Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Controversial Teacher Evaluations: Reform or Ridicule? (March 2, 2012)

As midwinter recess for New York City public schools wrapped up last week, evaluations for 18,000 teachers were released. Some teachers were likely enjoying the break and paid no attention to the news, but the topic of conversation in teachers’ lounges across the city on Monday surely focused more on the reports than what they did on vacation.
After months of debate, legal battles and fierce opposition from the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) union, which argued the new evaluations “paint an unfair and incomplete picture of teacher effectiveness,” the reports were published last Friday. The union hotly contested the release of the rankings, but a court order upheld a Freedom of Information request by several news organizations. The data, however, only appraised about 20 percent of teachers in grades 4 through 8 in reading and math. The reports identify successful teachers, struggling teachers and those who can’t seem to help failing students and perhaps should be removed.
Due to pressure from Governor Andrew Cuomo, who vowed to propose his own option if the impasse was not resolved, the evaluations system has undergone needed reform. Any modifications probably won’t be entirely recognized for years, but, for now, the winds of change are gusting through public school hallways.
It’s easy to see why the UFT and teachers object to a method that gauges teacher effectiveness, as opposed to prior ratings that habitually gave 97 percent of city teachers a “satisfactory.” On the other hand, correctly analyzed teacher evaluations could prove to be an indispensable factor in transforming public education.
The UFT has exerted too much influence for too long, as it routinely trumpeted more concern for members’ wages and benefits than it did urging reforms to enhance the quality of education.
Under the new system, teachers will be ranked ineffective, developing, effective or highly effective. Under the current system unsatisfactory or satisfactory are the only ratings. “Ineffective” teachers will subsequently be required to follow a plan to deal with rated weaknesses. They will be monitored by principals and outside observers. If observers support the principals’ findings, the city could fire the teacher for incompetence. Under current standards, the city has the burden of proof, making dismissal much more difficult.
For the first time, all school districts will have to stick to demanding guidelines to assess teachers and principals, using a scoring system intended to take into account performance and student achievement. The union will no longer be able to defend unsuccessful teachers and keep them on the job due to contracts that were negotiated under deadline pressures.
Even so, the unions aren’t the only culprits to blame for problems that have inhibited progress. When the schools were operated by the defunct Board of Education, its directors oversaw and overlooked decades of mismanagement and waste, as students and schools suffered. With the makeover and name change to the Department of Education, some progress is evident, but there’s still a long way to go in a process that keeps evolving.
Furthermore, while many parents and guardians welcome the evaluations, they must also assume responsibility to ensure a student’s education doesn’t end when the school day does. They also bear accountability in a child’s education and must make a concerted effort to make certain a child uses sufficient time at home and after school to supplement classroom work.
After all, teachers are not glorified baby sitters or temporary child custodians. If they have to constantly discipline a few troublemakers and contain unnecessary distractions, the rest of the class suffers and is ultimately deprived of time to learn.
While the evaluation system has its flaws and shortcomings  as does the education system  it is a means to expose and weed out incompetent and insufficiently dedicated teachers who have, under their control, scores of young minds that would be a terrible thing to waste.
For teachers who dread the new evaluation system because it’s formulated to expose their deficiencies, perhaps it’s time to retire and collect pensions because they may be doing more harm than good for students whose intellectual curiosity and creativity was unfulfilled.
Above all, teachers who do their jobs with appropriate degrees of commitment and responsibility shouldn’t be concerned because the results will demonstrate their efforts and hard work. On the other hand, their peers getting by just by showing up might soon learn that they are in for a conspicuous wake up call.
At last, the union won’t be able to disguise the few rotten apples in the education barrel with polish. And public teacher evaluations won’t be as easy to erase as lessons on a blackboard.
It’s a teacher’s task to issue failing grades for poor-performing students, but now teachers will be evaluated when they fail to meet mandatory standards for a students’ education.