Monday, December 12, 2016

Andrew Cuomo's Heavy Hearts Club Band and Their Evaluation System

I was at a chapter leader meeting last week where I got the impression that there would be no agreement on a new evaluation system for next year. Of course that could change, but it's hard for me to imagine how it could change for the better.

I got up and said that evaluating teachers via test scores was junk science, and that the American Statistical Association said that teachers influenced test scores by a factor of 1 to 14%. One UFT  person said she was sure that her teaching influenced the kids. I didn't dispute that, actually. I'm sure it does, and I'm sure mine does too. I'm just not sure it influences their standardized test scores. In fact, the standardized test my kids take, the NYSESLAT, has little or nothing to do with English acquisition, which I encourage and foster. My kids did well on it last year, but I'm inclined to think it has more to do with the fundamental lack of validity of the test than anything I may have done.

Another UFT person challenged me to come up with an ideal rating system on the spot. I thought that was a pretty silly response. It reminded me of climate change deniers. Well, you come up with a better way to improve the environment than rampantly polluting the air and water and hoping for the best.

The real challenge is to come up with a worse way to rate teachers, and that, in fact, was precisely what Governor Andrew Cuomo set out to do. The system we work under, in case it's escaped your attention, was designed to more easily fire teachers. When it failed to do that, Cuomo famously labeled his own system "baloney" and set out on a path to send as many of us as possible toward destitution and ruin. That's his vision of advocacy for children. And the Democrats in the Assembly voted with "heavy hearts" to support it. UFT President Michael Mulgrew, for reasons that elude me utterly, thanked them for this.

There are other flaws in this system. One is the number of required observations. It's simply not necessary to observe every single teacher in the building that many times. We were lucky in that the principals' union advocated for four rather than six. But that's still too much. My principal says he gets a very good idea of what's going on in classrooms by observing from the hall and I believe him. In the year I spent doing hallroom patrol I got a very strong impression where things were going right and wrong, and I'm not trained to observe classes at all.

I think a principal or AP could observe teachers once a year, and if there were no problems otherwise recorded that would be enough. If, in fact, the observation did not go well, that would be an indication that the supervisor ought to support the teacher in question with further visits and advice. In fact, teachers in need of help get less of it because supervisors, in my building at least, are swamped visiting thirty or forty teachers four times a year. My friend James Eterno, however, informs me that the state law sets two observations as a minimum, so that's the best we can do. And if it is, I have no idea why we'd go for more. It's a waste of time and effort, and it demoralizes teachers to no end.

Of course I'm not Reformy John King, who Michael Mulgrew trusted to have the final word on our system. Though it's been refined somewhat, it's still his baby. I believe Geoff Decker wrote in Chalkbeat that neither the DOE nor the UFT wanted this much observation. If UFT is negotiating anything, I hope they're working toward reducing this number. It's a great time to give teachers something to be grateful for, what with Donald Trump and his Billionaire Swamp threatening to envelop us and all working Americans in toxic sludge.

Of course I'm not privy to the inside workings of UFT. I'm on the Executive Board, but those of us not on the dais are just the outside looking in. Ideally we should just sit there and question nothing, but they're now faced with the inconvenience of high school teachers having elected seven people who haven't signed loyalty oaths.

I think it's healthy for the union to have us there, and it amazes me to sit there while people roll their eyes and curse us out for having the temerity to ask questions. We are teachers, and it behooves us to ask questions and set an example. But up is down and right is left in America today, and sadly leadership make no exception for the United Federation of Teachers.

There is no question whatsoever, despite frequent assertions otherwise from leadership, that the evaluation system is the most demoralizing thing that's come down the pike in decades. In fact, it's specifically intended to be that way. I heard directly from a UFT Unity member that the "norming" exercises this year were directly meant to have supervisors give lower ratings. So don't believe all that crap about how a rubric makes everything equal or fair.

If UFT wants to do something to help and support those of us on the ground who actually do the work, it will push relentlessly for fewer observations. It will give those of us who teach some little thing for which to show gratitude when Donald Trump and his band of corporate goons make this country "right to work" until we rightly take it back.
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