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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strike vote looming

Denver district, board members frame teacher contract negotiations as debate over values

PHOTO: Eric Gorski/Chalkbeat
Denver school board members get the latest on negotiations that have hit a turning point.

With time running out to strike a deal with the teachers union, Denver school district officials in a special board meeting Wednesday portrayed the unresolved issues in contract negotiations as a clash over values.

The hastily called meeting was primarily a briefing for school board members from the district’s chief negotiators and Superintendent Susana Cordova. But it was also a chance for the district — and a board that generally supports its positions — to seize the narrative.

Cordova framed the district’s stance as honoring core district values, including getting teachers into hard-to-staff jobs and high-poverty schools, and keeping them there.

Under negotiation is the district’s pay-for-performance system, called ProComp. It offers teachers a base salary and allows them to earn bonuses and incentives for things like high student test scores or working in a hard-to-fill position. The union would like to take some incentive money and put it toward higher base pay to lift the salaries of all teachers.

The district’s general counsel, Michelle Berge, on Wednesday said the union wants to take $10 million being used now to incentivize teaching in high-poverty schools and spread the money around “like peanut butter.”

Talks hit a sticking point Tuesday, with the union insisting the district embrace a salary table with its preferred structure for paying teachers by “steps” corresponding to a teacher’s experience and “lanes” representing education. 

The two sides have bargaining sessions scheduled for Thursday and Friday, and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association has pledged to hold a strike vote Saturday if an agreement isn’t reached.

Denver teachers have long said the pay-for-performance system is too complicated and unpredictable.

Cordova acknowledged the two sides are far apart on money. The money on the table for teachers now, she said, “is not enough.” But she said the two sides should reach an agreement, then work together to “fix the core of the problem” — how the state funds schools.

Wednesday’s meeting gave board members a platform as Denver inches closer to what would be its first teachers strike in 25 years.

Board member Jennifer Bacon said a system in which teachers don’t know what they are going to be paid — it can vary from year to year under ProComp — is “crazy.” 

“What are we really negotiating on to make teaching an idolized profession?” said Bacon, one of two board members who often push back against the district’s policies.

Member Happy Haynes said she put a higher priority on rewarding teachers who take hard-to-fill jobs and work in high-poverty schools.

“It isn’t just simply numbers moving around on cells on a spreadsheet,” she said. “There are values that we are articulating here.”

A teachers union representative did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Union President Henry Roman, however, has previously cited values in articulating the union’s stance.

“We know the district has the money to pay teachers a living wage,” Roman said in a statement last week, “and it’s time that they get serious about budgeting their stated values, so that we can have a deal by the 18th and prevent further stress on educators, students, and the community. Any further delay in getting a fair and transparent compensation system will only serve to aggravate the situation.”

On Friday, district officials presented a new proposal that would put an additional $6 million into teacher pay. That’s on top of the additional $17 million the district had already proposed, for a total of $23 million more. Taking into account a previously promised cost-of-living raise, the $23 million would increase teachers’ base pay by 10 percent from this school year to the next on average, district officials said.

Board member Carrie Olson, a former teacher, indicated the school district has more work to do to describe its offer.

“When I sit here, I know it sounds good, but I know that is not translating into the teachers in our schools,” Olson said. “The feeling isn’t, ‘This is a great deal.’”

That doesn’t appear to be lost on district officials. Cordova fielded teacher questions for an hour late Wednesday afternoon during a “telephone town hall” with educators after the district blasted them with robocalls informing them of the opportunity.

Teachers, meanwhile, organized informational community meetings at no fewer than three Denver schools Wednesday afternoon or evening, part of an effort to engage parents, said union vice president Christina Medina. In some cases, school administrators took part in those or previous meetings to discuss implications of a strike and explain the district position, she said.

“No one is more invested than parents,” said Medina, a teacher at Academia Ana Marie Sandoval elementary school in northwest Denver. “So connecting with them is important because they love our kids and we love our kids. It’s making sure we are on the same page. Making sure that teachers stay and we have great teachers in Denver.”

First Person

Why I won’t strike: Denver teachers in high-poverty schools, like me, deserve real bonuses

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

I’m in my eighth year teaching in Denver Public Schools. I have spent my career teaching in Montbello, where a majority of my students qualify for free and reduced lunch. I have a master’s degree in English, and at High Tech Early College, I teach primarily concurrent enrollment classes, for which students receive both high school and college credit.

For the last five years, I have been rated “distinguished,” the district’s highest evaluation rating for teachers. That rating, plus my degree and the fact that I teach at a high-poverty school, means I benefit from many aspects of our current pay system, known as ProComp.

So I’m watching the Denver teacher’s union negotiations for a new pay scale closely. And I’m concerned.

For one, I believe that my distinguished rating reflects my hard-earned successes in the classroom. The union has advocated successfully to end bonuses tied to evaluations under the new contract, which is disappointing. I see that change as funding less effective teachers at the expense of others, and I worry they could drive strong teachers from the district.

But far more important to me are the existing bonuses for teachers who work in high-poverty schools. The union is advocating to shrink bonuses for teachers in Title I schools to $1,500 from $2,500, and redistributing the rest to increase everyone’s base pay.

I can tell you from experience that schools where many students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch — an indicator of poverty — face complex and often painful challenges. We don’t talk enough about how, all over America, most poor kids go to school with poor kids and rich kids go to school with rich kids. That means teachers in schools like mine aren’t working with a few students arriving with challenges — behavior problems, unaddressed trauma, worries about being undocumented, for example — but often entire classes of students who need special attention for those reasons.

If those bonuses keep shrinking, what incentivizes teachers to teach at schools like ours? If it’s the same pay at two schools, what will bring teachers into the places where we need them the most? A sense of vocation and moral purpose, for sure, but that ignores reality. Turnover at my school is relatively high, and evening out teacher pay could make it worse. Students at those schools deserve great teachers who stick around.

To be clear, I love High Tech, and I’m not going anywhere. And I’m not anti-union. All teachers should be compensated for the hard and important work that they do, and I’m excited to see pay rise for everyone. I don’t believe that strong base pay and bonus money for qualified educators are mutually exclusive.

But the union’s stance on high-poverty schools is indefensible. I hope it reconsiders.

Alison Corbett is a teacher at High Tech Early College and was a 2017-18 Teach Plus Colorado Fellow.