UFT calls off evaluation talks until city addresses rollout issues

Weeks before a state deadline for the city and teachers union to agree on new teacher evaluations, UFT President Michael Mulgrew has thrown a major wrench into negotiations.

Mulgrew said today that he is halting talks about the evaluations until the Department of Education presents an implementation plan that he approves. The plan, he said, would have to include “a concrete plan” for how and when educators are trained on whatever system is adopted.

The announcement came in an angry letter to Chancellor Dennis Walcott this afternoon that Mulgrew said was prompted by a spate of complaints from teachers about surprising and intimidating observations. A top union offiical, Michael Mendel, registered alarm about the complaints in his own scathing letter to Walcott earlier this week.

The city and union had agreed to have some schools practice conducting observations of the type likely to be required in new evaluations. But Mendel said the reports came from schools beyond the pilot program and described practices that were not supposed to happen but could potentially be part of a new evaluation system, such as unannounced observations.

“How is it possible to start implementing a system that we haven’t agreed on?” Mulgrew said in an interview today. Doing so, he said, “breaks every piece of good-faith etiquette in negotiations.”

A Department of Education spokeswoman disputed the UFT’s accusation that the department had changed its approach to preparing for new evaluations. All of the observations being done right now conform to guidelines that the city and union set out jointly for a teacher evaluation pilot program that has been in operation for years, according to the spokeswoman.

But, citing dozens of complaints from teachers, Mendel charged that teams of administrators had begun descending on classrooms without warning and giving teachers stern feedback without discussing the reason for their visit, in violation of the pilot program’s rules. The visits were leaving teachers “feeling intimidated, harassed, scared, put off” and “turning them against the evaluation system,” he said.

Mulgrew’s announcement comes amid growing criticism from within the union of his handling of the evaluations issue. Last week, UFT leaders rejected a public call by some teachers to put any evaluation deal to a vote of the union’s membership.

It also comes after weeks of both city and union officials characterizing their negotiations as productive. Both sides are under pressure to reach a deal by Jan. 17, when any district that does not have a new evaluation system in place will lose state funding under a decree of Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Walcott had said he wanted to reach a deal on teacher evaluations by Dec. 21 so state officials would have time to review and approve the agreement before Cuomo’s deadline. Mulgrew called that deadline “bogus” and his announcement today appears to ensure that no deal will happen before then.

But Mulgrew said today that as long as talks start soon, there is enough time to cover both evaluations and their implementation before the Jan. 17 deadline set by Gov. Andrew Cuomo. (School districts that have not agreed with their unions on new evaluations by then will risk losing an increase in state school aid.) He said Walcott did not immediately respond about setting a time to discuss implementation.

Making an implementation plan “would normally be done in negotiations anyway,” Mulgrew said. “But now it has to be done right now.”

Mulgrew’s full letter to Walcott is below.

Dear Chancellor Walcott,

The Department of Education’s demonstrated inability to manage the school system correctly has led us to have serious concerns about getting anything constructive done with you. Two and half years ago the state decided to change this year’s standardized tests to the Common Core standards and since then you have done nothing to create a curriculum based on the Common Core. You have now left teachers in a horrendous situation where they are scrambling to try to get material appropriate for these new tests to teach their children.

Inevitably, this will lead to a drop in standardized test scores — which I know once again you will try to blame on the teachers because you will not take responsibility for your incompetence. Despite all of this and many other examples, the teachers in our schools have worked through Hurricane Sandy and many other challenges to serve the children in our care, even as the union has continued to try to negotiate a new evaluation system.

We were recently informed by our members in the schools that you have launched a new program, the Teacher Effectiveness Intensive Three Week Cycle, without any planning or proper training for the schools. Charlotte Danielson’s rubric requires intensive training in order for it to be used correctly, but you have refused to certify or intensely train people so that they can properly use this tool. Your decision to launch this new program without a plan that would lead to its successful implementation is mind-boggling to us.

Given this history, at this time we will only meet with you to discuss a planning and roll-out process for the new evaluation system — in case we ever get to such an agreement. We understand that an evaluation system that will create a constructive practice in each school that will enhance instruction and benefit our over 1.1 million students is a critical opportunity. An evaluation system that will change the culture of our schools is something that the UFT has been working on for over three years. We hope that you will not be party to wasting such an important opportunity. We await your communication to set up such a meeting on the planning and roll-out process for the benefit of our children and our schools.

Michael Mulgrew

Michael Mulgrew
UFT President


Betsy DeVos

‘Underperformer,’ ‘bully,’ and a ‘mermaid with legs’: NYMag story slams Betsy DeVos

PHOTO: New York Magazine
A drawing of DeVos commissioned by an 8-year-old starts the New York Magazine article.

