By Jessica Bakeman
ALBANY -- School districts around the state are scrambling to negotiate and implement new state-mandated teacher and principal evaluation procedures, a process that some school officials and unions describe as cumbersome and distressing.
School officials said the new system is well intentioned. Yet they raised concerns that the effort is flawed because the evaluations attempt to measure teacher success quantitatively and will be costly and time consuming.
"I don't think anybody is smart enough to invent a worse system, even if you tried," said Adam Urbanski, president of the Rochester Teachers Association.
The city recently reached a deal with the union, and Urbanski said, "We were able to make a bad system a little less bad."
Only about 200 of the state's roughly 700 school districts have submitted completed evaluation agreements - which came after months of negotiations between schools and unions. The submission deadline was July 1; agreements needs to be approved by mid-January or districts could lose state aid.
The Legislature this year amended a 2010 law that requires each district to establish an evaluation system satisfying the standards of the Race To The Top program, which is a U.S. Department of Education grant contest. New York won $750 million.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo, lawmakers and the state teachers' union reached an agreement on the changes in February.
When the deal was reached, Cuomo called it "a groundbreaking new statewide teacher evaluation system that will put students first and make New York a national leader in holding teachers accountable for student achievement."
Under the law, teachers and principals will be rated as "highly effective," "effective," "developing" or "ineffective." Earning two consecutive years of "ineffective" ratings could be grounds for termination.
Three indicators will be considered to calculate effectiveness: Student growth on state assessments will make up 20 percent; student growth on local assessments will make up 20 percent; and observations by administrators and peer reviewers will make up 60 percent. The state has provided districts with a list of approved local tests and observation rubrics to choose from, or districts may submit their own for approval.
Some superintendents say they wish they had more latitude.
"We're trying to pretend it's a negotiation process, but it's not," said Elmira superintendent Joseph Hochreiter. "We're implementing a mandate that has taken away the collaborative and collective spirit of what negotiations should be."
Hochreiter's district has not yet submitted its agreement. State education department officials are urging districts that haven't finished yet to get their proposals in by start of school.
A chief complaint of education officials is the law has been rushed into implementation.
David Guyette, a math teacher at Southside High School in Elmira and the lead negotiator for the local union, said he wished there was a probationary period during which to test the system.
"It's all been thrown together in a very short period of time," he said, without "taking the time to do the research and put an effective plan in place."
New York State United Teachers spokesman Carl Korn said his organization helped to craft the program and is pleased with the final result.
He stressed that the union is ready to help districts with the transition.
"At the end of the day, if we have this great system, and it's not implemented correctly, we haven't gained all that much," Korn said.
Before the new evaluation system was mandated, NYSUT worked with the state on a pilot program in five districts, including Poughkeepsie.
Poughkeepsie superintendent Laval Wilson said the district would not experience as difficult a change because it participated in the pilot program.
For example, Wilson said the district has a classroom with an observation area separated by one-way glass. The set up allows 20 people at once to observe a teacher's interaction with students, instead of relying on instructional videos for training.
Wilson said it's too soon to determine whether the pilot program has been effective. So far, no one has appealed his or her evaluations, he said.
The appeal process for the new evaluations is controversial. Unions are pushing to give teachers a fair review process while superintendents are worried about the cost of potential outside arbitration.
Districts have worked out different plans.
Within the White Plains City School District, only those with tenure will be allowed to appeal, and they may only appeal "ineffective" ratings, said superintendent Christopher Clouet. The superintendent decides on appeals, but teachers may ask a committee the district has formed to review the superintendent's position.
Superintendents and union representatives said the emphasis on testing is distressing for teachers because they generally don't trust state assessments.
Rochester City School District Superintendent Bolgen Vargas said teachers are concerned about the tests' validity, especially when changes in the past led to inconsistent scores.
Average scores plummeted when the state in 2010 said it was "raising the bar" by introducing new math and language arts assessments for third through eighth graders.
Statewide that year, 53 percent of students met or exceeded proficiency standards in language arts and 61 percent did so in math. But in 2009, 77 percent had met or exceeded language arts standards and 86 percent had done so in math.
In Rochester, the scores were lower. From 2009 to 2010, the proportion of students meeting language arts standards dropped from 56 to 25 percent, and in math, from 63 to 28 percent.
So Vargas said administrators would have to be "extremely careful" when using student tests to evaluate teachers.
For local assessments, Urbanski and Vargas said they designed tests that measure not just students' knowledge but whether they can apply their learning. Also, they decided to weigh scores on local assessments differently based on a students' attendance or whether they are in poverty, are English language learners or are in special education.
Many school officials said teachers are concerned about the changes.
"They're petrified," Kerry Broderick, president of the White Plains Teachers Association, said. "They don't understand it. We have tried to keep people calm."
Broderick, a biology teacher at White Plains High School, said administrators are concerned about the increased workload. To comply, 40 administrators in her district will need to perform 1,350 observations to meet the requirements, she said.
"That's mind boggling," she said.
Union representatives say they expect to see overworked administrators cut corners.
"I know what English teachers do when they have too many students and they assign essays: They give a checkmark," Urbanski said. "You'll see a lot of checkmarks here."