Obama official to New York: Change your tenure law or else

The Obama administration official in charge of an educational innovation fund yesterday issued a warning to a New York audience: Unless the state legislature revises a law now on the books about teacher tenure, the state could lose out on the $4.35 billion fund she controls.

Joanne Weiss said the Obama administration aims to reward states that use student achievement as a “predominant” part of teacher evaluations with the extra stimulus funds — and pass over those that don’t. New York state law currently bans using student data as a factor in tenure decisions.

Test scores aren’t everything, Weiss said. “But it seems illogical and indefensible to assume that those aren’t part of the solution at all,” she said, echoing nearly word-for-word Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s remarks last week to the National Education Association.

The pessimism about New York’s policies is a departure from Duncan’s tone during a visit to New York City in February, when he was cheery about the state’s chances in the competition. Duncan also briefly mentioned New York as one of several states whose firewalls around student and teacher data need to come down in a recent speech, and he indicated that New York’s cap on charter schools may also hurt the state’s chances at a slice of the stimulus pie.

Weiss, who worked at the New Schools Venture Fund before heading to Washington, said the “disadvantage” of the tenure law to New York could be counterbalanced by efforts here that the Obama administration admires. She praised a New York City program that is evaluating individual teachers based on their students’ test scores.  One strength of the program, Weiss said, is that city teachers generally accept the evaluations as an accurate and fair assessment of their performance.

The question, she said, is whether the district uses the evaluations in a meaningful way to drive high performance. “Can you pull it together in time and in a coherent fashion?” she said.

Currently, the teacher reports have no bearing on formal job evaluations or personnel decisions, and it was just after their creation that the city teachers union lobbied for the law banning test scores in decisions about tenure. The change stipulates that “a teacher shall not be denied or granted tenure based on student performance data.” The provision sunsets next year, but after the panel Weiss said that the sunset is too far away to help New York’s applications.

Weiss was in town to discuss The New Teacher Project’s report “The Widget Effect,” which was released last month and urged districts to overhaul their teacher performance evaluations. She spoke on a panel at the Carnegie Corporation alongside Rob Weil, the American Federation of Teacher’s deputy director of educational issues.

The federal Department of Education won’t release the exact criteria for receiving the competitive Race the the Top money until the end of July, and New York City is only just beginning to plan an application for a separate $650 million fund available to school districts. (A New York State Education Department spokeswoman did not return a request for comment this morning on the state’s progress.)

But Weiss’s remarks match the fund’s requirement that a state has made “significant progress” in four areas: raising academic standards, improving data systems, turning around struggling schools and improving teacher effectiveness. These are the same “four assurances” that states promised to pursue when they accepted the stimulus money that has already been distributed.

Weil, of AFT, said that the assurances are already affecting conversations around the country, where districts are using them as an excuse to push certain programs. In order to assure federal funding, the district officials tell union leaders, they need to make these changes, Weil said.

One reason federal officials have praised New York City while deriding the state could be that states and local districts are applying for two separate pots of money. The $4.35 billion Race to the Top Fund is dedicated to projects at the state level. An additional $650 million of stimulus funds have been set aside for local district innovations. It’s possible, then, that the fund could award a grant to the city while passing over the state.

Daniel Weisberg, who co-authored The New Teacher Project’s report and who formerly headed up labor policy at the city Department of Education, said that he thought the change in tone at the federal level could drive a change in state law. The turmoil in the state legislature keeps everything up in the air, but he said the pressure from above makes significant reform to teacher evaluation a realistic goal.

“It’s a motivator,” he told me. “Will it get the job done? I don’t know.”

In an interview after the panel, Weiss said that the state will need to get the job done to have top consideration for the grant funds. “We will reward accomplishments, not promises,” she said.