Every year, teachers are evaluated two or three times on their lesson preparation, classroom environment, quality of instruction, and fulfillment of professional responsibilities. New York State requires school districts to conduct teacher evaluations and ICSD tries to hold its teachers to a high standard. However, The Tattler and teachers themselves have questioned the effectiveness of these teacher evaluations in improving the quality of teaching throughout ICSD.
Last fall, a committee of teachers from the Ithaca Teachers Association met with district administrators to revise the system for teacher evaluations. This committee regularly meets with administrators—typically after state requirements change—to discuss how evaluations will be conducted. According to the procedural manual developed by the committee and administrators, the goal of the current evaluation system is to provide an objective way to help teachers grow professionally.
Under the current system, 50 percent of teachers’ scores on evaluations are based on observations, leaving the other 50 percent based on student test scores.
Staff members who are certified in administration—who may be teachers or administrators—make announced observations of each tenured teacher once a year and of each non-tenured teacher twice a year. Every year, each teacher also receives one unannounced observation, or “walk-through,” in which an administrator drops by and observes the class for just 15 minutes.
Teachers are also evaluated on student test scores, though the process varies depending on whether the class ends in a Regents exam.
By the summer, teachers receive their evaluation scores from the previous year and find out whether they are highly effective, effective, developing, or ineffective in their teaching. In accordance with its goals to help teachers improve, ICSD offers mandatory Teacher Improvement Plans (TIPs) to teachers who receive low scores. TIPs include workshops and mentorship programs, as well as a TIP coach who helps teachers to plan lessons and develop strategies, such as those for increasing student engagement.
In March 2015, The Tattler published an editorial examining the teacher evaluation system in place at the time. The Tattler editorial board had several complaints about the evaluation system and offered some solutions. Despite the recent revisions to the evaluation system, it seems that many complaints regarding teacher evaluations remain unaddressed.
One issue with the current evaluation system is that observers may end up evaluating a teacher in an unfamiliar subject. For example, a history teacher who ends up observing a math teacher might not have enough knowledge of the math curriculum to tell how effective the math teacher’s instruction is. Deborah Lynn, IHS physics teacher and member of the committee that helped create the current guidelines for evaluations, explained that some teachers still have this complaint.
Steve Weissburg, a math teacher at IHS, noted that he has not been evaluated by someone with a math, or even STEM, background in over six years. “All my observations are based on pedagogy, not content,” Weissburg said. “This is not appropriate for secondary education, where content mastery is important.”
Despite these complaints, there have been no recent changes to the policy regarding these inter-departmental observations. However, there is currently a system by which teachers can challenge the observation report if they feel they were not evaluated fairly.
Duration of Observations
Another problem that teachers observe with the current system is that too little time is allotted for observations. Lynn said that short, 15-minute walkthroughs do not provide enough time for observers to make an accurate evaluation of the instruction—a complaint that The Tattler also brought up two years ago. The policy for the length of the observations has not changed significantly since then.
Lack of Student Feedback
One of The Tattler’s main complaints about teacher evaluations in 2015 was that student opinions were not factored into teacher evaluations at all.
Weissburg explained that the lack of student feedback in teacher evaluations is still a problem. “In my experience students give much more meaningful and useful feedback than administrators who just observe one class period,” Weissburg said.
There is currently no official way for students to submit feedback regarding their teachers’ instruction, though some teachers ask for feedback informally from their students.
Lack of Teacher Input on Criteria
Teachers have also expressed a desire to have more of a say about the criteria on which they are evaluated. Lynn said that teachers used to be evaluated more on the achievement of their self-determined professional goals. “[This system] helped me be reflective and think about what aspects of my profession I wanted to improve and what I could do in that direction. However, the state no longer approves of this practice,” Lynn said.
Jean Amodeo, IHS English teacher, also noted that the rubric for evaluating teachers is unnecessarily long and redundant.
In spite of these issues, some teachers think that the current system for teacher evaluations is acceptable. Lynn said that the system in place is “reasonable.”
Amodeo explained that the effectiveness of the current system depends on how teachers receive the feedback. “Personally, I think the usefulness of teacher evaluation feedback and student performance data is completely dependent on educators’ attitudes towards it and the ways in which they choose to respond to it. If viewed solely as a ‘grade,’ evaluations are not at all useful. If seen as a couple of pieces of information which feed into a desire to improve, evaluations can be useful,” Amodeo said.
However, other teachers think that there are still too many weaknesses with the current system for it to be effective. The system has changed little overall in the past few years, leaving issues such as inter-departmental observation, student feedback, and others largely unaddressed.