SED VS. NYSUT

With changes coming to New York’s teacher evaluations, union and state officials prepare to clash

PHOTO: Monica Disare
State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia at Thomas A. Edison Career and Technical Education High School.

New York’s education policymakers got a lesson Monday in how treacherous it will to be revamp the state’s highly controversial teacher-evaluation system.

Just minutes after the state education commissioner laid out a detailed plan for coming up with a redesigned system by fall of 2019, a state teachers-union official rebuffed it. Arguing that teachers cannot wait another year for fixes to a rating system they say is fatally flawed, the union will ask lawmakers to change the underlying evaluation law this year, the official said.

In fact, she said, the union won’t even ask its members to take a department survey meant to gather feedback on the current system, which rates teachers based on classroom observations and other measures of what students are learning.

“First and foremost, the teachers that we represent believe that the time to fix [teacher evaluation] is this year,” said Jolene DiBrango, executive vice president of the New York State United Teachers, in a conversation with reporters after the state outlined its plan. “Now is the time — we’ve been talking about this for years.”

Even as state policymakers face political opposition from the teachers union — which has long opposed using state test scores to judge teachers, as was required by a 2015 state law — they are likely to run into practical challenges as well.

Any effort to come up with statewide alternative assessments to use in evaluations could prove too costly at a time of fiscal uncertainty for the state. And major changes to the system could require reopening the evaluation law, which sparked a fierce backlash when it was passed. So far, lawmakers have not indicated that doing so is a priority, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo may want to avoid such drama during an election year.

“We have lived in a very toxic landscape,” Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa said Monday during the Regents’ monthly meeting, where state officials laid out their redesign plan. “I think that we have to be so mindful and so strategic and so intentional in our plan.”

The 2015 law — which Cuomo aggressively pushed for after calling the previous evaluation system “baloney” — weakened the role of local districts and teachers unions in crafting teacher ratings, instead shifting more authority to the state. That opened the door for ratings that relied much more heavily on student test scores — a move fiercely opposed by the unions, which worked to fuel the state’s massive parent-led boycott of the state exams.

In response to the backlash, the Board of Regents placed a moratorium on the use of grades 3-8 math and English tests in teacher evaluations until 2019. Instead, districts must find different measures of teacher effectiveness.

But now, the teachers union wants to repeal the state law entirely, and return evaluations back to local districts. Doing so would allow educators to help design systems that take into account unique conditions in each district — and to likely greatly reduce or eliminate the role of test scores in teacher ratings.

“We believe local control is the key,” DiBrango said. “What will work in one school district will not work in another.”

State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia did not rule out returning control of evaluations back to districts. But the lengthy redesign plan she laid Monday seemed aimed at improving the statewide system.

The state will form two redesign workgroups, state officials said. One will concentrate on the components of evaluations, including whether there should be classroom observations, tests, or other ways to judge teachers — and how much weight to give each part. The other group will focus on how student learning is measured, which may include developing new tests.

The education department will also continue to collect feedback from teachers through a survey, which 9,000 educators have already completed. However, DiBrango said the union will not encourage any additional teachers to take the survey in part because they were not consulted about the survey questions, which she said leads teachers into choosing among predetermined ways to evaluate them.

“We have not encouraged our teachers to necessarily take the survey if they don’t want to,” DiBrango said. “They have free will, so certainly some will take it and some will choose not to.”

As the union and the education department pursue their competing plans, the legislature could prove to be a serious roadblock.

Cuomo and state lawmakers have indicated that their top focus this legislative session is beating back funding cuts from Washington — not revisiting a deeply controversial law that is technically on hold until the moratorium ends next year.

On Monday, Elia suggested that her department may be able to make certain adjustments to the evaluation system without changing the law. Still, any major changes would likely require a new law. However, the department’s plan to present its redesign proposal by spring 2019 would give lawmakers little time to debate the proposed changes before the end of their legislative session.

Even if department officials could get lawmakers on board, a new evaluation system — with new tests — could prove too costly to adopt.

