New Haven — Twenty teachers lost their jobs in the latest round of job evaluations, as the city’s schools began pushing out not just the lowest-performing teachers, but those who failed to improve to “effective” over three years.

Eight tenured and 12 non-tenured teachers lost their jobs in 2013 as a result of poor job evaluations, according to figures New Haven Public Schools released this week in response to a longstanding request from the Independent.

The results came at the end of the third year of New Haven’s new way of grading teachers based in part on student performance.

The method — designed and carried out in conjunction with, rather than in opposition to, the teachers’ union — is being closely watched elsewhere as governments seek to find the best ways to weed out low-performing teachers while helping others improve and succeed.

In the 2012-13 school year, the third year of the evaluations, a new consequence kicked in: Teachers who were rated as “developing” (a two on a five-point scale) also faced termination if they failed to improve to “effective” (three) at the end of three years.

“This is the first year where the bar really starts to raise,” said schools Superintendent Garth Harries. Four teachers lost their jobs because of that new standard, according to the district.

The 20 teachers weren’t fired. They resigned without putting up a legal challenge, according to Harries.

Teachers’ Union President Dave Cicarella said the district continues to be “very judicious” in whom it seeks to push out. The number of teachers who left —1 percent of the workforce — was “very, very low,” he said; and the union is not fighting any of them.

A tenured teacher who lost her job, meanwhile, said she feels “devastated” and “disgusted” by how the system was used against her.

The vast majority of teachers were rated “effective” or higher. Of 1,825 teachers, 261 were rated “exemplary”; 855 were rated “strong”; 415 “effective”; 79 “developing”; and 13 “needs improvement” for the 2012-13 school year. Another 202 teachers received no rating.

Harries said the figures show the evaluation system is helping the district steadily improve its workforce. The system traces back to 2009, when teachers approved a landmark labor contract that ended the practice of evaluating teachers simply through a binary “effective/ not effective rating system. New Haven in 2010 became one of the first districts in the nation to grade students based in part on student test scores — a trend that has now swept the nation, promoted by President Obama and members of the national school accountability movement.

Cities like Chicago or New York use algorithms to grade teachers based on how their kids perform on tests compared to similar students. New Haven offers more room for teacher input and human discretion: Teachers set their own goals for their kids’ learning, based in part on test scores. (A supervisor has to sign off on the goals.) As in other cities, classroom observations are part of the equation, too.

New Haven’s system pushed out about 2 percent of its workforce in each of the first two years (34 teachers in 2011, then 28 teachers in 2012), and 1 percent the third year (2013).

The system has prompted other teachers to improve, Harries argued. In the fall of 2012, 36 teachers were notified they were “in jeopardy” of losing their jobs if they didn’t improve by the end of the year. (That includes 25 who were flagged as “needs improvement” and 11 who were flagged as “not on track to be effective,” meaning they hadn’t scored higher than a 2 for two years.) Teachers who are flagged for poor performance are supposed to get extra supports and improvement plans. They also meet with their supervisors to discuss their teaching craft at mandatory conferences.

Of the 36 teachers in jeopardy of losing their jobs, 16 improved enough to stay in the classroom, according to the district.

Harries called that a promising sign that the evaluation system is creating “improved performance.”

Union President Cicarella, who has gained national attention for collaborating with the district instead of fighting the evaluations, said the district has on the whole implemented the evaluation system “with fidelity.” Teachers have been “treated fairly” and “supported properly,” he said.

“It’s been pretty fair,” he said.

Ousted teacher: Evals ‘absurd

One teacher who was pushed out begged to differ.

The tenured teacher, who declined to give her name for privacy reasons, said she worked for New Haven schools for 10 years before she was driven out of the school system by poor evaluations last year. She said she was rated “developing” (a 2) for the first two years of the evaluation system, then was forced to resign when she did not improve to “effective” the third year.

The teacher said she was flagged at the beginning of the 2012-13 year as “not on track to be effective,” which prompted the district to bring in an outside “validator” to provide a second opinion. The validator issued “glowing reviews,” she said; her supervisor even rated her “effective” at a mid-year conference. Then, she said, she fared more poorly on subsequent classroom observations. In one case, the observer made an unannounced visit while most of her students were out on a field trip; the three who remained behind were among her most challenging students. She said the observation offered a snapshot of her classroom that did not give the full picture of the work she was doing with her kids.

She said her principal, who evaluated her, seemed to be “looking for fault” during the observations, she said. When the validator scored her poorly, she said, her principal was “happy to jump on the bandwagon that I was a poor teacher.”

A week before school ended, she learned she was on track to be fired. When her evaluation came out, she earned a bottom grade, with “no explanation” as to why she scored so poorly, she said. She had missed her goal for student test score performance by just 2 percent.

She called the process “absurd” and “devastating.” She ended up reluctantly agreeing to resign.

“I don’t think it’s right,” she said. “It breaks my heart that I have to leave my kids.”

She said she feels the system allows “administrators trying to pass the buck” to scapegoat teachers they may not like for students’ poor test scores.

Harries has acknowledged that the quality of feedback and fidelity to the evaluation process have varied from school to school. This year the district is paying to train and re-train evaluators, and has enlisted more teachers to begin evaluating their peers.

The teacher suggested the district move further in that direction.

For the system to be “equitable,” she said, “there has to be a lot more teachers involved in the evaluation.”

See this story in the New Haven Independent.

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