New Teacher Evaluation Procedures: Unfair and Uncertain

The new teacher evaluation procedures that are slated to become the standard in NYS are both uncertain and unfair. The fundamental problem is that it’s hard to assess the efficiency or fairness of an evaluation system that doesn’t exist yet. There are too many unknowns to be able to judge which is one of the arguments for piloting an evaluation system before bringing it to scale.

In a well written article in The Washington Post, Aaron Pallas, professor of sociology and education at Teachers College, Columbia University, clearly states that “the laws of New York recognize the labor-management fault line, but they do little to guide a collective-bargaining process toward agreements in the many districts in which teacher-evaluation systems are contested. Each side brings a powerful public value to bear on the disagreement. For the employers, it’s all about efficiency. It’s in the public interest, they argue, to recruit, retain and reward the best teachers, in order to maximize the collective achievement of students. For teachers, the key concern is fairness. Fairness is primarily a procedural issue: Teachers, and the unions that represent them, seek an evaluation process that is neither arbitrary nor capricious, relying on stable and valid criteria that they believe accurately characterize the quality of their work. In this view, an evaluation process is unfair to the extent that it can be manipulated by a building administrator or school district to yield a particular rating for a teacher’s performance. It is also unfair if random factors beyond a teacher’s control unduly influence the evaluation of his or her performance.

There’s evidence that with proper training, observers can reliably rate teachers’ classroom practices, but the nature of the training is critical, and there is no evidence to date of New York State’s ability to prepare thousands of principals to carry out multiple observations of many teachers, teaching many different school subjects, each year.

There is even uncertainty about whether the evaluations can or should be based solely on a teacher’s performance in a single year. The statute creating the new evaluation system in New York describes it as an “annual professional performance review.” But is this a professional performance review that occurs annually, or a review of annual professional performance—that is, a teacher’s performance in the most recent year? The guidance provided by the New York State Education Department suggests that it has no idea.

For 2011-12, only one year of teacher or principal student growth percentile scores will factor into each educator’s evaluation. When more years of data are available, NYSED will consider whether each evaluation year should include more than one year of educator student growth results. Empirical and policy considerations will determine the decision.

In other words, an “off” year where a teacher is ranked relatively low compared to other teachers might affect his or her ranking in subsequent years. But a good observational rating in a given year seemingly will have no spillover effect into subsequent years. Civil servants, as agents and employees of the state, arguably are subject to a different set of rights and responsibilities than those working in the private sector and teachers are one of the largest groups of such public servants. What’s an acceptable tradeoff between efficiency and fairness in the mix of teachers’ rights and responsibilities? It’s a lot easier to speculate about percentages in the abstract than to confront the possibility that a teacher, no matter how well they perform in the classroom, might be out of a job because of an untested teacher-evaluation system that cuts corners on fairness.”

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