First Person

Toward An Equity Framework For Teacher Evaluations

As tomorrow’s deadline looms for the New York City Department of Education and the United Federation of Teachers to reach an agreement on a new teacher evaluation system, much of the debate has focused on what the specific terms mean for teachers and for the millions of dollars the city schools stand to lose if a deal is not crafted in time.

These storylines are all dramatic. But both sides are missing a major issue: whether and how a new teacher evaluation system would advance educational equity and opportunity for the city’s over one million students.

Even after over a decade of mayoral control, the education landscape in New York City remains uneven and opportunities inequitable. A number of studies and reports, some initiated by the DOE itself, have illustrated the large and persistent gaps in attainment and opportunity faced by African-American and Latino students compared to their white peers. Disparities in the use of school discipline policies that push children out of school, along with inequitable access to rigorous curriculum and special schools and programs, help to drive these gaps. But a growing body of research indicates that the students who perform most poorly and who suffer the harshest forms of school discipline tend to have less access to great teachers, as measured across multiple criteria. So regardless of whether the DOE and UFT reach an agreement by the deadline, the new evaluation system will not mean anything unless it addresses the inequitable distribution of human capital — in other words, unequal access to high-quality, fully prepared, and effective teachers.

Fortunately, it’s not too late to address this issue. The following are three key principles for an equity-focused teacher evaluation system:

1. Evaluation data should inform the placement/distribution of teachers.

Too often students are relegated to schools that are set up to fail because they are under-resourced, both in terms of fiscal and human capital. Some schools and classrooms have too many novice or ineffective teachers; others have more experienced high-quality educators. That’s no way to run a school system; and it is unfair to students, teachers and well-intentioned school leaders alike.

The UFT has indicated that discussions regarding the teacher evaluation system should be linked to the union contract negotiations; and the DOE has implied that it is gravely concerned about equity and the quality of teaching. But both sides now have an opportunity to make these aspirations real. With the data produced by a robust teacher evaluation system, schools and districts can identify trends regarding which groups of students are served best by which teachers. The data produced by an evaluation system should be used to inform teacher assignment and transfer policies, with the explicit goal of ensuring that the students with the highest needs are taught by the best teachers.

Using evaluation results in this way first requires a sound evaluation system, something that has eluded the city to date. And any proposal to use evaluation results in this way would certainly mark a dramatic departure from current practice that could be potentially disruptive for both the city and the union if not responsibly executed. But it would be a mistake for them to squander the opportunity to use new information in new ways to boost equity.

2. Comprehensive evaluations should look to broad measures of teacher competency and effectiveness, without unduly relying on standardized test scores as a shortcut.

Although the New York State law sets some parameters for teacher evaluation systems, negotiation of additional terms by the DOE and UFT could lead to additional weight being placed on standardized test scores. This would be a mistake. Abundant research and a decade of experience under the No Child Left Behind Act have shown that placing too much emphasis on standardized test scores can produce negative results, encouraging schools to narrow curriculum by “teaching to the test” and creating perverse incentives to push out students whose test performance may threaten schools’ or teachers’ evaluation results. And some systems, like the DOE’s previous and now-abandoned test-driven system, produce flawed data that actually masks the inequities that are painfully apparent to anyone who visits classrooms in the city’s schools. Under that experiment, the DOE actually presumed lower rates of achievement for black, Latino, and poor students; therefore, even mediocre results and even minimal gains in test scores seemed like real growth.

An equity-based evaluation system could change this by providing more and better information about teachers than simply their students’ test scores. Such a comprehensive set of measures would include multiple, varied demonstrations of student learning and teacher practice, along with classroom observations of teacher performance by instructional leaders, and peer reviews. Student and family surveys have also been shown to be highly correlated with teacher practice; these instruments should be incorporated into teacher evaluations as well. Including these broad measures, with the proper weight given to each, would more comprehensively assess teachers and would also place the onus on school district leadership to ensure that every school and every classroom had truly well-rounded educators, not simply teach-to-the-test drones.

3. Evaluations should be used as learning tools, not just ways to fire teachers.

If equity is the true goal, evaluations should be used proactively to help teachers improve the quality of instruction, not simply to fire them. Failing to invest in improvement means kicking the can down the road, and another lost generation of students, while school officials offer the illusion of progress.

We simply do not have enough high-quality teachers to waste potential; and we do not have time to start from scratch each year with the constant churn of teachers that destabilizes schools. Rather, we should invest in the development of educators, especially those who work in high-needs schools, serve populations of students living in concentrated poverty, or serve populations with more extensive learning needs, so that those who do have potential have the supports they need to become excellent. And each teacher should receive professional development that targets areas identified as in need of improvement.

The outcome of this debate will have far-reaching implications. So it is important that any evaluation system the two sides agree upon is fair not only to lawmakers and teachers, but also to students. More than securing funding for New York City’s schools, an equity-focused evaluation framework can move the city toward equity in the educational opportunities offered to students. This is, indeed a golden opportunity. Let’s hope both sides take advantage of it.

Damon Hewitt is the director of the Education Practice Group at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

First Person

I was an attorney representing school districts in contract talks. Here’s why I hope the Supreme Court doesn’t weaken teachers unions.

