look on the bright side

City, union stress "optimism" over future of teacher evaluations

Deputy Chancellor David Weiner talks to two first grade students at Young Scholars Academy in Brooklyn.

With another school year underway without a deal on new teacher evaluations, officials in charge of hammering out the evaluation system seemed only to agree on one thing: be optimistic.

That was the mantra for Chancellor Dennis Walcott and Mayor Michael Bloomberg as they toured the halls of the New Settlement Campus in the South Bronx this morning.

“I’m always optimistic,” Bloomberg told reporters in the spotless new library. “If we don’t get a deal by January we will forfeit a lot of state funds.”

Teachers Union President Michael Mulgrew told a similar story when he spoke this morning in Brooklyn.

“We are definitely having conversations, pretty good conversations,” he said, “and we’re hoping to get it done.”

The city and union have been negotiating over evaluations for more than a year with the as-yet-unfulfilled hope of securing federal funds that are not available to districts without evaluations. Now they are under the gun from the state, too. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said he will withhold state aid increases from districts that do not adopt new evaluations by January 2013.

Officials have volunteered no updates on the negotiations. But at the chancellor’s next stop, Deputy Chancellor David Weiner took a break from shaking hands with teachers at Bedford-Stuyvesant’s Young Scholars Academy for Discovery and Exploration and kneeling beside first graders honing their self-portraiture skills to say that his outlook was positive as well.

Weiner, the Department of Education officials overseeing negotiations, has been meeting regularly with union officials for months, he said, and thinks they are “continuing to move forward.” He said the January deadline set by the state might provide the ticking clock necessary to finish the deal.

“Both we and the unions are very aware of the importance of actually making sure we get the evaluations done by the date the governor has set,” he said.

The teachers union has long faced heat from the press and the mayor’s office over its staunch refusal to accept a system that some worry will allow the department to erode teachers’ job security. The union has offered some concessions, such as a partial agreement for struggling schools eligible to receive federal funding, but city officials rejected that plan last month, reasoning that there is little value to finalizing a partial deal when a full one is needed.

Mulgrew did not join Bloomberg or Walcott on their school visits, but Bloomberg assured reporters that theirs was a problem of diverging schedules, and not evidence of any animosity over the negotiations. In the past, the union head and chancellor used to make a joint appearance on the first day of school, but that tradition ended in 2010.

After paying a visit to Sunset Park High School in Brooklyn, Mulgrew told GothamSchools he would make the negotiations his top priority this fall. That’s what he said last fall, but since then the city and the union have clashed repeatedly over the specifics of the system, which must adhere to state guidelines. They even abruptly halted negotiations at one point in a high-profile stalemate that ultimately lost the city $30 million in federal School Improvement Grants.

Despite his optimism, Mulgrew signaled that the ideological chasm between the UFT and the city remains large.

“They think teacher evaluations should be about getting teachers,” Mulgrew said, delving into one of the main concerns at play. “We think teacher evaluations should be about helping and supporting teachers because then they do their jobs better and kids win. That’s the big difference.”

Danika Lacroix, the principal of Young Scholar’s Academy, raised similar concerns with the evaluations this morning. Hers is one of 250 schools practicing the new teacher evaluation system, which is already being rolled out slowly at some schools over the past three years.

“We’ve messaged it here as a professional development tool, and messaging it that way has eased a lot of tension” she said. “Our teachers are really hungry, they all want to be highly effective teachers, so they seek feedback. They want us to come into the classrooms.”

Lacroix said she wants her staff to think about the evaluation system as an opportunity for collaboration, not competition. To that end, she often invites teachers to sit in on classrooms observations alongside her, she said, and at the end of the 2011-2012 school year she shared individual evaluation results with the entire staff.

Weiner said the pilot program is preparing the city to charge ahead with an evaluation system once a deal is made.

Department officials have been collecting and reviewing data from the pilot schools, he said, and would use that information to inform a citywide rollout.

“We need to figure out what are the best models that exist in schools,” he said. “With 1700 schools, it’s obviously difficult to implement something without preparing first, and that’s what we’ve been doing over the past three years.”

certification showdown

Judge strikes down rule allowing some New York charter schools to certify their own teachers

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Success Academy hosts its annual "Slam the Exam" rally at the Barclays Center.

In a blow to charter schools in New York, a rule that would have allowed certain schools to certify their own teachers was blocked in court Tuesday.

The judge’s ruling upends the plans of the city’s largest charter school network, Success Academy, and wipes out a legislative victory that New York’s charter sector thought it had won — though the decision will likely not be the end of the legal battle.

The regulations, approved by the State University of New York in October 2017, were designed to give charter schools more discretion over how they hired teachers. They eliminated the requirement that teachers earn master’s degrees and allowed charter schools authorized by SUNY to certify their teachers with as little as a month of classroom instruction and 40 hours of practice teaching.

Some charter networks argued their existing in-house training programs are more useful to new teachers than the training required for certification under state law.

But the rule was quickly challenged by the State Education Department and the state teachers union, which filed separate lawsuits that were joined in April. They argued that SUNY overstepped its authority and charged that the rule change would lead to children being taught by inexperienced and unqualified teachers.

The ruling was issued Tuesday by State Supreme Court Judge Debra J. Young, who wrote that the new certification programs were illegal because they fell below the minimum requirements issued by the state.

Charter networks “are free to require more of the teachers they hire but they must meet the minimum standards set” by the state, the judge wrote in her order. Young also concluded that laws requiring public comment were not followed.

“Today’s decision is a victory in our fight to ensure excellence in education at all schools,” state teachers union president Andy Pallotta said in a statement.

The Success Academy network and the Bronx Charter School for Better Learning had their plans for homegrown teacher certification programs approved in May, according to SUNY officials.

