Melrose teachers continue calls for fair evaluations

For the third Friday in a row, Melrose teachers demonstrated solidarity with recently released colleagues on June 1 by gathering outside schools across the city in union t-shirts before heading in for the start of classes.

“The standouts or the walk-ins or however you want to characterize them are really just educators supporting other educators,” said Melrose Education Association President Lisa Donovan. “Every year educators are very disappointed that they’re not being asked back in the fall, that happens every year. What might be different this year is that there are potentially violations in the evaluation process.”

Teachers say the evaluation system, stipulated by the federal Race to the Top program and negotiated on a local basis in each district, is sound, but that its implementation this year has been unfair. Teachers have been told they are not being asked to return next year after receiving an insufficient chance to improve based on administrator feedback, they say.

“The evaluation process is meant to be used as a tool for growth and improvement, and that’s the part of the process that MEA members sometimes have challenged,” Donovan said. “Because this is a relatively new process that the DESE [Department of Elementary and Secondary Education] has implemented, or has made districts implement, it is still a work in progress. And as much as the district tries to change the evaluators, there are still on occasion misinterpretations or misunderstandings about the process.”

Evaluators are drawn from administrators within each building and the district as a whole. Teachers say some have not lived up to the terms of the evaluation process, failing to provide guidelines for improvement based on the objective standards spelled out in the agreement.

Appendix C of the MEA’s current contract defines some of those standards, and the tools used to measure teachers’ progress toward achieving them. So-called “artifacts of professional practice” are meant to be objective evidence of improvement (or the lack of it), making up one layer of the “categories of evidence” that also include classroom observations. Teachers are rated on a four-point scale in each of four categories: curriculum, planning and assessment; teaching all students; family and community engagement; and professional culture.

Standardized test scores play a role in the evaluation process, but are meant to be only one of several criteria by which teachers are judged. An “educator plan,” arrived at by the teacher and his or her evaluator, should include measurable goals for student learning. Teachers are also responsible for providing evidence of professional development, peer collaboration, self-assessment, engagement with families, and other standards.

The basic goal of educator plans is to provide teachers with concrete goals to improve their performance in the classroom, specific steps they can implement to reach those goals, and the means for their progress to be objectively measured.

Teachers say the process has broken down in places, and newer members of the union are particularly vulnerable, since teachers must complete three years of fulltime employment before they are granted “professional teacher status.” Before that, they are considered “employees at will.”

“They can be let go without cause, which is a huge frustration for unions, obviously, because it’s hard to offer them the same protections under state law,” said Donovan.

She added that the union’s part in the evaluation process is extremely limited, contrary to Superintendent Cyndy Taymore’s characterization of the relationship between the MEA and district administrators.

“We collaborate with the union prior to giving teachers notice so that the union leadership is aware of pending non-renewals and can provide counsel to those educators,” Taymore told the Free Press last week.

But by the time the union is notified of impending releases, though, the administration has made its choices.

“The decisions have already been made, and educators are called into the meetings, and are just told that they are not being invited back, and are told to contact union leadership with any questions,” Donovan said, criticizing Taymore’s version of the process. “It sort of intimated that somehow the union plays a role in that decision-making process, and that is not the case. The district makes the decision about non-renewals, and they have to do that before June 15. Then the union is told.”

Donovan said the union is not given a list of teachers who have been let go, or even the number of them, but only learns about those who do come to the union for advise on how to proceed.

One step that is open to new teachers is to file a grievance. That process begins with the teacher’s immediate supervisor or principal, and, if the teacher is not satisfied, continues to Taymore, then the School Committee (which would deal with it in executive session), and finally to formal arbitration.

“That would be something that the MEA Grievance Committee would look into,” Donovan said of that last step. “That’s not any one person’s decision.”

Donovan declined to say whether any of the released teachers had filed a grievance. She reiterated the union’s call for a fair implementation of the evaluation process.

“I don’t think you’ll find any educator in the district who isn’t willing to improve, who isn’t willing to do whatever is asked, because there are such dedicated educators in the district,” she said. “They just want that opportunity to improve.”

JOIN THE MOVEMENT #iBELIEVE