forward march

Fans of tougher evals urge Cuomo to press forward anyway

After the collapse of teacher evaluation negotiations in New York City and across the state, education reform groups are asking Gov. Andrew Cuomo to install a “shot clock” on future talks.

When the clock expires, a teacher evaluation system devised by the State Education Department would go into effect, according to the plan outlined in a letter signed by 13 reform organizations from across the state and country. The groups — which include Democrats for Education Reform and and StudentsFirst, Michelle Rhee’s new lobbying outfit — argue both that more stringent evaluations are needed and that the state cannot afford to leave funding on the table during tough budget times.

The state’s teacher evaluation law, passed in 2010in order to secure Race to the Top funding, requires districts to adopt tougher evaluations when they renegotiate teachers contracts. But if they want to draw on several pools of federal funds, they have to finalize the new evaluations sooner. Dec. 31 was the deadline for one set of funds, School Improvement Grants. Another deadline, for Race to the Top funds, is coming on June 30.

Now the reform groups want the state to set another deadline — Aug. 31 — and they want it to apply to all districts, not just ones seeking federal funding. The groups are suggesting to Cuomo that districts that haven’t negotiated a plan by then would have to adopt a “default” plan and put it in place by the following year.

In some ways, the proposal is redolent of city Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott’s request last week that State Education Commissioner John King help the city hammer out an evaluation system without the union’s help. But in this case, both the districts and the unions would be cut out of the process to devise new evaluations.

The proposal doesn’t outline what exactly the default plan would look like. But the lack of a default option makes New York’s evaluation negotiations more complicated than in some other states receiving Race to the Top funding, representatives of reform groups told GothamSchools last year.

Putting a default option in place would require an amendment to the state’s teacher evaluation law, according to SED officials.

The idea of a plan B on evaluations is likely to find a receptive audience in Cuomo, who is expected to propose education policy changes in his second “State of the State” address tomorrow. But the governor, who said last week that he was “disappointed” that districts had not been able to agree on teacher evaluations and urged them to return to the negotiating table, has had mixed results when trying to push specific education policies. In May 2011, the Board of Regents approved a policy change he sought, to make teacher evaluations depend even more heavily on state test scores than the law requires. That regulation was rolled back after a lawsuit by the state teachers union.

The full letter from the reform groups is below:

Dear Governor Cuomo:

We are gravely concerned about New York’s credibility when it comes to living up to our promise of providing every child in the state with an outstanding classroom teacher. As you are aware, labor and management from school districts in many parts of the state have so far failed to implement key provisions of the state’s Race to the Top laws. These laws passed with bi-partisan support in our state’s successful attempt to win $700 million in federal funds for public schools.

It has been widely documented that one of the reasons New York beat out so many other states in President Obama’s RTTT competition was the enthusiastic pledge by leaders of both education labor and management to work collaboratively to implement new teacher evaluations which would highlight the exceptional work done by effective classroom teachers.  See video of New York’s representatives promising to work together to implement the RTTT plan here.

Like other winning states, New York promised it would implement the reforms that came with the money. Nearly two years later, however, all that the students of New York’s public schools have to show for this grand bargain is foot-dragging and politicking by the same grownups who assured the federal government we were serious.

To avert a situation where New York is forced to return hundreds of millions of sorely-needed federal dollars, we urge you to consider introducing “shot clock” style measures to ensure that all school districts will fully implement the state’s new teacher evaluation framework in accordance with the Race to the Top timeline.

New York cannot afford to leave federal money on the table at a time when its schools are already facing budgetary hardships.  Federal education officials have made clear their intention to hold states accountable to their Race to the Top programs, as seen recently in the case of Hawaii.  Hawaii’s failure to secure a collective bargaining agreement with its teachers’ union contributed to it being placed on “high-risk status,” in danger of losing its grant and subject to extensive review and reporting requirements.

Aside from the fact that we believe that implementing these new, modernized teacher evaluation systems is the right thing to do, we are also mindful there are other federal funding streams which could be jeopardized by this high-profile impasse.  New York City, alone, has almost $60 million in federal School Improvement Grants at risk after its negotiations with the United Federation of Teachers around a pilot system for evaluating teacher performance broke down this past Friday.  It is also endangering tens of millions of dollars in federal Teacher Incentive Fund grants earmarked for its teachers, because it has not adopted a system which recognizes and highlights great teaching.

To ensure that the City and the state’s other districts fulfill New York’s promises to its schoolchildren, we request that you introduce a back-stop measure that requires districts to develop teacher evaluation plans by August 31, 2012.  Any district that has not successfully negotiated its own plan by that date will have to automatically carry out a “default” plan, to be created by the State Education Department.  Those districts would have one year (until August 31, 2013) to install and fully implement their default plan systems.

Governor, we thank you for your efforts to date to strengthen New York’s focus on educational  measures and accountability, most recently by introducing your School District Performance Improvement Awards program to incentivize districts to make innovative reforms that improve student performance.

Research studies have demonstrated, time and again, that the most impactful factor on the level of learning in a classroom is the quality of its teacher.  At this critical juncture when the state faces a key deadline in implementing a teacher evaluation framework that will impact its students for years to come, we ask that you step up again to ensure that the task gets accomplished.


Buffalo ReformED: Press Contact:  Hannya Boulos – [email protected]716-783-3372
Civic Builders: Press Contact:  David Umansky – [email protected] – 212-571-7260
Democracy Builders: Press Contact:  Rev. Jamaal Nelson – [email protected] – 646-281-9164
Democrats for Education Reform: Press Contact:  Elizabeth Ling – [email protected] – 646-599-6123
Education Reform Now: Press Contact:  Myles Mendoza – [email protected] – 303-912-0267
Educators 4 Excellence: Press Contact:  Sydney Morris – [email protected]212-279-8510 ext. 10
National Council on Teacher Quality: Press Contact:  Sandi Jacobs – [email protected] – 202-393-0020
The New Teacher Project: Press Contact:  Andy Jacob – [email protected] – 347-987-0749
NYCAN: The New York Campaign for Achievement Now: Press Contact:  Christina Grant – [email protected] – 516-749-9462
Parent Power Project: Press Contact:  Carrie Remis – [email protected]585-350-8306
StudentsFirst: Press Contact:  Nancy Zuckerbrod – [email protected]301-204-9391
Students for Education Reform: Press Contact:  Alexis Morin – [email protected]774-258-0024
Turnaround for Children: Press Contact:  Pamela Cantor, MD – [email protected] – 646-786-6200

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.

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.”