breaking (updated)

City, union declare impasse in teacher evaluation negotiations

The city and teachers union won’t meet this week’s deadline to hammer out a new teacher evaluation system — and it doesn’t look like they will reach an agreement any time soon.

State Education Commisioner John King this week issued a strict ultimatum to New York and nine other districts: Agree on new teacher evaluations in a subset of low-performing schools by Dec. 31 or lose special federal funds for those schools. The city is receiving about $60 million in the funds, called School Improvement Grants, for 33 schools.

In July, the city and union agreed to roll out new evaluations in the schools, but they still had some details to finalize. They were locked in negotiations until today but threw in the towel this morning, citing irreconcilable ideological differences, particularly around due process protections for teachers who receive low ratings.

The impasse has potentially far-ranging consequences. The first is that the 33 struggling schools will stop receiving funds midyear, leaving them in the lurch to pay for programs, personnel, and nonprofit partners that are already in place.

“I am left with no choice but to suspend SIG funding” to New York City, King said in a statement this afternoon, hours after city officials essentially petitioned him to consider awarding the funds despite the impasse.

The high-profile breakdown in negotiations also bodes ill for another deadline, June 30, by which new teacher evaluations are supposed to be in place for all schools, in accordance with a state law passed in 2010 to help the state win Race to the Top funds.

The city has also canceled negotiations with the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators over new evaluations for principals. Today would have been the third day for those talks, according to CSA President Ernest Logan, who urged the department to return to the table.

That seems unlikely, according to a letter Chancellor Dennis Walcott sent King this morning explaining the impasse and suggesting that the city and state try to move forward on creating a new evaluation system without the union’s approval.

“This disagreement — regarding both policy and principles — leads me to conclude that we will not be able to come to an agreement on a fair and progressive teacher evaluation system,” Walcott wrote.

UFT President Michael Mulgrew union negotiators alerted him around 11 a.m. that two deputy chancellors had declared negotiations over and exited the room. Shortly afterwards, Mulgrew said, he received a copy of Walcott’s letter to King.

“I got the sense that the department never really wanted to get this done to begin with,” Mulgrew told GothamSchools.

The main sticking points appeared to be whether outside arbitrators would hear appeals of teachers who receive low ratings and, more broadly, whether the new evaluations are meant to usher weak teachers out of the system or identify struggling teachers so they can be helped to get better.

“We are hoping that we can have a system that will help teachers improve, because that’s the spirit of the legislation,” Mulgrew told GothamSchools yesterday. “The DOE, I don’t think they look at it the same way we do.”

In his letter to King, Walcott said the union was trying “to protect the very worst performing teachers” by insisting on outside review for teachers who received either an “ineffective” or “developing” rating under the new system. He also said the union has also thrown up roadblocks to dismissal proceedings for teachers the city is trying to fire, a separate issue from the new evaluations.

“Almost every step of the way, the UFT has insisted on conditions that I believe would undercut real accountability,” Walcott said in the letter.

But union officials said they had asked only for arbitrators to hear the cases of teachers who received the lowest rating and could lose their jobs as a result. Such a protection would guard against capricious and arbitrary low ratings by principals, they said.

Mulgrew said the city had not accepted the union’s suggestion that a third-party negotiator step in on sticking points.

In his letter, Walcott suggested to King that a solution might be found without the union’s consent.

“The city stands ready to continue discussions on this matter directly with the state, and I hope that you will consider the seriousness with which we are approaching this matter as a sign of our commitment to creating a meaningful teacher evaluation system for our schools,” he said.

City officials said they were discussing the possibility of recouping some expenditures or directing different funds to pay for others at the schools.

Walcott’s complete letter to King is below:

And here’s Mulgrew’s explanation of the impasse:

Discussions with the New York City Department of Education have reached an impasse.

Despite numerous negotiating sessions, we have been unable to reach agreement on key points.  Because the DOE refused to bargain in a meaningful way, we have offered to engage in binding arbitration over the remaining issues, leaving it up to an impartial third party to resolve these differences. (letter attached)

The DOE has refused our offer.

The UFT is seeking an agreement that meets the spirit of the teacher evaluation legislation in two important ways:

1)      The agreement must focus on creating a process to help teachers improve their performance by providing them with feedback on the specific classroom issues that need to be addressed, recommended strategies to address these issues and specific assistance from supervisors and other school personnel in implementing the recommended strategies.

2)      for teachers rated ineffective — an impartial outside review by a qualified and mutually-agreed-upon third party.

Teachers look forward to the opportunity to improve their practice.  If the DOE’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.

In addition, the DOE’s position in these talks has been that principals’ judgment is always right and that they should be able to wield unfettered power over their employees.  Yet its own investigative arm has documented an instance of a principal urging her deputies to target teachers for dismissal even without observing their work (Fordham HS of the Arts);  another teacher had to go to court to get an “unsatisfactory” rating overturned after an independent investigator found that he and other teachers had been harassed by the principal (Bronx Science); and repeated allegations that teachers have been pressured by administrators to pass students who had not mastered course material or who barely attended classes (Herbert Lehman, A. Phillip Randolph).

It staggers the imagination to think that, given these facts, the DOE can continue to insist that no principal’s judgment can be questioned, and that no checks or balances are needed on their powers to destroy a teacher’s career.

And here’s what State Commissioner John King said this afternoon:

Sadly, the adults in charge of the City’s schools have let the students down.  SIG schools need to be fixed, and the best way to make that happen is to make sure there’s a quality teacher in front of every classroom and a quality principal at the head of every school.

