Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Teacher Evaluation and the Lesson of Teaching for the 21st Century (RIP)

Carol Burris, the principal who started the letter of objection to the way the teacher evaluation system is being developed with hundreds of fellow principals signing on, has claimed that a teacher will be in danger of receiving a failing evaluation if only the "objective/student test score" measures are not up to snuff, even if that teacher performs well on the other more subjective portions of assessment (link below). 

Leo Casey, the High School Vice President of the UFT, claims Burris is engaged in "alarmist conclusions." See his well-written, if lengthy, article (linked below). He assures us that our saving grace is in the complexity of the new evaluation system and that Burris' claims are unfounded because the union will have considerable influence in negotiating the local assessments and other components of the evaluation system. Burris, however, claims that the NY State Commissioner can reject any proposed teacher evaluation system not deemed rigorous enough, read based on student test scores, thus being a sufficient condition for axing an teacher. Casey counters: "here is one essential point to remember: 80% of the total evaluation – the measures of teacher performance and the measures of student learning based on local assessments – are set through collective bargaining at the district level. This provides teacher union locals with an essential and necessary input into teacher evaluations..."

So who do you believe? I respect both of these individuals. It's about gambling on the future. You know how complex ideas pan out over time. Because of their complexity, there's plenty of room for loopholes, etc. History has a lot to do with it and the teachers' experience with their unions in the past and the state of  their rights in recent contracts. 

Let's face it. The past few contracts have seen a major erosion of core rights for teachers, and not just here in NYC.  I am a chapter leader, so I have little time to write these missives in the blogoshphere, as I engage in daily combat for my members trying to protect what rights they have left. So, I think alarmist reactions are in order, especially given anything of complexity negotiated by our union. 

I have been around long enough to remember a document called Teaching for the 21st Century. Most UFT members of unaware of its existence. Yet, it was the primary driver of their Article 8 rights, which include how teachers are to be observed and assessed as professionals. It came out in the late 90s and was heralded with much fanfare as a great collaboration between the Board of Education and the UFT. Indeed, there were things we were excited about. One new one was "Peer Observation", in component A, in lieu of formal observation with the principal. Our AP was ecstatic! Less work for him he thought. Good teachers can observe each other. The elaborate process of formal observation, component B, was also spelled out in ways that showed how the teacher and principal would collaborate in an environment of mutual respect and transparency in pre-observation conferences. Teacher support protocols for less than satisfactory teachers were also outlined. Article 8 is still on the books, meaning it's still in our contract. But reading the Teaching for the 21st Century document tells a tale of a time long gone. 

Teachers who were good enough could be creative in collaborating with the administration a professional development plan for the year, which would provide the basis of their evaluation. Teachers struggling had numerous individual conferences and observations with elaborate improvement plans. It was also understood in Teaching for the 21st Century that informal observations were generally not written up, unless the teacher agreed to numerous short visits. 

Today's reality is very different. I have heard over the last 10 years other chapter leaders complain about principals engaging in snapshot (drive by informal observations) being written up with "unsatisfactory" slapped on the page just above where the teacher was ordered to "sign" for the file. We had that at Murry Bergtraum High School last year until a strong backlash by our members due to its impact on staff morale.  We have group pre-obs where we are told what they (administrators) want to see. Informal observations are often written up and placed in the file to U rate the teacher at the end of the year. This has gone on for several years. The spirit of Teaching for the 21st Century is long dead. It's only fitting then that the UFT's success rate at overturn U ratings of their members is something like 5 percent. 

With a track record like that and the vanishing of the spirit embodied in Teaching for the 21st Century should there be any surprise that UFT members will succumb to "alarmist" rhetoric? Or, will they read it and say, "Burris gets our reality". 

What we know is that what's negotiated in the past often gets eroded through arbitration decisions, persistent attacks by the administration thus wearing down a chapter leader and/or union grievance department's willingness to fight. Article 8, based on the promise of Teaching for the 21st Century, is dead. Will we be saying the same about some teacher evaluation scheme years down the road? Any evaluation system should be in negotiated IN PUBLIC, with simple terms and multi-faceted, without undue influence from state bureaucrats, but empowering local stakeholders like teachers, students and their parents. Complexity invites sophistry. Future contracts can turn a decent teacher evaluation scheme into a nightmare. 

Revisit  Teaching for the 21st Century  and ask yourself if it resembles your teaching reality now. Then ask yourself if you are being alarmist should you be uneasy about a new complex scheme being negotiated on your behalf. 

John Elfrank-Dana
UFT Chapter Leader
Murry Bergtraum High School


Anonymous said...

Great post!!!

zulma said...

It's good to have you back to blogging on your site. Great post. We've been so frantic with trying to understand the new teacher evaluation that many have forgotten about the document Teaching for the 21st century.

I hope you continue to blog.