The governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, received some well-deserved praise last week for bringing the state education department and the teachers unions together on a new teacher evaluation rubric. (See here. And here. And hereand hereand hereand here.) As Joe Williams wrote in the Daily News:
Weeks after declaring he would be a “lobbyist for students,” Gov. Cuomo delivered his 2.75 million young clients a major victory Thursday, using the weight of his office to break through the logjam blocking a common-sense mechanism for evaluating teachers based on whether children are learning.
Though there will be much grousing about how common-sensical it is to judge teachers based on how their students do on standardized tests (40 percent of the evaluation)—“it’s a dark day when politicians impose an untested scheme on educators,” wrote Diane Ravitch—the more fascinating part of this story is the New York City subplot.
New York's new 'impartial' observors promise to add yet another layer of bureaucracy to an already bloated system.
The United Federation of Teachers, which represents Gotham’s 75,000 teachers, negotiated an additional deal (also with Cuomo’s help), to include, according to the UFT, “third-party, independent validation of teacher ratings.” Though this applies, ostensibly, only to the appeal of decisions about a teacher’s effectiveness, it introduces an interesting, if largely untried evaluation method (see Nick Kristof on New Haven)—one that promises to add yet another layer of bureaucracy to an already bloated system. As Winnie Hu of the New York Times reports,
[C]ity education officials, with the consent of union leaders, will contract with a company to provide observers, who are to be licensed educators — former teachers, principals or administrators. Each observer will be assigned to between 50 and 80 teachers, and will perform three classroom observations for each one during the year.
Aside from the fact that no one knows what this might cost—Hu says it will be the “largest expense of the new system”—the bigger problem is that it plays into two of the more enduring myths about education: that you can—or even should—take the politics out of it and that you can achieve impartiality. It is a bit ironic that Ravitch is so vexed that the governor, “who has never taught and never evaluated teachers or principals, presumes to know how to evaluate teachers and principals,” presuming that no professional educator backed the evaluation rubric. More ironic, perhaps, is Ravitch’s devastating description (in her 2000 book Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reform) of what happened the last time we had a “solid professional consensus” that was “empowered to decide what was best for students.” That was, of course, the infamous Progressive Era and we know where that took us.
As Checker and Mike point out in their recent Rethinking Education Governance paper,
The strongest imprint on today’s school-governance structures, however, may have been left by the Progressive Era—when it was deemed important to “keep politics out of education” so as to avoid the taint of patronage and party. According to the prevailing wisdom, it was better to entrust the supervision of public education to expert professionals and independent, non-partisan boards that would attract disinterested community leaders to tend to this vital civic function. The mayor and aldermen were to be kept at bay, lest public education grow entwined with other government functions and agencies, and thus become contaminated by politics and cronyism.
Alas, special interests moved right in to fill the gap, building a system of corporate and labor union cronyism so impenetrable we have had to create a separate system—choice—to deliver the goods, to restore some sanity when it comes to putting teachers and children together.
Do we really need “third-party validators”? And who will they be? Former teachers, principals, and administrators? How will we know they aren’t the same people who were working in a failed and failing system? They will tell us who’s a good teacher and who isn’t? During a one- or two-hour flyover?
It is not that expert educators can’t or shouldn’t be called on. But not to act as some kind of panel of judges of teacher effectiveness.
Will they bring impartiality? Or mush?
Successful schools I have visited eschew such shibboleths of perfection. Creating a culture of excellence, say teachers and administrators alike, is the key to exercising good teacher evaluations: your peers will let you know. Collaboration counts. Knowing how to use data—and tests—counts. It’s not perfect, but my suspicion is that it’s a lot more perfect—and less costly—than pretending that impartial evaluators will do much more than sew more seeds of dissent.