Recommended Fixes

Gov. Cuomo’s Common Core task force calls for evaluation freeze, test changes

PHOTO: Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of the Governor
Gov. Andrew Cuomo pushed for a broad overhaul of state education policy last year.

The governor’s Common Core task force has proposed overhauling the Common Core standards and pausing test-based teacher evaluations, paving the way for significant changes to policies that have dominated state education for years.

The recommendations were part of a report, released Thursday afternoon, that reflects parent and educator concerns about state tests, evaluations, and the rollout of the standards that have been brewing for years. Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has pushed for tough academic standards and teacher ratings tied to test scores, has said he will pay close attention to the group’s recommendations — indicating that he is ready to back a broad shift in the state’s education policies.

“The Common Core was supposed to ensure all of our children had the education they needed to be college and career-ready — but it actually caused confusion and anxiety,” Cuomo said in a statement. “That ends now.”

The Common Core standards are lists of math and reading skills that students must master by the end of each grade. They form the basis for the state’s annual tests, which have grown increasingly unpopular: This year, one in five students across the state refused to take them.

The report calls for the standards to be revised in a limited way, with plenty of teacher input and adjustments to the standards aimed at the state’s youngest students. It also nods to concerns that the state has already begun to address about the content of tests and the time students spend taking them.

Its most dramatic suggestion, though, is a freeze until 2019 on factoring students’ state test scores into teachers’ ratings — the focus of years of policy wrangling that resulted in a revamped teacher-evaluation system that was introduced in 2013. Earlier this year, Cuomo successfully pushed for the scores to weigh more heavily in the ratings. If he accepts the recommendation, Cuomo will be making a significant retreat from his earlier position.

The proposal to pull back from test-based ratings marks a major victory for teachers unions, who have long argued that the tests are an unreliable measure of teacher performance.

“It validates what we have been saying for years,” United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew said of the report, adding that Thursday was a “historical day.”

Whether the recommendations become reality is up to the state Board of Regents, which sets education policy. But Cuomo has indicated that he will heed the suggestions, which he said Thursday could be adopted without making changes to state law.

“It seems for the most part, the ball is now in the education department’s court and they are already at work on some of these ideas,” said Bob Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents.

The report does not call for replacing the standards, which the state adopted in 2010 as it began a fast-moving series of policy changes sparked by a $700 million federal “Race to the Top” grant. That gave Common Core supporters a minor victory to celebrate Thursday.

“The report makes clear that the current standards and assessments will stay in place,” said Stephen Sigmund, the executive director of High Achievement New York, a coalition of groups that promote the standards.

The report proposes a number of changes to the standards, such as making them more age-appropriate for young students and letting parents and teachers review them on a regular basis. For the assessments, it suggests reducing test time, publishing more of the test questions, and giving additional leeway to students with disabilities.

New York joins several states in backing away from the Common Core. A number of states have reviewed, renamed, or tweaked the standards, and a few have completely dropped them.

However, most of the reviews did not yield significant changes, said Morgan Polikoff, an assistant professor of education at USC’s Rossier School of Education.

“There’s been a number of states now that have done this kind of review and I think unanimously, the outcome has been relatively modest tweaks of the actual content of the standards,” Polikoff said.

Cuomo appointed the 15-member task force in September, partly in response to the unprecedented wave of testing opposition this spring. At that time, he called the state’s Common Core’s roll out “deeply flawed” and pledged to consider the committee’s recommendations when setting his agenda for next year’s legislative session.

The task force was comprised of educators and advocates from around the state, including New York State Commissioner MaryEllen Elia and Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. The group spent three months collecting public testimony and reviewing written comments, ultimately consulting about 2,100 people, according to Cuomo’s office.

Still, a full reboot of standards would take far longer than was allotted to the task force, said Robert Pondiscio, a senior fellow at the Fordham Institute who also works at Democracy Prep, a charter school in Harlem.

“Creating standards is not something that you do quickly, easily, overnight,” Pondiscio said.

The latest recommendations mirror ones proposed by Elia at last month’s Board of Regents meeting. The state education department said it received generally positive feedback on a survey it conducted of the standards, though some critics have questioned those findings.

Cuomo’s task force was not tasked with reviewing teacher evaluations, but during the process its members decided that the standards and assessments could not be separated from the evaluations, since they are based partly on test results.

New York introduced the Common Core-aligned tests in 2013, at the same time as the test-based evaluation system. That combination put significant pressure on teachers, who were suddenly judged based on standards that many said they were unprepared to teach.

In January, Cuomo again raised the stakes for teacher evaluations. Calling the current system “baloney,” he successfully pushed for a revised law that makes tests account for around 50 percent of teachers’ ratings.

By embracing the committee’s report, he is set to abandon the position he staked out earlier this year.

“Today, we will begin to transform our system,” Cuomo said in his statement Thursday, “into one that empowers parents, teachers, and local districts and ensures high standards for all students.”

Hold Harmless

BREAKING: ‘Pass this bill!’ Tennessee House tells Senate to hold teachers harmless on TNReady test

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
The Tennessee House of Representatives is in its final week of the 2018 legislative session.

Tennessee lawmakers were in a standoff Wednesday on legislation that would yank this year’s standardized test scores from teacher evaluations after days of problems administering the TNReady assessment this spring.

Concerned that last week’s legislation to shield students, teachers, and schools didn’t go far enough, the House unanimously approved an 11th-hour bill to hold teachers harmless from this year’s scores.

