a re-evaluation

After rancorous debate, lawmakers pass big changes to evaluations

PHOTO: Geoff Decker

Gov. Andrew Cuomo is getting much of what he wanted on teacher evaluations, a signature piece of a controversial education agenda that has dominated lawmakers’ attention since he first floated the proposal two months ago.

Both houses of the state legislature on Tuesday night passed an education portion of the state’s $142 billion budget that contained several parts of Cuomo’s agenda. The votes followed hours of raucous debate in the Assembly and Senate, whose own budget proposals earlier this week included none of the education changes that Cuomo had sought.

“It’s a shame what we’re doing here today. We have a terrible bill before us in many, many aspects,” said Bronx Assemblyman Michael Benedetto, one of several Democrats who berated Cuomo’s education proposals but ultimately voted to passed the budget, citing a large increase in education funding.

Cuomo has railed against the current teacher evaluation system for months, saying the oversized share of teachers with high ratings illustrated the system was too easy to game and in need of an overhaul. As other districts nationwide moved to reduce the role of state tests in evaluations amid concerns about their reliability, Cuomo this winter pushed for a system he saw as more objective, with tests playing a bigger role and outside observers acting as checks on principals.

Others disagreed with his prescriptions. Teachers spent months lobbying against the plan, and sagging poll numbers dogged Cuomo as negotiations continued and other education proposals fell away or were diluted.

But the new evaluation system included in the state budget deal reflects Cuomo’s vision. It weakens the role of districts and their teachers unions in devising evaluation plans and places more control with the state education department. Teachers will be graded in part by outside observers, and the scoring system could end up more heavily emphasizing the use of state tests.

Those aspects drew criticism from all sides as votes were tallied on Tuesday. The new evaluations are too test-focused, undermined principals, and represented government overreach, lawmakers said.

“Totally irresponsible and shameful,” said James Tedisco, a Republican Assemblyman, who voted against.

Education chair Catherine Nolan, a close ally of the teachers union and vocal critic of Cuomo’s proposals, defended the changes. She said the agreement represented a series of difficult trade-offs that scaled back what the governor had been seeking to do.

“I wouldn’t go so far as to say I love it, but it’s a good compromise,” Nolan said.

The budgets passed easily in the Assembly, 92-54 and in the Senate, 32-26.

“Sometimes you have to do difficult things to make new and difficult things happen,” said Chrystal People-Stokes, a Democratic Assemblywoman from Buffalo.

In a short statement released after the votes, Cuomo praised a budget that “reforms New York’s education bureaucracy.”

The new evaluations underpin a series of sweeping education policies that make up a nine-point legislative package known as the Education Transformation Act of 2015. Ratings will be used to award bonuses and tenure to teachers, as well as dismiss persistently low-ranking teachers.

For now, the legislation provides more of a framework than a plan. Several details will be hammered out in the coming months by the department and the Board of Regents. Districts will have until Nov. 15 to negotiate and implement the new plans or forfeit an increase in state aid — as happened in 2012, when New York City lost hundreds of millions of dollars.

Teachers will still earn one of four final ratings: ineffective, developing, effective, and highly effective. The new framework does away with the exact percentages — 20 percent for state tests, 20 percent on local or state tests, and 60 percent for observations — assigned in the teacher evaluation law first passed in 2010, though.

The state education commissioner (for now, a vacant position) and Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch have been tasked with settling the details of the new scoring system — though they require approval from the full 17-member board.

Perhaps most significantly, they will have to set the “cut scores” to determine what qualifies as effective or not on observations. Other than that, the law that the legislature signed off on Tuesday night leaves education officials with relatively few options.

The default evaluation plan will be based on just two measures: state test scores and observations. It no longer requires a local testing measure, something Cuomo has blamed for a rise in standardized testing. A second testing measure, which require’s state approval, will be allowed if districts come to an agreement with their local teachers unions.

The law does not provide answers to an underlying issue for a majority of teachers, including art, physical education, and music teachers, for whom there are no standardized assessments.

Part of a teacher’s score will come from at least one observation by their principal, and one observation from an “independent” evaluator will now also be required. The independent observer must come from a different school, and districts will be able to negotiate to include observations from a highly rated teacher from the same school.

Observations and test scores will be combined into final ratings using this matrix, which is codified in law.

In other districts, such a matrix has been praised as a less prescriptive, but also less precise, scoring system for teacher evaluations than the the “numerical” system used in places like New York, Washington, D.C., and Chicago.

“The things you are providing judgment on are not extraordinarily precise themselves,” said Garth Harries, superintendent of schools in New Haven, Connecticut, which uses a matrix-style evaluation system. “Being less precise allows us to be nuanced to those kinds of issues.”

