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City's new tenure plan uses test scores, but for few teachers

Department of Education officials debuted a new tenure process today will affect only one in ten teachers up for tenure this year, but for the city’s teachers union, that’s one too many.

Answering Mayor Bloomberg’s demand that test scores be used in tenure decisions this year, the department has broadened the criteria that principals use in evaluating teachers to include teacher data reports. These reports rank teachers based on their students’ scores on the state’s math and English exams and compare them to others teaching similar students over several years. Department officials say the reports will only be used to alert principals to teachers who are at the top and bottom of the rankings.

When Chancellor Joel Klein first introduced the data reports in 2008, he made an agreement with former United Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten that the reports would not affect tenure evaluations or teacher pay. Today Klein doubled back on that agreement, sending a letter to principals that said including the data reports would make tenure more “meaningful.”

“Our goal is to align tenure decisions more effectively with the results you are achieving every day,” he said. “But let me be clear: we are not proposing to base tenure decisions on student test scores alone — that would be insufficient,” he wrote.

For the vast majority of the approximately 7,000 teachers who are eligible for tenure this year, the process will remain virtually unchanged.

That’s because most of them teach grades and subjects, such as high school physics, that aren’t covered by the state tests, meaning there’s no way for the city to produce teacher data reports for them. Of those eligible for tenure this year, only 700 will receive data reports that cover the same subject over two years of teaching — a precondition for the reports to be used in tenure decisions.

The way the new system will work, officials said, is that a software program will list all the teachers in a given school who are up for tenure this year. Those teachers who fall into the bottom or top 25 percent of the rankings will be red-flagged, alerting principals that the DOE recommends giving them tenure or cutting them loose. In total, about 160 teachers will fall into that bottom percentile.

Teachers who have previous unsatisfactory ratings or who are on extended probation will also be red-flagged.

Principals are free to ignore the recommendations, said a DOE official. A teacher who places high in the rankings can still be denied tenure if the principal provides rationale, and a teacher with low scores can receive tenure.

The city’s teachers union claims the DOE is violating a state law that bars test scores from being used to evaluate teachers, but the department says a loophole in the law makes this year’s tenure cases exempt.

“It is clearly bad educational policy to evaluate teachers through the use of state test scores that the state itself has deemed unreliable,” said United Federation of Teachers president Michael Mulgrew in a statement today. “Doing so for teachers covered by the statute is illegal.”

Beyond the legal concerns, there is widespread debate about whether the data reports are precise enough to be useful.

“The stability of these things is not so good,” said Sean Corcoran, a professor at the Institute for Education and Social Policy at New York University.

“The ones I’ve looked at cover three years and have a lot of uncertainty. It’s definitely the case that as you add more years of observations, these things become more stable and you can be a little more confident about whether a teacher is high or low achieving. But even with the 3 year estimates, there’s a lot of uncertainty.”

According to Corcoran, the data reports do a decent job of serving as warning signs that a teacher isn’t performing well, but by the time the report comes out, most principals already know the teacher is struggling.

The city plans to release teacher data reports from the 2008-2009 school year the week after teachers return from winter break. Following criticism that teachers and principals found the reports too difficult to understand, the reports are being redesigned.

Below is a sample teacher data report:

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