The Senate, meanwhile, had yet to take up the measure by early evening, grinding the legislature to a halt.

To make their point, the House was holding the state’s $37.5 billion budget hostage again in the last hours of the 2018 General Assembly, targeted for adjournment on the same day.

Representatives used a similar tactic last week when they waited until an agreement was forged with the Senate and Gov. Bill Haslam before approving the state’s spending plan. This week, they had yet to send the budget to the governor, the last official business before lawmakers can return home to campaign during an election year.

“If you don’t understand — from the school district to the superintendents — that we want our teachers held harmless, then I’m sorry, you’re tone-deaf,” said Rep. Eddie Smith, a Knoxville Republican who led the charge.

“This body wants them held harmless,” he said to applause in the House.

“To my Senate colleagues … ,” he added, “pass this bill!”

Lawmakers have been inundated with phone calls and emails from teachers and parents angry about the most recent bungles with TNReady. The upheaval began last week when technical problems erupted on the online version. At one point, the state Department of Education and its testing company, Questar, blamed some of the glitches on a cyber attack.

TNReady is now in the second of a three-week testing window, with serious problems cropping up during at least four of those days, including on Wednesday when an overnight software upgrade by Questar affected online rosters for high schoolers.

Last week, the legislature voted to reduce the impact of TNReady scores for students, teachers, and schools. However, instead of removing the test results from teacher evaluations, the legislation merely prevented local districts from using the scores for any decisions related to hiring, firing, or compensating teachers.

That bill was carefully drafted as Tennessee sought to keep its school accountability plan in compliance with a federal education law requiring states to include student performance in their teacher evaluation model.

Rep. Eddie Smith of Knoxville stands at the podium of the Tennessee House of Representatives on Wednesday as the chamber’s education leaders press for a bill to hold teachers harmless for this year’s TNReady scores.

This week, the House pushed for a “hold harmless bill similar to a 2016 law passed after the failed switch to computerized testing and the eventual cancellation of most of TNReady that school year.

“If the data does not help [teachers], it’s excluded and their evaluation will be based on the observation or the qualitative portion. That’s exactly what we did in 2015-16,” said Rep. John Forgety, the House education committee chairman who helped to shepherd the 2016 law.

This story will be updated.

time off

Language in contract for Aurora teachers changed conversations about walkouts

Colorado educators rally outside the State Capitol. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

The Aurora school district’s contract with its teachers places a cap so that no more than 30 teachers can take personal leave on any given day. This mundane contract provision took on new importance when hundreds of teachers started requesting leave to attend rallies planned for Friday.

Over the weekend, union leaders, board members, and administrators discussed how this would play out. In the end, Aurora Superintendent Rico Munn canceled classes. As of Monday, when the decision was made, about 1,000 teachers had requested the day off. That’s nearly half the district’s teachers.

A letter to staff, clarifying that the leave policy has not been lifted, sheds new light on the behind-the-scenes discussions.

Bruce Wilcox, the president of the teachers union, said Monday that union leaders started many of the discussions Friday, as they sent out a survey to members asking if they were interested in walking out and asking if they would do it without pay. More than 400 teachers responded over the weekend, and of those who responded about half said they were willing to walk out without pay.

“This has been a fluid situation,” Wilcox said. “As an association we in no way want to violate our contract, but we also recognize that individuals believe this is going to be the biggest statement they can make about education funding in their individual careers. This has kind of reached a critical mass.”

Wilcox said union leadership reached out to board members and found that board members would not support disciplining teachers who violated district leave policies.

Board president Marques Ivey said he could only speak for himself, but confirmed that was his opinion.

“That’s definitely my feeling is that I don’t believe personally that anyone wants to see teachers disciplined,” Ivey said.

Munn’s letter clarifies that neither the administration nor the board have the authority to stop the district’s policy or contract from applying to Friday’s walkouts.

“The board has not taken any kind of formal position on anything related to this matter,” Munn’s letter states. “The board cannot change the leave policy or make a one time exemption for this purpose. If the board were to change policy for the express purpose of facilitating attendance at this event, it would be an act of the district using taxpayer dollars to support a political activity,” which is not allowed.

So, what will happen is that the first 30 Aurora teachers who asked for personal leave on Friday may get it as one of their three special leave days earned during the year. Most other teachers who want to take a day off must do so without pay.

Other districts, including in Jeffco, have similar policies, but without the cap on how many teachers can request leave. In Jeffco, teachers only get two days off per year for personal reasons. Those teachers who have already used their two days and choose to walk out this week will also have to take a day without pay.

Aurora’s cap on the number of teachers taking personal leave was added to the contract between the teachers union and the district in 2014.

“I don’t think the language, when it was put in the contract, was ever seen as something that would be used against someone,” Wilcox said. “Both the district and the association wanted to make sure we didn’t have a situation where a school or the district was impacted negatively.”

Wilcox said he isn’t aware of teachers reaching that cap any other time this year, but mentioned that certain social events such as the Broncos parade after their Super Bowl win in 2016 might have been a case where several teachers were requesting a day off.

Although the union was planning to have teachers stage walk-ins, Wilcox said teachers said they felt that was not enough.

“When you have 200 people saying I believe in this that much, to take a day without pay, that’s pretty significant,” Wilcox said.

Board president Ivey said overall he thinks the situation has been handled as well as it could have.

“There’s no handbook on how to deal with this,” Ivey said. “I believe the district and AEA are doing the best they can. I don’t believe the district is against the very fundamental policies that the teachers are marching for.”