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OpinionEditorial

Get NY's teacher evaluation system right this time

A teacher writing on a chalk board.

A teacher writing on a chalk board. Photo Credit: iStock

During Thursday's education "summit" in Albany, teachers of just about every subject, along with parents, school board members, union leaders, and education and testing experts, seemed to agree on one academic fact: Those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.

There have been enough mistakes as New York State tries to reform education. New processes were rushed into service before they were ready, and rational demands from parents and teachers were ignored. First, the state Education Department turned teachers, parents and students against new Common Core curricula in 2012 by promising the agency would create teaching modules for schools and then failing to complete them on time. Then the state adopted a performance evaluation plan for teachers and principals that satisfied no one.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo hates the evaluation system because it lets teachers whose kids perform poorly on standardized tests be rated "effective." The teachers unions hate the system because they oppose any part of the evaluations being based on test scores, and because the results don't come in time or give enough information to be useful.

Parents? They're worried that teachers being judged on student results will spend too much time test-prepping the kids, and they say the tests are too long and the results too uninformative.

So a new performance system was passed by the State Legislature last month that would rate them for the 2015-2016 academic year. It says teacher effectiveness will be judged in two categories: student performance, and observation and other measures. To be judged highly effective, teachers must do well on both. To be judged ineffective and face negative consequences, teachers must do poorly on both. Teachers who get mixed results in the two categories will be rated effective or developing, receiving no kudos but facing no risk of being punished or dismissed.

The Board of Regents is now charged with determining how classroom observations incorporate outside evaluators and observation standards. The board has until June 30 to set new rules, and school districts have until Nov. 15 to agree with unions on new plans. But the Education Department and state legislators are considering extending the deadlines. The Regents say they can meet their deadline, but some districts say they can't meet theirs. If a little more time is needed to get this right, it ought to be granted.

There are other legitimate complaints -- that the tests given to third- through eighth-grade students in math and English, which rate them on a 1-4 scale, lack detailed assessment of where students are competent and where they need help, and that just 25 percent of questions are made available for review after the tests. These should be addressed and fixed.

About $40 billion is spent in New York annually on K-12 education; a comparatively paltry $32 million goes to publisher Pearson Education to provide exams. Yet the state refuses to kick in another $8 million per year the Regents want partly to double the number of questions available to the public post-test. And the state won't pay for exam results that analyze individual student performance in depth.

Student progress will always be measured, partially by standardized tests that allow them to be compared with students across the state, the nation and the world. It should be, and part of teachers' evaluations should reflect how students do on those tests.

But the tests should be of top quality, the results meaningful and the assessments delivered in a timely manner. The evaluation system should be one that can be trusted to be fair and workable. That might mean it will take a little more time to craft this latest evaluation plan. It will mean the state must spend a little more money.

But it's better to have an effective plan delivered a bit later and a bit more expensively than a cheaper one delivered fast that generates nothing but more controversy and dysfunction.

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