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What do teacher evaluations really accomplish?

Ninety-seven percent of Long Island's public school teachers

Ninety-seven percent of Long Island's public school teachers and principals rated "highly effective" or "effective" and fewer than 1 percent scored "ineffective" in the first-ever region-wide job evaluation results released by the state Department of Education. Photo Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

In 2011, a few hundred educators were called to Albany by the State Education Department to be the vanguard for New York's education reform movement -- to learn the Common Core, and to introduce changes in teacher evaluation.

The Common Core was barely newsworthy then, but the seeds of discontent were being planted by the proposed teacher evaluation system referred to as APPR, or Annual Professional Performance Review.

The department recommended rating teachers in four categories -- ineffective, developing, effective and highly effective -- based on a zero-to-20 point scale. Forty percent of a teacher's evaluation was to be based on two testing or objective measures and 60 percent based on subjective measures including classroom observations. The department also recommended that a teacher must be rated effective in both objective and subjective measures to be effective overall.

Originally, the minimum score needed for an effective rating was 24 out of 40 points on the testing or objective portion (12 points for State tests and 12 points for "other" tests). To earn an effective overall rating, 75 total points were needed, so a teacher would need 51 additional points on the subjective part of the evaluation. But in April of 2012, the department lowered the minimum objective score for effective from 24 points to just 18 points. This meant that a teacher could now be rated effective with just 18 points out of 40 on the testing portions but would need 57 additional points on the subjective evaluation to earn 75 points and be effective overall.

This made for a spectacular imbalance. Only 45 percent of the objective points (18 out of 40) were needed to be effective in testing, while 95 percent of the points were needed (57 out of 60) to be effective on the subjective portion! Why should that be? Was the department inviting high subjective scores? Was it backing away from its insistence on the primacy of New York State test scores?

As a note of explanation, in its April 2012 APPR advisory, the department created what it called a "concrete example" to define a typical minimal score for an effective teacher. In this illustration, the minimal score used for an effective teacher on the subjective component was precisely 57 points. There could be no mistaking the department's intent.

Now, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is clearly upset at the high percentages of effective teacher ratings on Long Island. He has accused administrators of using a scale recommended by the teachers' union for the subjective component. But, in fact, it was the State Education Department that used this example in its own APPR advisory, and thereby invited administrators to choose that score of 57 for a minimally effective teacher.

This results in only four possible subjective scores to differentiate among the numerous effective and highly effective teachers (57, 58, 59, or 60). Equally odd is that there would be 57 ways (scores from zero to 56) to distinguish among ineffective or developing teachers.

No one really knows what percentage of teachers in the state or Long Island should be classified as effective or highly effective. What we do know is that a "reform movement" designed to improve student instruction through a new curriculum (Common Core) and better teacher evaluations has been badly damaged. The flawed teacher evaluation system has driven a wedge between teachers and their possible support for Common Core.

Cuomo now cites the inflated evaluations of Long Island administrators as a major issue. The real issue, however, is neither Common Core nor administrators mishandling teacher evaluations. The real problem is a misaligned evaluation system influenced by political considerations rather than student needs and real teacher improvement.

Fred Cohen is former assistant superintendent of the Bellmore-Merrick school Districts who also worked with the State Education Department as a professional performance review trainer in Nassau County. He is currently a consultant for Nassau County school districts on test data analysis.


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