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Evaluating Evaluations

With all of the controversy surrounding New York State’s teacher-evaluation mandates and the continuing debates over the validity of the common-core curriculum and standardized testing, Manhasset Public Schools Superintendent Charles Cardillo and Teachers’ Union President Ed Vasta are both strongly focused on the improvement of instruction and enhancing the classroom experience for their students.

While Cardillo, who has been Superintendent since November 2005, and Vasta, who heads the Manhasset Education Association, are certainly not big fans of the increased pressures placed on students by the required tests and the impact that the results of these tests will have on teacher ratings, they are firmly convinced that their evaluation system is an asset to improving instruction.

“We started three summers ago,” said Cardillo of Manhasset’s Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR), now beginning its second year of implementation. “We had a district team of administrators and teachers and we spun off a sub committee from that. We already had something in place but we had to explore a new evaluation system that would be in line with the new state mandates. We worked together as a team and we looked at different models.”

“We chose the Kim Marshall evaluation model, which emphasizes frequent, unannounced mini observations,” explained Cardillo in an interview last week at which Vasta was also present.

Vasta, who’s led the teachers for 11 years, said that adopting the Marshall system was a relatively smooth process. “We made sure that there were representatives from each building and all the grade-level areas. Even after a long exploration of the other models and after meeting with Kim Marshall, himself, several times, this seemed to work.”

The key component of the system is the “mini-observation,” a series of 10 unannounced observations per year, lasting about 15 minutes each. Ideally, there should be one observation a month, followed by a brief meeting with the teacher and administrator to have a discussion within 24 hours of the visit. The administrator then files a brief written report within a few days.

“By doing these frequent unannounced mini-observations,” the superintendent explained, “you capture a sense of what’s going on throughout the whole school year. It’s authentic. Come in the middle; come at the end, come different times. You’re trying to capture the essence of instruction.”

Manhasset’s rating system also includes a rubric covering six areas of teacher performance: planning, classroom management; delivery of instruction; monitoring, assessment and follow-up; family and community outreach and professional responsibilities. Teachers are judged in each of these categories as either highly effective, effective, developing or ineffective.

Vasta is glad to see the end of the old, traditional forms of observations. “The focus now is on what kind of learning is going on in the room. When teachers were only being seen two times a year, administrators would be writing a novel. Now, the short written report is very focused, very precise.”

Both men agree that the first year of the new system was very successful. “The teachers have seen that it validates what they’re doing as educators,” Cardillo commented. “They saw that the administration was taking an active interest professionally in what they were doing and offering them insight as to how they could continue to grow in the teaching process.”

“It’s off to a better start this year,” Vasta feels. ”The majority of our teachers want feedback.”

“The administrators are far more confident now in year two in their implementation of the plan,” the Superintendent added. “The teachers’ comfort level is greater. There’s a greater acceptance of what our purpose is. It’s a genuine goal of improving instruction. It’s a collective responsibility. Everyone is striving for excellence.”

“The new system has really leveled the playing field,” Cardillo continued. “Traditionally, administrators spent most of their time with probationary teachers. Historically, contact between experienced, strong teachers and administrators has been limited. Now you’ve got to commit to improve instruction whether you’re a 30 year veteran or a second year teacher.”

As for the granting of tenure under the new system, “We don’t want teachers who don’t know their craft weighing us down,” said Vasta. “The administration leans on the side of caution and is very aggressive during that two to three year process. If there is serious doubt about a teacher’s ability, they don’t even wait until the third year. It’s actually better to let someone go if they don’t have the potential. It’s fairer to the students and the parents.”

What about the tenured teacher? “The public is very concerned when a tenured teacher is perceived to be less than effective,” the Superintendent said. “That number is maybe a handful of teachers. ‘Less than effective” doesn’t mean that they’re ‘ineffective.’ The way the law is set up we don’t have the liberty to easily terminate them.”

Vasta concurred. “The method (of terminating a tenured teacher) has always been there,” he pointed out. “It still takes a lot of work but our evaluation system provides administration with more documentation.”

Standardized testing demands came in for criticism during the interview. “It’s really a flawed system,” says Cardillo. ”Our emphasis should be on the improvement of instruction and not be bogged down by a flawed assessment program that emphasizes ‘over-testing’ of students. The state really should be looking at ‘over-testing.’ We’ve voiced it and we continue to voice it. We’re putting kids under tremendous stress. We’re not saying we’re opposed to assessments. Hopefully someone will sensibly take a look back and say that we need to do some restructuring.”

Turning back toward his main goal for the district’s students, Cardillo said, “If we keep our eye on the target, meaning our ongoing commitment to the improvement of instruction, and really be genuine about it, I think that over a period of time there will be a tremendous gain for our kids in their overall experience in the classroom.”

“Good teaching and good administration working hand in hand with the focus on the classroom experience -- that’s what we’re trying to promote,” he concluded.