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As yet another evals deadline arrives, rollout concerns remain

With New York City on track to let yet another state deadline to come up with a teacher evaluation plan pass on Wednesday, it appears increasingly likely that State Education Commissioner John King will have to impose an evaluation system on the city’s schools.

But how to put that plan into action remains a question with few easy answers, according to a panel at a New York Bar Association event Monday evening.

The panel featured two education researchers who often disagree about some of the thorny issues around teacher evaluations; a principal who sees no need to slow down reforms; and a veteran teacher whose high school is exempt from high-stakes testing.

Despite their diverse perspectives, the panelists agreed that city educators are ill prepared to give and receive feedback. And even though the role of test scores has been a hot topic recently, the panelists honed in not on the role that measures of student performance will play in evaluations but on the more subjective elements required by the state’s evaluation law, such as observations.

“[W]e’ve spent much less time talking about other aspects of the evaluations, which are much harder to do and will required much more work here in New York and other states that are trying to implement,” said Tom Kane, the Harvard University education and economics professor who directed the Gates Foundation’s Measures of Effective Teaching study.

Each panelist pointed to different reasons why the subjective components of teacher evaluations might not yield accurate readings of teacher quality. Kane repeatedly cited student evaluations as among the measures that the MET study showed most reliably predicted student performance gains — but most districts in the state aren’t using student evaluations, and last year, union leaders in New York City indicated the idea was a non-starter here.

Teachers College’s Aaron Pallas shared a personal story about a flawed evaluation he received as a young sociology professor from a distinguished education philosopher.

“He didn’t have enough deep knowledge of the subject matter to be able to comment on whether I was teaching stuff that was really meaningful,” Pallas said. “So a great worry about instructional rubrics” — particularly in higher grades — “is that they’re not going to be subject matter experts. … That strikes me as a concern.”

And Avram Barlow, a teacher who helped found Urban Academy High School, a school that is part of a small consortium of schools that uses performance-based assessments instead of high school Regents exams. Barlowe warned that teachers would shift their instruction so that they are focused more on appeasing their principals during observations than on developing creative lesson plans to fit their students.

Linda Rosenbury, a graduate of the city’s Leadership Academy and former principal at M.S. 22, said city principals remain unprepared to do the regiment observations that they are likely to be required to do for each teacher.

“Right now, the majority of principals and assistant principals in New York City were hired not as instructional leaders whose main job it was to produce these reports of classroom observations,” said Rosenbury, who has advocated for a new evaluation system because she said she struggled to remove weak teachers during her tenure. Rosenbury left M.S. 22 this year to become founding principal of the Brooklyn Urban Garden School, a new charter school in District 15. (Charter schools are not obligated to evaluate teachers in accordance with the state’s evaluation law.)

The Department of Education’s preparedness for carrying out its teacher evaluation plan was an issue that originally led UFT President Michael Mulgrew to call off negotiations talks late last year. King later wrote a stinging letter to the city echoing some of the same concerns.

The city responded with an 18-page letter detailing plans that met some of the state’s requirements but fell short on others.

City and union officials both said Tuesday that they intended to submit the bare minimum Wednesday of what the state has asked for. The deadline, which requires both sides to either submit an approved plan or submit their own versions of a plan and explain sticking points in the long-standing impasse, was written into law earlier this year to force defiant districts to begin implementing their plans.

On May 29, if the city still does not have an approved evaluation plan, King will settle the dispute by deciding which plan must be adopted.

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