New Role in Teacher Evaluations: Outside Validators

February 17, 2012

Original article published in the New York Times by Winnie Hu

The New York City teachers’ union has long called the process used by the city’s Education Department for reviewing and dismissing struggling teachers partisan and unfair.

But now, as part of an agreement reached Thursday, the Education Department and the United Federation of Teachers will put into effect an evaluation system that will bring independent observers into the city’s classrooms to monitor the weakest teachers.

The role of these observers — known officially as “independent validators” — is based on a similar practice in use in schools in New Haven. One observer will be assigned to any teacher receiving a first “ineffective” rating, the lowest possible grade under the new teacher evaluation system. Under the agreement, city 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.

If an evaluator concurs with a principal’s finding that a teacher is ineffective for a second consecutive year, city officials can begin a new, expedited termination process. Currently, the burden of proof is on the city, making the dismissal process lengthy and difficult.

While city officials do not yet have a projected cost, these outside evaluators are expected to be the largest expense of the new evaluation system.

Aaron Pallas, a professor of sociology and education at Teachers College at Columbia University, said it was becoming more common for school districts to include third-party observers in teacher evaluations — not only to ensure impartiality but also to provide a more comprehensive evaluation by consultants with specialized subject knowledge or experience.

“I think it has the potential to address the concerns of fairness that are central to evaluation issues,” Dr. Pallas said. “What we don’t know yet is whether the implementation of a more differentiated evaluation system results in either better teaching or better learning outcomes for students.”

New Haven introduced the use of outside observers — called “third-party validators” there — in 2010 as part of a new teachers’ contract. The validators were assigned to teachers receiving both the lowest and highest ratings so that, as John DeStefano Jr., the New Haven mayor put it, they could “discern factors of poor performance and also great performance so that they can be shared with other teachers and replicated.”

After the first year, 34 teachers with the lowest ratings, which were confirmed by the validators, were pushed out through retirements or resignations.

“The validators, I think, have been essential to issues of transparency and fairness,” the mayor said. “When tenured teachers did separate from the district, there was virtually no volume about it. It seems to have been accepted by the workforce, by evidence of what has not happened: protests, screaming, shouting.”

In New York, 2,118 of the city’s 75,000 teachers were deemed unsatisfactory last year under the current two-tier evaluation system, in which the only other option is satisfactory. But officials said they expected the number of poor ratings to substantially increase under the new system.

Michael Mulgrew, the United Federation of Teachers president, said he saw in the independent observer an opportunity for teachers to show firsthand that they can teach, or as he put it, “to do an appeal right there in the classroom.”

And if they failed?

“If they can’t improve, that means they need to leave the profession,” Mr. Mulgrew said. “I feel bad when this happens. I tell them, ‘I understand you have this passion inside you, but that doesn’t mean you have the ability to be an effective teacher.’ Teaching is a tough profession.”

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