Cuomo Takes Aim at Teacher Quality: Last year, Dropout Nation highlighted New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s persistent work to force the state’s Board of Regents to allow for districts to expand the use of student test score data from the state’s battery of exams in teacher evaluations from 20 percent of the overall evaluation to 40 percent. While a lawsuit from the American Federation of Teachers’ influential Empire State affiliate — and a ruling from a state lower court judge — has put the effort into limbo, Cuomo deserved praise for using his considerable political capital to push for important reforms in teacher performance management.

But Cuomo isn’t stopping his effort. This week, as part of his proposed budget, the governor is tying a four percent increase in the $20 billion in subsidies given by the state to traditional school districts and charter schools to implementation of the new teacher evaluation system by next year. Under Cuomo’s plan, districts that fail to implement an evaluation system that bases nearly half of performance reviews on student performance based on state standardized tests will not receive either the Race to the Top dollars or $805 million in additional state dollars flowing from the budget.

The move comes on the heels of the embarrassing news that districts such as New York City could not reach agreements with their AFT locals on implementing new teacher evaluations in order for those districts — and the state itself — to use the $700 million in federal funds from the Race to the Top initiative. In New York City, in particular, the AFT is demanding a new appeals process for laggard teachers given poor ratings under the new system. Given the reality that the current appeals process all but protects failing teachers from losing their jobs (fewer than one percent of teachers sent to the infamous “rubber rooms” under the city’s current agreement with the AFT ever lost their jobs no matter how deserving), one can easily understand why Mayor Michael Bloomberg is rightfully opposing the union’s demand. While Cuomo hasn’t weighed into New York City’s fracas, the governor has already made clear that the AFT won’t get exactly what it wants — to keep the status quo quite ante in its favor.

At the same time, Cuomo stepped into the stalemate between the state education department and the AFT over settling the lawsuit filed by the union last year; Cuomo is threatening to impose his own solution through the state budget within the next 30 days unless the two sides reach a settlement. The AFT and the state education department have only agreed that classroom observations — which, even under the best of circumstances, are far less reliable in measuring student performance than either value-added analysis of student test score performance or even surveys of students — should be the “majority” element in the new evaluation system. But given that the state never pushed hard to reduce the role of observations in the first place, it is more than likely that Cuomo will weigh in.

Certainly Cuomo will face challenges in pushing his plans. The AFT has already made clear that they will fight Cuomo’s plan; they will likely enlist state Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who collected $14,400 in donations from the state affiliate between 2004 and 2010. The fact that the union has also given $2.3 million to Republicans in the state senate — including $36,900 to Silver’s counterpart, Majority Leader Dean Skelos — all but assures that the union will get a, umm, equal time with the union. So Cuomo will have to rally school reformers, including Bloomberg and centrist and liberal Democrat reformers to mount a strong challenge against AFT opposition. The governor and school reformers may also have to go further and actually endorse primary challenges by reform-minded candidates against Silver’s colleagues just to keep the speaker honest.

Meanwhile Cuomo should also push for the long-term overhaul of state education governance. Although the governor does appoint the state Board of Regents, the fact that his appointees must be approved by both houses of the state legislature all but guarantee that Cuomo will have to present ostensibly compromise-orient players. While some regents, notably current Board of Regents Chairman Meryl Tisch (an appointee of Cuomo predecessor George Pataki), have turned out to be far more aggressive reformers than one would have expected, the reality is that education is one priority that should be directly under the governor’s purview. Given the economic development importance of overhauling the state’s education system, Cuomo should have the state education commissioner directly in his cabinet.

No matter what happens, Cuomo is showing, as outgoing colleague Mitch Daniels has done in Indiana, that governors without direct oversight of education can actually foster and sustain reform.

Bobby Jindal’s Push for Choice: While Dropout Nation has devoted plenty of space to reform efforts in other states, it hasn’t taken as much notice as it should about what is happening in Louisiana outside of the Recovery School District effort in New Orleans, which has been the epicenter of the expansion of charter schools and school choice. Yet one has to argue that the Bayou State is one of the few that has continuously done the right things in expanding school choice and improving teacher quality. The effort to analyze the performance of its university schools of education in recruiting and training teachers — using value-added analysis of student test score data — is one of the most-pathbreaking in the nation. It has exposed the results of the low quality of training among most of state’s ed schools. It  has also proven the effectiveness of programs such as those at the University of New Orleans as well as shown how low-performing nearly all of them are compared to the alternative teacher training operation run by TNTP, the national outfit which, along with Teach For America, is at the vanguard of the teacher quality reform movement.

The state’s governor, Bobby Jindal, is looking to further burnish the state’s efforts on the teacher quality front this week with his proposal to eliminate near-lifetime employment for laggard teachers with unsatisfactory ratings on the state’s new teacher evaluation system, while pushing further on expanding charters by allowing successful charter operators to expand without having to go through the current approval process, and allowing the state education department to authorize charters throughout the state (and thus, ending efforts by traditional districts to restrict school choice within their boundaries).

But Jindal may end up making the greatest impact with his proposals to expand school choice. Besides the charter school expansion plans, Jindal proposes to expand the state’s school voucher program, which currently serves only 1,800 students in New Orleans, by allowing low-income families to escape any of the failing traditional schools throughout the state. Essentially families whose students attend 70 percent of the Bayou State’s traditional public schools — or as many as 398,453 children, depending on how the program ends up being structured — would be eligible for vouchers. If Jindal can get the proposal — along with a voucher-like tax rebate plan — passed by the legislature, he will have helped poor and minority families escape the worst American public education offers instead of remaining in dropout factories that endanger their futures.