Officials recently said they would not join a federal program to create alternative state assessments because it would cost too much. On Monday, Elia said any new tests tied to teacher evaluations wouldn’t necessarily have to be given to as many students as the annual state exams, so they may be less costly.

Still, Regent Judith Chin, who chairs the board’s workgroup that focuses on standards and assessments, questioned whether the state could feasibly create a whole new set of tests to use for teacher ratings that would be ready for the 2019 school year.

“Is it realistic that we could build that capacity in a short period of time?” Chin asked.

at odds

‘The reckoning has come’: Denver teachers union takes a hard line in negotiations  

PHOTO: Michael Ciaglo/Special to the Denver Post
Denver Classroom Teachers Association deputy executive director Corey Kern speaks to a room full of teachers during a break in negotiations between the union and and Denver Public Schools.

Negotiations grew more tense between the Denver teachers union and the district on Tuesday as the two sides struggled to find common ground over its pay-for-performance system.

Union and district officials appear to literally be at standstill. After a tense exchange before noon, district officials departed the room to regroup — and did not return to the negotiating table. Talks are scheduled to resume Thursday. 

The day’s developments indicate that it may be growing more difficult for Denver to avoid a strike that would upend Colorado’s largest school district and add to a national wave of teacher activism.

On Tuesday morning, Denver Classroom Teachers Association representatives told district leaders that they want a traditional salary schedule, with “steps” corresponding to a teacher’s experience and longevity and “lanes” representing education. The district’s proposal, which would allow teachers who served 10 consecutive years to jump into the next lane, was unacceptable, the union said, and they don’t plan to budge.

“We need you to convert your structure to ours so we can move forward,” said union bargaining representative Robert Gould.

Asked what kind of changes the union might still be open to, Gould responded, “You’re not listening. You’re not listening to what we’ve been saying for the last two weeks, you haven’t been listening to what we’ve been saying for the last two months, you haven’t been listening to what we’ve been saying the last year, nor the last five years. What we’ve been saying is, we need the structure to be our structure. Then we can move forward.”

A long pause followed.

“Well, I don’t honestly know where we go from this ultimatum here,” said Michelle Berge, the district’s general counsel, adding that her team would regroup.

Then Gould continued.

“Denver teachers, they’ve met their limit,” he said. “There’s only so long you can continue to tell people no. And at some point, that’s what you’re going to get back — no. This Saturday, teachers are going to vote. They’re either going to vote yes for a commitment or they’re going to vote yes for a strike.”

“I understand that,” Berge said, explaining the district is struggling to find a way forward when the union hasn’t agreed to changes in months.

Then the room erupted with union supporters noting changes they had agreed to.

“Cut more central administration waste!” parent and education activist Amy Carrington yelled.

District officials said they were cutting central administration. Seven million dollars is being cut, and more is coming, they said.

As talk shifted back to the union, Pam Shamburg, DCTA executive director, said it was time for bigger change.

“The reckoning has come,” she said. “The district is going to have to dig deep. But it’s going to have to happen. And now is the time for the reckoning.”

The two sides went into a break — and didn’t meet again. 

District officials said Tuesday evening that they are processing the union’s position and have work to do before Thursday.

Superintendent Susana Cordova told Chalkbeat district officials entered Tuesday’s negotiations feeling they had come a long way toward the union position. Cordova said the district remains committed to making a deal, but would still like to get a counter-proposal from the union.

“We would like to see something from them,” said Cordova, who took the district’s top job last month. “I am new to negotiating, but that’s generally how that works.”

On Friday, Denver Public Schools officials presented a new proposal that would put an additional $6 million into teacher pay. That’s on top of the additional $17 million the district had already proposed, for a total of $23 million more.

Corey Kern, the union’s deputy executive director, said the two sides need to reach a “fundamental understanding” of how a teacher can qualify to move up “lanes” and potentially earn more money.

