End-Game Remains on N.Y. State Teacher Evaluations

By Andrew Ujifusa — March 13, 2012 7 min read
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Although the grand bargain on teacher evaluations in New York state has saved—for now—the state’s $700 million federal Race to the Top award, the long-term picture for carrying out the evaluation deal has a lot more fine print involved.

The agreement last month between the state education department and the state teachers’ union is only a starting point for the local union representatives and district officials who have to negotiate their own deals and present them to state Commissioner of Education John B. King for final approval by Jan. 17 of next year. Several obstacles remain.

Casting a shadow on that entire process is the release by the New York City school district of its teacher-data reports rating the individual performance—based wholly on student-achievement data—of thousands of its public school teachers.

The release of those names in February in response to journalists’ open-records requests has set off alarm bells outside the city and has the potential to cloud local negotiations on the new evaluations being crafted by the 696 districts in the state. The district and the city teachers’ union had been engaged in a lengthy legal dispute over whether to redact teachers’ names from the data. A state court ultimately declined to overturn a lower-court ruling that the names remain attached.

The president of New York State United Teachers, Richard C. Iannuzzi, said last week that the release of the data for city teachers had created a “chill” around the state. NYSUT is an affiliate of both the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association.

“I’ve had many members who are outraged about the whole situation,” said Mary Alice Boyle, the president of the Peekskill Faculty Association in Peekskill, which represents about 300 teachers and teacher aides in that 3,000-student district, about 40 miles north of New York City.

The framework for teacher evaluations in the state was agreed to by the New York state education department and NYSUT, with pressure from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, a Democrat.

Without an agreement, Mr. Cuomo said he would have proposed his own evaluation system in state budget language.

Before the deal last month, about 100 of the state’s school districts had reached teacher-evaluation deals with their local teachers’ unions that will now have to be reviewed by the districts to make sure they work under the new framework.

Race to Top Risk

To receive the $700 million in Race to the Top competitive-grant money from the U.S. Department of Education, awarded to the state in 2010, the state education department and the teachers’ union had to agree to a framework on new teacher evaluations, incorporating student achievement, that districts could use.

Teacher evaluations also had to be revamped in 10 districts receiving federal School Improvement Grant money awarded to New York state. Five have subsequently submitted new evaluations and have had their SIG funding restored.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has pressed hard on the teacher-evaluation issue in New York.

In a 2011 lawsuit, NYSUT contended that evaluation regulations approved last year by the state board of regents did not actually match the state law paving the way for the Race to the Top money in 2010. The reason: The regulations allowed student scores on state tests to be counted twice, both in the 20 percent of evaluations governed by student growth on state-provided measures and in the 20 percent of student growth determined by districts and unions in collaboration.

NYSUT contended that the 2010 state law did not allow for double-counting the state test results. A judge largely sided with the union in August.

The agreed-upon framework calls for 60 percent of a teacher’s evaluation to consist of “teacher performance” based on classroom observations, portfolios of student work, and other nonquantified measures. That portion of the evaluation must be locally bargained.

The remaining 40 percent has two significant pieces, with 20 percent based on student growth on state tests such as the English/language arts and math exams in grades 4-8, and 20 percent based on student growth and achievement measures that are locally bargained. The locally determined measures must be approved by the state education department and can include third-party tests and district tests. The local measures can also include data from state tests. Those data must be used differently from the state-determined 20 percent of the evaluation.

Gov. Cuomo has set the deadline of Jan. 17 for districts to have their evaluation proposals approved by Mr. King if they want potential increases in state aid in the governor’s 2012-13 budget.

But now that an evaluation framework is in place, Mr. Iannuzzi said he must calm his members’ fears over potential publication of their evaluations.

“The next question is, how do you assure rank-and-file teachers and principals that the purpose behind this law was to improve performance, not to shame teachers?” he asked. “The next couple of months, I think, we’ll all be sitting down trying to figure out the best method for that assurance.”

The state education department has not taken a position on whether the new evaluations should be available to the public, said Tom Dunn, a department spokesman.

But there is at least some sentiment that a court battle over making the evaluations public is a foregone conclusion. “I think there’s going to be quite a battle of litigation over this particular issue for some time to come,” said Cathy Corbo, the president of the 750-member Albany teachers’ union. The district has about 8,600 students.

NYSUT’s specific objection to making evaluations under last month’s framework available for public review is that, unlike the data reports released by New York City, portions of the new evaluations will be based on subjective observations and opinions from evaluators, not statistical data. Therefore, the union believes, they are not subject to the state’s freedom-of-information law and subsequent publication.

Mr. Dunn declined to comment specifically on that argument.

However, the legal precedent for releasing state teacher ratings has been set in New York City, argued B. Jason Brooks, the director of research at the Clifton Park, N.Y.-based Foundation for Education Reform and Accountability, which favors heavy reliance on student-achievement data in teacher evaluations.

“They’re not going to have a choice,” Mr. Brooks said of NYSUT members.

Legal wrangling wouldn’t be the union’s only problem if it tried keeping evaluations out of the public domain because they contain opinions, said Andrew J. Rotherham, a co-founder and partner at the nonprofit Bellwether Education Partners, a Washington consulting firm.

“Try to explain that one to parents. Good luck,” said Mr. Rotherham, who has written in favor of parents’ being able to find out if their child’s teacher has consistently low evaluation scores. The better position for the union, Mr. Rotherham argued, would be to push for complete evaluations to be made public so that they are useful to parents and others.

The February deal only guarantees that districts and unions must begin negotiations on evaluations.

Ms. Boyle, the Peekskill union leader, said she is most upset that the range of tests that could be used for the evaluations is too narrow and could force the district to buy expensive assessments. She said she is not confident that the union and district will reach a deal by the start of next school year.

Another question is how to assess teachers in subjects without state-mandated or state-approved standardized tests, such as art, music, and physical education.

Ms. Corbo said she thought the “student-learning objectives” in the evaluation agreement that set academic goals for students in nontested courses will be arbitrary.

Gov. Cuomo is already putting public pressure on New York districts to finish crafting the evaluations.

Last week, he announced an online initiative aimed at getting parents to push their districts to adopt new teacher evaluations. The website NY Students First allows people to track whether individual districts have submitted evaluation plans to the state, and whether the state has approved them. It also provides a tool for parents and others to contact their districts.

One district has shown recently that even when union and district leaders strike a deal on evaluations, there is no guarantee that state officials will smile on it.

In early March, state education officials rejected a plan from the Buffalo school system and union officials to exclude the scores of chronically absent students from evaluations, the Buffalo News reported last week. Subsequently, the newspaper reported, the teachers rejected a request from the Buffalo school board to drop the provision that excludes results from chronically absent students.

The district has been attempting to win back $9.3 million in School Improvement Grant money that had been suspended by the state in January because it had failed to have new evaluations in place. Buffalo was not one of the five districts that had SIG funding restored last month by getting new evaluations approved.

In addition to the 100 districts that had evaluation deals in place before Feb. 16, another 250 had already reached deals with their unions on some portions of the evaluations. Those 250 partial deals will now also have to be checked against the new framework.

Mr. Iannuzzi said that those 350 districts combined at least have a good bargaining precedent in place with their districts.

“I anticipate that they’ll continue to have that kind of collaboration in terms of any adjustments,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the March 14, 2012 edition of Education Week as Details Still Bedevil N.Y. State Teacher-Evaluation Deals


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