Stung by months of criticism and a condemnation by the state teachers union last weekend, New York State Education Commissioner John King hit back in a lengthy speech on Thursday, declaring that the reforms he ushered in aren’t going away.

“We’re not going backwards,” King said. “We’re not retreating.”

King was talking about new teacher evaluations and the Common Core learning standards, which have been the center of a public debate that he says too often “devolves” and churns out “misinformation.” But he also briefly acknowledged that the implementation of these policies has been rocky, and announced a few new ways that the state will help districts to reduce local testing and improve instruction.

“I know implementation has not gone perfectly and there is more the state can do,” King said.

King said that the state would allot $16 million of its Race to the Top grant funds to help districts reduce locally-mandated testing—including tests used specifically to evaluate teachers—though he offered no other information about how the money would be used. He also said the state will pay for districts to “borrow” master teachers from around the state to coach others.

More broadly, King used the speech to reassert the changes he’s pushed for since he joined the State Education Department in 2009 and was appointed commissioner in 2011.

Calls to weaken the teacher evaluation system and slow the implementation of the Common Core have been growing for months. They culminated with King receiving a “no-confidence” vote from delegates of the New York State United Teachers at their annual conference over the weekend, which also saw the ouster of president Richard Iannuzzi.

But in the recent state budget deal, lawmakers made few significant changes to Common Core and teacher evaluation policies after months of threatening to roll back both initiatives. Smaller education policy changes aimed at reducing testing and de-emphasizing test scores in promotion decisions lined up squarely with what King had already recommended. 

King also repeated his argument that concerns raised about testing and teacher evaluations were based on misrepresentations of the facts or situations that had been blown out of proportion.

On teacher evaluations, King said that teachers’ anxiety about being fired because of low ratings had been overstated, pointing to the small number of teachers rated “ineffective” on their evaluations. King said today that less than 1 percent of teachers could face termination when last year’s ratings are released.

“Anyone who says evaluation is all about firing teachers is deliberately misrepresenting the facts,” he said.

A spokesman for NYSUT, King’s primary adversary over the last year, offered a cryptic response to the speech, calling it “interesting” and saying that they “look forward to hearing more.” The union is just a few days removed from ousting its president, a move backed by the city’s United Federation of Teachers.  

UFT President Michael Mulgrew issued a much sharper rebuke of King, saying that the commissioner and the Board of Regents should be “embarrassed that the Legislature had to step in and do the work they should have been doing,” referring to the changes that de-emphasize state tests.

King delivered the speech in friendly territory. The event, which took place at the Wagner School at New York University, was attended largely by advocates of the state’s reforms, including charter school leaders and representatives from Educators 4 Excellence and StudentsFirstNY. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan praised King in an introduction, saying he was among the country’s top education leaders.

Despite King’s confidence, changes to teacher evaluations could still be coming. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said he is open to modifying the law so that evaluations aren’t tied to student performance on the new Common Core-aligned tests, and the Board of Regents has agreed to discuss a related proposal at their meeting at the end of April.

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