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SFNY's Anna Hall: Quality Teachers Help Our Kids Succeed

I know everyone is focused on the presidential debate tonight, so you may have missed a troubling op-ed in today’s Daily News by Michael Mulgrew, the president of United Federation of Teachers (UFT).

While it was encouraging to hear Mr. Mulgrew confirm his faith in the importance of robust evaluations – I couldn’t agree more that the state’s framework “represents a revolution in the way teachers are to be mentored, developed, and rated” – his failure to acknowledge either the UFT’s historic reluctance to accept meaningful evaluations or its current unwillingness to negotiate the terms of a new system was deeply disappointing.

In his piece, Mr. Mulgrew cites the number of teachers who have left the system under the Mayor as evidence that the City has failed to adequately support its educators – and points to high attrition rates as the “real crisis” in teaching in our city. In fact, teacher attrition rates under Mayor Bloomberg have been cut nearly in half – from 11.9 percent in the 2001/2002 school year to 6.6 percent in 2010/2011 school year.

But more broadly, Mr. Mulgrew’s argument misses the point. What’s at issue here isn’t teacher turnover – it’s teacher quality.

Our students desperately need more effective teachers in our classrooms. That means we need to invest strategically in recruiting the best and brightest to our schools. We need to create systems for coaching and development that will help new teachers accelerate their growth and experienced teachers refine their craft. We need to recognize and reward high levels of achievement in teaching – so that our strongest teachers have powerful incentives to stay in the classroom.

For nearly a decade, the union has consistently blocked efforts to make these proposals possible or meaningful. The UFT’s current resistance to negotiating a deal for a robust teacher evaluation system is only the latest chapter in this long, sad history.

Take, for example, what Mr. Mulgrew acknowledges as the two primary sticking points in the agreement: unannounced, brief observations and timely feedback. Mr. Mulgrew characterizes the first as “drive-by” observations, and claims that they don’t give principals enough information to accurately coach or rate a teacher. If the city was arguing for a rating system based only on informal, unannounced visits that might be a compelling point. But the city hasn’t made any such argument – nor does the framework proposed by the state allow for it. Great principals know that both effective coaching and fair evaluation of teachers rely on a broad collection of data – traditional formal observations, frequent (announced and otherwise) short visits, planning and coaching conferences, and regular reviews of student progress and achievement. The model evaluation plans approved by the state reflect this structure.

Mr. Mulgrew’s opposition to negotiating a similar plan here in New York City – particularly his insistence that unannounced visits cannot factor into ratings – presents the troubling notion that he thinks his members have something to hide. Or that focused, honest evaluation is something teachers need to be protected from, particularly if it could result in any ineffective teachers losing their jobs. In practice, most teachers crave more feedback, not less – and are eager for opportunities to grow. If it is to be effective, the City’s new plan should offer minimal restrictions on observations – either around prior notice, frequency, or duration – other than to insist that school leaders and teachers use the data that comes from them to improve practice and support final ratings.

The other issue Mr. Mulgrew raises is over the time principals have to provide feedback from their observations to the teacher. This is essential – the chief goal of observations is to help teachers identify ways to improve. But an insistence that that feedback must be provided in person, in pre-scheduled conferences, and after every visit doesn’t acknowledge either the realities of a daily school schedule or even best practices around teacher coaching and development. Great coaching, like great teaching, should be targeted to the needs of individuals. In order to do that, principals need the space to deliver feedback – via conversations, emails, conferences – in the ways that best support the development of their teachers. And if ratings are to truly reflect a teacher’s growth and performance level, at the end of the year, when principals sit down to determine final ratings, they need the ability to factor in the outcomes of all of those observations and conversations into their decision.

What is most alarming about Mr. Mulgrew’s argument is that he seems to again be attempting to build in as much bureaucracy as possible – with the sole purpose of making it difficult for any teacher to be rated ineffective, and if they are, to make it as difficult as possible for that rating to stick. In his conclusion, Mr. Mulgrew writes that the "first priority" of an evaluation system should be helping all teachers improve. Here I offer a small amendment. The first priority of teacher evaluation systems – and, in fact, of all education policy – is to make sure our kids have access to the best possible education.

And if that truly is our first priority, then we need to focus on a system that will both help developing teachers improve and, yes, move the most ineffective teachers out of the classroom. And we most certainly can’t afford to hold up an improved (though not perfect) evaluation system and the $300 million tied to it, over demands for more bureaucratic process.

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