Charters Should Be Free to Innovate, Even in Teacher Evaluation

The Charter Center is on the record in opposition to the State Education Department’s (SED) assertion that charter schools are required to submit data about teacher evaluations according to the state’s categories, whether or not that makes sense given the charter school’s evaluation practices. (GothamSchools covered the disagreement last month.)

A new development has now raised the same basic issue. According to its Draft Request for Proposals, the SED is planning to require all new charter schools to be “aligned with the State’s approach to incorporating student status and growth data in the evaluation and support of teachers (p. 39).”

What that means, in practical terms, is not clear. It is not likely to be legally questionable, since charter authorizers have broad discretion over the application process and no one is being asked to manufacture data.

The core philosophical problem, though, is exactly the same.

Below is an excerpt from the Charter Center’s public comment to SED:

Although there is no legal disagreement in this context as to SED’s authority… [the draft requirement] contradicts the charter school concept of autonomy, setting a prescriptive standard for educational practice.

Charter schools are granted autonomy in exchange for accountability, and this is particularly true in the realm of teacher evaluation: how a school evaluates teachers (and therefore how it develops and trains them) are core educational activities of a school, and autonomy around these matters should be at its greatest. Moreover, this area of practice is highly unsettled, making a prescriptive approach particularly unwise unless other circumstances demand them.

As an alternative to this prescriptive requirement… NYSED should give applicants the option to propose methods of teacher evaluation that may not comply with the State’s approach, provided that the methods, rationale, and any supporting research or precedents are described in thoughtful detail.

New York’s teacher evaluation reforms were prompted by problems that have nothing to do with charter schools: local tenure systems that did not encourage careful review and development of teachers, compounded by a general lack of accountability for poor-performing district schools.

New York State’s evaluation rules may be wildly successful, and we should hope so for children’s sake. But if they prove to have shortcomings, like most education reforms do, the state will want to have a charter sector that has been busily trying other approaches.