Debate grows over who should evaluate teachers


FALLS VILLAGE - A group of department chairs at Housatonic Valley Regional High School has publicly rebuked Region One Board of Education Chairman Judge Manning and called on him to retract statements he made late last year about the teacher evaluation process at the school.

At a Jan. 7 board meeting, Manning read portions of a letter he received from seven department chairs calling on him to withdraw comments he made at a special board meeting Nov. 20 about the practice at the school of having department heads evaluate teachers.

The department heads pointed to a Nov. 29, 2007, Lakeville Journal article that characterized Manning's thoughts on the issue. According to the article, Manning "noted that all teachers at Housatonic are members of the same labor union and such a common bond could pose a conflict, even if the law permits it."

Teachers object to implications

In a Dec. 4 letter to Manning, the department heads (Scott Fellows, Paul Padua, Peter Vermilyea, Marjorie Becker, Damon Osora, Nur Abdulhayoglu and Ronnie Santorelli) bristled at Manning's suggestion about the possible conflict. They insisted that they take their supervisory responsibilities, for which they receive a stipend, "very seriously" and that belonging "to the same bargaining unit" does not affect their professional judgment.

"To suggest otherwise is to unfairly impugn our integrity," the educators wrote.

The meeting in which Manning made the controversial comments had been called to discuss the release last fall of a report by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, a regional accrediting organization that put Housatonic on warning for the curriculum and instruction components of its program. Among other things, the report was critical of the teacher evaluation process.

Chairman disagrees

In his verbal response at the Jan. 7 board meeting, Manning said he "has respect for the signers of the letter," but disagreed with them on some key points.

"To say that my questioning the way we choose evaluators is to impugn their integrity... that was not my intention," Manning said. "In fact, I don't think that's the case at all. I still think it could pose a conflict."

Manning quoted from page 25 of the NEASC report, citing complaints by some department chairs that "the process for determining evaluators is counterproductive" and mostly "inconsistent." The report further states that "there is much evidence to suggest that there is an inherent conflict of interest between the improvement of instructional practices and the perception that serving as an evaluator is a perk."

"That information comes from the [school's own] self-study," Manning continued. "And the Board of Education has adopted the NEASC conclusions."

But the department heads stated in their letter that the visiting NEASC committee did not see a conflict in having teachers' union members evaluating each other, as Manning himself suggested in his previous comments.

In their letter, the teachers also noted that the policy of having department heads evaluate teachers was approved by the Board of Education "at the urging of the previous high school principal."

Still, Manning insisted his "comments were not about past practice, but about going forward, looking forward and improving and we need to do that constantly."

Asked if he wished to elaborate on his response to the department heads, Manning declined. So did Fellows, one of the letter writers and the head of the math department.

In an e-mail, Fellows, who is also the faculty representative to the Housatonic Valley Regional Faculty Association, did note that "Housatonic is not unique among schools in Connecticut in having department chairs evaluate teachers. I believe it is a relatively common structure."

How other schools do it

A brief informal survey of some area schools shows them split between department heads and other administrators in performing evaluation duties. At the Litchfield Schools District, which includes Litchfield High School, Director of Curriculum and Instruction Don Johnson said only he and the principals and assistant principals evaluate the district's three schools. And at the Webutuck School District in Millerton and Amenia, N.Y., Superintendent Richard "Nick" Johns reports that the principals evaluate teachers at the district's four schools.

At Region 7 in Winsted, which includes Northwestern Regional High School, Superintendent Clint Montgomery said, "It is our practice to have department chairpersons evaluate staff in their department."

A spokesperson at Wamogo Regional High School, which serves Warren, Morris and Goshen, said district policy permits department heads to evaluate teachers, but few of them do so because they do not yet have the proper certification (known as 092). So the responsibility typically falls to the principal's office.

Region One Assistant Superintendent Tom Gaisford recently conducted an informal survey of 15 school districts in Connecticut - some large, some small.

He found they were almost evenly split between those that allow department chairs to evaluate teachers and those that either did not permit the practice or had not even established the position of department head or its equivalent. When Gaisford was principal of North Canaan Elementary School, he alone evaluated teachers.

Evaluating can taint relationship

Johns, the Webutuck superintendent, said in an e-mail exchange that he is opposed to the practice of having department chairs evaluate teachers, in part because it compromises the mentoring relationship between the two.

"We want the department head to have a relationship with the teachers in the department that is formative in nature - that is, the department head is a coach who is on the same side as the teacher, constantly looking for more effective ways to deliver the curriculum," said Johns.

"Many think the more the merrier when it comes to evaluating teachers," he added. "I do not share this opinion."

Principal is stepping in

Since the NEASC report came out last fall, Housatonic Principal Gretchen Foster has become more active in evaluating and supervising faculty.

"We ask that you retract your comments, as reported in The Lakeville Journal, at the next public meeting of the the Region One Board of Education," the department heads concluded in their letter. Manning declined to do so.

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