Across the country, the debate over how best to evaluate teachers has emerged as the most polarizing education issue in recent memory. Look no further than Chicago, where thousands of teachers are walking the picket line today in part because the local union and the city can’t come to terms on what an evaluation system should look like.
Here in New York City, the lack of meaningful evaluation, while not as dramatic, is just as damaging as 75,000 teachers returned to class last week without a long-promised system to provide them the vital feedback they crave. Teachers, including our 5,000 Educators 4 Excellence members in New York, want to be the best they can be for their students, but how can they improve their craft without a meaningful way of getting feedback?
When I taught middle school students at I.S. X303 Leadership and Community Service in the Bronx, we’d proudly paste certificates of achievement to our doors that were publically awarded at our staff meetings. When I got a certificate it felt great to be recognized and celebrated in front of my peers. The certificates, however, were not for excellence in instruction or for having helped a student overcome an obstacle in their learning; they were for teacher attendance. Attendance is certainly important, and the certificates set a good example for our students, but I would have preferred them to reflect my successes in teaching. However, there was no system for my principal to accurately and fairly measure that.
A comprehensive evaluation system would, for the first time, provide educators real feedback on their work based on multiple factors, including their students’ progress on state assessments, multiple classroom observations and peer reviews. It would replace our current and wholly inadequate performance system, which is limited to a rating of “satisfactory” or “unsatisfactory” based on little more than an observation and checklist. Earning an “S” or “U” at the end of the year is hardly useful for improving our craft for delivering for our students. Imagine if we gave our second graders a “pass” or “fail” at the end of the year with little feedback during the previous ten months - no tests, no extra help when they struggled with a topic, no edits to writing or in-class feedback.
I share concerns about evaluations being used politically or for personal retribution. But that’s why we need to get the evaluations right, to ensure they provide meaningful, objective and most importantly helpful feedback. There are also reasonable concerns about the added demands on teachers' and principals’ time. However, as educators we know what thoughtful, productive evaluations look like. We use them every day with our students. Evaluation in the classroom is constant and comes in many forms – including exams and quizzes, essays and homework, worksheets and presentations, and the comprehending nods or confused corkscrew grimace on students’ faces. Teachers use combined data to know when and if our explanation made sense, if our lessons were effective, and if individual students and classes as a whole are learning what we teach.
Our students benefit from this feedback; evaluation is essential to good teaching. Our teachers deserve the same.
As an added benefit, a meaningful evaluation system would also allow us finally to have productive conversations about how to reward great teachers and provide them opportunities for professional growth. These are two things that studies like the recent report on "irreplaceable" educators confirm would help schools retain their best educators. Today’s college graduates have a wider range of job opportunities than ever before, and attracting the best people to teaching will require treating them like professionals, supporting their goals and recognizing when they succeed, and yes, when they fail.
The state has given districts including New York City a January deadline to put an evaluation system in place or else forfeit hundreds of millions of dollars in state funds. So far, that threat hasn’t persuaded either side to negotiate in a significant way. It’s baffling given the fact that one sticking point between them — how to ensure teachers who are found ineffective still receive due process — was resolved at the state level months ago. It seems that striking a deal should have been swift and easy.
Last week the city and the union expressed hope and optimism about the negotiation process. Let’s hope they can turn that into a handshake soon, before students and teachers lose another year to those willing to put political interests ahead of human ones.
Jonathan Schleifer is the executive director of Educators 4 Excellence New York.