Two major issues have come to the forefront of the Buffalo Public Schools in the past month: teacher evaluations, and funding to improve Buffalo's lowest achieving schools. These issues are directly related, because a provision of receiving funds from the state to carry out improvement in 6 low achieving schools is contingent upon the negotiation of a new teacher evaluation system.
There is a lot at riding on whether or not the State Education Department approves Buffalo's teacher evaluation agreement. This year, $9.3 million is at stake in School Improvement Grants for 6 persistently low achieving (PLA) schools. Next year, up to $40 million is at stake in grants for up to 13 PLA schools. Additionally, Buffalo could lose out on its share of the state aid increase, which is expected to be about $32 million.
Approval for Buffalo's teacher evaluation agreement is stalled, and will likely not come to pass because of a disagreement over whether to base a teacher's evaluation on student growth of all students, even those with poor attendance. The point at issue is whether to evaluate a teacher based on all of his/her students, even those with chronic absenteeism, defined by the Buffalo Teachers Federation (BTF) as absent for 20% of the year. The BTF argues that student attendance is outside of their control, and that teachers must not be held accountable for issues outside of their control. The State Education department has taken a position that they will not approve any agreement that excludes a subset of students from being counted in a teacher's evaluation. This leaves Buffalo at a stalemate; without an amended agreement, the district will lose critical opportunities to improve our lowest achieving schools, and to create a stronger, more effective evaluation system.
The teachers concerns are not unreasonable, but the current attendance carve out is. This policy skirts accountability for an entire group of students, protecting adults at the expense of high-needs students. It provides an inaccurate picture of what's going on in the classroom, and makes it harder to pin point areas that need to improve. Furthermore, the 20% attendance cutoff is arbitrary; it makes no differentiation between a student absent 80% of the year or 20% of the year, but conversely, a huge differentiation between a student absent 20% of the year versus 19%.
While it is absolutely the responsibility of an educator to make class engaging, and encourage and support attendance, there are extenuating situations that are beyond a teacher's control. A child absent because he or she is balancing school with paying the bills or tasked with raising younger siblings serve as two possible circumstances. We need an evaluation tool that doesn't ignore accountability for these high needs students, but finds a way to factor them in fairly. One proposal, supported by the research of Columbia University Professor, Jonah Rockoff, is that rather than discount students entirely, evaluation systems can find ways to account for attendance that is fair to both the educator and student. This can be done by weighting students towards a teachers evaluation score in proportion to the number of days they were enrolled, or in attendance. For example, a student in class for 180/180 days would get double the weight towards a teacher's student growth score as a student who was there 90/180 days. What works about this proposal is teachers have the same incentives to teach to each student present in class each day. Weighting attendance in this manner gives teachers incentives to encourage attendance, but it also means a teacher whose students are chronically absent in a way they can't control won't be penalized.
In a broader sense, the issue of this attendance carve out is one of ownership and accountability. Who will take responsibility for ensuring that chronically absent students are given the opportunity to succeed? Blame is usually assigned to parents, poverty and the environment in which these children live. We know that these problems exist within our community, but instead of solving them, we assign blame, and perpetuate the problem instead of taking responsibility to fix it. We know that these students are chronically absent, and that they are assigned to schools that are chronically failing. One powerful way to break this cycle is to set high expectations for teachers in these schools to meet the needs of their students. The carve-out, as currently structured, works against all of this.
If state union and education leaders were able to come to an historic agreement over teacher evaluation regulations just one month ago, what is preventing our local leaders from doing the same? Buffalo is the only district in the state that is still considering this attendance clause. It is imperative that the district and union compromise and craft an agreement that factors in teachers' concerns, while still maintaining accountability for all students. What is at stake goes far beyond the $70 million dollars in state and federal aid: it is teacher's jobs, and children's futures. Our students cannot afford another missed opportunity, especially when 1 in 3 Buffalo Schools is labeled as persistently low-achieving.