How the Every Student Succeeds Act could change New York schools

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

New York is about to have a lot more freedom to craft education policy.

The Every Student Succeeds Act, which President Obama signed last week, won’t change anything right away in New York state. But ESSA, which replaced the No Child Left Behind Act, hands authority from the federal education department to the states, which could eventually lead to important shifts in how the state tests students and what happens to struggling schools.

Most states, including New York, already had waivers that allowed them to operate outside No Child Left Behind’s rules. (Those will expire as next school year begins.) In New York, policymakers had also pushed even further than the old law required in recent years, sparking backlash around state testing, teacher evaluations, and the Common Core standards — and prompting officials to begin backing away from many of those shifts even before ESSA’s passage.

As those debates continue, here are a few ways ESSA might change things in New York.

Standardized testing

Students in grades 3 through 8 will still have to take state English and math tests, and high school students will still take Regents tests.

New York will still have to report those results and the results for certain student groups, such as those with disabilities or who are still learning English.

But the new law gives states new freedom to change what their tests look like. States are allowed to use computer-based tests that adapt to students’ levels, for example. The law also encourages states to measure student achievement in multiple ways — including with portfolios of student work or extended performance tasks.

State officials have been signaling their support for that kind of flexibility recently too.

A report by a Gov. Cuomo-appointed task force released last week suggested that teachers be allowed to assess students in new ways. In November, state education commissioner MaryEllen Elia suggested creating an advisory council to develop recommendations for those kinds of assessments based on performance tasks.

Struggling schools

The new law will still require New York to track school performance and progress. The state will also still have to intervene at the bottom 5 percent of schools and at high schools with high dropout rates.

But it will now be up to New York to decide exactly how to identify that bottom group and how to try to improve them.

New York state has been identifying the bottom 5 percent of schools primarily by state test scores. When it intervened, officials chose one of a few preset federal turnaround policies, which required schools to do things like make staff changes or redesign the school day.

Under the new law, states are allowed to make some of their own choices about how they calculate which schools are struggling. The factors could include test scores, graduation rates, and — in a shift — measures of school climate and safety, student engagement, or completion of advanced coursework, with academic factors getting the most weight.

The new law will also allow New York to devise its own school improvement strategies, which could differ from the traditional turnaround models. (The state will have to keep supporting its “priority” and “focus” schools identified by the current formula until their new plans kick in.)

None of that guarantees New York will adjust its current strategy, though.

“This is all going to be dependent on how New York state changes things,” said Mike Hansen, the deputy director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution. “If they just use the current business model to intervene in low-performing schools, than they may be doing the exact same thing they’ve been doing under the waiver.”

Teacher evaluations

New York’s promise to overhaul its teacher evaluation systems to incorporate student test scores in 2010 helped win millions in Race to the Top federal funding and a waiver from No Child Left Behind.

The new education law does not address teacher evaluations at all, leaving state officials free to make big changes without concern about losing federal funding.

Those changes are on the way. On Monday, the Board of Regents voted to stop using state test results in teacher evaluations until the 2019-20 school year.

“If you believe that we were required to do all of that by federal law, that rug has now been pulled out from under them,” said David Bloomfield, an education professor at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center, referring to New York’s state tests and teacher evaluations. “The basis for those requirements has now been eliminated.”

Future of Teaching

Tentative contract includes big raises for IPS teachers

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Teachers would receive significant raises under a tentative new contract with IPS.

A month after voters approved a vast funding increase for Indianapolis Public Schools, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee’s administration and the district teachers union have reached a tentative deal for a new contract that would boost teacher pay by an average of 6.3 percent.

The agreement was ratified by union members Wednesday, according to a statement from teachers union president Ronald Swann. It must be approved by the Indianapolis Public Schools board, which is likely to consider the contract next week, before it is final.

Swann did not provide details of the agreement, but it was outlined in union presentations to teachers on Wednesday ahead of the ratification vote. The deal would cover the 2018-19 school year, and teachers would receive retroactive pay back to July 2018. The prior contract ended in June.

Raising teacher pay was a key part of the sales pitch district leaders used to win support for a referendum to raise $220 million over eight years from taxpayers for operating expenses. The referendum passed with wide support from voters last month, and although the district will not get that money until next year, the administration can now bank on an influx of cash in June 2019. Teachers could receive another raise next year, once the money from the referendum begins flowing.

The proposed deal would bring pay raises for new and experienced teachers. First year teachers in the district would see their salaries jump to $42,587, about $2,600 above the current base salary, according to the presentation to teachers. Returning teachers would move up the pay scale, with most receiving raises of about $2,600.

The deal also brings a reward for teachers who are at the top of the current scale. The top of the scale would rise to $74,920 by adding several stops above the current maximum of $59,400. That means teachers who are currently at the top of the scale would be able to move up and continue getting raises.

Many longtime teachers in the district also earn additional pay for advanced education, but teachers who joined the district more recently are not eligible for that extra money.

