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Teachers carry their views on evaluations from online to Albany

Teachers often complain that politicians and bureaucrats rarely craft education policy with an eye towards their experiences inside the classroom.

Hoping to help fix that problem, a new project has vaulted the conversations and insights of one group of New York teachers from online message boards onto the desks of the state’s top education officials.

Last October, a group of about 60 teachers began logging onto a website called the VIVA Project. On the site, they began discussing a question: What measures should considered as part of the state’s new system for evaluating teachers?

In January, four of those teachers delivered lessons from that conversation to State Deputy Education Commissioner John King, one of the officials charged with creating the regulations that the new evaluations will follow.

The program (VIVA stands for “Vision Idea Voice Action”) is a pilot designed to help teachers brainstorm ideas with each other, and then connect the teachers to public officials to share the results of those brainstorms. Another group of teachers brought together by the program — more than 150 teachers from 27 states — presented U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan with a report on the biggest challenges facing classroom teachers.

From the 60 who participated in the New York online forums, project organizers asked four teachers who had been especially active in the discussion to gather the group’s recommendations into a report to be presented to state education officials.

The teachers’ goal was to devise recommendations based on teachers’ own experience for what measures districts should consider when evaluating teachers, and how heavily each of those measures should be weighted.

The group was focused on breaking down “the culture of ‘closed doors'” where teachers rarely see what happens outside of their own classrooms, said Mark Anderson, who teaches a self-contained special education class at P.S. 58 in the Bronx and who was one of the four teachers who put together the final report.

“It’s a very isolating profession, just based on your everyday interactions,” Anderson said. “We should be collaborating across those boundaries.”

The online forums and the smaller task force are one way to start breaking down those walls between teachers, Anderson said. But the group also tried to think about how new forms of evaluation could also help teachers connect across classrooms and learn from one another within a school.

Under the state’s teacher evaluation deal passed last May, teachers will be given a score on a new 100-point scale, with 40 of those points determined by student achievement data.

The remaining 60 points will be determined through “local assessments,” which will take forms that must be negotiated by school districts and their local unions. The law leaves open what those assessments could look like. Newly-developed tests or portfolio demonstrations of student work are two ideas that state officials have mentioned as possibilities.

One aspect of the local assessments is clear: they all must meet new regulations that are currently being developed by a state task force led by Deputy Education Commissioner John King. The group of teachers presented their report to King in hopes of influencing the final regulations laid out by his task force.

The group ended up recommending that the 60 points be spread across five different evaluation measures, giving the most weight to observations by school administrators and other teachers in the school. A sixth measure — student portfolio work — was considered but abandoned, because the increase in paperwork for teachers seemed too high for the value the portfolios would provide for the evaluations, Anderson said.

Underscoring their recommendations was the belief that using principal and peer observations as the core of teacher evaluations will also help open schools up and give teachers and school staff the opportunity to learn from one another, with an effect that would travel up the policy chain:

Teacher evaluations provide an opportunity to open doors to the process of ongoing communication and collaboration. Teachers can receive feedback needed to improve their instructional delivery and also gain recognition for their successes. Principals can acquire insight into the talents of the teachers and other professional staff in their school and make organizational and professional development decisions accordingly. District leaders and policy makers can readjust resources, programs and policies according to assessed need.

Here is how the group of teachers recommending distributing their five measures of teacher evaluation:

Read the group’s full report (in pdf form), which offers more detail on how they recommend teachers be evaluated and why, here.

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