Recruitment & Retention

N.Y. Budget Accord Seeks to Tighten Rules on Teacher Quality

By Stephen Sawchuk — April 13, 2015 4 min read
Supporters of public education rally at the New York State Capitol on March 26, 2015, in Albany, N.Y. Lawmakers ultimately included several of Gov. Andrew Cuomo's proposals to tie increases in school spending to revisions to teacher evaluation in a recently passed 2015-16 budget bill.

A last-minute budget deal in New York will have major implications for how the state’s teachers are trained, evaluated, and granted tenure—even as many of its implications for the 200,000-plus-member teaching force still have to be worked out.

The bill, approved by the legislature March 31, represents a win on some levels for Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who had sought to tighten the reins on teacher-quality policies. It does away with much local flexibility on teacher evaluation, centralizing at the state level key elements of how teachers will be graded.

Gov. Cuomo, a Democrat, has praised the legislation, and he is expected to sign it.

In the run-up to the vote on the agreement, unions and other advocates had decried the governor’s proposals, and had tried to shift the debate to issues of underfunding. The final agreement does direct more than Gov. Cuomo envisioned into education—about $1.5 billion—but some say that it may also put considerably more pressure on teachers.

Changes in Teacher Policy

Teacher Evaluation
- The New York budget bill expected to be signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo requires the state to craft a new teacher-evaluation system that will include both state test scores and observations, at least one of which must be performed by an independent evaluator from outside the school. The state education department still must flesh out the details.
- A teacher cannot score above the second-lowest rating (“developing”) unless his or her students make satisfactory achievement growth.
- No student can be assigned in two consecutive years to teachers with “ineffective” ratings unless the state grants a waiver.

Tenure
- Beginning with hires in the next school year, tenure will now be granted only after a teacher has served a four-year probationary period and received a score of “effective” or higher for at least three years.

Due Process
- Districts may begin dismissal procedures for teachers who have two consecutive “ineffective” ratings. Hearings would be limited to 90 days, and teachers would have to counter the charge with “clear and convincing evidence.”
-Districts must seek to discharge teachers with three consecutive ineffective ratings. Hearings would be concluded within 30 days, and teachers would have to prove that one of the ratings was “fraudulent.”

School Turnaround
- “Failing” and “persistently failing” schools could ultimately be put into receivership if they don’t improve. The receiver would have wide latitude to institute changes to curriculum, salaries, and staffing, but would have to negotiate some elements with the local teachers’ union.

Teacher Preparation
- Graduate-level teacher and leadership programs are restricted to admitting only candidates who achieve a minimum entrance-exam score and a 3.0 grade point average. However, programs could waive the requirements for up to 15 percent of each incoming class. Programs in which fewer than 50 percent of graduates pass their licensing exams for three years running will be suspended.

Source: Education Week

“I think that based on the governor’s agenda, he got a fair amount of what he wanted into this bill,” said Aaron Pallas, a professor of sociology and education at Teachers College, Columbia University. “Legislators are trying to justify their voting for this bill on the grounds that it increased funding, but that’s in many respects to distract from the fact that they voted for things they didn’t understand that might end up being damaging to teachers’ careers.”

Test-Score Worries

In addition to the evaluation- system changes, the bill will make it more difficult for teachers to obtain tenure, alter the state’s teacher-dismissal procedures, and permit receivers to take over the management of troubled schools.

Those changes follow other alterations made to teacher policies in 2008, 2010, and again in 2012.Teachers’ unions in particular had fought against Gov. Cuomo’s attempt to make student test scores count for half of a teacher’s evaluation, up from 40 percent.

Under the new system, to be fleshed out by the state education department, a teacher’s final score will hinge on some combination of growth in student test scores and classroom observations, including the use of independent evaluators. The cutoff point for determining proficiency on the observations will be determined by the state, rather than by local districts, as will all of the student-growth measures.

Exactly what percentages the various components will count for is not specified, but teachers will need show satisfactory student test-score growth to get an “effective” rating.

New York has faced increasing pressure from parents opting their students out of state exams—actions that have been endorsed by New York State United Teachers. Some high-profile policymakers have sought to reassure the public that the new evaluation framework won’t necessarily put more weight on tests, and could allow for greater flexibility.

Merryl Tisch, the chancellor of the state’s board of regents, which must sign off on the education department’s plans, made headlines by suggesting that some high-performing school districts be allowed to waive the new teacher-evaluation rules.

State officials clarified that Ms. Tisch aimed to start a conversation by raising that idea, but added that it is far from official policy.

Lawsuit Still in Play

Districts must comply by November with whatever new evaluation rules the state crafts or risk losing out on an increase in their portion of their state aid—as New York City did in early 2013, when it was unable to reach an agreement with its teachers’ union.

NYSUT, an affiliate of both national teachers’ unions, wasted no time in criticizing the framework.

“It is an unworkable, convoluted plan that undermines local control, disrespects principals and school administrators, guts collective bargaining, and further feeds the testing beast,” the union said in a statement.

Among the open questions is how the budget deal will affect a lawsuit,

Davids v. New York, which seeks to declare the state’s rules for teacher tenure and dismissal unconstitutional. A Staten Island judge recently cleared that lawsuit for trial, though unions are appealing that decision.

The policy changes in the budget bill mean that, in effect, the lawsuit will be adjudicating processes that will have undergone significant revision.

“In many respects, the new state law addresses many of the concerns that were the reasons for bringing that suit,” Mr. Pallas said.

Attorneys representing parents in the lawsuit, though, noted that the new evaluation system isn’t up yet, nor have the new timelines for teacher dismissal proved enforceable.

“States are always able to say, ‘We’ve done something, wait and see,’ but if there’s a constitutional violation going on now, it’s the courts’ responsibility to address it now,” said Devora W. Allon, a partner in the litigation group of Kirkland & Ellis LLP, the firm representing the Davids plaintiffs. “It’s clearly not good enough for these parents.”

Nor does the budget bill modify the state’s process of requiring that layoffs be based on teacher seniority, one of the Davids lawsuit’s aims, Ms. Allon added.

A version of this article appeared in the April 15, 2015 edition of Education Week as N.Y. Budget Accord Seeks to Tighten Rules On Teacher Quality

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