Southold: Teacher assessment plan draws criticism

A state plan for a 136-point teacher assessment drew criticism in Southold last Thursday because of the difficulty in implementing the new mandate’s specifics.

It all started with the federal No Child Left Behind legislation implemented in 2001 and the more recent Race to the Top initiative in 2010 meant to inspire improvements in education nationwide.

Southold, like many other districts around the state, chose not to compete for Race to the Top funding after Superintendent David Gamberg told school board members it would cost as much or more to implement the program as the district might get in funding. He also questioned whether emphasis on Race to the Top testing would detract from other efforts the district is making to improve the quality of education.

The State Education Department, building on the federal initiatives, recently issued new regulations to be implemented next year for districts involved in the Race to the Top program. Eventually, they will be required for all school districts in New York.

No one questions that improving teachers’ skills contributes to better student performance, Mr. Gamberg said. Nor does he think enough is being done to properly assess teachers’ performance.

“I’m not standing here saying the current system works,” Mr. Gamberg said at last week’s board work session. But he called the state plan for a 136-point review for every teacher “overwhelming.”

The district needs to engage in “deep conversations” about how to improve the quality of teaching, he said. He called the state checklist “worthy to use as a point of conversation.” He also said that Southold should want to engage students in teacher assessments and that the administration and board need input from teachers themselves on ways to assess their abilities.

The state’s Annual Professional Performance Review is set up to judge teachers based on three factors, according to Mr. Gamberg: a test, which would determine 20 percent of each teacher’s overall score; a local review, developed independently by each district, that would make up another 20 percent of the score; and the state performance assessment, using the 136-point checklist, which would account for the remaining 60 percent.

Mr. Gamberg said it would be very difficult for a principal to devote the amount of time necessary to do more than a cursory review of the faculty on each point.

He also said he wondered what process would be provided for a teacher to appeal an evaluation and how the state could ensure that the same standards will be implemented across the board in all districts.

There’s also no provision for assessing non-classroom teachers who deliver services to students, he said, or those who teach in a variety of non-tested areas of the curriculum.

There are questions about how much responsibility a specific teacher has for his students’ achievements, Mr. Gamberg said. He asked, for example, if a child doesn’t get sufficient support services, perhaps for budgetary reasons, would it be the teacher’s fault that the child fails to perform well in the classroom and on standardized tests? What about a second-grade teacher whose performance is weak? Who is to blame when the student, now in the third grade, can’t perform adequately, he wondered — his current teacher or that second-grade teacher who inadequately prepared that student for third grade?

Board member Scott DeSimone also questioned how much time principals could devote to individual teacher assessments.

His colleague, Judi Fouchet, said she favored “raising the bar” for teachers, but objected to the assessment as yet another unfunded mandate. She suggested that the state is trying to create a scientific way to assess teachers instead of developing best practices for excellence in teaching. The 136-point checklist will wind up being stuffed in a drawer and forgotten, she predicted.

Board member Dr. John Crean said the state plan sounds like an effort to quantify something that’s not quantifiable.
“It’s definitely something that has to be tackled and not ignored,” Mr. Gamberg said of teacher assessments. But he noted that most schools around the state are taking a “wait-and-see” attitude toward the mandate. Southold needs to be “aggressive and assertive” in dealing with the issue, Mr. Gamberg said, and has to do so in a “non-threatening way.”

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