NY - Albany: New York State Department of Education Building
wallyg via flickr

At the same time as the State Education Department is publicly pressuring school districts to adopt new teacher evaluations by next month, it’s also quietly demanding that charter schools turn in their teachers’ ratings from last year.

Charter school advocates are urging most school leaders to ignore the demand, even though state officials  have said it’s needed in order to fulfill its Race to the Top plan. The advocates say the demand would be hard to fulfill and impinges on charter schools’ autonomy.

The standoff has its roots in the state’s 2010 application for federal Race to the Top funds. In its application to the U.S. Department of Education for funding, New York State said it would require schools to rate teachers according to specific guidelines and would collect ratings for all teachers, even in charter schools.

Some charter schools committed to sharing their teacher ratings at the time in order to receive some of the state’s $700 million in winnings. But two thirds did not — and the state wants their teacher ratings too, according to a series of updated guidance memos that officials have issued over the last 18 months.

City and state charter school advocates have pushed back against the demands throughout that time.

“Both the New York City Charter School Center and the New York Charter Schools Association believe that this reporting requirement does not properly apply to non-Race to the Top charter schools,” Charter Center CEO James Merriman and NYCSA President Bill Phillips wrote in a strongly worded email to school leaders last month. They added, “Ultimately, it is up to you whether you choose to report this data.”

So far, few school leaders have made that choice. By the original submission deadline Nov. 30, just 30 of 184 charter schools in the state had handed over teacher ratings from last year.The state has extended the deadline for charter schools to Friday, but advocates say that doesn’t change the situation.

“It’s not the date,” said New York City Charter School Center CEO James Merriman. “It’s the data.”

The state is not asking charters schools to adopt the same kind of evaluation system that it wants district schools to. Instead, it wants data from each school showing only that the school evaluate teachers on a four-tiered system — and it wants the actual ratings for teachers, too.

Merriman said the state’s demand is unreasonable because many charter schools don’t necessarily evaluate their teachers based on those guidelines.

“They are, in essence, asking charters to manufacture data that they may not have,” Merriman said. “That’s what’s so troubling to us.”

State officials said they believe that charter schools can rate their teachers with the information that they do have, as long as they have some kind of evaluation system.

Several charter school leaders said that move is easier said than done.

“I tried to play around with the [state’s] system, but it’s so different from how we do ours,” said the leader of a Brooklyn charter school. “So the data would be pointless.”

Ken Wagner, an assistant commissioner at the department, said he expected that the request will present challenges for charter schools and that some first-year submissions might not be perfect. He said he would be was less understanding if schools ignore the request entirely and refuse to comply.

“I think we’ve been very clear on our position and the charter folks who disagree have been very clear on their position,” said Wagner, who could not say what the consequences would be for schools that don’t submit ratings.

The state is even having a tough time getting teacher evaluation ratings from the 61 charter schools that are participating in Race to the Top. As of Nov. 30, the state had received evaluations from just 11 schools that had received grants.

That list does not include five schools from the Achievement First network, which received roughly $275,000 through the grant program. A spokesman said that the evaluations were sent before the Nov. 30 deadline to the New York City Department of Education, which is in charge of collecting data from the city’s charter schools and sending it on to the state.

The spokesman, Mel Ochoa, said he initially thought Achievement First hadn’t been notified of the deadline, but later corrected his statement.

Some schools have withdrawn from the Race to the Top program to escape burdensome requirements like the one about teaching ratings, sources said. In the last year, at least 19 schools have forfeited the grant money.

The rejection of teacher evaluation requirements also comes from a sector that has sought greater accountability for teachers, principals and schools. In their letter to school leaders, Merriman and Phillips said standardized evaluation rules are not a good fit for charter schools because the schools are held accountable in other ways.

“In traditional schools and districts, which may fail students for years without being closed, prescriptive rules about teacher evaluation may be the best policy available,” they wrote. “It is neither necessary nor appropriate for charter schools.”