Yasmeen Khan is a reporter covering education. You can find her stories on the air and on SchoolBook.org, WNYC’s education website.
Negotiations for a new evaluation system for teachers and principals are coming down to the wire in New York City, with a Jan. 17 deadline for having a plan submitted and approved by the New York State Education Department. At stake is a $300 million increase in state education aid which city officials have already budgeted for this school year.
The current evaluation system, with an observation checklist and either a “satisfactory” or “unsatisfactory” rating, is widely considered inadequate, largely because it does not provide meaningful feedback for teachers.
Wendy Menard, a math teacher at Midwood High School in Brooklyn, said she and her colleagues want to learn how to improve and experiment in their jobs.
“It’s a profession in which you can constantly grow and, to my mind, one in which you should want to continually grow,” Menard said. “If you don’t want to grow anymore, then I think you shouldn’t be teaching.”
This sentiment is the basic premise of a new evaluation system, and is a sentiment enshrined in state law. Still, with various subcommittees from both the teachers’ union and Department of Education meeting regularly behind closed doors, the two sides have not finalized an agreement. To Michael Mulgrew, the teachers’ union president, the D.O.E. is not doing its part to ensure that a new agreement outlines how teachers will get the support they need to develop professionally.
“Would you please talk to us about how you are going to train and we are going to come up with a system where 1,700 schools actually become support systems for teachers to help them help kids,” Mulgrew said. “All they want to talk about is how to get rid of teachers.”
But Schools chancellor Dennis Walcott called that assertion a myth when speaking to a group of teachers at an event earlier this week sponsored by the group Educators 4 Excellence.
"The reality is, the system will recognize teachers whose good work currently goes unrecognized," he said, "and the system will provide feedback and support to all of our teachers. Our goal is to make sure we provide feedback and to grow our teachers to be outstanding teachers."
But Walcott would not specify the sticking points preventing the two sides from finalizing an agreement when asked by reporters, nor would he characterize how far along negotiations are. He did say, however, that he was optimistic a deal would be reached by the deadline.
The basic framework of a teacher evaluation plan was settled earlier this year at the state level. The new evaluation system, for all districts statewide, will include a four-tier rating system: Highly Effective, Effective, Developing and Ineffective. The evaluations will be used to make decisions about promotion, termination and tenure, among other issues.
As outlined in state law, 40 percent of the evaluation must be based on student achievement, and half of that portion must be based on students' test score growth over one year. This applies to those who teach tested subjects, like English and math. The other half can include other measures of student performance negotiated at the local level, such as academic projects. The remaining 60 percent of the evaluation must be based on classroom observations and other subjective measures. Some districts have included student feedback or a review of lesson plans as part of this measure.
"How you move from that framework into implementation is where the challenge is," said Richard Iannuzzi, president of the state teachers' union, New York State United Teachers. What may be complicating the process now, he said, and perhaps shaking the confidence of teachers, is that the evaluation system relies partly on student test scores at a time when the tests are evolving to align with new Common Core learning standards.
Still, once a number of districts took the plunge and submitted plans, he said, more and more districts followed suit. So far, at least 625 out of New York's 700 school districts have submitted plans. The state has approved just over 250 those, and posted each of them on its website.
The process of reviewing plans is an arduous one that takes up to six weeks and requires at least two separate reviews, possibly a third to reconcile differences. The state is therefore recommending that remaining districts submit their plans by Dec. 1, said Dennis Tompkins, a spokesman for the New York State Education Department.
Walcott said he would like to wrap up negotiations during the month of December.
In the meantime, there is much on the table to consider. One hold-up, Mulgrew said, was hammering out the complex details of student learning objectives, the part of the evaluation based on student work. The discussion over these finer points takes time, Mulgrew said.
"That's tough stuff," he said. "Because you have to do every grade level and every subject area in every type of student setting," such as when working with special education students in different types of classroom settings.
Principals are also in negotiations with the D.O.E. Although they have had talks on and off for the past year, the principals' union and the city are still in the early stages of detailed discussions, said Chiara Coletti, chief spokeswoman for the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators.
But unlike the teachers' agreement, Coletti said, the evaluation plan for principals is far less complicated. She said principals already have a strong evaluation plan in place that encompasses much of what is outlined in the state's new law. She said she is hopeful that adaptations to the principals' plan will be settled by the January deadline.