20/40

Regents give districts choice of tougher teacher evaluation

Deputy Commissioner John King, who will soon become commissioner, said that for a teacher to earn a rating of developing, effective, or highly effective, there should be some evidence of student progress on state tests.

Introducing a new option for how to change teacher evaluation, the Board of Regents voted today to allow districts and unions to increase the weight of student test scores on those evaluations to 40 percent.

According to the law passed last summer, which changed how teachers in New York State are evaluated and introduced their students’ test scores as an element for consideration, state tests would count for 20 out of 100 points. Another 20 points would come from local assessments, which school districts could devise on their own. Yet the set of regulations approved in a vote this evening will allow school districts, with the approval of teachers unions, to count students’ progress on state tests for 40 points of a teacher’s evaluation score.

The board voted 14 to 3 to approve the regulations. Regents Betty Rosa, Roger Tilles, and the board’s newest member Kathleen Cashin, voted against the proposal.

The increased emphasis on students’ progress on standardized tests turned up in the final draft of regulations after Governor Andrew Cuomo stepped into the discussions last week. In a letter to Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch, the governor said he believed that students’ scores on the annual math and reading tests should carry more weight in the evaluation of their teachers. Mayor Bloomberg agreed, saying that an earlier draft of the regulations did not place enough importance on the tests.

Yesterday, a group of 10 prominent education researchers sent the Regents a letter asking them not to place more weight on value-added scores, which measure students’ progress on tests against that of similar types of students.

Before the vote today, New York State Education Department Commissioner David Steiner did not endorse the idea of basing 40 percent of a teacher’s evaluation on test scores, but he said that districts should have the option of doing so.

“We are not saying that a local district must adopt 40 points on its state tests,” he said. “Should it so choose, we are not going to veto that choice from the state.”

Steiner said the state did not want to be in the position of saying: “You can determine something, but not this. We’re going to give you some district autonomy, but you’re not allowed to choose, even if you so wish, to use a measure that happens to be a state test.”

Tilles, who voted against the regulations, said giving districts the choice of using state tests as their local assessment portion was a false choice because many can’t afford to do otherwise. Tilles represents Long Island school districts.

“You are giving the districts a choice of spending a tremendous amount of money or taking the state tests,” he said. “That’s really what’s happening. The choice of developing a local test…is a very expensive choice.”

In districts such as New York City, where schools are bracing for another round of budget cuts, this choice could put teachers unions in an uncomfortable position. Opposed to the idea of using the state tests for 40 percent of a teacher’s evaluation, they will have to argue that the city should spend money on the creation of local assessments while teachers are experiencing cuts in their classrooms.

Cashin, a former New York City network leader who is known for quietly challenging the Bloomberg administration, said she was concerned that a greater reliance on the state tests would increase the already-heavy emphasis schools place on math and reading.

“Even 20 percent [reliance on test scores] — and I know that’s lower than a lot of states — even that narrows the curriculum because people teach prep,” Cashin said. “You know this is occurring.”

Steiner countered that the new evaluation system would actually increase the standing of subjects such as art and history, which are rarely tested, because it will force the state — and districts that choose to — to develop ways of testing them.

The state teachers union has opposed the regulations and hinted that it will consider taking legal action. In a statement, New York City teachers union President Michael Mulgrew said that while the United Federation of Teachers supported using test scores for 20 percent of an evaluation, 40 percent was too much.

“While the UFT has supported some role for standardized test results in teacher evaluations, we also know that the more weight put on standardized tests for children or teachers, the more school systems will focus on test prep rather than real learning,” Mulgrew said in a statement.

How Regents voted:

Phillips yes
Young yes
Cofield yes
Bennett yes
Jackson yes
Tallon yes
Chapey yes
Tisch yes
Bendit yes
Cottrell yes
Bottar yes
Norwood yes
Dawson yes
Cea yes

Rosa. no
Tilles no
Cashin no

state of the union

New York City teachers union braces for Supreme Court ruling that could drain money and members

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
UFT President Michael Mulgrew (standing) met with teachers during a school visit in 2014.

