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A teacher evaluation panel dissolves early after dissent

A panel discussion that featured officials on each side of the teacher evaluation stand-off was halted abruptly last night after a disagreement escalated. The disruption did not stem from the teachers union and Department of Education official on the panel, but from a small group of audience members protesting the event itself.

“Okay, I’m going to cut it off,” said moderator Evan Stone, following a crescendo of interruptions that built up for nearly five minutes. Stone is a founder of Educators 4 Excellence, which hosted the event. “Clearly, we’ve broken a lot of norms of respectability.”

The interruptions came from at least three people in an audience of more than 100, most of them teachers. They began in response to Stone’s handling of the panel and then escalated into an airing of grievances that targeted Educators 4 Excellence and its teacher evaluation recommendations, released yesterday, which the protesters said did not reflect their views.

“I am a teacher and I have never been asked what I thought,” yelled out Stuart Kramer Kaplan, one of the protesters.
(Click here for video of the exchange.)
Educators 4 Excellence is an advocacy group of teachers who hold shared views on education policy, many of which — like the group’s position against seniority-based layoffs — challenge traditional teachers union orthodoxy. Led by Teach For America alumni who are no longer in the classroom, the group has quickly gained a high profile with the support of national philanthropists, including the Gates Foundation.

The group organized the panel as part of its efforts to influence the teacher evaluation debate. Panelists included Shael Polakow-Suransky, the senior deputy chancellor at the Department of Education, and Leo Casey, the vice president of the United Federation of Teachers. Their respective organizations have not been able to hammer out an agreement on details of a teacher evaluation system. The panel also included a teacher, principal, and education consultant.

Earlier in the day, E4E released its own set of recommendations, which served as a major talking point for much of the evening.

For at least the first 90 minutes, those efforts created a productive dialogue. Polakow-Suransky and Casey engaged in a polite and wide-ranging conversation about best practices for improving instructional performance.

They reached consensus on the urgency for establishing new evaluation guidelines as well as the importance of more frequent classroom observations by school leaders and colleagues.

Polakow-Suransky stopped short of endorsing a recommendation by Educators 4 Excellence that teachers should be observed by outside consultants. He said that the estimated costs would reach upwards of $75 million annually. The cost of consulting contracts is a major target of City Council members pushing to avoid teacher layoffs by suggesting other cuts.

Towards the end of the evening, a brief dispute between Polakow-Suransky and Casey seemed to trigger the outbursts.

After Casey argued for keeping lawyers out of negotiations, Polakow-Suransky swiped back, reminding him that hours earlier the UFT filed a temporary restraining order to prevent the DOE from moving forward with any closure or co-location plans. (We’ll have more on the restraining order later today.)

“One arrives at litigation when the education process breaks down,” replied Casey.

Kramer and Michael Friedman, a union chapter leader, then intervened and went on to criticize the research methods of E4E.

“They didn’t ask us for our opinions. The leadership just came up with a position without any other teachers,” Friedman said.

Two research surveys were sent to E4E members by the policy team, according to Stone.

With the floor now unintentionally open to public comment, many audience members jumped to the defense of E4E and the panel.

“You have to leave. You have to go,” said one man, to applause.

After the panel broke, organizers downplayed it as an isolated incident. Others said they were shocked.

“I thought it was totally inappropriate,” said Emily Bisso, a teacher at Ocean Hill Collegiate, a Brooklyn school within the Uncommon Schools network.

A group of young charter school teachers said that they had mixed feelings about the panel, but agreed that it ended on a low note.

“I guarantee that was just pent-up frustration,” said Miatta Massaley, a teacher at Harlem Success Academy 5 charter school. “It was inappropriate how they went about it, but they had legitimate concerns.”

“That’s exactly the opposite of what we teach our kids,” said Jarell Lee, a teacher at the Excellence Boys Charter School in Bedford Stuyvesant. “We teach them that there are better strategies to handle situations where they feel frustrated.”

Correction: The originally published version of this article characterized the majority of the audience as being charter school teachers. The report was based on interviews with teachers who identified as charter school teachers. According to a survey conducted by people who RSVP’d for the event, the characterization is not accurate. Ten charter school teachers attended the event, according to the survey, out of a total of 117 people.

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