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Arne Duncan urges New Yorkers to stick with Cuomo on teacher evals

Arne Duncan speaking at Al Sharpton's National Action Network conference in 2014.
Arne Duncan speaking at Al Sharpton's National Action Network conference in 2014.

At a time when even Gov. Andrew Cuomo is considering changes to the state’s rollout of new teacher evaluations, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is urging New Yorkers to stay the course.

“I challenge you to support your governor as he challenges the status quo and tries to raise standards, raise expectations, and evaluate and support your teachers and principals,” Duncan said near the end of a brief speech at the National Action Network conference in New York City Wednesday night.

Duncan’s speech focused on racial inequities in urban school districts, but he made sure to praise both Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio for their efforts to improve education.

Duncan lauded de Blasio’s aggressive pursuit of expanded pre-kindergarten access, an agenda item that the Obama administration has also pushed, though with less success at the federal level.

“I challenge you to support your mayor as he tries to create a new world of opportunity for our babies and get them off to a good start,” Duncan said.

The Obama administration’s push for teacher evaluations that consider student performance long predates its more recent pre-K push. Duncan, a former CEO of Chicago Public Schools, came to Washington, D.C. with Obama in 2009 and quickly went to work in trying to push states to overhaul their education policies through billions of dollars in competitive grants.

New York State won $700 million in 2010’s Race to the Top competition after it raised the state’s charter school cap, passed a new teacher evaluation law, and agreed to implement new Common Core learning standards. Under the Bloomberg administration, New York City eagerly used federal money to close schools, open charter schools, and pilot new evaluations.

Some of those changes have stoked fierce opposition, lawsuits from the state and city teachers unions and, most recently, a legislative backlash prompted by parents angry about the state’s Common Core-aligned assessments.

Duncan has frequently chimed in during the debates, though he’s typically avoided taking a strong stand on issues. He threatened to pull federal funds after a state delay over teacher evaluations, then praised the state for pulling off a deal. Two years ago, amid a new delay in New York City, he chided city and union officials for their political bickering.

Asked Wednesday about the state’s decision to simultaneously implement teacher evaluations and overhaul tests, Duncan returned to Cuomo.

“I think the governor has actually shown real courage and has frankly been a leader nationally,” he said.

Cuomo has recently conceded that it might be time to make some changes to the state teacher evaluation law to address concerns that new Common Core assessments might not be a fair way to rate teachers as the implementation continues. The state teachers union, under new leadership, has long called for a moratorium on using the new tests for evaluations.

“It’s going to be hard, it’s going to be rocky, there is going to be mistakes,” Duncan continued. “People need to listen, they need to be humble in this and be nimble and make changes. But to sort of stop and go back to the bad old days simply doesn’t make sense to me.”

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