talking points

After accord, fault lines on where New York's teacher evaluations go from here

Albany’s deal to lower the stakes attached to Common Core tests for teachers on Thursday drew praise from both sides of the negotiating table—but for two very different reasons.

Federal and state education officials, who have resisted changes to New York’s new teacher evaluation system, framed the two-year deal as a small roadblock to reduce anxiety as the state moves toward tougher accountability measures. For state teachers union officials, it is a first step toward a bigger overhaul of the evaluation system that could reduce the use of student test scores even further.

The dueling motivations hint that the consensus among the teachers unions and the State Education Department that state test scores should play some role in teacher evaluations in New York is unraveling, and the union is planning to re-start the debate over whether test scores can help identify teacher quality.

“We must continue these discussions about fixing what’s not working,” New York State United Teachers  Vice President Andrew Pallotta said Thursday in a statement. “That has to include reducing over-testing and recognizing that a student is not a test score—and neither is a teacher.”

The legislative agreement, which Gov. Andrew Cuomo is expected to sign today, keeps Common Core-aligned state tests from being used to fire or deny tenure to teachers this year and next year. Teachers rated “ineffective” or “developing” will have their evaluations recalculated based on local tests and principal observations before their ratings can be used to fire them.

NYSUT suggested its next step will be to further reduce the role that state tests should play in a teacher’s evaluation. Teacher scores are based on a 100-point scale, with at least 20 points based on state tests (it will increase to 25 points next year). Another 20 points can be based on another set of tests that are locally decided.

Meanwhile, State Education Commissioner John King and Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who both played pivotal roles in pushing New York’s evaluation system, said the deal would allow their reforms to move forward. They indirectly acknowledged that the delay lowers the issue’s political temperature without changing the structure of the system they negotiated.

It upholds “New York’s commitment to be leaders in education reform,” Duncan said.

Duncan’s statement comes just two days after the U.S. Department of Education suggested New York was dangerously close to breaking its Race to the Top promises, signaling that the threat was—as some observers predicted—meant as a bargaining chip for state lawmakers to use against the union, which sought more sweeping protections from poor evaluations.

King said he supported the deal because it would ease anxiety while “preserving a multiple measures evaluation system that includes student performance”—an about-face from his stance over the last year, when he repeatedly rebuffed calls to adjust the evaluation system to account for the state’s quick transition to Common Core-aligned tests.

The two-year agreement has left critics saying it didn’t go far enough or shouldn’t have happened at all. StudentsFirstNY and the Daily News editorial board both panned the deal as election-year pandering, and a loss that would set back the effort to be able to fire teachers for ineffectiveness.

But NYS Allies for Public Education, a coalition of 50 parent groups, has argued that New York’s testing policies and use of the Common Core standards need to be entirely overhauled. The group sent out a statement criticizing the deal for not doing more to address those issues.

For the next two years, the legislative agreement comes down clearly on the side of the union. It says that the scores from this year and next year’s grades 3-8 English and math state tests aren’t reliable enough to be used for negative consequences, though they will still be used for decisions about giving teachers bonuses and other types of pay raises. High school teachers will also still be evaluated based on student scores on Regents exams.

At a press conference on Thursday, Cuomo offered something to both sides of the debate. Test scores might not be reliable because of a “flawed” rollout of the Common Core learning standards, Cuomo said. But he insisted that the evaluation system was moving forward.

“People’s lives are being judged by this instrument,” Cuomo said, “so you want the instrument in the evaluation to be correct.”

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Future of Teaching

Tentative contract includes big raises for IPS teachers

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Teachers would receive significant raises under a tentative new contract with IPS.

A month after voters approved a vast funding increase for Indianapolis Public Schools, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee’s administration and the district teachers union have reached a tentative deal for a new contract that would boost teacher pay by an average of 6.3 percent.

The agreement was ratified by union members Wednesday, according to a statement from teachers union president Ronald Swann. It must be approved by the Indianapolis Public Schools board, which is likely to consider the contract next week, before it is final.

Swann did not provide details of the agreement, but it was outlined in union presentations to teachers on Wednesday ahead of the ratification vote. The deal would cover the 2018-19 school year, and teachers would receive retroactive pay back to July 2018. The prior contract ended in June.

Raising teacher pay was a key part of the sales pitch district leaders used to win support for a referendum to raise $220 million over eight years from taxpayers for operating expenses. The referendum passed with wide support from voters last month, and although the district will not get that money until next year, the administration can now bank on an influx of cash in June 2019. Teachers could receive another raise next year, once the money from the referendum begins flowing.

The proposed deal would bring pay raises for new and experienced teachers. First year teachers in the district would see their salaries jump to $42,587, about $2,600 above the current base salary, according to the presentation to teachers. Returning teachers would move up the pay scale, with most receiving raises of about $2,600.

The deal also brings a reward for teachers who are at the top of the current scale. The top of the scale would rise to $74,920 by adding several stops above the current maximum of $59,400. That means teachers who are currently at the top of the scale would be able to move up and continue getting raises.

Many longtime teachers in the district also earn additional pay for advanced education, but teachers who joined the district more recently are not eligible for that extra money.

Teachers who received evaluations of ineffective or needs improvement in 2017-18 are not eligible for raises.

The new contract is the second time in recent years that teachers have won substantial raises in Indianapolis Public Schools. After four years of painful pay freezes, Ferebee negotiated a contract in 2015 that included a large pay increase. Teacher pay is especially important for the district because it is competing with several surrounding communities to staff schools.

Health care costs would go up this year, a policy shift that was advocated by the Indy Chamber, which urged the district to reduce health insurance spending as part of a plan to shift more money to teacher salaries.

The contract includes a provision that was piloted last year allowing the district to place newly hired teachers at anywhere on the salary schedule. It’s designed to allow the district to pay more for especially hard-to-fill positions.

Teachers at some troubled schools, known as the transformation zone, would also be eligible for extra pay on top of their regular salaries at the discretion of the administration. That money would come from state grants specifically targeted at transformation zone schools.

The idea of allowing superintendents to pay some teachers in their districts more than others is controversial.

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.