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Certainly your editor is a tad skeptical about New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s successful effort this week to convince legislators to pass a reform package that includes the overhaul the state’s teacher evaluation regime. At the same time, Cuomo deserves credit for making key steps that can help all Empire State children.

statelogoWhy the skepticism? Start with the statement by Meryl Tisch, who heads the Empire State’s Board of Regents, that high-performing schools could be exempted from the new evaluation system is none too pleasing because it essentially allows teachers working in those classrooms off the hook for their performance. Given that even top-performing schools have laggards working within them, and that the quality of education varies between classrooms than between schools, exempting one group of teachers from performance management means denying school leaders, families, researchers, and even teachers the data they need to help all children succeed.

The fact that the state doesn’t ensure that state test score growth data accounts for 50 percent of the new evaluations leaves too much room for mischief (and watering down of performance management) to take place. The American Federation of Teachers’ Big Apple and Empire State affiliates, knowing that Tisch and her fellow Regents are up for reappointment over the next two years, can simply lean on Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie to oppose their continued rolls on the body, leading them to allow test score growth data to account for as little as a quarter of the overall evaluation. This, in turn, will make subjective observations count for a greater portion of the performance review, essentially making the evaluations as inaccurate as they are now.

Given that a decade of evidence (including the Measures of Effective Teaching studies conducted by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation) shows that observations are absolutely ineffective in measuring how teachers improve student achievement — the unobservable aspect of teacher performance that is the most-important for our children’s lifelong success — the lack of a specified percentage makes almost no sense at all. Gov. Cuomo will have to put pressure on Tisch and her fellow Regents to ensure that test score growth data takes up 50 percent of the overall evaluation.

[Your editor knows that some reformers, most-notably Educators4Excellence and Michael Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, think that test score growth data shouldn’t account for half of an evaluation. But they are arguing against evidence, including studies by Thomas Kane (who also oversaw Gates Foundation’s MET initiative) and are incorrect in their respective stances. That’s all.]

Then there’s the fact that Cuomo dropped his demands for expanding charter schools and passing a tax credit scholarship initiative as conditions for signing the state budget in order to get the package — which includes a school takeover plan and an effort to improve the state’s ed schools — passed by the legislature. After all, by doing so, the governor loses critical leverage in expanding school choice. Yet your editor isn’t as concerned as charter school advocates about this move because Cuomo still has leverage it the form of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s effort to renew mayoral control of the Big Apple’s traditional district.

Because de Blasio played a key role in helping Heastie succeed the disgraced Sheldon Silver as assembly speaker, de Blasio will work hard with him to renew mayoral control. The fact that de Blasio must also make amends with the state senate’s Republican majority, which is still perturbed over the mayor’s effort last year to help Democrats take control over the upper house is also a factor. If expanding charters and passing tax credits (the latter of which is a key priority of State Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos) are the conditions for winning renewal of mayoral control, then de Blasio will probably support it. Cuomo knows this and will likely get his way in the end.

As I said, your editor reserves some skepticism about the reform package. Yet at the same time, that Cuomo has managed to get the legislature to go his way is good news for children and families in the state.

The fact that the new evaluation system will only use score growth data from the Empire State’s battery of standardized tests is a strong blow for high-quality data on teacher performance. No longer will data from district-developed assessments of lower quality (including formative tests from Northwest Evaluation Association — which aren’t aligned to Common Core’s reading and math standards, and those written up by teachers lacking the knowledge to develop high-quality tests) be included in evaluations. The current evaluation regime’s use of locally-developed tests for 20 percent of evaluation is likely one reason (along with the low percentage of state test data used in the reviews) why nearly all of the Empire State’s teachers were ranked as meeting or exceeding expectations, which is laughable given the low levels of student achievement.

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UFT President Michael Mulgrew (right) and NYSUT boss Karen Magee (far right) suffered another big defeat.