Teachers who received evaluations of ineffective or needs improvement in 2017-18 are not eligible for raises.

The new contract is the second time in recent years that teachers have won substantial raises in Indianapolis Public Schools. After four years of painful pay freezes, Ferebee negotiated a contract in 2015 that included a large pay increase. Teacher pay is especially important for the district because it is competing with several surrounding communities to staff schools.

Health care costs would go up this year, a policy shift that was advocated by the Indy Chamber, which urged the district to reduce health insurance spending as part of a plan to shift more money to teacher salaries.

The contract includes a provision that was piloted last year allowing the district to place newly hired teachers at anywhere on the salary schedule. It’s designed to allow the district to pay more for especially hard-to-fill positions.

Teachers at some troubled schools, known as the transformation zone, would also be eligible for extra pay on top of their regular salaries at the discretion of the administration. That money would come from state grants specifically targeted at transformation zone schools.

The idea of allowing superintendents to pay some teachers in their districts more than others is controversial.

Teacher Pay

‘Our teachers have waited long enough’: Educators say Indiana needs to act now on teacher pay

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Students in Decatur Township work on physics problems with their teacher.

Educators and advocates are pushing state leaders to take action this year to raise teacher compensation — not to wait for additional research, as Gov. Eric Holcomb proposed last week.

“Our teachers have waited long enough,” said Teresa Meredith, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, the state’s largest teachers union. “It doesn’t take a two-year study to discover what we already know: teachers need to be valued, respected, and paid as professionals.”

Holcomb’s proposal last week to study raises in the upcoming budget-writing session and make bigger steps in 2021 didn’t sit well with some, since lawmakers and advocates spent the fall talking up the need to make teacher salaries competitive with other states. But given the state’s tight budget situation, Holcomb suggested studying the impact of raises for at least a year, as well as looking at how much money would be needed and how districts would be expected to get the money to teachers.

Read: Raising teacher pay likely to be at the forefront for Indiana lawmakers and advocates in 2019

The proposal drew quick criticism. Education leaders and advocacy groups took to Twitter to express their hopes that Holcomb and lawmakers would find ways to address teacher salaries this year as well as into the future.

“IN must respond now,” State Superintendent Jennifer McCormick tweeted Friday morning, remarking that too many teachers across the state are leaving the profession because pay is too low. “Kids deserve & depend upon excellent teachers.”

“We can’t wait to act because Hoosier children are counting on all us to come together to ensure our schools can attract and retain the best teachers,” Justin Ohlemiller, executive director of Stand for Children Indiana, said in a blog post titled “The time to act on teacher pay is now.

ISTA’s 2019 legislative agenda, released Monday, will continue pushing for lawmakers and state leaders to find creative solutions to raise teacher pay and make Indiana competitive with other states.

And ISTA says they might have voters on their side. A recent ISTA poll of more than 600 Hoosiers, conducted by Emma White Research, shows that funding for education is a priority across the state, with more than 86 percent of those sampled supporting sending more money to public schools. About 72 percent of people polled believe educators are underpaid.

But it’s unclear if there would be enough money in the budget to spend on across-the-board raises after other funding obligations are met, such as funding needed by the Department of Child Services to deal with effects of the state’s opioid crisis. Senate Democrats have called for $81 million a year to ensure 5 percent raises for teachers and counselors over the next two years. Republicans have strong majorities in both chambers.

Neither ISTA, lawmakers, Holcomb nor other education groups have released specific plans for either how much they’d like to see set aside for teachers or strategies for how a pay increase could feasibly be carried out. However, the effort has brought together some unlikely allies — the union, a vocal advocate for traditional public schools, rarely aligns its education policy with groups like Stand and Teach Plus Indiana that have favored increased school-choice options, such as charter schools.

With limited dollars to go around, the focus will have to also be on how to make existing education dollars go farther, Meredith said. She, along with Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma last month, pointed to the need to curtail spending on administration, which, they argue, could free up money for other expenses such as teacher compensation.

Some have also pointed to the state’s recent budget surplus and reserves as evidence that Indiana could spend more on education if there was political will to do so.

“The surplus has come on the backs of educators and their students,” Meredith said. “Elected leaders must do more. They must do more to declare teacher pay a priority in this session, and they must take action.”

ISTA is also hoping lawmakers will act to:

  • Restore collective bargaining rights so educators can negotiate work hours and class size, as well as salaries and benefits.
  • Remove teacher evaluation results from decisions about salary until the state’s new ILEARN test has been in place for a few years.
  • Invest in school counselors, psychologists, and social workers
  • Strengthen regulations for charter and virtual charter schools, including putting a moratorium on new virtual schools until those safeguards can be enacted.
  • Study districts that have focused on how to best teach students who have experienced trauma.

Indiana’s next legislative session begins in January.

Correction: Dec. 11, 2018: This story has been updated to reflect that Stand for Children Indiana doesn’t take a position in regards to private school vouchers.