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Regents seek extension for districts on teacher eval deadlines

State education officials don’t think lawmakers have set a realistic timeline for districts to make changes to teacher evaluation plans that schools are required to use by fall.

“I do not believe that by November, it is a fair thing that districts or this department can get this into place,” said Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch on Monday.

The grim prognosis came less than two weeks after Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the legislature voted to redesign the state’s evaluation system. The overhaul also included a Nov. 15 deadline, by which districts must implement their plans or lose out on their share of $1.3 billion in state aid increases next year. That amounts to $400 million for New York City schools, or an average of $378 per student.

The new law prescribes the final ratings that a teacher can earn based on how they are graded on two major categories: student performance and observations. It also strengthens the state’s role in developing the plans, a shift sought by Gov. Cuomo after 96 percent of teachers were rated effective or better on last year’s evaluations.

But the law leaves many important details of what the evaluations will ultimately look like up to policymakers at the State Education Department and the Board of Regents. Officials outlined those details on Monday at the state Regents meeting, which drew rare appearances from several lawmakers who shared Tisch’s concerns.

“It’s a lot to do in a very, very short time,” said Patricia Fahy, a Democratic Assemblywoman.  “And unless maximum flexibility is found, it is something we may need to go back to and change.”

There are two major deadlines ahead, the first of which is in 10 weeks. By June 30, the department must fill in big blanks left by lawmakers on how student performance and observations factor into a teacher’s final evaluation, which Tisch said was more reasonable. Districts must then spend the summer negotiating new plans with local teachers unions and must get them reviewed and approved by the state by mid-November.

In 2012, the legislature tied state funding to get districts to agree to their evaluation plans, a process that officials said on Monday was chaotic and led to poor implementation. New York City forfeited $250 million in increased state aid that year after the Bloomberg administration failed to read a deal with the United Federation of Teachers.

“We’ve seen this movie,” said Vice-Chancellor Anthony Bottar, “And we know how much time it took the last time to get the…plans approved.”

Chancellor Carmen Fariña has not raised concerns about the timing required under the evaluation system. In some of her only comments on the evaluation changes, she said she was worried about the money it would cost to bring people into schools to conduct outside evaluations.

Senior Deputy Commissioner Ken Wagner outlined seven areas of regulation that must be developed by June 30, the most contentious of which is how state tests will factor into the portion of evaluations that’s supposed to measure student learning, or “growth.”

Wagner said that the students’ growth measures would be set for 47 percent of the state’s 186,000 teachers because they teach tested subjects, including the standardized English, math and science test administered in third through eighth grade, as well as high school Regents exams.

For the physical education, art, music and other teachers whose subjects do not end in state tests — 53 percent of teachers — Wagner said they needed to use a “student learning objective” that would be determined in regulations. These teachers in the city are currently evaluated on test scores of students and subjects they don’t teach, a source of frustration for the city teaching force.

New York City and the union could agree to evaluate teachers on a second measure of student learning, as allowed under a provision in the law. But would automatically “bump down” a teacher’s final rating to  “ineffective” if both student learning measures are ineffective, a consequence Wagner said could dissuade some districts from adopting the second assessment.

Wagner said the state education department was “still working our way through the language” on the second measure, but emphasized that a significant detail was that the state, and not the local district, would establish the “growth target.”

Other details still to be decided are how teachers would be observed next year. The law required that at least one observation be conducted by an outside evaluator, but it’s up to the state to decide how long they should take, how many should be conducted annually, and how much to count a principal’s observation versus the outsider’s.

Still, the meeting did little to settle some uncertainties. Officials said they still could not say how much weight, precisely, state test scores would count on a teacher’s rating and that they still didn’t know if high-performing schools and districts, including more than 100 schools in New York City, could opt out of the evaluation system, an idea that Tisch had floated two weeks ago.

“We don’t yet know if it’s going to be listed in our set of choices,” said Tisch, who floated the opt-out proposal earlier this month. “It depends on how it can be worked out. I don’t know. We’ll see.”

Before they can reach a conclusion, officials are required by law to solicit advice from an expert researcher, the U.S. Department of Education, and from the general public, a process that began on Monday when Wagner provided an email address, eval2015@nysed.gov where public comments will be collected.

The next 10 weeks are likely to brew some discord among Regents members, especially those who have spoken critically of the education policies enacted under Tisch. Monday marked the first official meeting for four new Regents newly appointed in what was seen as a symbolic rebuke of the Tisch policy regime, and the newbies did not hesitate to wade into the discussion.

“Is there a vehicle for the Board of Regents to say to the legislative body that we support concepts that are embedded in this bill, but the timelines are unrealistic?”  Westchester-based Regent Judith Johnson asked.

As further evidence of potential conflict on Monday, Regents were divided on what expert to solicit advice from.

Kathleen Cashin floated Sean Corcoran, the New York University researcher whose found volatility and inconsistency in ratings based on test score growth measures; another floated Stanford’s Linda Darling-Hammond, while Tisch threw gave an informal nomination to Harvard’s Tom Kane, the lead researcher on the Measures of Effective Teaching, which was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and formed the framework for many states wishing to overhaul their evaluations in exchange for Race to the Top funding.

 “This is not going to be perfect,” Tisch said. “But we’ve been given a job to do by June 30.”