A few dozen labor leaders gathered recently at the the headquarters of New York City’s 187,000-member teachers union to hear a cautionary tale.

In a glass-walled conference room overlooking downtown Manhattan, United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew settled into a chair facing a colleague from Wisconsin. He asked the state teachers union president, Kim Kohlhaas, how her members have fared after an aggressive rollback of labor’s bargaining power there.

She described rampant teacher turnover, fewer job protections, and ballooning insurance and pension costs. In short, a union’s worst nightmare.

For the UFT, Wisconsin is a harbinger of what could result from a Supreme Court case known as Janus, which revolves around the ability of public unions to collect mandatory fees. Oral arguments begin on Feb. 26, and the decision, which is expected in a matter of months, could dramatically alter the landscape for unions across the country.

The impact will be felt especially by the UFT, the largest union local in the country. If the court rules that teachers are not required to pay for its services, the union is likely to shed members and money — a war chest that has allowed the UFT to be a major player in New York politics and to secure robust benefits for its members.

“This is dangerous stuff we’re getting into now,” Mulgrew told Chalkbeat. “They’re trying to take away people’s ability to come together, to stand up and have a voice.”

While the case deals with different issues than Wisconsin’s anti-union policies did, New York City labor leaders say the limits on their membership and funding would weaken their ability to fight against further restrictions on their organizing and bargaining power.

In anticipation of the ruling, union leaders have reportedly already considered downsizing their operations. And they have undertaken a preemptive information and recruitment campaign to hold onto members — who, soon, may be free to choose whether to keep supporting the union financially.

“Much as I oppose Janus, it’s kind of a wake up call for entrenched union leadership,” New York City teacher Arthur Goldstein blogged recently. “People need reasons to pay, and it’s on leadership to provide them.”

At issue is whether public unions can continue to charge “agency fees,” which are payments collected from people who are not members. Sometimes called a “fair share” fee, it is meant to help unions cover the cost of bargaining contracts that cover all workers, regardless of whether they are union members. Only a fraction of New York City teachers currently opt out of the union and pay the agency fees rather than dues — but experts expect many more teachers could leave the union if the Supreme Court bans the fees.

Mark Janus, a government employee in Illinois, is challenging the fee on the grounds that it violates his right to free speech. The Supreme Court deadlocked on a similar case in 2016 after the sudden death of Justice Antonin Scalia. With Neil Gorsuch now on the bench, observers expect a conservative-leaning court will side with Janus. If that happens, workers covered by unions — including the UFT — will be able to opt out of paying the fees that help keep the unions in operation.

“What that means is there will be a lot of teachers — potentially a lot of teachers in New York — who do not invest in the union,” said Evan Stone, co-founder of the teacher advocacy group Educators for Excellence. “There will be potential growth in free riders who are benefiting from the work of the union without contributing to it.”

That’s why the UFT is kicking into action. The union has trained scores of members to knock on doors and talk to fellow teachers about the case. In about two months, the union estimates its members have knocked on 11,000 doors, sharing stories about how the union has helped them and hoping to convince teachers to keep financially supporting the work, even if the courts decide they’re no longer required to.

Union leaders are also launching “membership teams” in every school. Tasked with “building a sense of unity,” the union is asking the teams to engage in personal conversations with members, and plan shows of support for the union. Stone said his organization is organizing focus groups across the city to inform members about the case.

New York City teachers automatically become union members. They pay about $117 a month in dues, while social workers, paraprofessionals, and members in other school roles pay different amounts. Members can also choose to contribute to a separate political fund, which the union uses to lobby lawmakers and support union-friendly candidates.

About 2,000 educators opt-out of the union and pay agency fees instead — which are the same amount as regular dues, according to a UFT spokesman.

Ken Girardin, who has studied the potential fallout of Janus for New York’s unions as an analyst for the right-leaning Empire Center for Public Policy, said the number of agency-fee payers is low compared to other unions. But the Janus case could change that.