Final ratings under a new default evaluation system will be determined by matching ratings from testing and observation subcomponents according to the matrix above.
Final ratings under a new default evaluation system will be determined by matching ratings from testing and observation subcomponents according to the matrix above.

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Aurora’s superintendent will get a contract extension

Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)

The Aurora school board is offering superintendent Rico Munn a contract extension.

Marques Ivey, the school board president, made the announcement during Tuesday’s regular board meeting.

“The board of education believes we are headed in the right direction,” Ivey said. Munn can keep the district going in the right direction, he added.

The contract extension has not been approved yet. Munn said Tuesday night that it had been sent to his lawyer, but he had not had time to review it.

Munn took the leadership position in Aurora Public Schools in 2013. His current contract is set to expire at the end of June.

Munn indicated he intends to sign the new contract after he has time to review it. If he does so, district leaders expect the contract to be on the agenda of the board’s next meeting, April 3, for a first review, and then for a vote at the following meeting.

Details about the new offer, including the length of the extension or any salary increases, have not been made public.

Four of the seven members currently on the board were elected in November as part of a union-supported slate. Many voiced disapproval of some of the superintendent’s reform strategies such as his invitation to charter school network DSST to open in Aurora.

In their first major vote as a new board, the board also voted against the superintendent’s recommendation for the turnaround of an elementary school, signaling a disagreement with the district’s turnaround strategies.

But while several Aurora schools remain low performing, last year the district earned a high enough rating from the state to avoid a path toward state action.

Town Hall

Hopson promises more flexibility as Memphis school leaders clear the air with teachers on new curriculum

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson answers questions from Memphis teachers at a town hall hosted by United Education Association of Shelby County on Monday.

The Shelby County Schools superintendent told passionate teachers at a union town hall Monday that they can expect more flexibility in how they teach the district’s newest curriculums.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the teachers who score highest on their evaluations should not feel like they need to read from a script to meet district requirements, although he didn’t have an immediate answer to how that would work.

Teacher frustrations were reaching a boiling point on district curriculums introduced this school year. Although the state requirements have changed several times over the last eight years, this change was particularly bothersome to teachers because they feel they are teaching to a “script.”

“Teachers have to be given the autonomy,” Hopson said. Although he cited the need for the district to have some control as teachers are learning, “at the end of the day, if you’re a level 4 or level 5 teacher, and you know your students, there needs to be some flexibility.”

Vocal teachers at the meeting cited check-ins from central office staff as evidence of the overreach.

“I keep hearing people say it’s supplemental but we have people coming into my room making sure we’re following it to a T,” said Amy Dixon a teacher at Snowden School. “We’re expected to follow it … like a script.”

The 90-minute meeting sponsored by the United Education Association of Shelby County drew a crowd of about 100 people to talk about curriculum and what Hopson called “a culture of fear” throughout the district of making a mistake.

Hopson said his team is still working on how to strike the right balance between creativity and continuity across nearly 150 district-run schools because so many students move during the school year.

He reassured despondent teachers he would come up with a plan to meet the needs of teachers and keep curriculums consistent. He said some continuity is needed across schools because many students move a lot during the school year.

“We know we got to make sure that I’m coming from Binghampton and going over to Whitehaven it’s got to be at least somewhat aligned,” he said. “I wish we were a stable, middle-class, not the poorest city in the country, then we wouldn’t have a lot of these issues.”

Ever since Tennessee’s largest district began phasing in parts of an English curriculum called Expeditionary Learning, teachers have complained of being micromanaged, instead of being able to tailor content for their students. The same goes for the new math curriculum Eureka Math.

The district’s changes are meant to line it up with the state. Tennessee’s new language arts and math standards replaced the Common Core curriculum, but in fact, did not deviate much when the final version was released last fall. This is the third change in eight years to state education requirements.

Still, Shelby County Schools cannot fully switch to the new curriculums until they are approved by the Tennessee State Board of Education. District leaders hope both curriculums, which received high marks from a national group that measures curriculum alignment to Common Core, will be added when textbooks are vetted for the 2019-20 school year.

Some urged educators to not think of the new curriculums as “scripts,” and admitted to poorly communicating the changes to teachers.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Pam Harris-Giles

“It’s not an expectation that we stand in front of our children and read off a piece of paper,” said Pam Harris-Giles, one of the district’s instructional support directors, who helps coordinate curriculum training and professional development.

Fredricka Vaughn, a teacher at Kirby High School, said that won’t be easy without clear communication of what flexibility will look like for high-performing teachers.

“If you don’t want us to use the word script, then bring back the autonomy,” she said.

Hopson stressed that the state’s largest school district could be a model for public education if everyone can work together to make the new curriculums work.

“It’s going to take work, hard work, everyone aligned from the top, everyone rowing in the same direction.”