korn.
He acknowledged that standardized tests do provide a basis for student growth. “When a teacher gives a test, they are interested in the results because they want to learn how a student performed, which provides insight for altering future instruction if necessary.”
But, Korn stressed, student test data use should be limited. “Firstly, standardized testing is to measure student achievement and learning. They were never designed for evaluations. A good evaluation system, in contrast, uses multiple measures, which allows for local control and collaboration.”
Korn noted when the state was not awarded Race to the Top in the first round of funding, it served as a wake-up call to the State Education Department, Board of Regents and NYSUT. Consequently, they worked together to design and develop a new teacher evaluation system that was comprehensive, rigorous and fair in May 2010.
The significance of the collaboration contributed to the creation of the Annual Professional Performance Review that modified Section 3012 of the state’s education law. Korn explained that APPR did a few things.
“For the first time, student test data would be factored into teacher evaluations. But whereas the Regents and state education department wanted to base 40 percent of evaluations on a single standardized test, we expressed serious concern that an overreliance on one test, which isn’t good for students and not fair for teachers, could lead to increased test prepping.”
As a result, the state agreed to 20 percent of a teacher’s evaluation shall be based on the state’s standardized test, and another 20 percent shall be based on locally developed measures of student achievement through collective bargaining, such as locally created tests.
“With locally designed measures, evaluations can be based on two, rather than one, data points,” Korn said.
The remaining 60 percent would also be based on locally designed measures, i.e., additional principal observations, portfolios, teacher classroom management skills and reflections.
APPR also established four categories to rate teachers’ performance: Highly Effective, Effective, Developing and Ineffective. If a teacher receives an “Ineffective” rating, it is the district’s responsibility to implement a strategic improvement plan to help a struggling teacher.
But if the teacher receives a consecutive “Ineffective” rating, even after getting district help, he or she is likely to be removed from their position within 60 days.
Korn noted that NYSUT supports the provision because the union wants only effective teachers in front of children, although the teacher is essentially without recourse.
Korn said, “If we are going to be serious about ensuring the best teacher is in every classroom, it means a certain number of teachers will have to leave the profession.”

But Korn also mentioned that APPR builds in due process for the teacher to appeal the negative rating, and cited that historically only two percent of the city’s teaching force has had to leave the profession due to negative ratings.
According to Korn, federal education officials recognized APPR’s attributes as a sound framework for teacher evaluations. As a result of the efforts of NYSUT, the Board of Regents and State Education Department, the feds awarded $700 million in RTT funding to New York in August 2010.
The Board of Regents was then tasked to draft regulations to implement APPR in September 2010, which it completed in May 2011. Korn noted that at the last minute, however, Governor Cuomo demanded that the Regents Board incorporate into the regulations more reliance on standardized test scores.
The Regents agreed to Cuomo’s demand and adopted the regulations on May 15, 2011. In turn, NYSUT challenged the regulations by filing a lawsuit in June 2011, claiming that the regulations are “inconsistent with state law.”
The State Supreme Court agreed with NYSUT in August 2011. Of course, the state appealed and a decision now rests with an appellate court. NYSUT maintains that the delay in fully implementing APPR rests at the feet of the State Department of Education, which could potentially jeopardize, again, hundreds of millions of dollars of federal money.
Governor Cuomo said in his State of the State that because APPR is not being implemented, districts are foregoing teacher evaluations. But Korn refuted the claim by saying that there are 90 districts in the state that are using teacher evaluation plans, and in another 365 districts some or all teacher evaluation plans are being considered.
“What we’ve been saying is that it is very important to do this [evaluations] right. Not just to do it. The teachers’ union and school districts have been working hard to do it right, and now they’re looking for clarity from the department of education.”
Korn reiterated that there is a place for standardized testing in the realm of evaluations. “We don’t want to completely ignore that testing is a fact of life.”
He continued, “But what we’re talking about is ensuring that test data is used appropriately to avoid over relying on test data to the point it narrows the curriculum and leads to too much test prepping where students aren’t really learning but only getting good at bubbling-in.”

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