Schools wrestle with teacher evaluation law

Many headaches are being worked out as school districts face the new mandate for checking up on the

Regents exams aren’t given in music, art and technology classes, but schools may have to design tests for those subjects to comply with the state’s new teacher evaluation law.

That is one example of many headaches being worked out as school districts face the new mandate for checking up on the quality of teaching.

Under the Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR) law, which was adopted in 2011, districts must annually evaluate teachers and principals. The state set the basic framework, requiring that 20 percent of the evaluation score be based on standardized test results. Another 20 percent is based on locally developed tests. The remaining 60 percent is based on classroom observation and other traditional evaluation measures.

Under the new system, teachers are rated as either highly effective, effective, developing or ineffective. Teachers rated “ineffective” are required to participate in a teacher improvement plan. If they have not improved their performance after the second year, they could be removed from the classroom as part of an expedited process that must occur within 60 days.

The state left it up to individual districts to negotiate the specifics of their plans. Creating evaluations for subjects that often don’t have a year-end test is one of the many details to be worked out between school districts and unions. Other issues include creating an appeals process for teachers unhappy with their scores and ways to provide professional development for struggling teachers.

Districts are required to submit their plans to the New York State Education Department. Because all these issues have to be worked out, only 214 of the roughly 700 school districts in the state had filed plans by July 20, according to SED officials. Only 164 had submitted by the initial July 1 deadline. Schools must turn in their plans by Jan. 1, 2013 at the latest or they risk not getting the planned 3.5 percent increase in state aid.

It is a complicated process involving a lot of paperwork, according to Burnt Hill-Ballston Lake Central School District Superintendent Patrick McGrath, who compared it to filing taxes electronically. “You can’t submit it until you’ve ironed out every single detail. If you move too fast, you’re going to be unhappy with the end product,” he said.

For subjects that don’t have end-of-the-year exams, McGrath said districts such as Mohonasen, his former district, are creating “Student Learning Objectives,” or SLOs, of what students should know by the time they complete the course.

For example, McGrath said maybe the final exam for the technology class would be a project. All the technology teachers would have to get together during the summer and come up with the criteria that will be used for the project to determine how students will demonstrate academic growth.

Lots of tests

However, McGrath said the district can reach a limit to how many exams it can give students. “You’re pre-testing and post-testing these kids. You’re going to be testing all year round,” he said.

That concern is shared by Schalmont Superintendent Valerie Kelsey, who said testing will almost double for students taking both a final exam and a Regents.

Kelsey also expressed concern about whether these additional student tests would improve teaching.

“You reach a point: how much time can you spend on assessment? You need to have instructional time,” she said.

Another downside of the new system is that some students do not do well in school because of behavioral or emotional problems. Also, students who have already been accepted into college may get “senioritis,” according to Kelsey.

“They may not do well on that exam because they choose not to, but the teacher is going to be evaluated on that behavior,” she said.

Schalmont turned in its plan by the July 1 deadline. One reason: It was already in the midst of contract negotiations with its teachers’ union. Kelsey said the teachers association created a special subcommittee focused just on the evaluation process — separate from the salary discussions.

The process wasn’t so much difficult as it was time-consuming, according to Kelsey.

Kelsey said principals have spent 20 hours on their own, learning about how they will evaluate teachers. Probationary teachers will have four observations per year — two “long” and two “short.”

Greater Amsterdam School District Superintendent Thomas Perillo agreed that the process is complex, saying that hundreds of hours have been spent on negotiations.

“We’re making a lot of progress; we’re making good headway. We do expect to submit by the beginning of the school year,” he said.

The ultimate result will be a positive effect on teaching and learning, according to Perillo.

Teachers anxious

Fear of the unknown is another big factor that is holding up completing these agreements, says Niskayuna Central School Superintendent Susan Kay Salvaggio.

“We’ve got great teachers at Niskayuna and we’re a really high-performing school. Even at Niskayuna, people are concerned ‘is my score going to be published? What’s it gong to be based on?’ ” Salvaggio said.

