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Cuomo’s education deputy takes agenda to city teacher group

Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s top education aide took his boss’s message on the road Thursday night for a speaking event with city teachers.

Speaking at a Midtown hotel on a one-man panel moderated by three teachers from the group Educators 4 Excellence, Deputy Secretary for Education David Wakelyn primarily discussed teacher evaluations and why, nearly two years after a state law was signed requiring that they be toughened, nothing had changed.

The meeting was notable not for what Wakelyn said — his comments hewed closely to what the governor has said about evaluations in recent weeks — but because it happened at all. Wakelyn has been relatively quiet since becoming Cuomo’s education deputy in September. But now Cuomo has made his education agenda a priority for 2012 and has increasingly sought to exert greater influence over policy.

The event began with a question from Dan Mejias, a teacher at JHS 22 Jordan L. Mott, one of the 33 low-performing schools slated to close and reopen with new teachers under Mayor Bloomberg’s “turnaround” plan. Bloomberg devised the turnaround plan to sidestep a requirement under a previous plan for the schools that the city and its teachers union agree on new evaluations.

Mejias said his school had shown progress with federal money it received under the previous model, known as “transformation,” and wanted to know what the governor planned to do to force both sides to drop what he saw as pure political gamesmanship.

“The NYC DOE is threatening to fire half of our staff, the UFT is willing to protect every single teacher at all costs, and none of this is beneficial for our students,” Mejias said.

In response, Wakelyn reiterated Cuomo’s strategy to strong-arm the state and districts into implementing the new teacher evaluations. In his State of the State address last month, Cuomo said he would withhold school aid increases districts that don’t have a deal in place soon. (Bloomberg said yesterday he wasn’t concerned about the threat.) Cuomo also signaled that he would change the teacher evaluation law using the state budget process if the State Education Department and the state teachers union can’t settle a long-disputed lawsuit.

“The governor is trying to create as powerful an incentive about this as possible,” Wakelyn said.

Over the course of the discussion, the roughly 100 teachers in attendance answered poll questions about evaluations; the answers were displayed in real-time on a screen. One question asked the teachers what they most want to get out of new evaluations. The vast majority of teachers said their top priority wasn’t to earn more money, get a promotion, or boost the teaching profession’s prestige — it was to “provide meaningful feedback to improve instruction.”Their top concerns about new evaluations? That principals might not would be adequately trained to assess teachers and that the evaluations would be used to punish teachers, not support them. The vast majority of the teachers who attended had under 10 years of teaching experience, according to another poll question. (A sampling of poll results is below.)

Wakelyn framed New York State’s shortcomings on Race to the Top, which earned an official warning from the federal government last month, as “implementation issues” and he didn’t get into the state-level labor-management dispute that has hung over the evaluations stalemate.

He did address New York City’s dispute, however. Wakelyn confirmed reports that Cuomo is taking an active role in the negotiations between the UFT and the Department of Education and said he shared the union’s concerns over having a fair appeals process.

“I would say that the governor and all of us on staff have been firm about the fact that any process needs to be fair and reliable,” Wakelyn said. “And teachers have a right to be heard if they feel like the rating that they’ve been given is arbitrary and capricious.”

Wakelyn declined to specify if he thought that process should be taken up by a third party, which has been the main sticking point.

In a brief interview after the event, Wakelyn questioned the merits of a statewide petition by principals who are concerned that the state’s evaluation requirements give too much weight to test scores. Earlier in the evening, a poll question revealed that 85 percent agreed that student growth should factor into evaluations. He cited the poll’s overwhelming approval as a reason that student growth on test scores should be a significant component in any evaluation system.

Questions that teachers at the event answered, and their answers:

To what extent do you agree: “A fair and equitable evaluation and support system is necessary to elevate the teaching profession.”

Strongly Agree – 82%Somewhat Agree – 14%Neutral – 0%Somewhat disagree – 0%Strongly disagree – 0%To what extent do you agree that growth in student learning should be a part of a teacher’s evaluation?Strongly agree – 45%Somewhat agree – 40%Neutral – 6%Somewhat disagree – 7%Strongly disagree – 2%In order to increase collaboration in schools, a new evaluation system should include:Multiple observations – 17%A standardized rubric – 10%Peer to peer feedback – 60%Individual contributions to school community – 13%What is your greatest concern about a new evaluation system?Principals won’t be adequately trained – 38%Teachers’ ideas aren’t included in the development – 11%One component will outweigh the others – 13%Will be punitive and not supportive – 38%What is your greatest hope for a new evaluation system?Provides meaningful feedback to improve instruction – 63%Effective teaching will be acknowledged – 10%Opportunities for professional growth – 11%Increase the prestige of the profession – 16%

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