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Formed to back Bloomberg, StudentsFirstNY now an adversary

An advocacy group that fought for changes to teacher evaluations plans to cite data from the old rating system in a civil rights suit against the city.

In a complaint that hasn’t yet been filed, StudentsFirstNY will ask the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights to investigate the distribution of teacher quality in city schools. The group issued a report in January finding that the 3 percent of teachers rated “unsatisfactory” last year worked disproportionately often in schools with many poor students of color. Its complaint will allege that the distribution was the result of discriminatory city policies.

Filing a complaint against the Bloomberg administration is an unusual move for StudentsFirstNY, which was formed to defend the mayor’s education policies and criticize opponents during the mayoral election. Some of those opponents have a civil rights complaint of their own pending with the federal government, about the Bloomberg administration’s school closures.

But the move is necessary because the city’s flexibility to hire, fire, and reward teachers based on their quality is limited and should be expanded, said Glen Weiner, StudentsFirstNY’s interim executive director. He said he thought Bloomberg had done a good job pushing for latitude under the city’s new teacher evaluation system but said there were “other interests that are preventing that from happening,” alluding to the teachers union.

The ratings analyzed in the report came from the longstanding system in which teachers got either “satisfactory” or “unsatisfactory” evaluations based exclusively on their principal’s assessment. StudentsFirstNY has been among the most vocal opponents of that system during the group’s one-year existence in New York, joining existing critics who argued that the binary system did not produce meaningful information about teacher quality.

Starting next year, teachers will be evaluated under a more complex system that weighs student performance, something that StudentsFirstNY promoted.

Weiner said new evaluations were needed to be able to root out differences in teacher quality among the 97 percent of teachers rated satisfactory under the old system. The unsatisfactory ratings under the old system were meaningful, he said.

“The problem was that everybody is rated satisfactory. If you think about what it takes for a teacher to be rated unsatisfactory in the old model, it has to say something about those teachers,” said Weiner, who joined a protest outside the Department of Education’s headquarters at Tweed Courthouse today.

The number of unsatisfactory ratings handed out each year has increased under Bloomberg, who aggressively sought the ability to replace the city’s lowest-performing educators but made little headway toward that goal. Still, unsatisfactory-rated teachers were more than four times more likely to leave the school system after receiving their ratings last year than teachers rated satisfactory, according to city data.

The new evaluation system that will be in use this fall does not allow districts to remove low-scoring teachers any faster than under the old system: Teachers will still have to have two straight low ratings to face termination. It also won’t redistribute teachers among schools — although a feature of the algorithm that will be used to generate part of each rating might make it look like that has happened.

Among StudentsFirstNY’s recommendations is that parents should be notified if their child is placed in a classroom of a low-rated teacher. Under state law, however, that notification is illegal.

The protest this morning included dozens of parents, organizers, and students. Sonia Saddler, who is helping her niece raise her two young children, said she became involved at their school, P.S. 92 in Brooklyn, because of concerns she has about the school.

She said that class sizes were too big and she was frustrated with the number of absences that her grand-niece’s kindergarten teacher accrued this year.

She said she didn’t know if the teacher was among the few who earned unsatisfactory ratings on the school but she would have liked to. ”Parents need to be notified,” Saddler said.