a re-evaluation

After rancorous debate, lawmakers pass big changes to evaluations

PHOTO: Geoff Decker

Gov. Andrew Cuomo is getting much of what he wanted on teacher evaluations, a signature piece of a controversial education agenda that has dominated lawmakers’ attention since he first floated the proposal two months ago.

Both houses of the state legislature on Tuesday night passed an education portion of the state’s $142 billion budget that contained several parts of Cuomo’s agenda. The votes followed hours of raucous debate in the Assembly and Senate, whose own budget proposals earlier this week included none of the education changes that Cuomo had sought.

“It’s a shame what we’re doing here today. We have a terrible bill before us in many, many aspects,” said Bronx Assemblyman Michael Benedetto, one of several Democrats who berated Cuomo’s education proposals but ultimately voted to passed the budget, citing a large increase in education funding.

Cuomo has railed against the current teacher evaluation system for months, saying the oversized share of teachers with high ratings illustrated the system was too easy to game and in need of an overhaul. As other districts nationwide moved to reduce the role of state tests in evaluations amid concerns about their reliability, Cuomo this winter pushed for a system he saw as more objective, with tests playing a bigger role and outside observers acting as checks on principals.

Others disagreed with his prescriptions. Teachers spent months lobbying against the plan, and sagging poll numbers dogged Cuomo as negotiations continued and other education proposals fell away or were diluted.

But the new evaluation system included in the state budget deal reflects Cuomo’s vision. It weakens the role of districts and their teachers unions in devising evaluation plans and places more control with the state education department. Teachers will be graded in part by outside observers, and the scoring system could end up more heavily emphasizing the use of state tests.

Those aspects drew criticism from all sides as votes were tallied on Tuesday. The new evaluations are too test-focused, undermined principals, and represented government overreach, lawmakers said.

“Totally irresponsible and shameful,” said James Tedisco, a Republican Assemblyman, who voted against.

Education chair Catherine Nolan, a close ally of the teachers union and vocal critic of Cuomo’s proposals, defended the changes. She said the agreement represented a series of difficult trade-offs that scaled back what the governor had been seeking to do.

“I wouldn’t go so far as to say I love it, but it’s a good compromise,” Nolan said.

The budgets passed easily in the Assembly, 92-54 and in the Senate, 32-26.

“Sometimes you have to do difficult things to make new and difficult things happen,” said Chrystal People-Stokes, a Democratic Assemblywoman from Buffalo.

In a short statement released after the votes, Cuomo praised a budget that “reforms New York’s education bureaucracy.”

The new evaluations underpin a series of sweeping education policies that make up a nine-point legislative package known as the Education Transformation Act of 2015. Ratings will be used to award bonuses and tenure to teachers, as well as dismiss persistently low-ranking teachers.

For now, the legislation provides more of a framework than a plan. Several details will be hammered out in the coming months by the department and the Board of Regents. Districts will have until Nov. 15 to negotiate and implement the new plans or forfeit an increase in state aid — as happened in 2012, when New York City lost hundreds of millions of dollars.

Teachers will still earn one of four final ratings: ineffective, developing, effective, and highly effective. The new framework does away with the exact percentages — 20 percent for state tests, 20 percent on local or state tests, and 60 percent for observations — assigned in the teacher evaluation law first passed in 2010, though.

The state education commissioner (for now, a vacant position) and Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch have been tasked with settling the details of the new scoring system — though they require approval from the full 17-member board.

Perhaps most significantly, they will have to set the “cut scores” to determine what qualifies as effective or not on observations. Other than that, the law that the legislature signed off on Tuesday night leaves education officials with relatively few options.

The default evaluation plan will be based on just two measures: state test scores and observations. It no longer requires a local testing measure, something Cuomo has blamed for a rise in standardized testing. A second testing measure, which require’s state approval, will be allowed if districts come to an agreement with their local teachers unions.

The law does not provide answers to an underlying issue for a majority of teachers, including art, physical education, and music teachers, for whom there are no standardized assessments.

Part of a teacher’s score will come from at least one observation by their principal, and one observation from an “independent” evaluator will now also be required. The independent observer must come from a different school, and districts will be able to negotiate to include observations from a highly rated teacher from the same school.

