The new state-mandated system for evaluating New York's teachers is lumbering into existence, and that's unsurprising. The education establishment has little love for the new ways, and creating collectively bargained templates to change how educators are graded, trained and dismissed in each of more than 700 public school districts is a mammoth undertaking.
But the journey is at least under way, and that's progress.
There are two big goals involved here, and they need to be viewed separately to understand the advances being made.
The first is drastically altering a tenure system that made teachers a protected class, regardless of how well they did their jobs. The second is creating a top-notch system to evaluate educators that allows us to identify and reward the great ones, identify and improve the mediocre ones, and shuttle the worst ones out of the system.
Achieving the second goal will be incremental. It will take years of evolution, and the process can't even begin properly until the first goal is reached. Right now, districts are slowly submitting to the state Education Department their union and school board-approved plans to implement standards that include measuring student performance. Overall, 107 have been approved by the department, including those of 34 of Long Island's 124 districts. Another 200 have been returned with feedback on how they need to be improved.
State Education Department officials say the deficient plans fall into two categories: those with errors that are mistakes, often clerical, and those where districts are still fighting change.
The whole process would be smoother if the law that created the new system actually included penalties for districts that missed July's deadline to submit plans. Because the law did not, districts dragged their feet, and the Education Department evaluated and approved fewer plans over the summer than it had hoped. The agency even hired summer staff to help, but many plans still hadn't arrived when those temps left.
The new law does state that districts that don't have their blueprints approved by Jan. 17 will lose state funding, and that threat has plans flowing in faster. It takes four to six weeks for each submission to be evaluated, and the Education Department is using federal Race to the Top money to hire attorneys and staffers to evaluate proposals and speed the process.
But there's a bigger problem than overcoming the lack of early compliance with deadlines. Some districts are trying to float bad plans intended to keep any teachers from being designated as "ineffective." They're balking at cutting short the endless teacher appeal processes that have for years kept iffy educators from ever being fired.
Changes in the tenor of the education conversation around the nation and the recent cold reception to the teacher strike in Chicago show the public mood has moved beyond whether teachers should be evaluated on student performance. It's happening, and it's time for educators to get on board and help make the system the best it can be, as quickly as possible. That way, no good teachers, and no students, will be punished by a process less perfect than it could have been.