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State education officials say there are plenty of school districts where recent mandates like teacher evaluations and a tougher curriculum really work.

Like Amherst.

That’s why State Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. was at Amherst High School on Thursday, part of a statewide tour in which he will observe how schools are putting the new systems in place.

“The most significant investment we make in education is in personnel,” King stressed. “Eighty percent or more of what we spend in education is spent on principals and teachers, and so we’ve got to make sure that we’re giving every possible support to our educators and that we’re positioning them to be successful in helping their students achieve college and career readiness, which is our goal for this system.”

In schools across the state, there’s broad debate going on about ways to raise educational standards and the role of standardized testing. It’s pitting state officials who want more scrutiny of teachers against teachers who say they are being forced to teach to the test.

“Teachers are really compromised by the new ratings systems. The pressure’s on even more than it was last year,” said Springville teacher Andrew Beiter.

The social studies teacher made headlines this week when he got to question U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry about the issue of chemical weapons in Syria as part of a live Google video chat seen around the world.

But when it came time to bring the issue back to the classroom, Beiter told The Buffalo News, many of his fellow teachers opted to not even talk about the conflict.

“Teachers are more reluctant to take on any topic that’s not on the test,” Beiter said. “Here you’ve got the human rights or government issue of our time here, this national conversation about Syria, and all these great civic issues. A lot of teachers I’ve talked with are apprehensive about tackling that because why should they do that if it’s not on a test?”

Thursday, King lauded the new system that ranks teachers based on factors ranging from classroom observation of their teaching to student scores on standardized tests.

“It’s really about teaching practice and whether or not teachers are effectively engaging their students, inspiring their students, motivating their students, providing their students with opportunities to gain skills,” King said.

In the Amherst Central School District, that has meant offering new courses to teachers, purchasing new technology and rewriting the curriculum to align it with the national Common Core standards.

State education officials say the district, often overshadowed by Williamsville’s high rankings and the tumult of Buffalo’s public schools, has quietly implemented the new standards in a remarkable way.

“Everything they do, they do as a team, which caught my eye,” said Robert M. Bennett, a member of the Board of Regents from Western New York. “They have implemented this very well. They viewed it as it was intended to be – professional development and to improve the craft of teaching.”

Amherst Superintendent Laura K. Chabe attributed the district’s success in implementing the changes to “a collective process of choosing the evaluation tool we were going to use so that it was consistent with ... our current practices.”

“In the end we have a very strong sense from our teachers that it did improve their teaching, it did improve instruction for our students,” she said.

But for some teachers, like Beiter, the new program is one that results not in innovation but in conformity.

Bennett said that was never the intent of the Common Core curriculum or the teacher ratings system. “If that’s happening, that’s horrible leadership, and it shouldn’t happen,” he said. “The underlying goal in every school should be student learning. That’s the worst thing you can do is teach to the test. I hope that’s not the case. You teach the curriculum, and you don’t worry too much about the test.”

He added that the teacher evaluation system was designed as an opportunity, not a threat. “This was never intended as a ‘gotcha’ program,” he said.

Beiter and others say the new standards – even if they are well-meaning – have had negative consequences, like the treatment of student teachers. “It used to be teachers loved having an extra set of hands in the classroom,” he said. “Now teachers are very hesitant to do that because that means you’ve got a rookie teaching your material that kids are going to have to know for the test. That has a long-term, potentially really negative impact on our profession. If we’re not cultivating new talent and helping them grow, long-term our kids are going to feel that.”

Other questions have arisen about whether the ratings are fair from district to district, given the challenges among teachers in urban districts who struggle with the language and socioeconomic issues of their students.

Some teachers say they got great results while teaching in the suburbs but have been deemed “ineffective” since teaching in the city due to the low test scores . Some districts, like Buffalo, have erroneously rated teachers ineffective,; the rankings for roughly 50 Buffalo teachers are being corrected.

King said the bulk of evaluations are determined locally, with student test scores in some cases making up only a small portion of the total score.

Chabe and other superintendents say they have needed to make adjustments as the evaluation program and curriculum. “Whenever you implement change, you always need to ensure people involved in it are well-prepared for it,” Chabe said.

King’s listening tours have been set up for exactly that reason – so administrators and teachers can have frank discussions with state officials about what the changes mean.

He expects questions, concerns and even possibly changes to the new regulations.

But for the most part, King said, districts will take the same path as Amherst. “I think over time, as people build familiarity with the evaluation system, their comfort level will increase,” he said. “We’ve already seen that over the last year and a half.”

For the latest Amherst news, go to BuffaloNews.com/AmherstFirst email: cspecht@buffnews.com