State education officials are scrutinizing teacher evaluation plans statewide, making sure school districts don’t try to skirt the law by promising unions that the teacher ratings won’t affect their employment.
The state Education Department sent two letters rebuking the Buffalo City School District for agreeing to a side deal with the Buffalo Teacher Federation stating that no teacher would be negatively affected by the ratings. State officials said they believe agreements such as this could void districts’ entire evaluation plans and cost them state funding.
Implementing the new evaluation system — which uses student test scores and classroom observations to rate teachers as either highly effective, effective, developing or ineffective — has been a source of consternation for school districts, including those locally.
Teachers rated developing or ineffective are required to develop a teacher improvement plan. Ineffective teachers who have not improved their performance after the second year “may be charged with incompetence and considered for termination through an expedited hearing process,” according to state law.
That doesn’t necessarily mean they will be removed from the classroom. New York State Education Department spokesman Tom Dunn said “may” is the key word in this part of the law.
The New York State School Boards Association said it wasn’t aware of any side deals that its member school districts had with unions concerning the evaluations, but spokesman David Albert said it was reaching out to its members. “This is the first time we’ve heard about it,” he said.
New York State United Teachers spokesman Carl Korn also said the issue hasn’t been raised and he didn’t know if there were any such agreements in NYSUT’s districts.
“Eighty percent of the teacher evaluations are collectively bargained between local unions and districts. This is between a district and its local union and we have no way of tracking it,” he said.
The purpose of the evaluation plan is to improve teaching practices to enhance student learning, according to Korn.
“The focus should be on helping good teachers to get better and great teachers to become exceptional. It’s not a game of ‘gotcha’ in which districts should be looking to punish,” he said. “That is why professional development and training is built in throughout the system.”
Niskayuna Central School District Board member Robert Winchester said he wasn’t familiar with the Buffalo situation, but said there is much that is unknown about how the teacher evaluation process is going to work since it is the first year.
“Which takes precedence: Past practice, the law on tenure, this latest [performance review] plan? There’s not a simple, clear way to answer that question at this point,” he said. “As we move along, I’m sure we’ll get answers to that.”
Winchester said the board wants to use the teacher evaluations to improve the quality of instruction in the district.
“It is not intended to be punitive,” he said.
Board Vice President Deb Gordon agreed that implementing the teacher evaluation system has been a confusing process, but said the district is in compliance with the state.
“It’s been a lot of work involved … hashing and rehashing and negotiating. We’re coming along. It’s just a work in progress,” she said.
There are a lot of moving pieces in the teacher evaluation plan. Scotia-Glenville Teachers Association President Eric DeCarlo said 20 percent of a teacher’s score is based on students’ state test scores. Another 20 percent is based on local tests and the remaining 60 percent is based on traditional methods of evaluation such as classroom observation, according to DeCarlo.
“Each individual district decides on how they’re going to do that,” he said.
However, there are some specifications spelled out in the law such as how many observations of teachers’ classrooms must be announced ahead of time and how many can be unannounced.
Also, he added that the evaluation must be based on specific criteria consisting of facts — not opinions. A statement such as “students didn’t seem to be interested in the lesson” is an opinion, according to DeCarlo. “Students were sleeping” is a fact.
DeCarlo said if teachers are deemed ineffective after a second year, they can be terminated through an expedited review process before the commissioner that must occur within 60 days. He believes that districts won’t have to spend a lot of time and money to remove an ineffective teacher. “It still is important that teachers get due process,” he said.
The current process to fire a tenured teacher can take up to two years.