As tomorrow’s deadline looms for the New York City Department of Education and the United Federation of Teachers to reach an agreement on a new teacher evaluation system, much of the debate has focused on what the specific terms mean for teachers and for the millions of dollars the city schools stand to lose if a deal is not crafted in time.
These storylines are all dramatic. But both sides are missing a major issue: whether and how a new teacher evaluation system would advance educational equity and opportunity for the city’s over one million students.
Even after over a decade of mayoral control, the education landscape in New York City remains uneven and opportunities inequitable. A number of studies and reports, some initiated by the DOE itself, have illustrated the large and persistent gaps in attainment and opportunity faced by African-American and Latino students compared to their white peers. Disparities in the use of school discipline policies that push children out of school, along with inequitable access to rigorous curriculum and special schools and programs, help to drive these gaps. But a growing body of research indicates that the students who perform most poorly and who suffer the harshest forms of school discipline tend to have less access to great teachers, as measured across multiple criteria. So regardless of whether the DOE and UFT reach an agreement by the deadline, the new evaluation system will not mean anything unless it addresses the inequitable distribution of human capital — in other words, unequal access to high-quality, fully prepared, and effective teachers.
Fortunately, it’s not too late to address this issue. The following are three key principles for an equity-focused teacher evaluation system:
1. Evaluation data should inform the placement/distribution of teachers.
Too often students are relegated to schools that are set up to fail because they are under-resourced, both in terms of fiscal and human capital. Some schools and classrooms have too many novice or ineffective teachers; others have more experienced high-quality educators. That’s no way to run a school system; and it is unfair to students, teachers and well-intentioned school leaders alike.
The UFT has indicated that discussions regarding the teacher evaluation system should be linked to the union contract negotiations; and the DOE has implied that it is gravely concerned about equity and the quality of teaching. But both sides now have an opportunity to make these aspirations real. With the data produced by a robust teacher evaluation system, schools and districts can identify trends regarding which groups of students are served best by which teachers. The data produced by an evaluation system should be used to inform teacher assignment and transfer policies, with the explicit goal of ensuring that the students with the highest needs are taught by the best teachers.
Using evaluation results in this way first requires a sound evaluation system, something that has eluded the city to date. And any proposal to use evaluation results in this way would certainly mark a dramatic departure from current practice that could be potentially disruptive for both the city and the union if not responsibly executed. But it would be a mistake for them to squander the opportunity to use new information in new ways to boost equity.
2. Comprehensive evaluations should look to broad measures of teacher competency and effectiveness, without unduly relying on standardized test scores as a shortcut.
Although the New York State law sets some parameters for teacher evaluation systems, negotiation of additional terms by the DOE and UFT could lead to additional weight being placed on standardized test scores. This would be a mistake. Abundant research and a decade of experience under the No Child Left Behind Act have shown that placing too much emphasis on standardized test scores can produce negative results, encouraging schools to narrow curriculum by “teaching to the test” and creating perverse incentives to push out students whose test performance may threaten schools’ or teachers’ evaluation results. And some systems, like the DOE’s previous and now-abandoned test-driven system, produce flawed data that actually masks the inequities that are painfully apparent to anyone who visits classrooms in the city’s schools. Under that experiment, the DOE actually presumed lower rates of achievement for black, Latino, and poor students; therefore, even mediocre results and even minimal gains in test scores seemed like real growth.
An equity-based evaluation system could change this by providing more and better information about teachers than simply their students’ test scores. Such a comprehensive set of measures would include multiple, varied demonstrations of student learning and teacher practice, along with classroom observations of teacher performance by instructional leaders, and peer reviews. Student and family surveys have also been shown to be highly correlated with teacher practice; these instruments should be incorporated into teacher evaluations as well. Including these broad measures, with the proper weight given to each, would more comprehensively assess teachers and would also place the onus on school district leadership to ensure that every school and every classroom had truly well-rounded educators, not simply teach-to-the-test drones.
3. Evaluations should be used as learning tools, not just ways to fire teachers.
If equity is the true goal, evaluations should be used proactively to help teachers improve the quality of instruction, not simply to fire them. Failing to invest in improvement means kicking the can down the road, and another lost generation of students, while school officials offer the illusion of progress.
We simply do not have enough high-quality teachers to waste potential; and we do not have time to start from scratch each year with the constant churn of teachers that destabilizes schools. Rather, we should invest in the development of educators, especially those who work in high-needs schools, serve populations of students living in concentrated poverty, or serve populations with more extensive learning needs, so that those who do have potential have the supports they need to become excellent. And each teacher should receive professional development that targets areas identified as in need of improvement.
The outcome of this debate will have far-reaching implications. So it is important that any evaluation system the two sides agree upon is fair not only to lawmakers and teachers, but also to students. More than securing funding for New York City’s schools, an equity-focused evaluation framework can move the city toward equity in the educational opportunities offered to students. This is, indeed a golden opportunity. Let’s hope both sides take advantage of it.
Damon Hewitt is the director of the Education Practice Group at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.