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Gov. Cuomo’s big fix for evaluations bucks national trend

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. 

Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community. 

School Politics

Colorado schools were a hot topic at the state Capitol this year. Here’s what lawmakers did.

A teacher reads to her students at the Cole Arts and Science Academy in Denver. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Colorado lawmakers this week are celebrating major education-related policy wins, including finding more money for public schools.

This year’s legislative session, which ended Wednesday, was marked by big compromises on issues that have befuddled policy makers for years: charter school funding, ninth-grade standardized testing and measuring the reading skills of the state’s youngest bilingual students.

With so many thorny debates behind them, lawmakers and Capitol observers are now looking toward other major policy questions they’ve put off for years, including reforming how the state pays for its public schools and making changes to Colorado’s school accountability laws and teacher licensure policies.

“The hope is now that the K-12 community can come together to focus on the big issues,” said Jen Walmer, Colorado state director of Democrats for Education Reform.

But before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s look back at the last 120 days:

Lawmakers found more money for schools than anyone could have imagined.

Before the legislative session began, school districts were preparing for the worst. Despite the state’s booming economy, constraints on how much the state could spend meant schools could have gone without much of a funding increase.

State Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, a Republican from Sterling, on the first day of the legislative session.

The forecast became even more dire midway through the session when lawmakers learned the local tax base that generates about a third of all state spending on schools was going to shrink drastically. The worst predictions had the state’s education funding shortfall growing to more than $1 billion.

State officials found a technical workaround, and lawmakers were able to send more money to schools. On average, schools will see about $242 more per student next year.

However, leaders in both parties are aware that the state’s problematic constitutional constraints, tax policies and school funding formula still exist. That’s why a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers led a successful effort to create a committee to study and propose changes to the way the state funds it schools.

“We have more work to do. We need to continue with what we’ve done this session: have tough conversations,” said Speaker Crisanta Duran, a Denver Democrat.

“How do we make sure that students, regardless of race, income, regardless of whether they have a disability, that they have the opportunity to succeed?” she said. “There is no doubt that we have structural decisions we have to make when it comes to our budget.”

Republican leaders said they’re also anxious to see the committee get to work. But they’re less likely to support an influx of cash to the state’s schools.

“If we’re going to look at real overhauls to the system and funding, we need to look at all the options — not just throwing more money at the system — a system that by many’s accounting is not working well or efficiently,” said Senate President Kevin Grantham, a Canon City Republican.

He and other Republicans are encouraging the committee to look at how other states have focused their funding formulas on students rather than on a school’s size or geographic location, and used funding to expand school choice.

Lawmakers already have one option on the table: A proposal to set a statewide property tax rate, which was born out of the legislature’s budget office and floated early in the session. While there was a lot of talk behind the scenes, it failed to gain traction. Expect to hear a lot more about the idea.

The charter school funding compromise, which some called “historic,” was just one of many longstanding issues that were resolved this year.

The 2017 legislative session will likely be remembered as the most productive in a decade because of several big compromises.

State Rep. Brittany Pettersen, a Lakewood Democrat, sits alone on the House of Representatives floor as members of her own party filibustered her compromise on charter school funding. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

Lawmakers grinned Thursday as they ticked off a long list of accomplishments to reporters, including one that could send more local money to charter schools. In return, charter schools will be required to post on their official websites more tax documents and will no longer receive two specific financial waivers.

The last-minute charter school funding bill — sponsored by a bipartisan group of lawmakers that included state Reps. Brittany Pettersen and Lang Sias and state Sens. Owen Hill and Angela Williams — was the compromise no one saw coming.

“Anything is possible,” Pettersen said after the session.

Lawmakers had wrestled with the question of requiring the state’s school districts to share their locally approved tax increases with charter schools for two years. Despite vocal objections from several school superintendents, the legislature overwhelmingly supported the bill.

Early in the session, lawmakers eager to reduce the number of standardized tests reached another compromise with the governor’s office. High school freshmen will no longer be required to take the controversial PARCC English and math tests. Instead, they’ll take a test that is aligned to the college entrance exam, the SAT.