Observations and test scores will be combined into final ratings using this matrix, which is codified in law.

In other districts, such a matrix has been praised as a less prescriptive, but also less precise, scoring system for teacher evaluations than the the “numerical” system used in places like New York, Washington, D.C., and Chicago.

“The things you are providing judgment on are not extraordinarily precise themselves,” said Garth Harries, superintendent of schools in New Haven, Connecticut, which uses a matrix-style evaluation system. “Being less precise allows us to be nuanced to those kinds of issues.”

Final ratings under a new default evaluation system will be determined by matching ratings from testing and observation subcomponents according to the matrix above.
Final ratings under a new default evaluation system will be determined by matching ratings from testing and observation subcomponents according to the matrix above.

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reconsidering takeover

Indiana lawmakers clear path for state to take over struggling districts, but scales back academic control of Muncie schools

PHOTO: Meghan Mangrum

A plan that would’ve allowed the state to take control over finances and academics in Gary and Muncie would now offer Muncie schools some relief from the threat of academic takeover.

Muncie educators and lawmakers were vocally opposed when their C-rated district was added into Senate Bill 567. The district is facing significant debt issues and feared potential state control of its academic programs as well as its finances. But a final version of the bill that passed with bipartisan support in the Senate and House late Friday scaled back the original plan, removing the academic piece. Financial control is still part of the deal.

“We’ve laid out a path that they may follow so that hopefully, in the next six months, they can right the ship,” said Sen. Luke Kenley, a Noblesville Republican and author of the bill. “I know the community of Muncie is not happy about this, but perhaps it is a wake up call at the right time to get things accomplished.”

Sen. Eddie Melton, a Democrat from Merrilville and the bill’s second author, agreed with the decision to adjust the plan for Muncie schools and encouraged lawmakers to continue these conversations about how to help struggling districts.

The bill next heads to Gov. Eric Holcomb for consideration to be signed into law.

The Gary school district would be on-track for the state to take over both academics and finances. A few provisions called for by local lawmakers were also added in, such as first considering a Gary or Lake County resident for the role of “emergency manager,” the person who’d take charge of the takeover.

Kenley said he specified in the compromise version of the bill that these measures are “not precedent for and may not be appropriate for addressing issues faced by other” districts. Kenley said he hopes the work he and Melton have done on the bill can help Gary schools and that the financial requirements placed on Muncie would be a “wake-up call.”

“This is not a pleasant task, but it’s one that needs to be done,” Kenley said of the Gary plan. “We have a long way to go and a lot to do.”

Lawmakers came up with the takeover strategy to solve long-standing financial troubles in Gary Community Schools, which has racked up $100 million in debt and dwindled to fewer than 6,000 students. The district has also been labeled an F since 2011, with seven schools considered failing.

The bill originally designated Gary and Muncie as “distressed political subdivisions” and moved them under the auspices of an emergency manager, fiscal management board and chief academic officer. In the new plan, Gary would remain a distressed political subdivision, but Muncie would be considered a “fiscally impaired” district, a less harsh category that wouldn’t require they have a chief academic officer but still places them under a stringent plan to shore up their finances and requires them to appoint an emergency manager.

Sen. Tim Lanane, a Democrat from Anderson, near Muncie, spoke on the floor and cautioned lawmakers not to be so quick to take such serious action unless it is fully warranted. Further labeling districts in this way, he said, could cause them to deteriorate further if more families decide to leave.

“What we’re doing here as a precedent is very, very important,” Lanane said. “A community’s reputation is at stake here.”

Compromise

Indiana budget deal would offer modest school funding increases plus a big fix for teacher bonuses

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Many schools across Indiana could expect more money per student in the coming years and strong teachers at struggling schools would be likely to receive higher bonuses under a budget deal announced Friday.

House and Senate lawmakers have come to an agreement on how much money to send to Indiana schools over the next two years. The budget would increase total dollars for schools by about 3.3 percent from 2017 to 2019. Included within that: a 2.5 percent average increase for per-student funding to $6,709 in 2019, up from $6,540 this year. The budget is expected to go up for a final vote late Friday.