A rigorous, transparent evaluation system grounded in evidence of effective practice and student learning is critical to providing quality professional development, identifying models of excellence, and raising student achievement.  Fair, sound teacher and principal evaluations are good for educators and vital for students.

The failure to reach agreements on evaluations leaves thousands of students mired in the same educational morass.  Until the grown-ups in charge start acting that way, it won’t be a very happy New Year for the students at the SIG schools in the City.

This is beyond disappointing.  The City and the unions have known about this deadline for many months, but there’s no evidence of any real progress. The New York City Department of Education must immediately cease obligating SIG funds in its Transformation and Restart model schools.  I am left with no choice but to suspend SIG funding for Transformation and Restart model schools in the City.

the end

A 60-year-old group that places volunteers in New York City schools is shutting down

PHOTO: August Young

Citing a lack of support from the city education department, a 60-year-old nonprofit that places volunteers in New York City schools is closing its doors next month.

Learning Leaders will cease operations on March 15, its executive director, Jane Heaphy, announced in a letter to volunteers and parents last week.

In the message, she said the group had slashed its budget by more than a third, started charging “partnership fees” to participating schools, and explored merging with another nonprofit. But the city pitched in with less and less every year, with no guarantee of consistency, she said.

“This funding volatility has created insurmountable challenges to the long-term viability of our organization,” Heaphy wrote. “We regret the vacuum that will be created by our closure.”

The group — which began as part of the city school system but became its own nonprofit in the 1970s — says its volunteers work with more than 100,000 students in more than 300 schools every year, many of them faithfully. When then-84-year-old Carolyn Breidenbach became the group’s 2013 volunteer of the year, she had been helping at P.S. 198 on the Upper East Side daily for 12 years.

Heaphy’s full message to volunteers is below:

Dear [volunteer],

It is with a heavy heart that I write to inform you Learning Leaders will cease operations on March 15 of this year. This organization has worked diligently over the last few years to sustain our work of engaging families as Learning Leaders, but the funding landscape has become too challenging to keep our programs going. While we have been able to increase our revenues from a generous community of funders, we have ultimately come to the conclusion that without a consistent and significant base of funding from the NYC Department of Education, we cannot leverage foundation grants, individual donors, or school fees sufficiently to cover program costs.

In the face of growing financial challenges, Learning Leaders reduced its costs as thoughtfully as possible — and in ways that did not affect our program quality. Rather, we sought to deepen and continually improve our service to schools and families while eliminating all but the most necessary costs. These efforts reduced our budget by more than 35 percent.

At the same time, we sought greater public support for our work with schools and families across the city. We are grateful to the foundations and individual donors that have believed in our work and provided financial support to keep it going. We were gratified when schools stepped up to support our efforts through partnership fees. While these fees only covered a portion of our costs, the willingness of principals to find these funds within their extremely tight school budgets was a testament to the value of our work.

Throughout an extended period of financial restructuring Learning Leaders advocated strongly with the Mayor’s Office and the DOE [Department of Education] for a return to historical levels of NYC DOE support for parent volunteer training and capacity building workshops. While we received some NYC DOE funding this year, it was less than what we needed and was not part of an ongoing budget initiative that would allow us to count on regular funding in the coming years. Several efforts to negotiate a merger with another nonprofit stalled due to the lack of firm financial commitment from the DOE. Over time, this funding volatility has created insurmountable challenges to the long-term viability of our organization.

We regret the vacuum that will be created by our closure. If you have questions or concerns about opportunities and support for family engagement and parent volunteer training, you can contact the NYC DOE’s Division of Family and Community Engagement at (212) 374-4118 or [email protected].

On behalf of the board of directors and all of us at Learning Leaders, I offer heartfelt thanks for your partnership. We are deeply grateful for your work to support public school students’ success. It is only with your dedication and commitment that we accomplished all that we did over the last 60 years. We take some solace in knowing that we’ve helped improve the chances of success for more than 100,000 students every year. The Learning Leaders board and staff have been honored to serve you and your school communities.
Sincerely,

Jane Heaphy
Executive Director

Rise & Shine

While you were waking up, the U.S. Senate took a big step toward confirming Betsy DeVos as education secretary

Betsy DeVos’s confirmation as education secretary is all but assured after an unusual and contentious early-morning vote by the U.S. Senate.

The Senate convened at 6:30 a.m. Friday to “invoke cloture” on DeVos’s embattled nomination, a move meant to end a debate that has grown unusually pitched both within the lawmaking body and in the wider public.

They voted 52-48 to advance her nomination, teeing up a final confirmation vote by the end of the day Monday.

Two Republican senators who said earlier this week that they would not vote to confirm DeVos joined their colleagues in voting to allow a final vote on Monday. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska cited DeVos’s lack of experience in public education and the knowledge gaps she displayed during her confirmation hearing last month when announcing their decisions and each said feedback from constituents had informed their decisions.

Americans across the country have been flooding their senators with phone calls, faxes, and in-person visits to share opposition to DeVos, a Michigan philanthropist who has been a leading advocate for school vouchers but who has never worked in public education.

They are likely to keep up the pressure over the weekend and through the final vote, which could be decided by a tie-breaking vote by Vice President Mike Pence.

Two senators commented on the debate after the vote. Republican Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who has been a leading cheerleader for DeVos, said he “couldn’t understand” criticism of programs that let families choose their schools.

But Democrat Patty Murray of Washington repeated the many critiques of DeVos that she has heard from constituents. She also said she was “extremely disappointed” in the confirmation process, including the early-morning debate-ending vote.

“Right from the start it was very clear that Republicans intended to jam this nomination through … Corners were cut, precedents were ignored, debate was cut off, and reasonable requests and questions were blocked,” she said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”