evaluation games

New York’s teacher evaluations aren’t going anywhere. In fact, they’re getting a makeover that nobody planned

PHOTO: NYS Governor's Office/Flickr
Gov. Andrew Cuomo gave his 2016 State of the State address Wednesday.

To hear most education officials tell it, teacher evaluations in New York state have come to a screeching halt.

They are “unplugged,” according to State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia. “The gotcha system is over,” according to a spokeswoman for the city teachers union. Evaluations will likely “just sit on the shelves and gather dust,” according to a state teachers union representative.

But there is a catch. School districts are still on the hook to evaluate every teacher, the results can still be used to make decisions about educators’ futures, and a 2015 law is about to require a host of new rules. And with just days left in this year’s legislative session, it’s becoming clear that Gov. Andrew Cuomo has little desire to see that change.

“This is a major issue that is right now going ignored,” State Senator Todd Kaminsky said. “People are saying it’s a time-out and it’s not.”

The strange situation came about because legislators passed a law overhauling the state’s teacher evaluation system last year to put more emphasis on state tests — and then education policymakers walked it back, banning state test results from being used altogether.

Lawmakers were responding to Cuomo’s view that too many teachers were earning top ratings. The state education department was listening to a growing movement of educators and parents upset about the growing influence of state tests.

In the end, the state education department decided teachers would get two evaluations. Next year, one will include state test scores but have no consequences. The real evaluations will use different metrics and can affect teacher tenure and firing.

Within those frameworks, districts and their teachers unions will have to agree on key details and those negotiations are ongoing.

“We are working with districts across the state to support their efforts as they complete their contract negotiations and to provide them as much flexibility as possible within the law,” State Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said.

But many had hoped that lawmakers would agree to scrap the universally unpopular 2015 law by now, making it unnecessary for districts to negotiate the details of the two new plans at all. So far, that hasn’t happened — and since there are just three days left in the legislative session, few think change is on the way.

“The big hangup is obviously the governor’s office,” said Assemblyman Edward Ra, who supports repealing last year’s law. “It really creates a little bit of a mess for everybody.” (Officials from Cuomo’s office did not say whether the governor would support changes to teacher evaluations.)

Now, it’s up to school districts like New York City to work out the details of new evaluation plans with their teachers unions. Barring a big change in the next few days, they are facing a tight timeline: They need an agreement by Sept. 1 or they risk losing state funds.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie wants to untie evaluations and funding, but whether that happens or not, many are still frustrated: It’s the third time in five years many districts and their unions have had to change the way evaluations work. This time, the cause is a law that has been widely rejected and that state officials say they are already planning to replace.

For now, “It’s more time and an extra burden,” Regent Roger Tilles said.

The biggest changes teachers are likely to see next year have already been decided by law. Both halves of the evaluation system, classroom observations and measurements of student growth, are about to shift — potentially in unpopular ways.

Some classroom observations will now require outside observers, not just school administrators. Cuomo had pushed for those independent observers as an objective way to measure teacher quality, but others argue they will not understand the nuances of each school and could undermine the autonomy of the principal.

Meanwhile, districts are searching for ways to gauge student progress using local tests, instead of state test results. Local assessments have been part of evaluations in the past, but now they will be a larger part of teachers’ scores.

The evaluations still will have consequences attached. By law, they must be a main factor in tenure decisions, low ratings will prompt improvement plans, and three “ineffective” ratings are supposed to lead to firing.

Jake Jacobs, an art teacher at New Directions Secondary School in the Bronx whose evaluation already uses a local measure, is worried that the new evaluation system will still be a problem for teachers.

“Everyone’s saying, ‘Calm down, the tests don’t count anymore,’” Jacobs said. “Tests count just as much as they ever did. It’s just we’re using the local tests instead of the Common Core math and ELA. I really think when they did the moratorium, it was just a facade.”

Five questions

Why this Memphis Republican supports school vouchers — but is concerned about accountability

PHOTO: TN.gov
From left: Rep. Mark White of Memphis speaks with Gov. Bill Haslam at a bill-signing ceremony at the State Capitol.