Overall, the budget plan would accomplish some of the key goals prioritized by Gov. Eric Holcomb, state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick and House Republicans. Those goals include increasing funding for the state’s preschool program, internet access for schools, and Advanced Placement exams that help students earn college credit while in high school.

Under the compromise, every district in Marion County would see its basic state aid and per-student funding increase, including Indianapolis Public Schools. (IPS would have seen cuts in the House plan, and the increases wound have been higher under the Senate plan.)

Suburban districts such as Carmel and Hamilton Southeastern would get sizable funding bumps as with the Senate plan. Districts losing enrollment, including East Chicago, could lose state money. But overall, many of the districts with some of the state’s poorest students stand to see increases. The Gary and Hammond districts, for example, would both see gains in per-student funding and overall.

Lawmakers also settled on a compromise about how to pay teachers.

Throughout the session, they waffled about whether to pay teachers more for their performance or for taking on additional work in their schools.

At first, the House cut the bonuses entirely and set aside $3 million for a “career pathways” program that would reward teachers who take on leadership roles in their schools. That was far less money than the $40 million the Senate wanted to put toward teacher bonuses, but some teachers said they would rather have the long-term opportunity to improve their teaching and leadership skills rather than a short-term bonus that might not go toward their salaries in the future.

“I want a leadership role, but I want to be a teacher — I don’t want to be an administrator,” said Allison Larty, a teacher in Noblesville and Teach Plus policy fellow. “(A bonus) is not going to be make an impact. The creation of career pathways will make an impact in the long run.”

But those dollars were eliminated in the Senate budget and the budget compromise. Rep. Tim Brown, chairman of the House Ways & Means Committee, said it came down to Senate negotiations. Senators were willing to spend more on preschool, Brown said, if they didn’t have to spend elsewhere — so career pathways dollars were cut.

But lawmakers did agree to change the state’s now $30 million teacher bonus program, which came under fire from educators across the state last year for rewarding effective teachers in high-performing, usually affluent schools at a higher level than similar teachers in lower-performing schools.

Going forward, the program will dole out money based on a policy created by each school district, rather than ISTEP scores. Under the plan, the state would distribute $30 per student to each district, which would then divvy up the local bonus pool among teachers rated “effective” or “highly effective.” Of that money, up to 50 percent can be added into a teacher’s base salary so that the teacher receives it in future years as well. And teachers in virtual schools can receive these bonuses — something the Senate had moved against.

The compromise plan keeps other requirements suggested by the Senate for virtual schools, mandating that they report information about class size, teacher-per-student ratios, and how often teachers have in-person meetings to the education department each year. Virtual schools would get 90 percent of the basic per-student funding amount from the state, as they do now. (The House’s plan would have increased that to 100 percent.)

The state’s voucher program would see its funding grow over the next two years under the compromise plan. Indiana is projected to spend more than $156 million by 2018 and $167 million by 2019 on the program, up from $146 million in 2017.

This new agreement no longer carves out the voucher money as a budget line item. Critics of making it a line item said it made the program vulnerable to cuts, but supporters applauded the change because they said it increased transparency around how much the state spends on vouchers but pulling it out of school-by-school calculations and placing it squarely in the budget itself.

The budget also includes:

  • $22 million per year for the state’s preschool program, up from about $12 million. $1 million per year is set aside for “in-home” online preschool programs.
  • About $32 million for English-language learners, up from about $20 million. The grant would be $250 per English-learner student in 2018 and $300 per student in 2019. Schools with higher concentrations of English learners would get additional funding.
  • $3 million per year to improve school internet access.
  • $5 million over two years in incentive grants for schools and districts that consolidate services.
  • $10.4 million for Advanced Placement tests and $4.1 million for PSAT tests.
  • $1 million to align initiatives in science, technology, engineering and math.
  • $500,000 per year for dual language immersion programs.
  • $26.3 million per year for testing and $12.3 million per year for remediation testing.
  • $15 million per year for the Charter and Innovation Network School Grant Program, which would support schools that want to become “innovation schools.”

Chalkbeat reporter Dylan Peers McCoy contributed to this story.