Other areas of concern are the appeals process that must be established if teachers are unhappy with their scores. This replaces the more informal discussions between teachers and administrators who evaluate them.

“Normally, we would just have a conversation about it,” she said.

Like Schalmont, Schenectady was also in the midst of contract negotiations with its union, the Schenectady Teachers Association, when it developed its evaluation plan. In addition, Schenectady got a head start on the process as it was required to develop a separate plan for the high school as part of a $2 million School Improvement Grant. The state withheld $2 million in funding until the district completed an evaluation system. That plan based 80 percent on classroom observation and 20 percent on local test scores. State testing wasn’t a part.

Patty Paser, assistant to the Schenectady superintendent of schools, said the district is designing pre- and post-tests that would show student growth for those subjects that don’t give year-end state exams.

The district is creating its own local tests instead of purchasing one from an outside company because Superintendent Laurence Spring believes it will be more effective.

“Generally speaking, those are assessments that have been created for something else and they’re trying to adapt it to this,” Spring said.

Probationary teachers who have not achieved tenure will receive three observations — two formal and one unannounced, according to Paser. Tenured teachers would be receive one formal and one unannounced visit.

‘Sputnik moment’

Spring said he believes the new teacher evaluation system is education’s “Sputnik” moment, referring to the 1957 launch of the Soviet satellite, which prompted the United States to increase its focus on education for fear of falling behind Russia. Educators are using the same standards, language and tools to improve student learning.

“This is one of those things that is a universal starting point for folks. Now, it’s forced a conversation for all of us around a common set of things,” he said.

The growth model is good for Schenectady, Spring said, because some students are starting from behind academically.

“It takes more than a year to take students up to where they need to be,” he said.

If the teachers were only being scored on whether students were proficient, even teachers who got the students almost to the standard but still fell short would be considered as a failure, according to Spring.

If teachers are unhappy with their score, Paser said an appeals committee made up of two tenured teachers selected by the teachers union and two tenured administrators would review the decision. If it agrees with the score, it would be final. If they disagree, it would go to another committee made up of new members for a final decision.

The principal evaluation system is set up very similarly but the instead of individual classes, their principals’ scores are based on the achievement of the entire building and observations.

Spring said everybody has anxiety about this system because it changes the way teachers’ competency is judged.

“We’ve got to work together. We need each other to make this happen,” he said.

New York State United Teachers spokesman Carl Korn said he believes the pace of submissions is picking up as only 60 districts had completed their plans by June by the organization’s count. The more districts that file their plans, the easier it is for other districts that have not yet submitted because they can compare themselves to others.

“If Scotia-Glenville feels like they’re stuck, they might be able to turn to Burnt Hills, Niskayuna and Schenectady and see their plans. What have they come up with?” he said.

Korn agreed that it is a complicated process. He noted that 70 percent to 80 percent of teachers don’t give a test in their subject, so districts and unions have to negotiate those tests. Even guidance counselors have to be evaluated in this new system.

“School districts are not only trying to put in place comprehensive, rigorous and fair evaluation plans, they’re doing it at a time in which new standards are being introduced, new tests are being tried out and under the constraints of a property tax cap and a recession that has led to deep cuts in state and local support for schools,” he said. “It is vitally important that districts and unions do it right, and they just don’t do it to meet an artificial deadline.

Korn said the teacher evaluations are not intended to be a “gotcha” for a teachers who are rated ineffective but it is more about creating professional development that helps all teachers to improve.

“I think the theme is we see these evaluation systems as opportunities for teachers to have a voice in their own professional growth and for districts to invest in professional development,” he said.

McGrath agreed that the end result of these negotiations is improved teaching.

“The goal of everybody is the professional development plan to get instruction to be better and better in the classroom — rather than putting together a plan for the sake of putting together a plan,” he said.

Categories: -News-, Schenectady County

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