On the evening of April 26, 2011, Educators, teacher leaders, students and faculty joined together for Bank Street College’s sixth annual Niemeyer Education Policy Series on April 26, 2011, at the CUNY Graduate Center on Fifth Avenue.

The topic was “Teacher Performance: Highly Effective, Effective, Developing, Ineffective — How Can You Tell?”

In her welcoming address, Bank StreetPresident Elizabeth D. Dickey raised the question: “Do legitimate ways of assessing teachers exist and, if so, what are they?”

The moderator, Dean of the College Jon Snyder, who introduced the panelists, noted there were many truisms about teachers and good teaching, and asked what do these actually mean in assessing teachers. “Sometimes people can’t even agree on what assessment consists of,” he said. 

Snyder added that many states, New York included, now are moving toward new systems and approaches, and he asked the panelists to consider what were the functions and goals, as well as the key components, of teaching assessments and evaluations.

New York City’s Chief Academic Officer and Senior Deputy Chancellor Shael Polakow-Suransky discussed how “The new New York state law presents a powerful opportunity to start a richer conversation around what good teacher practice is.”

Charter School Co-Founder and Principal Margaret Ryanspoke about the high level of accountability at her school, and noted that: “Quality teaching does have to yield student outcomes that shows that they are learning.”

Ford Foundation Program Officer Frederick Frelow related the extensive research undertaken by the Foundation on how to improve teacher performance: “We found out that, after the initial training, the most powerful impact on performance is the work environment.”

Polakow-Suransky responded to Frelow’s comment about the impact of the work environment: “We’ve invested a lot of energy in building teacher teams in the schools.”

Barnett Berry, of the Center for Teaching Quality,noted that assessment should have some form of student results in the mix, and thatthe new systems and tools could be highly valuable if used in non-mechanical ways.

The panelists also debated a variety of other areas. One felt that the roles of teachers and principals have become very complicated, and some internal adjustment needs to be made. Another described how the teachers in her school assess and coach each other and participate in content groups. Yet another noted that the set of assessments New York used in the past did not serve it well, but that new work on assessment tools, spurred by the federal government, is promising, particularly in science. Another described efforts to empower principals in the NYC public schools so that, in turn, they could empower their teachers.

In response to questions from the audience, the group agreed there should be a way to get useful feedback from students and parents about teacher effectiveness. Regarding teacher training, one panelist cited the rise of residency models, often propelled by schools of education, where graduates have the benefit of a “residency,” in their first job, much like a medical residency, to help them be better teachers.

A question about special education generated great interest. In discussing assessments and standards for children with disabilities, one panelist declared we need better special ed. teachers. He said these students are victims of low expectations, and many can be mainstreamed, but need time to catch up. Another observed that there are not that many children with actual learning disabilities, and even generalist teachers can be trained to help them properly. One spoke about his disabled son, who is now in college. He said that many special ed. classes in New York City schools are taught by special ed. teachers who don’t really know special ed.

“Do legitimate ways of assessing teachers exist and, if so, what are they?”