“If not, it will be very difficult for us to make a counter to the district,” he told Chalkbeat. “We would like to get back to the table and work on the issue and come to an agreement. But right now, we’re so far apart.”

The union is pushing for teachers to be able to move up in the system not just if they have earned master’s degrees or doctorates, but from other avenues, such as taking taking college courses or completing district professional development units, he said. 

Mark Ferrandino, chief financial officer of the Denver district, said steps and lanes have become a sticking point in part because of how much money it would take to fund the different proposals but also because of philosophical differences. The district believes its proposal actually allows for more flexibility for teachers, while the “very clear table” provides much more transparency than the old ProComp system.

Kern said the union was disappointed the two sides did not reconvene Tuesday — “it felt like we lost a day” — but is hopeful for what’s next.

Cordova said she believes a deal remains in everyone’s best interests, but if one cannot be reached, she will do everything possible to keep schools open. That includes offering more money to substitute teachers, deploying other district staff to classrooms, and preparing lessons for those people to teach.

The union, for its part, is also encouraging parents to send students to school if there is a strike — with the intent of proving how hard it is to run schools without teachers.

Bargaining sessions are scheduled for Thursday and Friday, if necessary. Without an agreement, union leaders plan a strike vote for Saturday, and a strike could start as early as Jan. 28.

Eric Gorski contributed reporting.

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that it was a parent, and not a union representative, who shouted, “Cut more central administration waste!”

Substitute Teachers

WANTED: Furloughed federal workers who can step into the classroom

PHOTO: Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images
Union workers demonstrate Jan. 10 in Washington, D.C., against the partial shutdown of the federal government.

Routinely short of substitutes to fill in for absent teachers, a number of large school systems are appealing to furloughed federal workers to step in and earn some extra cash amid the longest partial government shutdown in the nation’s history.

Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools is among the latest to go on a hiring offensive, urging federal employees to apply to be substitute teachers if they’re looking for work.

“We understand this is a tough time for many families impacted by what is happening at the national level,” said Amber Tyus, director of talent acquisition for the 85,000-student district. “We believe this is a way for workers to find employment that benefits them and the thousands of young people we serve in this district every day.”

Closer to Washington, D.C., several districts in northern Virginia and suburban Maryland are targeting federal workers who are currently without a salary.

Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia has held two hiring events in the past week, and “the response has been overwhelming,” said John Torre, a district spokesman.

“We are always in need of substitutes,” he added.

Just over half of the 800,000 government workers impacted by the shutdown are deemed “essential,” and therefore must continue to work without pay; the rest have been furloughed.

The nation appeared no closer to a resolution on Tuesday as the shutdown dragged into its fourth week due to President Trump’s funding impasse with Congress. Trump wants $5 billion to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Federal workers missed their first paychecks last Friday, and many have struggled to pay their bills and feed their families. But that harsh reality also presented an opportunity for school districts needing professionals who can step into a classroom at a moment’s notice.

In Nashville, a substitute teacher can earn upwards of $1,300 every two weeks. There’s also a big need to support the district’s 5,200-plus certified teachers.

The school system must place substitutes in about 550 classrooms every day as teachers miss school due to illness, vacation, professional development, or other reasons. Tyus says about 900 more people are needed to round out the district’s 1,300-member substitute pool, noting: “We recognize our substitute teachers play an integral part in educating the students of MNPS.”

In Tennessee, substitute teachers must have a high school diploma or their GED, and some districts require a bachelor’s degree.

Applicants in Nashville must complete an online application, submit official college transcripts, clear a background check, and pass an online training course. The paperwork can take less than two weeks to process.

Requirements vary from state to state and district to district, so not all furloughed workers are eligible to work for their local school. For those who are, the American Association of School Personnel Administrators views hiring them as a win-win.

“There is a massive shortage for teachers and substitute teachers, so being creative and making lemonade out of lemons is a fabulous idea,” said Kelly Coash-Johnson, the association’s executive director.

Nationally, teachers miss an average of 11 days a year, according to a 2014 analysis of large districts by the National Council on Teacher Quality.