Teacher evaluation fight spills into New York’s Board of Regents meeting

New York’s top education officials unexpectedly weighed in on the state’s controversial teacher evaluation legislation — and it didn’t seem like everyone was on the same page.

The bill in question, which has cleared the Assembly, would make the use of state test scores in teacher evaluations optional. If passed, it would mark a major break from the current law, where as much as half of an educator’s evaluation can be based on standardized tests.

But the State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia and certain board members appeared split over whether to express enthusiasm for the bill when it was added at the last minute to the Board of Regents agenda. Elia sounded notes of caution — warning of “unintended consequences” of the new evaluation plan — while several Regents expressed excitement and suggested the board should throw its support behind the bill’s passage.

“Unintended consequences, to me, is raising a red flag on legislation that I think most of us would like to see,” said Regent Roger Tilles. “I don’t want to give any potential opponent of this legislation in the other house any ammunition to try to put this bill down.”

Though neither the Regents nor the state education department can vote on the bill, their support or opposition could sway lawmakers in the state Senate, which must pass the bill for it to become law.

Teacher evaluations have been a lightning rod in New York state over the past decade. The latest flashpoint came in 2015, when lawmakers passed a bill that essentially increased the weight of test scores in teacher evaluations. A series of changes to standardized tests and how they were used, including the teacher evaluation law, caused a backlash that led to one in five families boycotting state tests.

In response, the Board of Regents placed a moratorium on the use of grades 3-8 math and English tests. That aspect of the law has been paused ever since, but in the meantime, officials at the state education department started a long-term project to revamp the evaluations.

The current bill will, in some ways, circumvent a plan that Elia had promised, “isn’t going to be a fast process.” On Monday, she said that uncertainty in the legislature would essentially halt the state’s current work.

“At this point in time… we can’t really say what we’re going to be doing until we know whether or not this becomes a law,” Elia said.

Elia and the state education department’s PowerPoint warned of increased testing for students, since the bill allows districts to create alternative assessments for use in teacher evaluations. However, in districts that provide alternative tests, students will still be required by federal law to take state tests too. Additionally, the state’s PowerPoint detailed the extra work this bill would cause the state education department.

Though Elia raised concerns about the legislation, she has also said that the current evaluation system needs to be fixed and the state education department previously sent a mixed statement that thanked the lawmakers who sponsored the bill.

But several other Regents sounded a much different tone, suggesting that, at its core, this bill will push state education policy in a much better direction. Regent Kathleen Cashin said that she was “thrilled” when she learned of the bill’s passage in the Assembly.

“I was thrilled because… if we put that much energy on teaching rather than testing, wouldn’t that be a great thing?” she said.

Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa, who has long been staunchly opposed to the current law, also seemed to signal support for the new bill. While acknowledging that it is “not perfect,” she suggested she agreed with the spirit of the legislation.

“I do submit that it’s time to take something that has been so contentious and so toxic,” said Rosa, and “get back the core, which is about children learning.”

Those on opposite sides of the debate latched onto the two narratives from the meeting, praising the state official that more closely reflected their views. Those who opposed the bill, for instance, complimented Elia’s cautionary statements.

“The Commissioner raises important points about the ‘unintended consequences’ of the proposed legislation – including significantly more testing for students – and notes the value of a collaborative longer–term process,” said Ian Rosenblum, executive director of The Education Trust-NY

On the other side, a representative from the state teachers union, which has been pushing this legislation for months, said she was encouraged by Rosa’s stance.

“I was really pleased to hear the Board of Regents, led by Chancellor Rosa, talk about the importance of returning our schools to learning and teachers to teaching,” said Jolene DiBrango, executive vice president of the New York State United Teachers. “We felt very supported by what we were hearing by the Regents today.”