We kicked the PARCC test out of high schools,” said Rep. Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican. “It’s gone!”

Other deals that were reached include the creation of a diploma seal of biliteracy for students who demonstrate proficiency in two languages and new regulations on how to monitor the reading skills of young English language learners.

Colorado schools will also see a financial boost for the next three years after lawmakers passed an omnibus bill that resolved a debate over a hospital fee that helps pay for the state’s health insurance program.

As part of the biggest compromise of the year, the state will raise taxes on recreational marijuana. Those taxes will send $30 million to rural schools next year and $40 million over two years to the state education fund, a sort of savings account for schools.

Rural schools flexed their muscles and blocked a bill to reform the state’s student suspension rules, but they didn’t get everything they wanted.

Not every piece of bipartisan legislation reached the governor’s desk.

Students at Merino Elementary School work during class.

A bill that aimed to reduce the number of preschool and elementary school students who are suspended was killed by a GOP-controlled committee at the request of rural schools, despite having overwhelming support from both Democrats and Republicans.

Rural school leaders said the bill attempted to create a statewide solution for a Front Range problem. A Chalkbeat analysis of suspension data, which rural superintendents refuted, showed otherwise.

Supporters of the legislation vowed to work with opponents this summer and fall and try again next year.

While rural schools were successful in blocking that mandate, they were dealt a setback when a bill that would have allowed them to remedy a teacher shortage by hiring unlicensed teachers was killed by its sponsors.

State Rep. Jim Wilson, a Salida Republican, said he couldn’t garner enough support for his effort. At least not this year.

“Like Arnold Schwarzenegger said, ‘I’ll be back,’” Wilson said.

Even though that bill failed, lawmakers did take steps to curb the state’s teacher shortage.

Stanley Teacher Prep resident Lily Wool works with kindergartner Samori McIntosh at Tollgate Elementary School in Aurora. Wood’s residency program is merging the Boettcher Teacher Residency program. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Prior to the session, education leaders at the Capitol had few if any plans to take on the state’s teacher shortage. But retired teacher and freshman state Rep. Barbara McLachlan pushed to address the issue.

The Durango Democrat partnered with a host of other lawmakers from both parties to sponsor legislation to study the shortage and provide solutions. She also sponsored a bill that would allow rural schools to hire retired teachers without penalizing their pension. Both bills were sent to the governor.

Two other bills, including one to create multiple teacher preparation pilot programs, failed to advance. But with the issue on the legislature’s radar, expect it to come back.

“That’s the most pressing issue, next to funding,” said state Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat.

Despite newfound freedom from Washington, lawmakers didn’t make any bold changes to the state’s school accountability system.

Several lawmakers early in the session seemed eager to take advantage of new flexibility from the federal government.

While the state education department was busy putting together a mandated statewide plan to adopt the new Every Student Succeeds Act, lawmakers were debating how they could update the state’s school accountability laws.

But only two bills making minor tweaks advanced.

A HOPE Online student works during the day at an Aurora learning center. (Photo by Nicholas Garcia, Chalkbeat)

One requires elementary schools that receive low quality ratings to address the needs of students in preschool through third grade.

The second bill requires the state to measure how well high school students are meeting updated graduation requirements. As part of the new requirements, which go into effect in the year 2021, high schools must adopt a list of options students can use to prove they’re prepared for college or a career.

Those options include the SAT exam, which all Colorado juniors are required to take; passing a concurrent enrollment college-level course; passing a Advanced Placement test; or completing a college thesis-like capstone project demonstrating knowledge of a subject.

“This bill is a really clever way to allow school districts to say, ‘This is what we care about, and this how we’re going to do it,’” said Luke Ragland, president of Ready Colorado, a conservative education reform group.

Some of the most anticipated school-accountability bills of the session never materialized.

One would have provided more clarity on what happens to schools that consistently receive low quality ratings from the state.

“This was a big undertaking, and the bill’s sponsors needed more time,” Ragland said.

It’s another issue Capitol-watchers can expect to see return next year.

As Ragland put it, “The lack of clarity at the end of the state’s accountability clock is bad for everyone.”