Girardin looked at what happened after Michigan enacted a “right to work” law, which forbid mandatory agency fees. The result: The Michigan Education Association, among the state’s largest unions, saw a 20 percent drop in dues and fees. Among full-time teachers, membership declined by 18 percent.

Girardin estimates an equivalent decrease in New York would mean the state’s teachers unions would take a $49 million hit annually. The UFT relies on dues and agency fees for about 85 percent of its $185 million budget, according to federal documents.

“It means they’d have to make up a course change,” Girardin told Chalkbeat, referring to the potential impact of the Janus decision. “They would have to treat their members like customers instead of people who are going to pay them regardless.”

Behind the scenes, the union is reportedly making contingency plans to deal with the potential budgetary fall-out. The New York Post recently cited unnamed sources who said union leadership is considering reducing the staff at some of its borough offices and cutting back on discretionary spending.

Girardin said public-sector unions in New York have already begun to fight for state legislation that would make it harder for members to drop out — a potential work-around in case the court sides with Janus.

Some UFT members say the threat of Janus is already being felt. The union recently voted down a resolution to support Black Lives Matter after leadership said it was a divisive issue at a time when the union can’t afford to lose members, according to an NY1 report.

Rosie Frascella, a Brooklyn high school teacher who helped organized Black Lives Matter at School events across the city, said she was disappointed in the leadership’s decision. But despite those internal disagreements, she said the threat posed by Janus should compel all teachers to speak out in support of their unions.

“You need to be in a union because it protects your right to teach,” she said. “And it stands up for our students and it creates the schools our children deserve.”

after parkland

As Trump doubles down on call to give teachers guns, the growing #ArmMeWith movement offers an alternative

Counselors, time, diverse classroom libraries, money — these are some of many things American teachers say they need in their schools instead of guns.

The pleas are coming via a social media hashtag, #ArmMeWith, that has spread quickly this week as teachers grapple with the aftermath of last week’s school shooting in Parkland, Florida.

Some lawmakers and advocates — including President Donald Trump — have responded to the shooting by arguing that teachers should be armed. That idea has drawn scorn from educators who argue that more guns in schools would make students less safe and do little to address the underlying issues that contribute to violence in schools.

Now thousands of those educators are offering an alternative, using a template that two teachers shared on Instagram on Tuesday. Olivia Bertels and Brittany Wheaton already had substantial social media followings when they asked others to join them in starting a movement.

“My friend @thesuperheroteacher and I think that we should find more practical solutions than giving teachers guns,” Bertels wrote on her post with the template, where she asked to be armed with school supplies. “I hope you’ll take the same stance.”

More than 5,000 people so far have done exactly that on Instagram, and the hashtag is also trending on Twitter, bringing educators together in a cross-country conversation.

“I wish we didn’t have to do this,” wrote one Texas teacher, HowsonHistory, in a comment on a Rhode Island teacher’s post. “But am so glad that so many teachers are. Maybe soon we will be listened to.”

Here are some of the posts that have caught our eye.

“We, the teachers, have a few ideas.”

“#armmewith not guns, but counselors who do not double as test administrators and more than one overbooked, crowded therapist option for families with Medicaid and social workers without overloaded caseloads.”

“#armmewith the liberation of our students, a microphone to speak out against the policies you make from people who aren’t teachers, resources to empower our children, and love to keep our babies safe. We refuse to be armed with guns. #teachingwhilemuslim”

“Because there are so many other things to be arming ourselves with that will do more good than harm. I choose to #armMeWith kindness not violence and teach my students to do the same #jointhemovement”

“I took my first teaching job the year Sandy Hook happened. And the thing is, in that year and in all the years I have been a teacher since, I have stood in my classroom too many times and wondered where I would put my children if someone came into my classroom with a gun. I have stood on playgrounds and in hallways with dozens of students and wondered what would be the best action to take. I have sat through too many of my lunch breaks with my colleagues hashing over the best strategy for protecting our students. There has to be change. Teachers and students deserve to work and learn in peace. #armmewith #thingsteachersshouldnothavetosay”