If the state education department and the Board of Regents do their jobs properly on this front and require state test data to be used for half of evaluations, this will lead to more-accurate (and fair) data on teacher performance that is useful to everyone. Especially families, who under state law, can actually look at data on the teachers serving their children. This is also true with the new evaluation system’s requirement that observation from outsiders, along with those from school leaders, be included in the evaluation. As D.C. Public Schools has demonstrated through its successful IMPACT evaluation system, using skilled outside evaluators to observe teacher performance can be especially helpful for newly-hired teachers

The even bigger moves lie with two key aspects of Cuomo’s reform plan: Extending the time it takes for newly-hired teachers to attain near-lifetime employment through tenure from three years to four; and making it easier for districts to fire laggard teachers.

New York has long been one of 36 states in which newly-hired teachers gain near-lifetime employment within one-to-three years of entering classrooms. Given that it takes at least four years for teachers to prove their worth, granting such status so quickly makes it difficult for districts to weed out laggards (and even criminally-abusive teachers). By becoming the 12th state to grant near-lifetime employment after four-to-five years on the job, the Empire State is making it easier for districts to keep those who don’t belong in classrooms from gaining near-permanent jobs. Which will help end the role of tenure as protection for bad teachers and AFT locals living off their dues payments.

Just as importantly, by requiring newly-hired teachers to demonstrate that they are effective or highly effective for three years before attaining tenure, the state is also setting a high bar for attaining near-lifetime jobs in classrooms. By the way: This also puts the onus on districts to do a proper job in evaluating new hires — and gives reformers as well as families a tool for holding school leaders accountable for failure in personnel management.

An even bigger move lies in requiring districts to remove laggards after being rated ineffective for three consecutive years — and requiring those being fired to prove that the ratings are fraudulent in order to win an appeal. Currently, laggard Empire State teachers can appeal their dismissals without proving that the district engaged in an unfair firing. This change in the state’s tenure law, along with another rule allowing districts to remove laggards rated ineffective for two years in a row, also keeps school leaders from using excuses for failing to do proper work in providing all the children they serve with high-quality teachers.

By overhauling the teacher dismissal law, Cuomo and legislators finally made incompetence grounds for dismissal and allow districts to no longer waste precious time on trying to improve the performance of teachers who have long ago demonstrated they can’t hack it. This matters because under previous the state’s previous teacher dismissal law, there was almost no way for districts to remove laggards for low-quality teaching. Between 1997 and 2007, three out of every five New York City teachers found to be incompetent, abusive of children, or excessively absent still remained in classrooms, according to an analysis of the state’s teacher dismissal law by the American Enterprise Institute.

The inability to remove laggards and the criminally abusive in classrooms is one reason why the New York City Parents Union and Campbell Brown’s Partnership for Educational Justice launched their Vergara suit last year challenging the state’s tenure and dismissal laws. The suit is one reason why Cuomo pushed hard for the teacher quality reforms in the first place. His moves help address the issues raised by the suit, and, along with the tort, hasten even stronger reforms in the next few years.

The fact that Cuomo managed to get all these reforms passed by the legislature despite the opposition of the AFT’s United Federation of Teachers and New York State United Teachers is absolutely astounding. Certainly NYSUT has been significantly weakened over the past year, as an internal feud, along with political mistakes such as refusing to endorse Cuomo’s re-election bid and backing Democrats in their bid to take control of the state senate, earned it the ire of the governor and Republicans alike. In fact, NYSUT’s influence is in such decline that its president, Karen Magee, has been forced to lobby families to opt out of standardized tests in order to keep the data from being used in evaluations. This is just pure desperation.

But the fact that UFT, which once again has sway over New York City’s traditional district, couldn’t convince Heastie and other Big Apple legislators to shoot down Cuomo’s entire agenda is shocking. The AFT local, after all, has spent the past three months lobbying classrooms and organizing sham protests against Cuomo’s reform plans. For UFT President Michael Mulgrew, who is angling to succeed Randi Weingarten as national AFT president, the passage of the teacher quality reforms is defeat plain and simple. [AFT national also takes a beating this time around.] And this political loss will be magnified if Cuomo manages to get the charter school expansion plan passed.

The jury is still out on Cuomo’s evaluation reform. Whether Cuomo will succeed in expanding school choice is also an open question. But one thing is clear: The governor has succeeded in passing a series of reforms that will help provide Empire State children with high-quality teaching they need and deserve. And for that, Cuomo deserves praise.

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