Although regulations requiring teacher evaluations went into effect more than two years ago, teachers in Warwick have taken a stand against the new system with an 800-signature petition presented at the April 9 School Committee meeting.
“As the union, we decided this was something that needed to be done,” said Darlene Netcoh, head of the English department for Toll Gate High School and Winman Junior High School.
As assistant treasurer for the Warwick Teachers Union, Netcoh was one of five representatives present at the meeting to bring up concerns with the new evaluation system.
“The goal of the petition is to call the attention of our School Committee to this evaluation process,” said Netcoh during a phone interview yesterday. A Warwick teacher for 23 years, Netcoh explained that schools in Warwick had an evaluation system in place previously, but the new evaluations are “detrimental to teaching and learning,” “not accurate or fair,” and are very time consuming for teachers and administrators alike.
“It is such a waste of time, of energy, of paperwork,” said Netcoh. “It doesn’t prove anything.”
The new system also requires assistant principals to conduct observations, taking up their time. As a result, Netcoh says “school climate and discipline has suffered in this district.”
The new evaluations were put into place by Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) Commissioner Deborah Gist, along with a number of other regulations under the Basic Education Program (BEP).
The BEP was the subject of an Oct. 20, 2009 letter from Gist to all superintendents; Gist wrote that there must be a priority of ensuring every student has “highly effective teachers” and that “districts select and retain only the most highly effective staff.”
The letter explained the new regulations would go into effect on July 1, 2010 and superintendents should be sure all of their policies and contracts reflected the changes.
When reached for comment about the petition from Warwick teachers, Gist responded with an e-mail statement. She wrote that “educator evaluations provide teachers and school leaders with information and feedback that will help them continuously improve their skills and expertise,” and that “teachers and school leaders have been involved in every stage of the design and implementation process.”
Warwick School Department was involved, serving as a full-implementation school last year, meaning they tested out the evaluation system and were to give feedback for improvement prior to RIDE releasing a second version. However, Netcoh said the second version was released before Warwick even sent in their report.
According to Netcoh, the new evaluations are “an attack on teachers,” and rely heavily on student performance. For example, in one evaluation rubric, a teacher will be given a rating of a 1 if the teacher points out a student or parent may be responsible for poor performance. Netcoh says this is not fair because if a student refuses to attend after-school help sessions, to do homework or to participate in class, the teacher will be penalized in these evaluations.
“We are being judged on what another human being does or does not do,” said Netcoh.
While Gist did not comment specifically on the petition in her statement, she said she is hoping feedback from teachers and other leaders will lead to improvements.
“We continue to seek input on the implementation of educator evaluations in our state, and we remain committed to ongoing improvements, based on lessons learned and feedback from teachers and school leaders,” said Gist.
Gist did, however, have this to say about Warwick teachers.
“I expect the teachers and school leaders in Warwick to move forward with the evaluation process and to use the results to improve teaching and learning in the Warwick schools.”
Teacher evaluations are not the only area of controversy seen by Warwick teachers. Senator James Sheehan (D-North Kingstown), a history teacher at Toll Gate, has issues with Gist’s policy of teacher evaluations outweighing teacher seniority. Sheehan signed the petition opposed to the state’s evaluation system.
In her Oct. 20, 2009 letter, Gist stressed the importance of maintaining “highly effective teachers” through the use of evaluations. In regards to recruiting, supporting and retaining highly effective staff, Gist said, “in my view, no system that bases teacher assignments solely on seniority can comply with this regulation.”
Almost three years and four months after that letter, Gist sent a second letter to all superintendents on Jan. 31, 2013. The tone was decidedly different from the first.
Gist said any “individuals engaging in or countenancing such infractions in derogation of the BEP shall face sanctions by this Department, up to and including loss of certification.” School departments found “in derogation of the BEP shall be subject to administrative orders enforceable in Superior Court and the potential loss of diversion of State aid.”
Gist cited collective bargaining agreements created or ratified since July 1, 2010 not meeting BEP requirements, the use of job fairs to award assignments based on seniority, and the practice of “bumping” less senior teachers during layoff as violations.
“The tone of the letter was very intimidating and threatening,” said Sheehan; he added that the letter has left teachers “operating in an environment of fear.”
As chair of the Senate Committee on Government Oversight, Sheehan is concerned Gist’s interpretation of a state law is being used to promote her own agenda.
“I take this very seriously,” said Sheehan during a phone interview on April 17.
Sheehan took his concerns to the Rhode Island Board of Education by writing a letter to Chairwoman Eva Marie Mancuso. In the letter, he explained that RI General Law 16-13-6 says if teachers need to be suspended due to decreased student populations, suspensions will be in “inverse order of employment,” with the exception of “certain teachers of technical subjects whose places cannot be filled by teachers of an earlier appointment.”
Sheehan says Gist has connected “technical subjects” to any teacher with a unique ability or skill as opposed to subjects that require certification such as foreign language.
“If you were to accept that, there would be no exception,” said Sheehan. “The loophole would be too large.”
Sheehan says this is the second time he has questioned Gist’s interpretation of a law. When questioned about the legality of the firing of all Providence teachers in early 2011, Sheehan says Gist cited Russell Arnold & Michael Clifford v. Burrillville School Committee to show case law, but failed to mention the 1982 case required specific criteria to be met.
As for seniority, Gist had this to say in her Jan. 31, 2013 letter: “Although seniority may correlate to a teacher’s degree of ‘experience,’ it must be considered as secondary to other performance criteria aligned with the needs of the Local Education Agency and its students. There exists no rational link between seniority per se and educational achievement.”
Sheehan wrote to the Board of Education hoping they would look at the legality to the regulations; they told him they would look into the situation. He has not heard back yet.
Netcoh hopes that the School Committee will take the petition under serious consideration and help change the evaluation requirements. To accept a new system, Netcoh says it would have to be “more streamlined and fair.”
Warwick School Committee Chairwoman Beth Furtado, Superintendent Richard D’Agostino and school human resources director Rosemary Healey did not return calls.