a re-evaluation

After rancorous debate, lawmakers pass big changes to evaluations

PHOTO: Geoff Decker

Gov. Andrew Cuomo is getting much of what he wanted on teacher evaluations, a signature piece of a controversial education agenda that has dominated lawmakers’ attention since he first floated the proposal two months ago.

Both houses of the state legislature on Tuesday night passed an education portion of the state’s $142 billion budget that contained several parts of Cuomo’s agenda. The votes followed hours of raucous debate in the Assembly and Senate, whose own budget proposals earlier this week included none of the education changes that Cuomo had sought.

“It’s a shame what we’re doing here today. We have a terrible bill before us in many, many aspects,” said Bronx Assemblyman Michael Benedetto, one of several Democrats who berated Cuomo’s education proposals but ultimately voted to passed the budget, citing a large increase in education funding.

Cuomo has railed against the current teacher evaluation system for months, saying the oversized share of teachers with high ratings illustrated the system was too easy to game and in need of an overhaul. As other districts nationwide moved to reduce the role of state tests in evaluations amid concerns about their reliability, Cuomo this winter pushed for a system he saw as more objective, with tests playing a bigger role and outside observers acting as checks on principals.

Others disagreed with his prescriptions. Teachers spent months lobbying against the plan, and sagging poll numbers dogged Cuomo as negotiations continued and other education proposals fell away or were diluted.

But the new evaluation system included in the state budget deal reflects Cuomo’s vision. It weakens the role of districts and their teachers unions in devising evaluation plans and places more control with the state education department. Teachers will be graded in part by outside observers, and the scoring system could end up more heavily emphasizing the use of state tests.

Those aspects drew criticism from all sides as votes were tallied on Tuesday. The new evaluations are too test-focused, undermined principals, and represented government overreach, lawmakers said.

“Totally irresponsible and shameful,” said James Tedisco, a Republican Assemblyman, who voted against.

Education chair Catherine Nolan, a close ally of the teachers union and vocal critic of Cuomo’s proposals, defended the changes. She said the agreement represented a series of difficult trade-offs that scaled back what the governor had been seeking to do.

“I wouldn’t go so far as to say I love it, but it’s a good compromise,” Nolan said.

The budgets passed easily in the Assembly, 92-54 and in the Senate, 32-26.

“Sometimes you have to do difficult things to make new and difficult things happen,” said Chrystal People-Stokes, a Democratic Assemblywoman from Buffalo.

In a short statement released after the votes, Cuomo praised a budget that “reforms New York’s education bureaucracy.”

The new evaluations underpin a series of sweeping education policies that make up a nine-point legislative package known as the Education Transformation Act of 2015. Ratings will be used to award bonuses and tenure to teachers, as well as dismiss persistently low-ranking teachers.

For now, the legislation provides more of a framework than a plan. Several details will be hammered out in the coming months by the department and the Board of Regents. Districts will have until Nov. 15 to negotiate and implement the new plans or forfeit an increase in state aid — as happened in 2012, when New York City lost hundreds of millions of dollars.

Teachers will still earn one of four final ratings: ineffective, developing, effective, and highly effective. The new framework does away with the exact percentages — 20 percent for state tests, 20 percent on local or state tests, and 60 percent for observations — assigned in the teacher evaluation law first passed in 2010, though.

The state education commissioner (for now, a vacant position) and Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch have been tasked with settling the details of the new scoring system — though they require approval from the full 17-member board.

Perhaps most significantly, they will have to set the “cut scores” to determine what qualifies as effective or not on observations. Other than that, the law that the legislature signed off on Tuesday night leaves education officials with relatively few options.

The default evaluation plan will be based on just two measures: state test scores and observations. It no longer requires a local testing measure, something Cuomo has blamed for a rise in standardized testing. A second testing measure, which require’s state approval, will be allowed if districts come to an agreement with their local teachers unions.

The law does not provide answers to an underlying issue for a majority of teachers, including art, physical education, and music teachers, for whom there are no standardized assessments.

Part of a teacher’s score will come from at least one observation by their principal, and one observation from an “independent” evaluator will now also be required. The independent observer must come from a different school, and districts will be able to negotiate to include observations from a highly rated teacher from the same school.

Observations and test scores will be combined into final ratings using this matrix, which is codified in law.

