Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s plans for education are making waves across New York state — and raising eyebrows outside of it.
Cuomo’s proposal to amend the state’s new teacher evaluation system by boosting the role of state test scores has earned the expected criticism of the city and state teachers unions. But others, including some staunch proponents of other Cuomo-backed education policies, also say the governor appears increasingly out of touch.
“What we’re seeing all over the country is an acknowledgment that we’ve gone way too fast on the teacher evaluation front,” said Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a right-leaning education policy think tank. “Everybody’s moving in the opposite direction.”
Those shifts have largely reduced the role that state test scores play in measuring teacher performance. In Washington, D.C., state test scores dropped from 50 percent to 35 percent of evaluations two years ago to give schools more flexibility to choose their own assessments and out of concerns that test scores alone offered an incomplete picture of student achievement. In Wisconsin, teachers have been given broad discretion in choosing how student performance was factored into their evaluations.
Meanwhile, Cuomo’s vision for teacher evaluations would require state test scores to carry more than twice as much weight as they must now.
Under the state’s evaluation law, 60 percent of a teacher’s rating comes from observations by administrators and the remaining 40 percent comes from a combination of state tests and assessments chosen by each district, whose scores are crunched to determine student growth. Cuomo would require growth on state tests alone to count for 50 percent of an evaluation, eliminating the ability for districts to choose their own assessments — something Cuomo said has led to over-testing and inflated scores.
Andy Smarick, who helped implement New Jersey’s evaluations as deputy education commissioner from 2010 to 2012, said Cuomo’s proposal resembled what many other states adopted in 2009 and 2010 in response to the Obama administration’s Race to the Top grants. Those grants prompted New York and other states to create teacher evaluation systems to qualify for hundreds of millions in new federal funding.
“What’s remarkable about this is that Cuomo is the only one I know of who’s swimming upstream on this, whereas other states as backing off,” said Smarick.
Cuomo’s proposal, which will be subject to negotiations with the legislature, would represent the most extensive changes to New York’s evaluation system since it was first overhauled four years ago. To make the new system a reality, he’s threatened to pull funding, brokered a deal between Michael Bloomberg and city teachers union president Michael Mulgrew, and imposed a plan on New York City in 2013 after Bloomberg and Mulgrew again failed to come to an agreement.
Now, evaluations have become his signature education policy.
“Everyone will tell you nationwide, the key to education reform is a teacher evaluation system,” Cuomo said in his speech last week.
Cuomo says his changes are designed to correct a still-broken system that hasn’t shown it does a better job of distinguishing good teachers from bad ones than the one it replaced. Last year, the vast majority of teachers statewide were rated in the two highest categories out of four.
“From what I read, the governor is trying to improve the system so that it encourages evaluators to do a better job of differentiating,” said Dan Weisberg, a vice president at TNTP, an organization that has pushed for more rigorous evaluations with higher stakes.
But Cuomo’s plan is also facing criticism for what it leaves out. Most of the state’s teachers are rated in large part based on test scores of subjects and students that they do not teach because there is no state test for their students or subject area. That leaves districts and schools to decide how physical education, arts, and foreign language teachers, among others, will be measured. New York City has filled those gaps by using schoolwide scores on math and English tests, and in some cases using city-created tests in other subjects.
Cuomo’s plan glosses over the issue, saying only that “a student growth measure” would be required for those teachers.
“What do you do with the 80 percent of teachers where there are not statewide tests that can give you comparable and reliable results?” said Rotherham, who praised Cuomo’s overall education agenda. “That’s what states have been grappling with.”
That work is now underway in some New York districts. New York City is planning paid focus groups that would take place between February and June, asking 100 teachers about performance assessments for teachers of non-tested subjects or special-needs students, according to a project description posted online.
The use of state tests for teacher evaluations was also discussed at a meeting last week with parents and teachers of District 75 schools, which serve students with severe disabilities.
“We need to be held accountable, but the measures that we’re putting our students through are really not appropriate,” superintendent Gary Hecht said. “It’s really detrimental to some of our students.”
At Kappa International High School in the Bronx, Tara Brancato’s music philosophy students spend a lot of time listening to music from different parts of the world and different time periods. Her end-of-year assessment includes a series of music prompts where students have to construct an argument about the pieces’ historical and cultural roots.
The student growth portion of her state evaluation, meanwhile, comes from how well her entire school’s students do on their English Regents exams.
“You obviously have to see what the kids have learned, but I feel as though we get way more out of the observations,” Brancato said.
Educators 4 Excellence, a teacher advocacy group, has called for student surveys and peer evaluations to be used to help evaluate teachers in non-tested subjects. Executive Director Jonathan Schleifer said he also worried that Cuomo’s proposal would undermine the role played by classroom observations.
“We think principals play an important part in evaluations,” Schleifer said. “What we’ve heard from teachers is that the best parts are the feedback and support that results from observations and we’d hate to see that go.”
Teacher evaluations are central to many of the other changes Cuomo is looking to make. He also proposed restricting tenure eligibility to teachers rated “effective” or “highly effective” for five years in a row, and for teachers to be eligible for $20,000 “master teacher” bonuses if they earn the highest rating.
Brancato noted that those kinds of new consequences and rewards would make it more difficult to accept her own less-than-precise evaluations.
“In a couple of years if they say that only ‘highly effective’ teachers can apply to be master teachers and I’m still being rated on English tests that are knocking me down to ‘effective,'” she said, “then that’s going to sting a lot more.”
Correction: A previous version misidentified Andy Smarick.