With another school year underway without a deal on new teacher evaluations, officials in charge of hammering out the evaluation system seemed only to agree on one thing: be optimistic.
That was the mantra for Chancellor Dennis Walcott and Mayor Michael Bloomberg as they toured the halls of the New Settlement Campus in the South Bronx this morning.
“I’m always optimistic,” Bloomberg told reporters in the spotless new library. “If we don’t get a deal by January we will forfeit a lot of state funds.”
Teachers Union President Michael Mulgrew told a similar story when he spoke this morning in Brooklyn.
“We are definitely having conversations, pretty good conversations,” he said, “and we’re hoping to get it done.”
The city and union have been negotiating over evaluations for more than a year with the as-yet-unfulfilled hope of securing federal funds that are not available to districts without evaluations. Now they are under the gun from the state, too. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said he will withhold state aid increases from districts that do not adopt new evaluations by January 2013.
Officials have volunteered no updates on the negotiations. But at the chancellor’s next stop, Deputy Chancellor David Weiner took a break from shaking hands with teachers at Bedford-Stuyvesant’s Young Scholars Academy for Discovery and Exploration and kneeling beside first graders honing their self-portraiture skills to say that his outlook was positive as well.
Weiner, the Department of Education officials overseeing negotiations, has been meeting regularly with union officials for months, he said, and thinks they are “continuing to move forward.” He said the January deadline set by the state might provide the ticking clock necessary to finish the deal.
“Both we and the unions are very aware of the importance of actually making sure we get the evaluations done by the date the governor has set,” he said.
The teachers union has long faced heat from the press and the mayor’s office over its staunch refusal to accept a system that some worry will allow the department to erode teachers’ job security. The union has offered some concessions, such as a partial agreement for struggling schools eligible to receive federal funding, but city officials rejected that plan last month, reasoning that there is little value to finalizing a partial deal when a full one is needed.
Mulgrew did not join Bloomberg or Walcott on their school visits, but Bloomberg assured reporters that theirs was a problem of diverging schedules, and not evidence of any animosity over the negotiations. In the past, the union head and chancellor used to make a joint appearance on the first day of school, but that tradition ended in 2010.
After paying a visit to Sunset Park High School in Brooklyn, Mulgrew told GothamSchools he would make the negotiations his top priority this fall. That’s what he said last fall, but since then the city and the union have clashed repeatedly over the specifics of the system, which must adhere to state guidelines. They even abruptly halted negotiations at one point in a high-profile stalemate that ultimately lost the city $30 million in federal School Improvement Grants.
Despite his optimism, Mulgrew signaled that the ideological chasm between the UFT and the city remains large.
“They think teacher evaluations should be about getting teachers,” Mulgrew said, delving into one of the main concerns at play. “We think teacher evaluations should be about helping and supporting teachers because then they do their jobs better and kids win. That’s the big difference.”
Danika Lacroix, the principal of Young Scholar’s Academy, raised similar concerns with the evaluations this morning. Hers is one of 250 schools practicing the new teacher evaluation system, which is already being rolled out slowly at some schools over the past three years.
“We’ve messaged it here as a professional development tool, and messaging it that way has eased a lot of tension” she said. “Our teachers are really hungry, they all want to be highly effective teachers, so they seek feedback. They want us to come into the classrooms.”
Lacroix said she wants her staff to think about the evaluation system as an opportunity for collaboration, not competition. To that end, she often invites teachers to sit in on classrooms observations alongside her, she said, and at the end of the 2011-2012 school year she shared individual evaluation results with the entire staff.
Weiner said the pilot program is preparing the city to charge ahead with an evaluation system once a deal is made.
Department officials have been collecting and reviewing data from the pilot schools, he said, and would use that information to inform a citywide rollout.
“We need to figure out what are the best models that exist in schools,” he said. “With 1700 schools, it’s obviously difficult to implement something without preparing first, and that’s what we’ve been doing over the past three years.”