In other districts, such a matrix has been praised as a less prescriptive, but also less precise, scoring system for teacher evaluations than the the “numerical” system used in places like New York, Washington, D.C., and Chicago.

“The things you are providing judgment on are not extraordinarily precise themselves,” said Garth Harries, superintendent of schools in New Haven, Connecticut, which uses a matrix-style evaluation system. “Being less precise allows us to be nuanced to those kinds of issues.”

Final ratings under a new default evaluation system will be determined by matching ratings from testing and observation subcomponents according to the matrix above.
Final ratings under a new default evaluation system will be determined by matching ratings from testing and observation subcomponents according to the matrix above.

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First Person

I’m a fifth-year Chicago teacher, and the challenges aren’t letting up. Now what?

PHOTO: Getty

When I started as a teacher in Chicago Public Schools, I remember hearing that half of teachers in urban school districts leave them in their first five years. When I went through rough patches I would wonder, was I going to make it?

I did make it, completing my fifth year of teaching last spring. But I can’t help but feel like something still isn’t right.

I feel like this should be the time when I am starting to really develop my expertise, feel secure in my skills and abilities, and build the self-confidence that I am effective in my craft. Instead, I  feel lucky just to be surviving day to day and week to week.

I thought that by now I would be in a groove with planning and preparation. I thought that my Sundays might actually be relaxing. Instead, I find myself filled with the “Sunday scaries,” scrambling to get materials created, adjust lesson plans, and polish final drafts of IEPs. I never feel “caught up,” and can’t say I have ever known what that feels like.

Even though my class sizes are not the largest in the district, they are filled with students who — although so talented, resilient, and special — have such a wide variety of needs and deficits that I don’t feel I can adequately address given all of the constraints I face. There simply are not enough resources and time to do everything I need to do to give my students the best that they deserve. This weighs on me, leading to overwhelming feelings of guilt and helplessness that are often paralyzing.

In short, I am mentally and emotionally exhausted, and I know many of my fellow teachers are too.

I’ve been thinking about this reality more since I joined a number of colleagues at an educator mental health-focused event in October. We dug into our own struggles and and then worked on ways to manage our stress. We named our biggest day-to-day stressors and then explored different ways to practice self-care — such as journaling, meditation, or picking up an instrument — to balance out the feelings of high anxiety and pressure we feel at work. I left with a number of resources to seek out on my own as well as a sense of renewal. But the onus was on me to find solutions moving forward.

Now, Chicago’s mayoral race is heating up. And while I work on managing the stress of this job, it’s also on policymakers — including our next mayor — to address the stressors themselves.

Large class sizes, the limited time we are allotted to plan and prepare for the school day, insufficient paid time-off policies, and ever-tighter budgets we are asked to stretch to meet our students’ needs are all the result of policies that could be changed.

I can’t practice enough self-care to replace the structural changes needed to make our profession more sustainable.

But school leaders, the mayor, and state policymakers, could make a difference. More independent and collaboration time in teachers’ days would help give us time to chip away at expanding to-do lists. Real teacher-leader roles would give teachers power and voice in school decisions. Schools destigmatizing “mental health” days and organizing activities to help teachers de-stress would help, too.

Dissenters may point to the fact that in many other jobs you’re expected to manage your work-life balance and handle stress on your own. But teaching isn’t like every other job: the stakes are especially high, and we have less control of our time and are more isolated in our work. Students benefit from teachers with experience, and every time a capable teacher leaves Chicago’s schools because they were overwhelmed, students lose out.

For my part, I pledge to be aware of my mental health needs and plan to be intentional about my self-care this school year. I hope Chicago Public Schools, the Chicago Teachers Union, and our city and state elected leaders will commit to helping me and my colleagues not only to survive, but to thrive in our jobs.

As mayoral candidates continue to flesh out their education plans, they need to acknowledge that our mental health and well-being is critical to our success as teacher. How are they planning to help us access resources like counseling services? Prioritizing how to best care for educators will help us continue to provide the best care possible for students.

Teachers are already doing exceptional work given the many constraints they face. Imagine what more we could do for our students if we were better equipped ourselves.

Dayna Heller is a special education teacher at Roger C. Sullivan High School in Rogers Park. She is an active member of the Chicago Teachers Union and Educators for Excellence, a national teacher-led policy organization.

tick tock

Denver district, teachers union make some progress as contract deadline looms, but still far apart

PHOTO: Erica Meltzer/Chalkbeat
Denver teachers listen to an update on bargaining during the second to last day of negotiations before the ProComp contract expires.

