The greatest single factor impacting a student’s ability to learn is the quality of the teacher in the classroom. But right now, parents across the state cannot count on a system that rates 95 percent of teachers across New York state as effective, despite the fact that just a third of public school students are considered proficient in English and math. Something doesn’t add up and something has to change so students across the state get the education they deserve no matter what school they attend. Central to that improvement is developing a better system to assess the educators.
On Monday, the state Education Department will be presenting to the Board of Regents a plan for the teacher evaluation system that was passed by the Legislature as part of this year's state budget. The goal of this new system is to not only improve teachers in public schools but at the same time give kids the tools they need to get ahead. Even though changes to the existing system were passed just a few weeks ago, Albany special interests are now pressuring policymakers to scuttle the reforms. As the noise on this issue gets louder and threatens to drown out sensible discourse, we should all take a step back and understand how we got to where we are, and why this issue is so important for the future of public education in New York.
A strong teacher evaluation system is central to improving teacher quality. It provides the means to recognize and reward great teachers so we can learn from and replicate their success. It also helps to identify those who need help so they can get the extra training they need to be effective. For those who are not cut out for the profession, it will help to identify them, too, before they get to take advantage of benefits like lifetime job security that should be earned.
For a teacher evaluation system to be truly effective, it should set clear, rigorous performance expectations for teachers that lead to strong student achievement. Evaluations should use objective data to fairly and reliably measure teacher performance against those standards. There must also be a way to provide teachers with valuable feedback that helps them improve their practice, as well as a way to share information with districts so they can retain their best teachers, remove persistently poor performers and address the talent gap in schools that results in our neediest students getting less effective teachers.
New York’s teacher evaluation system currently falls short of meeting these goals, as it often fails to accurately reflect teacher performance or provide a level of differentiation commensurate with student growth. In 2013, 97 percent of teachers in Syracuse were rated “effective” or “highly effective” despite statewide student proficiency rates of 8 percent in math and English language arts. The stark mismatch between evaluation ratings and student learning precludes teachers from getting the feedback they need to improve their practice and fails to provide principals the information they need to recruit and retain effective teachers and remove persistently poor performers.
Despite the overheated rhetoric coming from the teachers unions, no one in the education reform movement questions the value of the teaching profession. In fact, it’s because we understand how important teachers are that we fight so hard to ensure that every child has access to an effective teacher.
If we, as a state, are serious about improving the quality of teaching in New York, it starts with establishing an effective way to measure the performance of teachers. Every student in our state deserves access to great teachers and a strong teacher evaluation system is the first step in ensuring equitable access to high-quality instruction.
Jenny Sedlis is executive director of StudentsFirstNY.
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