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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Vision quest

Colorado lawmakers want to reimagine the state’s schools. Here’s how.

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students at Merino Elementary School work during class.

What should Colorado schools look like in 2030, and how should the state pay for them?

Those are two big questions a bipartisan coalition of state lawmakers hope to answer in the next several years.

State Reps. Millie Hamner and Bob Rankin, as well as eight lawmakers with deep experience shaping education policy, are asking their colleagues this spring to approve a bill that would create a legislative process for rethinking the state’s entire public education system.

“Right now, there’s dissatisfaction with our system,” said Rankin, a Carbondale Republican and member of the state’s budget committee. “We’re sort of average. We’re average in the U.S. We’re average in the world. That’s not good enough for Colorado.”

The bill’s sponsors have two outcomes in mind: Create a vision for improving and modernizing Colorado schools and change the way the state pays for them. The plan, they think, could create enough support to convince voters to send more money to schools as needed.

“We realize it’s time to have a conversation with the state of Colorado around what is it that they want for their kids, how can we achieve that and how can we fund it,” said Hamner, a Frisco Democrat and vice-chair of the state’s budget committee, noting two recent failed attempts at the ballot to raise statewide taxes for schools.

The discussion over the future of Colorado’s schools comes as states are being handed more control over education policy. The nation’s new education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, has fewer requirements than previous iterations of the federal law.

And soon, Colorado will no longer be bound by agreements it made with the Obama administration. The state may re-evaluate and perhaps repeal some of the policies it enacted during the last decade in an effort to win federal money.

“We’ve all been working hard, but I’m not convinced we’ve been working toward the same direction — the right direction,” Hamner said.

House Bill 1287 would create a series of committees to craft a vision and strategic plan for the state’s schools.

Already, it is being met with caution by some district-level school board members who hold dear their constitutionally protected local control.

“I can see the noble desire to invest in a vision and strategic plan. But many school districts have already done this locally,” said Doug Lidiak, a member of the Greeley school board. “I worry the outcome is more education bills coming from our state legislature.”

The idea faces other challenges: educators who feel taxed by a slew of mandates and are wary of change; school leaders already dealing with with tightening school budgets; and growing inequalities between schools on the Front Range and in the more rural parts of the state.

“Whatever comes out of this process needs to take into consideration the various differences of districts in size and geography,” said Kerrie Dallman, president of the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union.

Some education lobbyists at the Capitol have also voiced concern that the process laid out in the bill is too bureaucratic and could take too long to address urgent needs.

The bill would create a series of committees.

The first legislative steering committee would be made up of a dozen state lawmakers, including the chairs of the House and Senate education committees and two members of the Joint Budget Committee.

A second executive advisory board would be made up of the state education commissioner, two members of the State Board of Education, representatives from the early childhood leadership commission and higher education department. The governor would also have a representative on the advisory board.

The third committee would be made up of teachers, parents, school board members, education policy advocates, representatives of the business community and others. These individuals would be appointed by the legislative steering committee.

The work would be done in four stages.

In the first phase, the committees would take stock of Colorado’s current education landscape and create a process to solicit input on what the state’s schools should look like. The second phase would collect that input. The vision and plan would be drafted in the third phase. And lawmakers would consider any legislation necessary to make the vision and plan a reality in the fourth phase.

The bill also requires the committees to meet periodically after the vision and plan are adopted to monitor how the plan is being carried out across the state.

Rankin, the House Republican, said Colorado’s education system could benefit from short-term fixes, but that it was important to take the long view, too.

“If you fight a lot of tactical battles, it ought to fit into your overall strategy,” he said. “We’re trying to build something the public can buy in to.”

legislative update

GOP plan to appoint Indiana’s schools chief claws its way back to a win in Senate panel

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
House Speaker Brian Bosma presents legislative priorities for Indiana House Republicans at the beginning of the session. Bosma is the author of the bill to appoint the next state superintendent, one of this year's priorities.

Indiana Republicans are pulling out all the stops to make sure the state schools chief would be appointed, not elected, in the future.

The Senate Rules Committee passed and amended a bill on Monday that would change how the state’s top education official is selected, giving new life to a measure that GOP leaders say has been debated in Indiana for 45 years — and is one of Gov. Eric Holcomb’s 2017 legislative priorities.

“It’s been advocated by every governor since 1985,” said House Speaker Brian Bosma, the bill’s author. “It’s been advocated by both parties, in fact.”

Supporters of the measure say it’s finally time to align efforts between the state’s top executive and education official, reducing the possibility for political squabbles that have marred previous administrations. Opponents argue the change disenfranchises voters, taking away their chance to have a voice in the direction of the state’s education policy.

The amended House Bill 1005 includes two major changes from an earlier version debated last month. It would allow the governor to appoint a “secretary of education” beginning in 2025, a change from the originally proposed 2021 start date.

That seemingly small change could be a point of contention as the bill moves forward. With the 2021 start date, Holcomb, a Republican, would make the appointment if elected to a second term. Pushing it four years farther puts the first appointment out of Holcomb’s — and potentially GOP — control.

Additionally, a 2025 start date would allow current state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick, also a Republican, to run for a second term in 2020 before a possible replacement would be appointed.

Read: She’s no Tony Bennett or Glenda Ritz — Jennifer McCormick is charting her own course as Indiana’s schools chief

The new bill also introduces qualifications for the position. In addition to living in Indiana for at least two years prior to an appointment, the secretary of education candidate would also be required to:

  • Demonstrate “personal and professional leadership success, preferably in the administration of public education.”
  • Have an advanced degree, preferably in education or educational administration.
  • Hold, or have previously held, a license to be a teacher, principal of superintendent, or otherwise be employed as such for at least five years before taking office.
  • Have five years of working experience as an executive in the education field.

Senate President David Long, chairman of the committee, said these changes to the bill make it “substantially” different from Senate Bill 179, a similar proposal that was defeated by the Senate 26-23 last month. According to Senate rules, another bill with the same language could not be considered unless significant changes were made.

Sen. Tim Lanane, D-Anderson, said he believed the Senate violated its own rules by even having a hearing on the House bill. Senate rules state that if a bill has had a majority of senators vote against it, it is “decisively defeated,” and similar language cannot be considered again that year.

“It does not say it shall not be voted on, it says it shall not be considered,” Lanane said. “It pays respect to the idea in the Indiana Senate that we don’t do do-overs.”

But Republicans on the committee disagreed, and said their amendment means the bill can proceed.

Now, a few concerns remain as the bill heads to the full Senate.

First, Indiana’s constitution says that there “shall be a State Superintendent of Public Instruction,” not a secretary of education. Bosma said he doesn’t think that’s a problem because the bill’s language allows for the change.

And second, if the Senate passes the bill, it heads to conference committee, where lawmakers come together to try to reconcile differences over bills. Democrats on the rules committee said they were worried that parts of the original bill — no specific qualifications for candidates, a 2021 start date — might resurface at that point.

Long reassured the committee that only minor changes could be made. But Bosma was less decisive on that point, which might indicate that the closed-door dealings on this bill could be particularly contentious.

Bosma has said all along that he’s waited years for this proposal to become a reality, and he sees no point in waiting any longer.

“Maybe we should wait another 40 years from when this was first proposed,” he joked. “The time is right.”