Something unusual happened near the end of bargaining Thursday between the Denver teachers union and school administrators: The district offered a change to its proposal, and some teachers gathered in the audience snapped their fingers in approval.

The two sides are still far apart in terms of reaching an agreement on Denver Public Schools’ ProComp system, which offers teachers bonuses on top of their base salary for things like teaching in a high-poverty school or earning a strong evaluation. The deadline for a deal is Friday, with teachers set to vote on either strike or ratification Saturday and Tuesday. The district’s and the union’s proposals still reflect different ideas about how teachers should earn more compensation — and have very different price tags.

But Thursday’s session was a far cry from the intense frustration that marked Tuesday’s bargaining session. On that day, district officials departed the bargaining table to “process” after the union refused to make a counteroffer to the most recent district proposal. Teachers filled the room after school and waited in hot, cramped conditions for a response that never came.

Thursday’s session opened with tense verbal sparring, but by the afternoon, the union had made changes to its proposal that reduced the cost by an estimated $2.5 million. District officials said they would spend the night and early Friday morning analyzing the proposal and seeing where else they might be able to move.

The district did offer a small concession Thursday that some teachers seemed to appreciate: increasing tuition reimbursement 50 percent, to $6,000. Denver Superintendent Susana Cordova said research shows this type of incentive is a strong tool for recruiting and keeping teachers, especially teachers of color. The money for this will come from reducing the bonus that teachers get for teaching in a so-called “distinguished” school.

More often, Denver teachers have reacted with boos to offers that the district saw as significant steps toward the union position.

Beyond small steps like the tuition reimbursement, Cordova said she was “very open to considering” aspects of the union proposal, a sentiment that seemed to clear the way for more back-and-forth.

“The district has moved and DCTA was willing to change their proposal,” said Tiffany Choi, a French teacher at East High School who attended the bargaining session. “We both showed willingness to compromise, and that’s positive.”

Dana Berge, a member of the union bargaining team, said the district is “beginning to listen to us, but they are not listening to us in terms of the values in our proposal.”

Both proposals keep some bonuses, at much more modest levels, and put more money into base pay. And both proposals lay out a schedule for how Denver teachers can earn more money, both by “steps,” or number of years of service, and by “lanes,” or additional educational achievement.

The union proposal has more lanes and allows Denver teachers to start moving up by earning additional college credit or by taking the kind of professional development that teachers need to do anyway. Teachers take such training to maintain their teaching licenses — or because they see a need, for example, to learn more about helping students with trauma. The union’s counteroffer Thursday removed one of the lanes, bringing down the total cost.

The district’s first lane change comes with a master’s degree, completing 10 years of service, earning an advanced license, or earning national board certification.

Berge said the union proposal more closely mimics those in other districts and will keep “highly dedicated, highly trained, highly experienced teachers” in Denver and reduce the problem of losing more experienced teachers to better-off suburban districts while less experienced teachers concentrate in the highest-needs schools.

She argued that a more stable salary structure would do more to keep teachers in high-poverty schools than the bonuses given under the current system.

The union proposal will cost a lot more than the district proposal. Cordova said the district is in the process of identifying “deep, deep cuts” to administrative positions to redirect money to classrooms, but even those won’t provide all the money needed to close the gap between the two sides.

During the long period in which each side was working separately on its proposals, a group of religious and community leaders from the Industrial Areas Foundation arrived to offer support to teachers and then a direct message to Cordova. They criticized her for framing the disagreement as one about values.

“Please don’t dare insinuate that you care more about the children in hard-to-serve, high-poverty schools than we do,” said Susan Cooper, a retired teacher and member of the organization. “We value solidarity, not a divide and conquer approach. We value stability, which we don’t have because we can’t keep teachers in Denver.”

Billy Williams of the Denver chapter of the NAACP said parents and community members would support the teachers “if they are forced to strike.”

Cordova said it was never her intent to suggest one side held the moral high ground.

“We can have similar goals, similar values, and different ideas about how to get those done,” she said. “Good people can disagree and still care about our kids.”

The two sides expect to resume bargaining at 10 a.m. Friday.