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Boston school department stands by teacher evaluation process

Martin Desmarais

Prior to the launch of Boston Public School’s new evaluation system last school year, the city had strong support across the board, but now the Boston Teachers Union is crying foul. The union is demanding in a grievance that BPS rehire 30 teachers who were removed for poor performance and it has stated claims that the evaluation system is discriminatory.

According to Richard Stutman, president of the Boston Teachers Union, the union’s examination of the evaluation data finds that a black teacher is five times more likely to be targeted for dismissal, a male teacher is three times more likely to be targeted for dismal and a teacher over the age of 50 is 12 times more likely to be targeted for dismissal.

“We found rampant discrimination by gender by age by race,” Stutman said. “We don’t believe it is random. We don’t believe it is an exception.

“We don’t think you can remotely say that a system is fair if certain races are targeted at five times the rate,” he added. “There is no such thing as a little bit of discrimination.”

Stutman’s assertions aside, the evaluation system has not produced a large percentage of firings.

Last school year the new evaluation system looked at over 5,000 educators and teachers. Of those, 1.2 percent of educators — or 48 individuals — were deemed “unsatisfactory.” BPS conducted training with these individuals to try and help them improve — and 31 were deemed to have not done so and were removed, according to data released by BPS.

In November, BPS released a report that revealed that in the prior years’ evaluation data educators over age 50, male teachers and African-American educators were more likely to receive a “needs improvement” or “unsatisfactory” evaluation.

This sent the union into action and led to the filing of a grievance demanding that the city rehire the removed teachers and also suspend the performance evaluations.

“We think the evaluation system is flawed,” Stutman said. “If the evaluation system is helpful and fair these numbers shouldn’t be surfacing.”

Boston Public Schools Interim Superintendent John McDonough has come out very strongly in support of the evaluation system and against the union’s demands.

“No one who was removed for poor performance last year should be placed in front of students again, but this is precisely what the union leadership has asked us to do,” McDonough said in a statement. “Performance evaluations are valuable tools to improve the quality of teaching for every child. We need to invest in great teaching — and that means working hard to identify areas of underperformance so we can address them.

“We must not turn back simply because there are patterns we do not like to see in the evaluation data,” McDonough added. “Educator evaluations and the professional support that comes with them help our teachers tackle the other urgent patterns we see all too often: that students living in poverty are less likely to succeed, or the fact that the vast majority of students with disabilities still struggle to graduate.

“Nearly half speak a language other than English at home. We continue to have persistent achievement gaps. Our teachers care deeply about these issues and want to serve all of our children well. We wish the union leadership would focus its energy on helping us find solutions rather than on weakening our schools’ ability to strengthen teacher teams.”

According to BPS officials, this year the evaluations will include additional measures to help prevent the potential for evaluator bias and the city will continue to work with evaluators on a regular basis to ensure consistency.

One of the things that BPS stands strongly by is that in the 2012-2013 school year 93 percent of its teachers received an evaluation, up from 23 percent in prior school years.

School officials and education advocates also express frustration at the union’s about-face on an evaluation system that it argued to adopt during contract negotiations last year and was developed by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education in partnership with parents, teachers and education experts.

Long-time education advocate Fran Smith, who is also coordinator of Boston United for Students, said that Boston was in need of a better teacher evaluation process and that to uncover only 30 teachers out of 5,000 who are underperforming is actually not that concerning.

“I think that the new teacher evaluation process is a big improvement,” Smith said. “I do believe that there are some people who are teachers who may not be that effective and the evaluation process should determine that.”

She acknowledges that the individual teachers found as underperforming understandably feel the evaluation was unfair to them and she appreciates that the union filed a grievance to protect the teachers and examine the evaluation. However, she said she does not want the emphasis on giving students the best education to be lost in a battle over labor practices.

“Our children have one shot at every grade. What they don’t achieve in that grade every year hurts their ability to succeed,” Smith said. “We have to focus on what is in the best interest of the children. I look forward to the day when the collective bargaining process is a student-centric process.”

If the union grievance holds it will be a long process that will end in court. Stutman says the union wants BPS to stop its “racist, sexist and ageist” practices and to look at the teachers who have been removed and make sure that the decision was not made based on factors other than performance.

According to Lee McGuire, chief spokesman for BPS, school officials will have a series of meetings with the union beginning in the near future. He said if there is a resolution from these meetings he does not expect it to happen for several months, at the earliest. Likely, the teachers in question will have to be looked at on a case-by-case basis.

McGuire echoes the sentiments of the school superintendent. “No group of students should spend a year with a teacher who is underperforming,” he said. “We are not going to be putting teachers back in the classroom that are underperforming.”