PHOTO: Creative Commons / supermac1961

Many so-called education reformers argue that collective bargaining — and unions — are obstacles to real change in education. It’s common to hear assertions about how “restrictive” contracts and “recalcitrant” unions put adult interests over children’s.

The underlying message: if union power were minimized and collective bargaining rights weakened or eliminated, school leaders would be able to enact sweeping changes that could disrupt public education’s status quo.

Those that subscribe to this view are eagerly awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. At issue is the constitutionality of “agency” or “fair share” fees — employee payroll deductions that go to local unions, meant to cover the costs of negotiating and implementing a bargaining agreement.

In states that permit agency fees (there are about 20), a teacher may decline to be part of a union but must still pay those fees. If the Supreme Court rules that those agency fees are unconstitutional, and many teachers do not voluntarily pay, local unions will be deprived of resources needed to negotiate and enforce bargaining agreements.

Based on my experience as an attorney representing school districts in bargaining and contract issues, I have this to say to those hoping the Court will strike down these fees: be careful what you wish for.

Eliminating fair share fees (and trying to weaken unions) represents a misguided assumption about bargaining — that the process weakens school quality. To the contrary, strong relationships with unions, built through negotiations, can help create the conditions for student and school success. Indeed, in my experience, the best superintendents and school boards seized bargaining as an opportunity to advance their agenda, and engaged unions as partners whenever possible.

Why, and how, can this work? For one, the process of negotiations provides a forum for school leaders and teachers to hear one another’s concerns and goals. In my experience, this is most effective in districts that adopt “interest-based bargaining,” which encourages problem-solving as starting point for discussions as opposed to viewing bargaining as a zero-sum game.

Interest-based bargaining begins with both sides listing their major concerns and brainstorming solutions. The touchstone for a solution to be adopted in a bargaining agreement: Is the proposal in the best interests of children? This important question, if embedded in the process, forces both sides to carefully consider their shared mission.

For example, some districts I worked with paid teachers less than comparable neighboring districts did. It would have been unreasonable for unions to insist that their pay be increased enough to even that difference out, because that would mean reducing investments in other items of importance to children, like technology or infrastructure. At the same time, it would have been untenable for management to play “hard ball” and deny the problem, because to do so would likely lead to a disgruntled workforce.

Instead, both sides were forced to “own” the issue and collaboratively craft plausible solutions. That made unions more agreeable to proposals that demonstrated some commitment by the district to addressing the issue of pay, and districts open to other things that they could provide without breaking the budget (like more early release days for professional development).

To be sure, many school administrators could get frustrated with the process of bargaining or having to consult the negotiated agreement when they want to make a change. Some districts would very much like to adopt an extended school day, for example, but they know that they must first consult and negotiate such an idea with the union.

Yet, in districts where school administrators had built a reservoir of goodwill through collective bargaining, disagreement does not come at the cost of operating schools efficiently. Both sides come to recognize that while they inevitably will disagree on some things, they can also seek agreement — and often do on high-stakes matters, like teacher evaluations.

How does this relate to the Supreme Court’s pending decision? Without fees from some teachers, unions may lack the resources to ensure that contract negotiations and enforcement are robust and done well. This could create a vicious cycle: teachers who voluntarily pay fees for bargaining in a post-Janus world, assuming the court rules against the unions, will view such payments as not delivering any return on investment. In turn, they will stop contributing voluntarily, further degrading the quality of the union’s services.

Even more troubling, if fair share fees are prohibited, resentment and internal strife will arise between those who continue to pay the fees and those who refuse. This would undercut a primary benefit of bargaining — labor peace and a sense of shared purpose.

Speaking as a parent, this raises a serious concern: who wants to send their child to a school where there is an undercurrent of bitterness between teachers and administrators that will certainly carry over into the classroom?

It is easy to see the appeal of those opposing agency fees. No one wants to see more money going out of their paycheck. The union-as-bogeyman mentality is pervasive. Moreover, in my experience, some teachers (especially the newer ones) do not recognize the hidden benefits to bargaining contracts.

But, obvious or not, agency fees help promote a stable workplace that allows teachers to concentrate on their primary responsibility: their students. Removing the key ingredient threatens this balance.

Mark Paige is a former school teacher and school law attorney who represented school districts in New England. He is currently an associate professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts – Dartmouth.

First Person

I’m a Florida teacher in the era of school shootings. This is the terrifying reality of my classroom during a lockdown drill.

Outside of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

“Remember,” I tell the children, looking them in the eyes in the darkened classroom. “Remember to keep the scissors open. They’ll stab better that way.”

My students, the target demographic for many a Disney Channel sitcom, laugh nervously at me as they try to go back to their conversations. I stare at the talkative tweens huddling in a corner and sigh.

“Seriously, class,” I say in the tone that teachers use to make goosebumps rise. As they turn back to me with nervous laughter, I hold up that much-maligned classroom tool, the metal scissor that’s completely ineffective at cutting paper. “If a gunman breaks in, I’ll be in the opposite corner with the utility knife.” Said tool is in my hand, and more often used to cut cardboard for projects. All the blood it’s hitherto tasted has been accidental. “If I distract him and you can’t get out, we have to rush him.” I don’t mention that my classroom is basically an inescapable choke point. It is the barrel. We are the fish.

