NYC Evaluations Exit the Factory Era

New York State Education Commissioner John King announced the details of a new evaluation system for New York City teachers and principals late on Saturday afternoon, bringing a three-year journey to a close. King’s decision has plenty of ramifications, both local and national, which we’ll address in a separate post (see this piece by Dan Weisberg). Today, I’m going to focus on what’s in the deal and what it will mean for teachers in New York.

Seeing New York get to the finish line was very important to us. It’s the largest public school system in the country, and we have a long history supporting its teacher-quality initiatives.* The first lines in The Widget Effect, our 2009 study on teacher evaluations, quote a 1936 New York Times article detailing flaws in the local evaluation system that remained almost unaltered 73 years later.

With the announcement of the new system this weekend, Commissioner King and New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo can be credited with bringing evaluations in New York City out of the factory era at last. So how will the new system look different than the old one?

I’ll start by addressing the four recommendations we made in our recent letter to King, which focused on attributes of the system that will greatly affect how it is implemented:

  • A concise evaluation rubric: Both sides in New York were committed to the Danielson rubric as a rating tool. We argued that it would not be necessary to rate all 22 competencies in the tool, especially given the Gates Foundation research showing that individual elements in rubrics including Danielson tend to co-vary strongly with others (suggesting that we end up rating the same things multiple times), as well as the city’s positive experience in its 200-school pilot with a streamlined rubric. King called for all 22 competencies to be rated. This is a concern—we think principals and teachers will find the number of competencies excessive and burdensome.
  • Student surveys: We called for student surveys to be part of the system, which we use ourselves to assess the teachers we certify. King included them in his decision. There will be one pilot year, followed by a 5 percent weight for surveys after that. We’re glad to see this and optimistic that as teachers use surveys, they’ll rapidly become more comfortable with them. However, 5 percent weight is small enough that survey results really won’t sway individual ratings either way. Down the road, we’d recommend a higher weight.
  • A manageable administrative burden: We need principals to get into classrooms more often and we need teachers to receive high-quality feedback regularly. This would become a practical impossibility if each visit requires so many steps and so much paperwork that principals are lucky to have enough time to observe each teacher twice a year. On this issue, Dr. King did an excellent job. His decision gives teachers a choice in how they would like to structure their basic observations, but leaves flexibility for principals to conduct as many observations as they believe to be necessary—and it does not require onerous paperwork or inflexible structures.
  • A fair, efficient appeals process: New York’s labyrinthine systems for teacher discipline are infamous. Each case can become an odyssey. King took a big step in the right direction by restricting appeals to those who receive “ineffective” ratings. Teachers whose employment is in jeopardy will have ample access to due process.

Bottom line, the new system will be an enormous improvement over the old one. NYC’s “pass/fail” system for teachers will finally be a thing of the past—teachers will be rated in four categories, not two. Teacher impact on student learning will carry real weight. Students will have a voice. Principals will be in classrooms more often. Teachers will get more frequent and useful feedback. High performers, for the first time, will receive something more meaningful than a “satisfactory” rating earned by 99 percent of their peers. And low performers will face more accountability to improve.

King and his colleagues at the State Education Department have done their part, breaking an embarrassing policy logjam that had gone on too long and cost the city hundreds of millions of dollars in funding. They deserve a round of applause, as does Cuomo, for insisting on real change in teacher evaluations across the entire state.

Now the focus turns to implementation. Unfortunately, the delays and squabbling that led to this moment have squandered many of the advantages the city’s schools should have gained from the long pilot period. If the last three years of pilots and fruitless negotiations have seemed difficult, they will seem like a day at the beach compared to launching a brand-new evaluation system in the nation’s largest school system on three months’ notice.

That’s the challenge that the NYC Department of Education and the UFT now share. It won’t be easy and it almost certainly won’t be pretty, but it’s the work that matters most. Thankfully, everyone can finally get started.


* We’ve always tried to be as transparent as possible about our position on New York City. But a little more transparency here won’t hurt.

The New York City public schools have long been close to our hearts at TNTP. We’ve been part of the city’s school improvement efforts through five chancellors over the last 13 years, recruiting and training tens of thousands of teachers through the NYC Teaching Fellows program and supporting the city’s teacher quality initiatives in a variety of other ways.

Since we published The Widget Effect in 2009 and Evaluation 2.0 the following year, we have worked with a number of districts and states to help them modernize their evaluation systems. New York City is one of them. We provided design and implementation support on a three-year pilot that did not carry stakes for teachers, but was meant to set the stage for a successor system that would. We called on Cuomo several times to impose an evaluation system on New York if it failed to negotiate one, and we recently signed a letter with other organizations outlining a wishlist for what would be in the just-announced system. I testified in the arbitration process last week on behalf of the New York City Department of Education. In short, we’re not just observers in this episode.

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, stands in front of her students while introducing them to the captivating world of science

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, introduces her students to the captivating world of science.

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