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After accord, fault lines on where New York’s teacher evaluations go from here

Albany’s deal to lower the stakes attached to Common Core tests for teachers on Thursday drew praise from both sides of the negotiating table—but for two very different reasons.

Federal and state education officials, who have resisted changes to New York’s new teacher evaluation system, framed the two-year deal as a small roadblock to reduce anxiety as the state moves toward tougher accountability measures. For state teachers union officials, it is a first step toward a bigger overhaul of the evaluation system that could reduce the use of student test scores even further.

The dueling motivations hint that the consensus among the teachers unions and the State Education Department that state test scores should play some role in teacher evaluations in New York is unraveling, and the union is planning to re-start the debate over whether test scores can help identify teacher quality.

“We must continue these discussions about fixing what’s not working,” New York State United Teachers  Vice President Andrew Pallotta said Thursday in a statement. “That has to include reducing over-testing and recognizing that a student is not a test score—and neither is a teacher.”

The legislative agreement, which Gov. Andrew Cuomo is expected to sign today, keeps Common Core-aligned state tests from being used to fire or deny tenure to teachers this year and next year. Teachers rated “ineffective” or “developing” will have their evaluations recalculated based on local tests and principal observations before their ratings can be used to fire them.

NYSUT suggested its next step will be to further reduce the role that state tests should play in a teacher’s evaluation. Teacher scores are based on a 100-point scale, with at least 20 points based on state tests (it will increase to 25 points next year). Another 20 points can be based on another set of tests that are locally decided.

Meanwhile, State Education Commissioner John King and Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who both played pivotal roles in pushing New York’s evaluation system, said the deal would allow their reforms to move forward. They indirectly acknowledged that the delay lowers the issue’s political temperature without changing the structure of the system they negotiated.

It upholds “New York’s commitment to be leaders in education reform,” Duncan said.

Duncan’s statement comes just two days after the U.S. Department of Education suggested New York was dangerously close to breaking its Race to the Top promises, signaling that the threat was—as some observers predicted—meant as a bargaining chip for state lawmakers to use against the union, which sought more sweeping protections from poor evaluations.

King said he supported the deal because it would ease anxiety while “preserving a multiple measures evaluation system that includes student performance”—an about-face from his stance over the last year, when he repeatedly rebuffed calls to adjust the evaluation system to account for the state’s quick transition to Common Core-aligned tests.

The two-year agreement has left critics saying it didn’t go far enough or shouldn’t have happened at all. StudentsFirstNY and the Daily News editorial board both panned the deal as election-year pandering, and a loss that would set back the effort to be able to fire teachers for ineffectiveness.

But NYS Allies for Public Education, a coalition of 50 parent groups, has argued that New York’s testing policies and use of the Common Core standards need to be entirely overhauled. The group sent out a statement criticizing the deal for not doing more to address those issues.

For the next two years, the legislative agreement comes down clearly on the side of the union. It says that the scores from this year and next year’s grades 3-8 English and math state tests aren’t reliable enough to be used for negative consequences, though they will still be used for decisions about giving teachers bonuses and other types of pay raises. High school teachers will also still be evaluated based on student scores on Regents exams.

At a press conference on Thursday, Cuomo offered something to both sides of the debate. Test scores might not be reliable because of a “flawed” rollout of the Common Core learning standards, Cuomo said. But he insisted that the evaluation system was moving forward.

“People’s lives are being judged by this instrument,” Cuomo said, “so you want the instrument in the evaluation to be correct.”

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