In an editorial about teacher evaluations and their public release (published March 1), Elinor Tatum said, “The big question is: Why must public schools participate in the reporting process, while it is optional for charter schools?” I respectfully disagree.
The big question should always be: How well are schools doing to give every student in them a fair chance to fully participate as educated citizens in our economy and in our society?
Schools exist to educate students–how they evaluate teachers or who gets evaluated are simply means to that end. That said, Ms. Tatum’s question certainly raises an issue worth discussing–an issue that goes to the heart of what being a charter school is all about.
Certainly, on its face, it seems only fair to say that if district teachers are subject to an evaluation process, so also should charter schools teachers be, but such an equivalency ignores the critical structural issues that make charter and district schools very different.
Charter schools are held accountable directly for student achievement; if they do not educate their students, they are shut down. Moreover, the leaders and teachers in those schools lose their jobs. That’s very tough and very real accountability for results.
In contrast, districts and the schools they run don’t necessarily face closure if they fail. Yes, under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a number of district schools have been phased out, but that is simply the policy of this administration. It isn’t normally how the DOE functions and it isn’t required by law.
In stark contrast with charter teachers, when a district school closes, not a single teacher or principal loses his or her job–since the contract the UFT has with the district protects teachers and makes sure they keep getting paid regardless of what happens to their school. As such, I’m not sure that charter teachers view the present system–where they don’t have to participate in a state-mandated evaluation system but where they do lose their jobs when schools fail–as stacked in their favor.
In the same vein, it’s important to remember how we got to a point where teacher evaluation has become such big news. As everyone acknowledges, the evaluation system was badly insufficient on paper and in practice even worse. While the UFT and the DOE stress different aspects of this–the UFT the fact that evaluations were often not used to provide feedback and develop talent, and the DOE that evaluations were not based on student achievement and that dismissing a teacher for incompetence was incredibly difficult–both wanted a change for the better.
In contrast, charters, with the freedoms they have, were experimenting with a variety of different evaluation systems, some using student achievement data, others focused on observation–most looking at a wide range of data and approaches. Certainly, no one was accusing charter schools of failing to dismiss teachers, least of all at Eva Moskowitz’s Success Charter Network of schools, who Ms. Tatum takes pains to call out. Given all of this, it is no wonder that charter schools aren’t required to follow the state-mandated evaluation process–they already have their own and they’re tougher by far.
I’m not sure that the above will persuade Ms. Tatum to reverse her position and agree that there are different ways of regulating public schools: outcome-based accountability, which is what charters have, and input-based regulation, which is largely how we manage and oversee traditional district schools. Both have strengths and both have weaknesses, but I’m pretty sure of this: If tomorrow we offered district school teachers the option of being subject to the tough accountability that charter school teachers face in return for not having to participate in a statewide mandated evaluation process, we’d have mighty few takers.
–James Merriman, CEO of the New York City Charter School Center