The Sky Is (Still) Not Falling

Earlier this month, I noted that the sky didn’t fall when Washington, D.C. Public Schools made improvements to its teacher evaluation process four years ago. Last week, we got an update about a much more recent teacher evaluation reform effort, in New York.

As in D.C., critics in New York made dire predictions about what would happen when districts began implementing evaluation systems that meet the requirements of a new state law (which include rating teachers based on the growth in their students’ test scores in addition to the results of classroom observations). They said such systems were designed to punish teachers and would result in mass firings.

But once again, the sky didn’t fall. According to preliminary results from the first year of these new systems, very few teachers received a rating low enough to put their jobs in jeopardy. In fact, the overwhelming majority (92 percent) received “effective” or “highly effective” ratings. In at least one suburban district, not a single teacher received a negative rating. Based on these results, how can anyone argue with a straight face that New York Education Commissioner John King is presiding over a “gotcha” evaluation system (to borrow the unions’ favorite derisive term)?

Reaction from the prophets of doom was a bit puzzling. Capital New York quoted the state teachers union president saying the new evaluation systems produced accurate results—because “we’ve known for a long time that better than 90 percent of New York’s teachers are effective”—but that he still didn’t trust them. In that same story, another critic (state Regent Kathleen Cashin) tried to spin the debunking of the “gotcha” myth she and others peddled into a reason to take her advice anyway: Because too few teachers were identified as poor performing, she said, the whole teacher evaluation effort had been a waste of time.

It is still too early to draw sweeping conclusions about how changes to teacher evaluation will play out in New York. There is still a great deal of work left to do. I’m noting these trends not to declare any victory but to illustrate why you should take criticism from the most vocal opponents of teacher evaluation reform with a grain of salt. Anyone can lob any statement into the fray when there is no hard data. But as evidence emerges, the debate needs to reflect it.

Opponents of evaluation reform want it both ways, so they win no matter what the evidence turns out to be.  If lots of teachers receive low or even moderate ratings, they say it’s because of an inaccurate “gotcha” system. If most teachers get high ratings, the system is accurate—but it’s still bad. Do the flow chart here, and all roads will lead to “the new evaluation system is bad.” This isn’t fair-minded criticism; it’s a sloppy attempt at politics.

Let me be clear: New York’s new evaluation systems still need work, especially on the implementation front. The ratings from the first year, as in other states that have implemented similar systems, show worrisome signs of inflation, especially on locally negotiated measures. Does anybody believe, for example, that there is a school district anywhere in the country where every single teacher is effective—in other words, where not a single teacher needs to improve? Commissioner King and his team need to make sure these systems give teachers the most accurate, honest feedback possible, because honest feedback is the foundation of any meaningful professional development. When we tell struggling teachers that they’re “effective” or “highly effective,” or when we fail to tell good teachers what they can do to become great, we’re doing a disservice to them and their students.

(Some districts, like Syracuse and Rochester, are already doing a better job differentiating their teachers’ performance. New York City also achieved a more realistic rating distribution when it piloted a new evaluation system in 200 schools last year, but those results were not part of the data released last week.)

On the whole, though, teacher evaluations in New York are light years ahead of where they were just a few years ago, thanks to the leadership of Governor Andrew Cuomo, State Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch and Commissioner King. There’s still more work to do, but if New York sees these changes through, it will reap the rewards of higher standards.

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.

About TNTP

TNTP is the nation’s leading research, policy, and consulting organization dedicated to transforming America’s public education system, so that every generation thrives.

Today, we work side-by-side with educators, system leaders, and communities across 39 states and over 6,000 districts nationwide to reach ambitious goals for student success.

Yet the possibilities we imagine push far beyond the walls of school and the education field alone. We are catalyzing a movement across sectors to create multiple pathways for young people to achieve academic, economic, and social mobility.

Learn More About TNTP