Success Academy spokeswoman Anne Michaud said the network is disappointed with the judge’s decision.

“As the top-performing public school system in the state, we are working to meet the demand for excellent schools that families in New York City are so desperate for, and we will continue to fight for what we know is our legal right: to train world class teachers and fill the teacher shortage that hampers so many disadvantaged neighborhoods,” Michaud said in a statement.

The certification policy grew out of the 2016 budget deal, when state lawmakers gave SUNY the authority to regulate the “governance, structure and operations of charter schools.”

The state’s top education officials — Commissioner MaryEllen Elia and Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa — have long seemed offended by the new regulations. On a panel last year, Elia said, “I could go into a fast food restaurant and get more training than that.”

In a joint statement on Tuesday, Elia and Rosa praised the court’s decision as a “victory for all New York’s children.”

“In its strong opinion, the court rightly upheld the Board of the Regents and the Commissioner’s authority to certify teachers in New York State,” the statement reads.

On Tuesday, SUNY officials said they planned to appeal and believed that the judge’s ruling also offered a roadmap for creating new certification rules as long as they met those minimum standards.

“We are reviewing today’s decision. While we are disappointed that it did not uphold the regulation as written, it acknowledged the ability of the Charter School Institute to issue regulations,” said  SUNY spokeswoman Holly Liapis in a statement. “We will further evaluate our next steps.”

This post has been updated to include a statement from SUNY and from Success Academy.

guide to the battle

With days left in this year’s session, what will happen with teacher evaluations?

PHOTO: Photo by Jonathan Fickies for UFT
UFT President Michael Mulgrew interviews New York State Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie.

As the clock ticks on this year’s legislative session, the fate of New York’s teacher evaluations hangs in the balance.

The teachers union has been waging a spirited battle to decouple state standardized test scores from teacher evaluations this year, which would mark the culmination of years of fighting against a system they say unfairly stigmatizes teachers. The legislation has already cleared the Democratic Assembly, but it remains at an impasse in the Republican-led Senate, which wants to tie the changes to benefits for charter schools.

As end-of-session haggling gets into full swing, it’s unclear whether the union will be able to secure a bill with “no strings attached.” Alternatively, lawmakers may agree to help charter schools in exchange for the bill’s passage, or they could be unable to settle their differences and shelve the measure until next year.

Here’s what you need to know about the upcoming battle:

Why are we talking about teacher evaluations again?

New Yorkers have spent years (and years) fighting about teacher evaluations.

In 2010, New York adopted a new teacher evaluation system that included state standardized test scores. Supporters of the policy argue it is the best way to objectively measure whether teachers are helping students learn. Opponents, including teachers unions, argue test scores lead to unreliable evaluations and often mean teachers are being rated based on subjects they don’t teach.

The debate took another turn in 2015 when Gov. Andrew Cuomo pushed for a new teacher evaluation system in which as much as half of an educator’s evaluation could be based on test scores. That law technically remains on the books today, but in response to fervent pushback from parents and the union, the state’s education policymaking body paused the use of grades 3-8 math and English test scores in teacher evaluations.

Lawmakers, policymakers, and the union jumped back into the charged conversation this year in part because the temporary pause on the use of certain test scores in the evaluations is set to expire in 2019.

What exactly does the union want this year?

The union-backed bill would forbid any requirement that districts use state standardized test scores in teacher evaluations. Instead, local districts would collectively bargain the assessments used to rate teachers.

Paradoxically, this major political shift will likely make little difference in the lives of New York City teachers. That’s because for the last several years the city has already been using a system of local tests to rate educators.

New York City created a slate of assessments called “Measures of Student Learning,” which test students on everything from English to art. Michael Mulgrew, the city teachers union president, said he is happy with the current system and has already vowed, “Nothing will change for New York City teachers.”

Critics, however, point out that very few teachers are given poor ratings under this system. In New York City last year, 97 percent of teachers were given one of the top two ratings of “highly effective” or “effective,” according to Mulgrew.

What are the chances that this bill passes?

There’s a good chance some teacher evaluation legislation will pass before the end of the session but if history is any indication, it will cost something.

Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan has already staked out his position: He is willing to go even farther than the Assembly, scrapping the 2015 law all-together and leaving virtually every major decision about teacher ratings up to local collective bargaining. But in order to do that, he wants to dramatically expand the number of charter schools that can open in New York City and across the state. (The Senate introduced a second bill that the union also criticized for being friendly to charter schools.)

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie has already called the bill “cyanide,” cuing the l back-and-forth that typically proceeds a larger deal each year in Albany. Last year, for instance, shortly after the mayor won a two-year extension of mayoral control, he made it easier for charter schools to expand and pay for space. The year before, mayoral control was attached to a provision that made it easier for charter schools to switch between authorizers.

Though Senate Republicans are typically able to secure at least a small victory, it’s unclear how much they can demand in an election year when their control of the chamber is in jeopardy. That is particularly a problem in Long Island, home to some of the most fierce resistance to standardized testing that will also be an electoral battleground this fall.

What might a compromise look like?

Anything is possible in Albany, but something charter school-related is a good bet.

Advocates have expressed concern that they will soon hit the cap on how many charter schools can open in New York City. Historically, they have also pushed to make it easier for charter schools to pay for school space and to allow charter schools to certify their own teachers.

Charter school advocates might also find it a particularly prime year to push for changes. With a major lobbying group out of the picture and the potential for Flanagan  who has been a charter school ally  to lose his majority next year, this could be the sector’s best shot to press for changes.

Also, Flanagan and others have expressed concerns that the legislation will create more testing, since it allows all local districts to create their own tests in addition to the state tests. The final deal could address this concern.