They lapse into silence, sitting between the wires under the corner computer tables. I return to my corner, sidestepping a pile of marbles I’ve poured out as a first line of defense, staring at the classroom door. It’s been two hours of this interminable lockdown. This can’t be a drill, but no information will be forthcoming until it’s all over.

I wonder if I really believe these actions would do anything, or am I just perpetrating upon my students and myself the 21st century version of those old “Duck and Cover” posters.

We wait.

The lockdown eventually ends. I file it away in the back of my head like the others. Scissors are handed back with apathy, as if we were just cutting out paper continents for a plate tectonics lab. The tool and marbles go back into the engineering closet. And then, this Wednesday, the unreal urge to arm myself in my classroom comes back. A live feed on the television shows students streaming out of Marjory Stoneman Douglas, a high school just a short drive away. I wonder whether the teachers in its classrooms have passed out scissors.

*

The weapons. It’s not a subject we teachers enjoy bringing up. You’d have an easier time starting a discussion on religion or politics in the teacher’s lounge then asking how we all prepare for the darkness of the lockdown. Do you try to make everyone cower, maybe rely on prayer? Perhaps you always try to convince yourself it’s a drill. Maybe you just assume that, if a gun comes through the door, your ticket is well and truly up. Whatever token preparation you make, if at all, once belonged only to the secret corners of your own soul.

In the aftermath of Parkland, teachers across the nation are starting to speak. The experience of being isolated, uninformed, and responsible for the lives of dozens of children is now universal to our profession, whether because of actual emergencies or planned drills. You don’t usually learn which is which until at least an hour and sometimes not until afterwards. In both cases, the struggle to control the dread and keep wearing the mask of bravery for your students is the same.

And you need a weapon.

I’ve heard of everything from broken chair legs lying around that never seem to be thrown away to metal baseball bats provided by administration. One teacher from another district dealt with it by always keeping a screwdriver on her desk. “For construction projects,” she told students. She taught English.

There’s always talk, half-jokingly (and less than that, lately) from people who want teachers armed. I have a friend in a position that far outranks my own whose resignation letter is ready for the day teachers are allowed to carry guns in the classroom.

I mean, we’ve all known teachers who’ve had their cell phones stolen by students …

*

Years earlier, I am in the same corner. I am more naïve, the most soul-shaking of American massacres still yet to come. The corner is a mess of cardboard boxes gathered for class projects, and one of them is big enough for several students to crawl inside.

One girl is crying, her friend hugging her as she shakes. She’s a sensitive girl; a religious disagreement between her friends having once brought her to tears. “How can they be so cruel to each other?” She asked me after one had said that Catholics didn’t count as Christians.

I frown. It’s really my fault. An offhand comment on how the kids needed to quiet down because I’m not ready to die pushed her too far. Seriously rolling mortality around in her head, she wanted nothing more than to call her family. None of them are allowed to touch their cell phones, however, and the reasoning makes sense to me. The last thing we need is a mob of terrified parents pouring onto campus if someone’s looking to pad their body count.

She has to go to the bathroom, and there are no good options.

I sit with her, trying to comfort her, wondering what the occasion is. Is there a shooter? Maybe a rumor has circulated online. Possibly there’s just a fleeing criminal with a gun at large and headed into our area. Keeping watch with a room full of potential hostages, I wonder if I can risk letting her crawl through the inner building corridors until she reaches a teacher’s bathroom. We wait together.

It seemed different when I was a teen. In those brighter pre-Columbine times, the idea of a school shooting was unreal to me, just the plot of that one Richard Bachman book that never seemed to show up in used book stores. I hadn’t known back then that Bachman (really Stephen King) had it pulled from circulation after it’d been found in a real school shooter’s locker.

Back then my high school had plenty of bomb threats, but they were a joke. We’d all march out around the flagpole, sitting laughably close to the school, and enjoy the break. Inevitably, we’d all learn that the threat had been called in by a student in the grip of “senioritis,” a seemingly incurable disease that removes the victim’s desire to work. We’d sit and chat and smile and never for a second consider that any of us could be in physical danger. The only threat we faced while waiting was boredom.

*

Today, in our new era of mass shootings, the school districts do what they can, trying to plan comprehensively for a situation too insane to grasp. Law enforcement officials lecture the faculty yearly, giving well-rehearsed speeches on procedures while including a litany of horrors meant to teach by example.

At this level, we can only react to the horrors of the world. The power to alter things is given to legislators and representatives who’ve been entrusted with the responsibility to govern wisely while listening to the will of the people. It’s they who can change the facts on the ground, enact new laws, and examine existing regulations. They can work toward a world where a lockdown is no longer needed for a preteen to grapple with gut-churning fear.

We’re still waiting.

K.T. Katzmann is a teacher in Broward County, Florida. This piece first appeared on The Trace, a nonprofit news site focused on gun violence.