Only one school voucher bill remains under consideration in Tennessee, and it’s all about Memphis.

The proposal, which would pilot a voucher program exclusively for students in Shelby County Schools, is putting a spotlight on the 16 state lawmakers who represent Memphis and Shelby County, including Rep. Mark White.

White is one of only four from the county’s legislative delegation to pledge support for the bill, which would allow some Memphis parents to use public education funding to pay for private school tuition.

The East Memphis Republican, whose district includes Germantown, has long supported vouchers. But he’s also concerned about how private schools would be held accountable if they accept public money.

Chalkbeat spoke with White this week about the legislature’s last remaining voucher proposal, as well as a bill to give in-state tuition to Tennessee high school students who are undocumented immigrants.

If vouchers pass, what kinds of things would you look for to ensure they’re effective?

PHOTO: TN.gov
<strong>Rep. Mark White</strong>

Accountability is important. Five years ago, when we we first considered vouchers full force, I was in agreement totally with vouchers, with not a lot of limitations. But … if we’re going to hold our public schools accountable, we need to hold everyone accountable, and that’s why I want to get to the part about TNReady (testing).

Can the Department (of Education) and can (the Comptroller’s Office of Research and Education Accountability) manage what the bill is asking them to do? I want to answer those questions. If we want to ensure that a student taking a voucher takes the TNReady test, who is going to oversee that? Who is going to make that happen? That’s the part I think we still need to work out if it moves forward through the various committees. It’s not good to go to the floor without all of the answers.

Most elected officials in Memphis oppose vouchers and are also concerned that this bill goes against local control over education. How do you respond to that?

I’d rather it be statewide. But you know, they’ve tried that in the past. The reason it got to be Shelby County is because we had more low-performing schools in the bottom 5 percent. And so therefore the bill got tied to Shelby County. If it was more someplace else, it would have gone there.

Shelby County Schools has made major improvements, boosting its graduation rate and receiving national attention for its school turnaround program, the Innovation Zone. Would vouchers undermine those efforts by diverting students and funding from the district?

Go back to 2002. We were looking for answers, so we started pushing charters. Those who wanted to preserve public schools fought that tooth and nail. Then we went to the Achievement School District. As a result, Shelby County Schools has created the Innovation Zone. …  Memphis is now known as Teacher Town. We’ve brought so much competition into the market. It’s a place where the best teachers are in demand. That’s what you want in every industry.

A lot of good things have come about, and I think it’s because we have pushed the envelope. Is this voucher thing one thing that keeps pushing us forward? I like that it’s a pilot, and we can stop it if we see things that aren’t working. I think trying all of these things and putting competition into the market has made things improve.

Every Memphis parent, student, and teacher who testified this week before a House education committee opposed vouchers. You’ve been steadfast in your support of them. What do you take away from hearing those speakers?

Any time you talk about children, people get passionate, and that’s a good thing. Conflict can be a good thing, because then we can move to resolve it. If you have an issue, look at it head on and let’s talk about it. If you don’t agree with vouchers, if you do agree vouchers, let’s talk about ways we can stop failing our children.

I’ve heard from just as many on the other side; they just weren’t here (on Tuesday). I’ve had an office full of people just begging us to pass this. I’ve had people on all sides want this.

I think this bill still has a long way to fly. We’ll see where it goes. But I think the challenge is good for all of us. It makes us look at ourselves.

You’re the sponsor of another bill to provide in-state tuition to undocumented immigrant students. This is the third year you’ve filed the bill. Why is that issue important?

What I’m trying to do is fix a situation for people who want to get a higher education degree. They’re caught up in the political mess of 2017, and all we’re trying to do is say, ‘Hey, you were brought to this country, and now we want to help you realize your dreams.’ We’re not trying to address any federal immigration issue. Everyone deserves a chance for an education.

how's it going?

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

PHOTO: Scott Elliott

For years, Indiana’s state superintendents have made huge political waves while in office.

