To hear most education officials tell it, teacher evaluations in New York state have come to a screeching halt.
They are “unplugged,” according to State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia. “The gotcha system is over,” according to a spokeswoman for the city teachers union. Evaluations will likely “just sit on the shelves and gather dust,” according to a state teachers union representative.
But there is a catch. School districts are still on the hook to evaluate every teacher, the results can still be used to make decisions about educators’ futures, and a 2015 law is about to require a host of new rules. And with just days left in this year’s legislative session, it’s becoming clear that Gov. Andrew Cuomo has little desire to see that change.
“This is a major issue that is right now going ignored,” State Senator Todd Kaminsky said. “People are saying it’s a time-out and it’s not.”
The strange situation came about because legislators passed a law overhauling the state’s teacher evaluation system last year to put more emphasis on state tests — and then education policymakers walked it back, banning state test results from being used altogether.
Lawmakers were responding to Cuomo’s view that too many teachers were earning top ratings. The state education department was listening to a growing movement of educators and parents upset about the growing influence of state tests.
In the end, the state education department decided teachers would get two evaluations. Next year, one will include state test scores but have no consequences. The real evaluations will use different metrics and can affect teacher tenure and firing.
Within those frameworks, districts and their teachers unions will have to agree on key details and those negotiations are ongoing.
“We are working with districts across the state to support their efforts as they complete their contract negotiations and to provide them as much flexibility as possible within the law,” State Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said.
But many had hoped that lawmakers would agree to scrap the universally unpopular 2015 law by now, making it unnecessary for districts to negotiate the details of the two new plans at all. So far, that hasn’t happened — and since there are just three days left in the legislative session, few think change is on the way.
“The big hangup is obviously the governor’s office,” said Assemblyman Edward Ra, who supports repealing last year’s law. “It really creates a little bit of a mess for everybody.” (Officials from Cuomo’s office did not say whether the governor would support changes to teacher evaluations.)
Now, it’s up to school districts like New York City to work out the details of new evaluation plans with their teachers unions. Barring a big change in the next few days, they are facing a tight timeline: They need an agreement by Sept. 1 or they risk losing state funds.
Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie wants to untie evaluations and funding, but whether that happens or not, many are still frustrated: It’s the third time in five years many districts and their unions have had to change the way evaluations work. This time, the cause is a law that has been widely rejected and that state officials say they are already planning to replace.
For now, “It’s more time and an extra burden,” Regent Roger Tilles said.
The biggest changes teachers are likely to see next year have already been decided by law. Both halves of the evaluation system, classroom observations and measurements of student growth, are about to shift — potentially in unpopular ways.
Some classroom observations will now require outside observers, not just school administrators. Cuomo had pushed for those independent observers as an objective way to measure teacher quality, but others argue they will not understand the nuances of each school and could undermine the autonomy of the principal.
Meanwhile, districts are searching for ways to gauge student progress using local tests, instead of state test results. Local assessments have been part of evaluations in the past, but now they will be a larger part of teachers’ scores.
The evaluations still will have consequences attached. By law, they must be a main factor in tenure decisions, low ratings will prompt improvement plans, and three “ineffective” ratings are supposed to lead to firing.
Jake Jacobs, an art teacher at New Directions Secondary School in the Bronx whose evaluation already uses a local measure, is worried that the new evaluation system will still be a problem for teachers.
“Everyone’s saying, ‘Calm down, the tests don’t count anymore,’” Jacobs said. “Tests count just as much as they ever did. It’s just we’re using the local tests instead of the Common Core math and ELA. I really think when they did the moratorium, it was just a facade.”