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NY's teachers start year under heightened scrutiny

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BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — The new school year brought back-to-school jitters for some New York teachers anticipating the state's new teacher evaluation law, knowing their "grades" at the end of the school year will be partly tied to student progress and test scores.

But none showed signs of changing whatever they used that wasn't broke.

Perka Kresic said she did not change her goal of keeping students involved. A chemistry and biology teacher in Buffalo, Kresic said she will continue having students make a graph of the electrolytes in human blood, for example, so they are more than letters on a periodic table.

"I don't want to say I don't pay attention to all the other stuff. Obviously, it's in the back of your mind," Kresic said of the new evaluation plans. "But if you do your job the best way and serve the students the best way you know, I really am not scared of them."

Liverpool science teacher Jeff Peneston isn't anxious either over being evaluated, and hasn't altered his classroom plans. But Peneston is bothered by the reliance on standardized test results, which he said aren't a true measure of a good teacher.

"It's a big scientific error to say that because my students did better on a test, I've become a more effective teacher," said Peneston, New York's 2011 teacher of the year.

Under the state law that took effect this school year, every public school teacher will be evaluated and given a score at year's end reflecting how she or he performed in the classroom and how the students progressed and scored on standardized tests. The statewide system replaced locally adopted evaluation plans of the past.

Each of the state's roughly 700 school districts must have a state-approved teacher and principal evaluation plan in place by Jan. 17 or risk losing out on state aid increases. But whether their schools' plan has been approved yet or not, teachers know of the general parameters set by the law for the evaluations.

Classroom observations by the principal or an associate will account for up to 60 percent of the evaluation score. Student improvement on state tests from one year to the next will count for 20 percent, and another 20 percent will be based on a locally chosen, state-approved measure, such as the percentage of students who advance to a certain level.

With the new law, some teaching colleges say, some classroom teachers are reluctant to hand over the reins to a teacher-in-training when their own success will be tied to how their students fare, especially this year when the state is also requiring teachers to implement a more rigorous core curriculum.

"There's a fear that because of the evaluation and student growth and all that has to go with it, can I give up four to six to eight weeks of my classroom so a new teacher can grow and learn the field while I'm being responsible ultimately for that amount of time?" said Superintendent Jason Van Fossen of the Maine-Endwell Central School District in Broome County.

"It's a legitimate concern," he said.

Fewer in his district signed on for student teachers this year, and the State University at Brockport has counted 13 schools in the region that have declined to use them for the fall semester, said Diane Maurer, director of field experience and certification.

Buffalo school teacher Jordan Zachritz wonders how he will fare on evaluations that seem better suited for courses like English and math. He teaches aquatic ecology in a classroom occupied by snakes and turtles, which could mean unique challenges during observations as administrators work off written checklists.

But Zachritz said has no plans to adapt his teaching style to fit a mold.

"As much as it might seem like a formal lesson isn't happening, it's because we have these hands-on activities and classroom discussions," he said. "I'm not anxious about that."

Only teachers and their students' parents will have access to a teacher's evaluation.

A 91-100 will earn teachers a "highly effective" ranking. Teachers scoring 75-90 will get an "effective" rating and those scoring 65-74 will be considered "developing." Teachers scoring below 65, or "ineffective," will get a chance to improve but two consecutive failing grades may lead to a termination hearing.

State Education Commissioner John King stresses that the aim is to help teachers hone their craft.

"I know the new teacher and principal evaluations that begin this year are generating some anxiety," King said in a September message to more than 240,000 educators. "Evaluations are designed to help all educators improve their performance and help students learn more. The purpose of evaluations is not to create a 'gotcha' system."

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