Candidates who'd have to execute evaluations walk a fine line

For mayoral candidate Bill Thompson, sleeping on the city’s new teacher and principal evaluation plans was an illuminating experience.

Thompson was the first candidate to issue an official response to the educator evaluation plans that State Education Commissioner John King imposed on the city late Saturday. Speaking less than two hours after King released an overview of the plan, Thompson said the plan represented a victory for the teachers union’s approach to evaluating teachers.

“Let’s remember where this process started: The mayor wanted to be able to fire teachers at will, because he believes you can somehow fire your way to student success. That approach is now off the table for good,” he said. “Instead, teachers are going to get the support and professional development they need.”

But a day later, Thompson’s outlook was less sanguine. He issued a second press release on Sunday afternoon highlighting the many pitfalls that the plan faces in getting implemented.

“I am concerned that it is simply unworkable in its complexity and bureaucracy,” he said, adding that King’s 241-page evaluation plan was “littered with confusing rules and regulations that are certain to create confusion instead of clarity.”

Thompson’s backpedaling — which, as the Wall Street Journal reports, puts him at odds with his campaign chair, Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch — reflects the pressure that candidates face as they respond to King’s plans.

One big consideration is that Thompson and several other Democratic candidates for mayor are still hoping for the UFT’s endorsement later this month. Union president Michael Mulgrew raised concerns immediately on Saturday about the rollout of the teacher evaluation plan, saying that the Bloomberg administration had not given the union confidence about its capacity to carry out required elements of the plan in good faith. “None of this is going to be good if the implementation starts out horrendously,” he said.

And whether or not they’re angling aggressively for the union’s support, candidates know that whoever becomes mayor will actually have to implement the system that is in place — and, quite possibly, renegotiate it with the teachers union as part of contract talks.

“If we feel it’s not going well, we will advocate for changes next year,” Mulgrew said on Saturday.

Candidates who firmly support the plan as it stands now risk being asked to give up more in contract talks, when the union is expected to push for significant retroactive pay raises for teachers.

City Council Speaker Christine Quinn ignored the implementation issue entirely in her official statement, focusing instead on the terms of the plans that King set. “Evaluations that rely on several observations, student feedback, and other school-based measures selected from both teachers and principals, strikes [sic] the right balance,” she said.

But other candidates joined Thompson in expressing concerns about implementation — and confidence that the rollout would go more smoothly under their leadership.

“Making this system work across 1,700 schools is going to be a daunting task and will only be accomplished if it is approached with a spirit of mutual cooperation and respect that City Hall and the Department of Education have over the past 12 years utterly failed to muster in their work with New York City’s teachers,” said Public Advocate Bill de Blasio. (He also raised concerns about the role of testing in the plans.)

And Sal Albanese, who is the only candidate to have taught in public schools, said on Saturday that King had imposed “a pretty reasonable plan” but that it did not solve a more fundamental problem. “As someone who taught in our classrooms and served in government, I won’t be satisfied until we have a sea change in the relationship between City Hall and our schools,” he said.

That’s the same note that Anthony Weiner, who called the plan “an important improvement,” struck when he  spoke to reporters at the Salute to Israel Parade on Sunday.

“The tensions between the teachers and their employer, Mayor Bloomberg are much too fraught right now. One of the things that I hope to accomplish if I am fortunate enough to become mayor is to kind of reduce those tensions and make it clear to teachers that the mayor respects them,” Weiner said. “As the son of a 31-year schoolteacher and someone who went to public schools, they certainly have my respect.”

But in almost the next sentence, Weiner contradicted a significant piece of union dogma, that it is unfair to count student surveys in teachers’ ratings.

“I believe that that’s a reasonable thing to have as a small part of an evalaution process,” Weiner said, citing research that has shown a correlation between students’ responses and their learning. “I dont think that most teachers will be concerned about, I think, 5 percent of the score being based on those surveys.”

Tisch, who as Regents chancellor helped lead the statewide push for evaluations, said implementation concerns are legitimate but that new leadership in the city could mitigate against them.

“The imposition of an evaluation system doesn’t guarantee that this thing will take root,” she said. “My hope is that, by ending the prolonged antagonism between the New York City Department of Education and the teachers union, … we have here a blueprint for an evaluation system.”