A new article detailing Betsy DeVos’s first six months as U.S. education secretary concludes that she’s “a mermaid with legs: clumsy, conspicuous, and unable to move forward.”

That’s just one of several brutal critiques of DeVos’s leadership and effectiveness in the New York Magazine story, by Lisa Miller, who has previously covered efforts to overhaul high schools, New York City’s pre-kindergarten push, and the apocalypse. Here are some highlights:

  • Bipartisan befuddlement: The story summarizes the left’s well known opposition to DeVos’s school choice agenda. But her political allies also say she’s making unnecessary mistakes: “Most mystifying to those invested in her success is why DeVos hasn’t found herself some better help.”
  • A friend’s defense: DeVos is “muzzled” by the Trump administration, said her friend and frequent defender Kevin Chavous, a school choice activist.
  • The department reacts: “More often than not press statements are being written by career staff,” a spokesperson told Miller, rejecting claims that politics are trumping policy concerns.
  • D.C. colleagues speak: “When you talk to her, it’s a blank stare,” said Charles Doolittle, who quit the Department of Education in June. A current education department employee says: “It’s not clear that the secretary is making decisions or really capable of understanding the elements of a good decision.”
  • Kids critique: The magazine commissioned six portraits of DeVos drawn by grade-schoolers.
  • Special Olympics flip-flop: DeVos started out saying she was proud to partner with the athletics competition for people with disabilities — and quickly turned to defending a budget that cuts the program’s funding.
  • In conclusion: DeVos is an underperformer,” a “bully” and “ineffective,” Miller found based on her reporting.

We’ve reached out for reaction from DeVos’s team and will update when we hear back.

teachers with borders

Schools near state lines perform worse — and rules discouraging teachers from moving may be to blame

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Want a leg up in school? Don’t attend one near a state border.

That’s the surprising finding of a new study published in the Economics of Education Review. The likely culprit: certification and pension rules that discourage teachers from moving between states, limiting the labor pool on each side of the border.

The peer-reviewed paper focuses on test scores at public middle schools near a state boundary. Eighth-graders attending those schools, the researchers find, perform consistently worse in math than students at non-boundary schools. (The results are negative in reading, too, but smaller and not always statistically significant.)

One reason the findings ought to catch the attention of policymakers across the country: the data comes from 33 states, including big ones like Florida, New York, and Texas.

“We estimate that roughly 670,000 students are enrolled in middle schools nationally that are [considered] ‘intensely affected’ by a state boundary in our study,” the researchers write.

Of course, schools and students are not randomly assigned to be near state boundaries, so the study can’t definitively conclude that boundaries are the cause of lower performance. But the researchers — Dongwoo Kim, Cory Koedel, Shawn Ni, and Michael Podgursky, all of the University of Missouri — control for a number of student characteristics that might affect performance.

And while the study can’t pinpoint why a boundary seems to hurt test scores, the researchers have a theory: “state-specific pension and licensing policies” that discourage teachers from moving between states, likely forcing border schools to draw from a more limited pool of potential teachers.

In some places, those pension rules mean a substantial loss of retirement wealth if teachers move states mid-career. Complicated licensure rules that in some cases require experienced teachers to take certification exams or obtain additional degrees can also make that kind of switch practically difficult. Other research has found that teachers rarely move across state lines, even if they live near a boundary.

Why might that harm performance of schools near state lines?

Say a school in New York City has two science teachers and no math teachers, while a school right across the river in New Jersey has two math teachers and no science teachers. If each school needs exactly one teacher per subject, the solution is easy in theory: the New York City school gets a math teacher and loses a science one, and vice versa for the New Jersey school. But if certification or pension rules prevent that from happening, both schools lose out — and student achievement might suffer.

States aren’t typically eager to change those policies, though, for several reasons.

For one, states that require prospective teachers to clear a high bar to become certified may worry that making it too easy for an out-of-state teacher to receive a license could reduce teacher quality. A study from North Carolina provides some evidence for this argument, showing that teachers trained elsewhere were less effective than teachers trained in-state, though the difference was very small.

Another argument is that limiting teachers’ ability to bring pension money along with them when they move helps states hold on to their educators — even if they are in turn harmed when they can’t recruit teachers from elsewhere.

The latest study suggests that the net impact of those restrictions are negative. Still, the effects on students are quite small, implying that changes to pension and certification policies are unlikely to lead to large improvements in student performance.

But, the study points out, policies that eliminate the harm from attending school near a state line could help hundreds of thousands of students.

“Although the boundary effects are small on a per-student basis, they are spread across a very large population,” the researchers write.