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What we know about the evaluation plan that will hit on Saturday

When State Education Commissioner John King sets New York City’s teacher evaluation system on Saturday, it will have been a while — three years and three weeks, to be precise — since legislators first set out the parameters.

The basic shape of what lawmakers signed off on in May 2010 hasn’t changed: 40 percent of ratings will be based on student growth, with half of the section coming from the state’s calculation and the other half from a locally determined calculation. The other 60 percent will come from “subjective measures,” including but not limited to in-class observations. All classroom teachers will get ratings on a four-tiered system, and districts can move to fire teachers who score “ineffective” for two straight years.

But three years of jousting over the specifics have added up. In that time, city and teachers union officials have sat down to negotiate and stormed away, multiple times; legislators have revisited their work, adding new stringencies; principals and teachers have prepared for implementation. What King announces tomorrow will reflect all of those changes — as well as the arguments that the Department of Education and the teachers and principals unions included in pitches to him this month.

Because King has only about 24 hours to publish the evaluation system after hearing the final presentation, made by the Council on School Supervisors and Administrators this morning, it seems reasonable to assume that he is focusing his efforts on areas where the parties have failed to agree in the past. Here’s a refresher on what we’re likely to see on Saturday — and what we’re not.

What we will definitely see:

  • Test scores count. The state produces growth scores, which attempt to isolate a teacher’s impact on student growth, for teachers in tested grades and subjects. By law, those scores have to count for 20 percent of ratings for teachers who have them, and if the Board of Regents approves a more sophisticated “value-added” algorithm, that weight will increase to 25 percent. For the three years that teacher evaluations have been under debate, the reliability of value-added models has continued to draw a significant amount of debate. While those questions haven’t been resolved, King won’t consider them when writing New York City’s plan. Growth and value-added models are in the law and not up for discussion.
  • Student Learning Objectives. For the 82 percent of teachers who do not work in tested grades or subjects, the state’s strategy for calculating student growth is to use Student Learning Objectives, in which teachers and principals set goals for each student and then measure how many get there by the end of the year. Other districts around the state used SLOs this year, but the city hasn’t trained educators yet about how to use them.
  • The appeals process that was written into state law in 2012. In a quixotic effort to move the city’s evaluations process along, Gov. Andrew Cuomo convinced the city and union to agree to an appeals process back in February 2012. Mayor Bloomberg especially made clear that he never liked the process, but it’s part of the law and scheduled to kick in as soon as the city has a teacher evaluation plan. Some related issues, such as when appeals hearings would take place and how the department and union would jointly select an impartial third hearing officer, were still unresolved late last year.

What we can probably count on:

  • The Danielson Framework. This rubric for assessing instruction is a favorite of the UFT because of its capacity for improving teacher practice, and the Department of Education went along with it early on. Both the city and union have invested serious time, money, and energy into preparing principals and teachers for Danielson, and there’s no reason that King would want to shake this issue up.
  • No expiration date. Mayor Bloomberg blamed the UFT’s insistence on a “sunset clause” when he spiked a deal in January. The State Education Department approved hundreds of evaluation plans with limited terms, but under pressure from Cuomo, legislators revised the law this year to say that districts cannot let their evaluation systems expire. That means no expiration date in the city’s plan. But look out for language that says the system can be replaced with a lawful agreement between the city and the UFT in the future. The conversation won’t reopen automatically, but it could easily be reopened if, for example, the UFT and a new mayor want to revisit the evaluation system at the same time as they negotiate a new contract.
  • State tests kept to a minimum. Under the law, districts can cut state test scores in different ways to come up with the second 20 percent of teachers’ ratings, and many districts have. But the UFT said all along that it would resist additional weight for state test scores, and department officials never argued publicly with them. In fact, last fall, when a deal looked likely, the department started paying teachers to develop “performance-based assessments” that would measure students’ improvement over time. Those assessments, which usually take the form of an in-class assignment, would introduce new issues for teachers and students, but the possibility of being penalized — or rewarded – twice for the same scores isn’t one of them.

What we just won’t know until Saturday:

  • The role of student surveys. Factoring student surveys into teacher ratings has a wide array of supporters, from the Gates Foundation to student advocates. The Department of Education seemed interested in the idea. But UFT officials signaled that allowing student surveys could be a line they would not cross. Where King will fall on the issue is unclear.
  • How teachers whose students don’t take state tests will be measured. Again, the district was quietly working on performance assessments late last year. But it was also working on other possibilities, Department of Education officials said at the time. Other districts have used off-the-shelf third-party assessments or developed their own, and some districts opted to use school-wide growth scores for all teachers in a school, even if their students took no tests. Any of those options are possible here, and what King chooses is crucial to determining just how satisfied or dissatisfied the city or unions will be.
  • Whether principals will have to talk to teachers before rating them. This was a key sticking point throughout much of the last round of negotiations: The UFT’s position is that conversations should be required as a matter of professional development, but the city wanted a minimum of bureaucracy to gum up evaluations. There’s no way for King to split the difference here, so where he falls is likely to be interpreted as a solid win by the party he sides with.
  • How observations will be structured. Back in December, a top Department of Education official who was involved in evaluation talks said details about the structure of required observations remained unresolved. “We’re trying to figure out what seems appropriate,” the official said. “Should you have five a year of that pre-observation, observation, post-observation? Should there be two pre-observation, observation, post-observation? Should we eliminate the pre-observation and the post-observation and just make it an ongoing cycle of unannounced visits? Should the observations be shorter — should [observers] come in for 15 minutes at a time?” What got almost-decided in January, if anything, has never been made public.

Check back on Saturday afternoon, when we’ll report exactly how King’s plan answers these questions.

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