Tony Bennett was a major Republican proponent of choice-based education reform. Democrat Glenda Ritz led an administration filled with political clashes with then-Gov. Mike Pence, a staunch conservative.

But this could be changing with Indiana’s newest schools chief, Jennifer McCormick.

More than two months into her administration and more than halfway through the 2017 legislative session, educators and advocates are praising McCormick’s focus and remain optimistic about her tenure.

“The general perception is people are finding her and her staff are good to work with,” said Betsy Wiley, head of the Indiana Institute for Quality Education, a local school reform organization that made large donations to McCormick’s campaign. “I think she’s been working really hard on making sure people know that her door is open.”

As a Republican official taking office under a Republican governor, McCormick is better positioned politically to accomplish her goals. Her relationship with Gov. Eric Holcomb has appeared relatively tension-free so far. They’ve made joint announcements about state initiatives related to STEM education and workforce development, and McCormick has been on-board with his budget proposal.

McCormick said that so far, there has been lots of talking.

“We’re not always going to agree, but at least the conversations are happening,” she said. “We have our hands and eyes and voice in a lot of the education bills that we’re concerned about, so we’ve been right there at the table offering amendments” to legislators.

But mostly, McCormick has been quiet when it comes to public state policy debates.

“I think she’s learning the ropes, and rightly so,” said House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, said. “She and her team are working closely with the state board, so I consider it very good — No controversy of any kind.”

Yet McCormick’s approach doesn’t sit as well with Minority Leader Rep. Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City. He said he’s worried she’s leaving too much power to top GOP lawmakers in charge of education and not taking enough initiative at the department of education.

“I’m not familiar with any of the work that she’s doing,” he said. “The work that is happening on education is happening in the House and Senate chambers … If it’s her aim to just be ‘go along, get along, whatever Rep. Behning says or Sen. Kruse says is A-OK,’ I don’t know that she’s going to have a major role to play.”

Bosma and Pelath’s difference in opinion reflects some of the debates occurring in the Indiana General Assembly this year about whether to make the state superintendent an appointed or elected position. Part of the conversation inevitably centers around how people view McCormick’s role and it’s purpose.

It’s not clear yet if McCormick will step forward with ideas of her own or be more of an administrator who solely implements the policies of lawmakers, which GOP leaders repeatedly. But she has supported Gov. Eric Holcomb’s plan to make the role an appointed one.

McCormick has testified once this year before the Indiana Senate. During that hearing last week, she expressed concerns about testing and teacher evaluation that routinely were dismissed when Ritz was in charge, such as advocating for “computer-adaptive” tests. She also told senators there should be more conversations about how test scores are tied into teacher evaluations and whether that provision should be removed.

McCormick isn’t — and never has been — in lockstep with other Republicans on education policy. That was clear during her campaign, when, despite having mostly school choice advocates and Republicans as donors, she disagreed with GOP policies and instead advocated for changes to the school funding formula and seriously evaluating the impact of state-funded vouchers for private school.

Wiley said that although McCormick hasn’t shown herself to be an aggressive supporter of all school choice policies, such as vouchers, Wiley still thinks her organization made a good investment in backing her.

“She knows she has at least four years in that role, and she intends to do and get stuff done,” Wiley said. “If she doesn’t get credit for it along the way, I just don’t think she cares.”

Todd Bess, executive director of the Indiana Association of School Principals, said he’s heard from school leaders that they’re seeing more timely responses to phone calls and emails with the department of education.

Teresa Meredith, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, said she’s appreciated the time McCormick has made to talk with ISTA members, and she has no reason to believe she’s not going to support public schools — she’s “cautiously optimistic.”

Despite accusations during her campaign that she’d be too much like her Republican predecessor, Bennett, McCormick has not aligned herself with one particular education philosophy or camp. David Harris, CEO of The Mind Trust, said that independence is admirable.

“She is clearly her own woman, and I think there were some expectations,” Harris said. “She has been pretty clear that she’s going to follow the agenda and approach that she thinks is best.”