Bring on the independent validators–just kidding.

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 here
and here
and here
and 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.

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