Education Funding

N.Y. Freezes Districts’ SIG Aid

By Christina A. Samuels — January 10, 2012 4 min read
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New York state has suspended federal School Improvement Grant money to all 10 of its school districts that were receiving the funds, saying that the school systems have not complied with a requirement that they revise their processes for evaluating teachers and principals.

The districts—Albany, Buffalo, Greenburgh 11 (in Westchester County), New York City, the Roosevelt district in Long Island, Poughkeepsie, Rochester, Schenectady, Syracuse, and Yonkers—have 30 days to appeal the decision, which was made at the start of the new year. The grants ranged from nearly $1 million for Greenburgh 11, a 230-student district in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., that enrolls students with multiple disabilities, to roughly $60 million for New York City, which has about 1 million students.

The sticking point for the districts appears to be figuring out a way to incorporate student test scores into teacher and principal evaluations. The districts signed agreements saying they would revise their teacher- and principal-rating systems to take into account student academic growth.

The New York City schools chancellor, Dennis Walcott, warned the state in a letter Dec. 30 that the district was getting nowhere in its negotiations with the United Federation of Teachers, which represents the city’s public school teachers.

“Almost every step of the way, the UFT has insisted on conditions that I believe would undercut real accountability,” Mr. Walcott wrote. For example, Mr. Walcott said, the UFT wants an outside arbitrator to hear appeals of teachers who receive poor ratings, which he says would be a major departure from the current appeals process.

In response, UFT President Michael Mulgrew said that the city school system was insisting that principals have unfettered power over teachers.

“If the [city education department’s] major focus is on penalizing its employees for their perceived shortcomings, rather than to devise a process that will help all teachers improve, it is doing a disservice to the schools and the children they serve,” he said in a statement.

Other superintendents said they were working well with their local union affiliates, but were surprised to hear of the state’s strict deadline. They had already started spending the grant money on initiatives such as extended-day programs, professional development, and extra academic coaches in some struggling schools. Amber M. Dixon, the interim superintendent of the 37,000-student Buffalo district, said the district was aware that an agreement had to be reached, but “it was about 3½ weeks ago that we were told there was an expectation that we would have to demonstrate proof of our agreement by January 1.”

Sharon L. Contreras, who was appointed the superintendent of the 19,000-student Syracuse district in July, said she was taken “completely by surprise.”

“We do not have a contentious relationship in Syracuse,” Ms. Contreras said. “What happened in Syracuse is we simply ran out of time.”

Syracuse is committed to developing a high-quality evaluation system, she added. “We were trying to do this right,” Ms. Contreras said. “We weren’t trying to do this quickly.”

Federal Infusion

The School Improvement Grant program was initially authorized under the No Left Child Behind Act, but it received a funding boost under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the 2009 federal economic-stimulus package. In all, $3.55 billion in SIG aid was allocated to states, with the funds to be granted competitively to districts.

Districts could choose one of four models to improve persistently low-achieving schools. The transformation model, which has become the most popular among SIG schools around the country, requires changes such as removing the school principal, adding extended time and professional development.

In 2010, as part of New York state’s successful application for a federal Race to the Top grant, the legislature required a statewide change to teacher and principal evaluations that would be based on multiple measures of effectiveness, including the use of student test scores.

“It was clear the districts really struggled to achieve what they committed to in their SIG grants,” said John B. King Jr., the state commissioner of education. However, he added, “we’ve had a year and a half since the [2010] law passed. If they didn’t have think they could do it, they shouldn’t have committed to it in the grant.”

“That was a decision they made,” he said of districts. “Our role is to hold people to what they committed to.”

By the end of 2011, the state had expected to see evidence that new evaluations were being implemented in schools, Mr. King said. Instead, many districts offered commitments, but no evidence that the evaluation programs were under way.

The problems exhibited in the SIG schools makes Mr. King worried about the state’s Race to the Top objectives, which require a similar evaluation system for teachers and principals statewide, he said. Districts’ commitments under that program are being reviewed, he said.

The school districts say they are struggling to make up the SIG money that they were expecting from the state. Ms. Dixon, the superintendent of the Buffalo schools, said that conversations about fundamental changes in evaluating educators cannot be rushed.

“What is most concerning to me is we need to look at teacher evaluation in a positive way,” said Ms. Dixon, a former teacher. “This is about developing a strong workforce, and that gets lost when it comes up against strict contract language.”

Philip Rumore, the president of the Buffalo Teachers Union, gave a hint that agreements might continue to be difficult to achieve. The state presumes “that if we only had the evaluation of teachers based on student achievement, it would all be fine,” he said. “I disagree with the premise to begin with. These [student] tests don’t test anything that’s relevant.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 11, 2012 edition of Education Week as N.Y. Districts’ SIG Aid Frozen for Failure to Revise Evaluations

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