THE BLOG
11/03/2014 02:32 pm ET Updated Jan 03, 2015

Where All the Teachers Are Above Aveage

Below is a reprint of the September 30, 2014 Wall Street Journal guest op-ed piece that I wrote. It appeared on page A13 of the newspaper under the title (as chosen by the paper "Where All the Teachers Are Above Average.")

"New York recently released evaluations that rank 95% of the state's teachers as "highly effective" or "effective," 4% as "developing," and only 1% as "ineffective" for the 2012-13 school year. Never mind that more than half of the state's students in grades 4-8 weren't proficient in reading and math, according to statewide test scores.

Critics were amazed at how the state could have so many effective teachers and so many struggling students. But as a former New York state superintendent of schools for more than 20 years, I wasn't at all surprised. State law and school culture make it nearly impossible to get an honest evaluation of teachers' effectiveness.

According to the New York State Education Department, state law requires that 60% of a teacher's rating be based on classroom observations and other measures agreed upon at the local level through collective bargaining with the union. Another 20% is based on student performance on grades 4-8 statewide math and reading tests or "locally determined student learning objectives." The remaining 20% is again based on "locally determined" objective measures as bargained between school management and teachers unions.

New York State Education Commissioner John King noted that more than 80% of the teachers were rated exclusively under criteria determined by local districts or through negotiations. (New York City's teachers weren't included because the city and its teachers union couldn't agree on contract language that would permit reporting of teacher-evaluation data.)

School culture strongly frowns upon administrators rating teachers as less than satisfactory. Most elementary schools have fewer than three- or four-dozen teachers; they constitute a family with members supporting one another regardless of deficiencies. Fellow teachers are well aware when colleagues have personal issues that might diminish their effectiveness, and they expect administrators to compensate by being generous in their evaluations.

Administrators who are critical of teachers often lose the respect and cooperation of the faculty. Moreover, how can administrators explain to parents that their children have teachers rated ineffective but who remain in the classroom? Administrators in New York -- other than school superintendents -- are also eligible to receive lifelong tenure. Many of them thus have little incentive to rock the boat.

Changes are needed to honestly evaluate teachers. In New York, teachers and administrators are eligible for tenure after three years, which means decisions are made at around 2.5 years of experience. Unless a serious infraction takes place, tenure is almost always granted.
A decade ago, to much fanfare, New York started requiring 35 hours a year of "professional development" for teachers and administrators. But this requirement is farcical. Teachers who attend monthly faculty and grade-level meetings and the two or three superintendent's conference days required by union contract meet this requirement without additional training. School administrators can also satisfy their yearly requirement by participating in normal administrative activities.

Unless we rethink administrative and teacher tenure, it will be difficult to accurately measure teacher or school accountability. Here are some suggestions for a better way forward:

• No tenure for administrators. Give them five-year contracts detailing specific, realistic, measurable goals and criteria that will be used to determine success. At the end of the fourth year, the administrator should receive a formal evaluation to determine if a new five-year contract will be offered. Administrators would have the right to appeal a denied contract renewal to state Education Department officials for a binding determination.
• Tenure review for teachers. Teachers should be eligible for lifelong tenure but after a probationary period of five years instead of the current three. During this five-year period, they would assemble a portfolio for review by a committee comprised of three teachers, a state Education Department official and two school administrators. A majority of the six members would be necessary for recertification, which if approved would last seven years. Every seven years the process would be repeated.

There are good reasons for treating administrators and teachers differently. Teachers need protection from dismissal once their salaries increase with years of service and also need the freedom to use their professional judgment, which may sometimes differ from that of their supervisors.

Administrators, however, are leaders and managers who must be held accountable for school and student progress. If they cannot do so, another administrator must be given the opportunity."