It’s no surprise that teacher unions don’t like the teacher evaluation system now in place in New York state. They resisted evaluations for the longest time, until the Legislature authorized them and Gov. Andrew Cuomo threatened to withhold aid from any district that didn’t have a state-approved plan (and he has made good on his threat in the case of New York City.)
But the unions had a place at the table as these plans were negotiated district by district, and all agreed to comply. Except in Buffalo, that is, where the union got the district to agree to a secret side deal that said no teacher would be negatively affected by a bad rating.
The state Education Department and governor weren’t pleased, and rightly so, and on Thursday declared the side agreement void. The school district then rescinded the side agreement, and now the union president is moving to rescind the union’s agreement to teacher evaluations, an action that could result in the loss of millions of dollars in aid to the Buffalo district, one of the state’s neediest. What a mess!
Teacher evaluations, like the evaluations so many workers in the public and private sector are subject to, have several purposes. One is to look at strengths and weaknesses, as measured by student test scores and classroom observations, with an eye toward helping all teachers — but especially weaker ones — improve. Another is to know whether, after extra training and other help, that weak teacher has improved. Finally, evaluations make it possible to get rid of those teachers who just can’t make the grade, a process that now takes so long (about two years) and is so costly that districts seldom pursue it.
Firing bad teachers isn’t the primary aim of evaluations, but it’s a legitimate and sometimes necessary one. An excellent teacher makes a huge difference, as does a bad one. On average, the academic progress of students with excellent teachers is three times that of students with bad teachers : a year and a half in a year vs. half a year in a year. Inner-city schools like Buffalo, with large numbers of kids who struggle academically, need as many excellent teachers as they can get, and certainly can’t afford to have incompetent ones.
It’s not hard to tell which is which — and administrators know. But union protections in the past have made it too difficult to get rid of the incompetents. Now, according to state law, districts may charge an ineffective teacher with incompetence if there hasn’t been improvement after the second year, and have an expedited termination process before the commissioner within 60 days.
That’s may charge, not must. So districts still have plenty of discretion — probably too much. But even that isn’t enough for the Buffalo union, which wants to turn the may into can’t.
Teacher evaluations, like any significant change, are scary and can be expected to have some initial problems. But they should at least be given a chance. The state must insist that the Buffalo union comply with the law and live up to its word on evaluations.