Meanwhile another proposal would, if crafted properly, would also strike a blow for the wider Parent Power movement. Under the other Jindal proposal, parents of students attending failure mills throughout the state would be allowed to vote on whether it can become part of the Recovery School District after three years of persistent academic underachievement; the schools would essentially be converted into charters under state oversight. Currently, the Recovery district can take control of a failing school after four years without consulting families at all. This would essentially create a Parent Trigger law of a sort for the Bayou State, allowing families to take control of the schools within their communities and lead their overhaul instead of waiting on dysfunctional districts (which often perpetuate systemic failure) to improve themselves.

It also brings a new feature to the Recovery district model, allowing families to be real decision-makers in education and not simply imposing school overhauls (even if they are warranted). This, along with Jindal’s plan to allow universities, nonprofits, and community groups to authorize charters, could also make charter school operators work more-closely with communities, an issue that Dropout Nation discussed last year during the fracas in New York City over expanding charter schools.

Jindal will certainly find himself battling with both the National Education Association affiliate there and suburban districts, each of which have reasons to oppose both measures. The good news is that he will have some allies with which to work. The Black Alliance for Educational Options, for example, has long been a strong defender of the New Orleans voucher plan and has helped Jindal craft the proposed expansion. (The RiShawn Biddle Consultancy, a firm owned by Dropout Nation Editor and Publisher RiShawn Biddle, provides communications services to BAEO.) There is also the American Federation for Children’s Bayou State branch, which will also be helpful in massing support for his plans. But Jindal will definitely need additional reform support to keep pressure on legislators to support his plans. And he will have to work the grassroots, especially in New Orleans, to keep the push going.

Meanwhile Jindal should also work with the state education department to make the state’s school data systems easier for parents to use. While what is currently available works decently — and is more-simplified thanks to the state’s letter grading system — some work still needs to be done to move away from those clunky Excel spreadsheets that even researchers sometimes struggle to use.

As your editor made clear at the end of last year, Louisiana would be a state that reformers would follow intensely. And now, Jindal has given them even more reason to pay attention. And get involved.

The Problem of the School Inspector Concept: Give the Education Sector credit for offering a new approach to systemic reform with last week’s report on how states and the federal government could embrace the school inspection concept based on the model used in Great Britain. At the very least, the concept is an interesting approach to measuring the quality of schools — and could provide the kind of information families need to know what schools look like as well as how well they do in improving student achievement.

Is it workable? Well, one can argue that state education agencies don’t have the capacity for such an effort. But the capacity issue is one that states will have to deal with anyway, especially as we move to the Hollywood Model of Education in which the traditional district model is ditched altogether; this is because states will have to expand its capacity in order to better oversee the variety of schools that will fall under its oversight.

The real question is whether it should substitute for the accountability systems put in place thanks to the No Child Left Behind Act? That’s a different story. There are far too many flaws in the school inspector concept for it to work in that role.

The first problem starts with the flaws inherent in any system of observation that doesn’t involve the use of student performance data in evaluating school or teacher quality. As Dropout Nation noted last week in its report on teacher evaluations, even the most-rigorous classroom observation approaches are far less accurate in identifying teacher quality than either value-added analysis of test score data or even student surveys such as the Tripod system used by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation as part of its Measures of Effective Teaching project. If classroom observations are generally inaccurate, why would we expect site inspections — even those structured by a rigorous rubric as the model developed in Britain by that nation’s Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted), Children’s Services and Skills — to work any better. The subjectivity bias could particularly hurt charter schools, many of which operate in buildings that don’t necessarily resemble traditional public school sites.

This is a particularly important issue when it comes to the factor within schools that is the most important of all: The quality of teaching. Considering that observations of any kind can only measure the observable aspects of teaching and not the impact of teachers on student achievement (which is the most important matter and the one that cannot be observed at all), it is unlikely that a school inspector system can do any better than either traditional classroom observations or even the advanced systems being supported by the Gates Foundation in giving families a good sense of what is going on in classrooms or schools as a whole.

The fact that many of 27 areas measured through the British model relate little to student achievement or the student experience — a point made by ConnCAN’s Patrick Riccards — also makes the school inspector model not ready for prime time. Considering that we have evidence that students are far more familiar with school quality than most of the adults in schools (or any adult walking into them for only a few hours in a school year), embracing the inspector approach seems a rather wrongheaded idea.

Then there are the relevations — courtesy of the Times Educational Supplement in a series of reports on school inspections since last May — that Britain’s schools have figured out rather novel ways to improve their profiles for scheduled inspections. As it turned out, schools were paying off truant students to avoid school on days of inspection, as well as schools passing around laminated artwork in order to improve the aesthetics. While Ofsted is now planning unannounced inspections in order to get around this gamesmanship, one wonders if Her Majesty’s government would be better off simply relying on value-added analysis of student data. After all, even in the British system, student achievement trumps site inspections as the most-important measure of school success.

The school inspection concept is a nice idea. But it is no substitute for comprehensive accountability based on objective evidence of how schools and the adults working within them help children succeed in school and life. What we should do instead is expand upon the accountability measures set in place a decade ago under No Child — and provide families with the data they need (including, contrary to the assertions of our friend, Andy Rotherham, value-added data on teacher performance) so they can make smart choices and spur systemic reform.

Etcetera: For the past two years, Dropout Nation has argued that President Barack Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan should structure future Race to the Top grant competitions to include reform-minded traditional districts, along with charter school operators, and even community groups. Such an approach would further systemic reform by essentially allowing them to become enterprise zones of sorts freed from state laws and collective bargaining agreements. So it’s good to see that Duncan may work on such an effort in the next go-round — if he can get Senate Democrats and (far more skeptical) Congressional Republicans to go along.