Recommended Fixes

Gov. Cuomo’s Common Core task force calls for evaluation freeze, test changes

PHOTO: Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of the Governor
Gov. Andrew Cuomo pushed for a broad overhaul of state education policy last year.

The governor’s Common Core task force has proposed overhauling the Common Core standards and pausing test-based teacher evaluations, paving the way for significant changes to policies that have dominated state education for years.

The recommendations were part of a report, released Thursday afternoon, that reflects parent and educator concerns about state tests, evaluations, and the rollout of the standards that have been brewing for years. Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has pushed for tough academic standards and teacher ratings tied to test scores, has said he will pay close attention to the group’s recommendations — indicating that he is ready to back a broad shift in the state’s education policies.

“The Common Core was supposed to ensure all of our children had the education they needed to be college and career-ready — but it actually caused confusion and anxiety,” Cuomo said in a statement. “That ends now.”

The Common Core standards are lists of math and reading skills that students must master by the end of each grade. They form the basis for the state’s annual tests, which have grown increasingly unpopular: This year, one in five students across the state refused to take them.

The report calls for the standards to be revised in a limited way, with plenty of teacher input and adjustments to the standards aimed at the state’s youngest students. It also nods to concerns that the state has already begun to address about the content of tests and the time students spend taking them.

Its most dramatic suggestion, though, is a freeze until 2019 on factoring students’ state test scores into teachers’ ratings — the focus of years of policy wrangling that resulted in a revamped teacher-evaluation system that was introduced in 2013. Earlier this year, Cuomo successfully pushed for the scores to weigh more heavily in the ratings. If he accepts the recommendation, Cuomo will be making a significant retreat from his earlier position.

The proposal to pull back from test-based ratings marks a major victory for teachers unions, who have long argued that the tests are an unreliable measure of teacher performance.

“It validates what we have been saying for years,” United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew said of the report, adding that Thursday was a “historical day.”

Whether the recommendations become reality is up to the state Board of Regents, which sets education policy. But Cuomo has indicated that he will heed the suggestions, which he said Thursday could be adopted without making changes to state law.

“It seems for the most part, the ball is now in the education department’s court and they are already at work on some of these ideas,” said Bob Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents.

The report does not call for replacing the standards, which the state adopted in 2010 as it began a fast-moving series of policy changes sparked by a $700 million federal “Race to the Top” grant. That gave Common Core supporters a minor victory to celebrate Thursday.

“The report makes clear that the current standards and assessments will stay in place,” said Stephen Sigmund, the executive director of High Achievement New York, a coalition of groups that promote the standards.

The report proposes a number of changes to the standards, such as making them more age-appropriate for young students and letting parents and teachers review them on a regular basis. For the assessments, it suggests reducing test time, publishing more of the test questions, and giving additional leeway to students with disabilities.

New York joins several states in backing away from the Common Core. A number of states have reviewed, renamed, or tweaked the standards, and a few have completely dropped them.

However, most of the reviews did not yield significant changes, said Morgan Polikoff, an assistant professor of education at USC’s Rossier School of Education.

“There’s been a number of states now that have done this kind of review and I think unanimously, the outcome has been relatively modest tweaks of the actual content of the standards,” Polikoff said.

Cuomo appointed the 15-member task force in September, partly in response to the unprecedented wave of testing opposition this spring. At that time, he called the state’s Common Core’s roll out “deeply flawed” and pledged to consider the committee’s recommendations when setting his agenda for next year’s legislative session.

The task force was comprised of educators and advocates from around the state, including New York State Commissioner MaryEllen Elia and Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. The group spent three months collecting public testimony and reviewing written comments, ultimately consulting about 2,100 people, according to Cuomo’s office.

Still, a full reboot of standards would take far longer than was allotted to the task force, said Robert Pondiscio, a senior fellow at the Fordham Institute who also works at Democracy Prep, a charter school in Harlem.

“Creating standards is not something that you do quickly, easily, overnight,” Pondiscio said.

The latest recommendations mirror ones proposed by Elia at last month’s Board of Regents meeting. The state education department said it received generally positive feedback on a survey it conducted of the standards, though some critics have questioned those findings.

Cuomo’s task force was not tasked with reviewing teacher evaluations, but during the process its members decided that the standards and assessments could not be separated from the evaluations, since they are based partly on test results.

New York introduced the Common Core-aligned tests in 2013, at the same time as the test-based evaluation system. That combination put significant pressure on teachers, who were suddenly judged based on standards that many said they were unprepared to teach.

In January, Cuomo again raised the stakes for teacher evaluations. Calling the current system “baloney,” he successfully pushed for a revised law that makes tests account for around 50 percent of teachers’ ratings.

By embracing the committee’s report, he is set to abandon the position he staked out earlier this year.

“Today, we will begin to transform our system,” Cuomo said in his statement Thursday, “into one that empowers parents, teachers, and local districts and ensures high standards for all students.”

another round

New York wants to overhaul its teacher evaluations — again. Here’s a guide to the brewing battle.

PHOTO: Kyle Taubken

State policymakers recently dipped their toes into one of New York’s most politically charged education issues: teacher evaluations.

At a meeting this month, state education department officials outlined plans to revamp the unpopular teacher-rating system, which was essentially put on hold more than two years ago. Shortly after, the state teachers union called for faster action setting the stage for a new round of evaluation debates.

To help explain the brewing debate, Chalkbeat has created a guide to the current evaluations, how they came to be, and what might be in store for them.

Here’s what you need to know:

How do New York’s teacher evaluations work now?

Teachers are evaluated based on two components: students’ academic improvement and principals’ observation of their teaching.

Every district creates its own state-approved evaluation plan that spells out how they will measure student learning. In 2015, state policymakers temporarily banned the use of grades 3-8 math and English state tests in evaluations.

In New York City, teams of educators at each school pick from a menu of assessments called “Measures of Student Learning.” Among the options are developed essay-based tasks and “running records,” where students are assessed as they read increasingly difficult texts. They can also choose to include the results of science tests or high-school graduation exams. (Certain teachers — such as those who teach physical education — are evaluated based partly on their students’ scores in other subjects.)

Teachers receive one score based on how much students improved academically, and another based on principals’ ratings. The combined scores are translated into one of four ratings, ranging from “highly effective” to “ineffective.”

Teacher evaluations must still be a factor in tenure decisions and three “ineffective” ratings can trigger a teacher’s firing.

What are the outcomes of the current system?

Nearly 97 percent of New York City teachers earned the top two ratings of either “effective” or “highly effective” in the 2016-17 school year, according to preliminary numbers presented by the city teachers union president at a meeting in October. That is an increase from the previous year when 93 percent of teachers earned one of those ratings.

How did we get here?

Until 2010, teachers were rated either “satisfactory” and “unsatisfactory,” and individual districts and principals were given latitude to determine how those ratings were assigned.

But in order to win a federal “Race to the Top” grant that year, New York adopted a new evaluation system that factored in students’ standardized test scores — a move strongly opposed by many teachers, who consider the tests an unreliable measure of their performance. The new system was based on a 100-point scale that allotted 20 points to state tests, 20 points to local tests, and 60 points to principal observations.

The battle lines were redrawn again in 2015, when state lawmakers led by Gov. Andrew Cuomo sought to make it tougher for teachers to earn high ratings. The new system allowed for as much as half of a teacher’s rating to be based on test scores.

But that plan was never fully implemented. Following a wave of protests in which one in five New York families boycotted the state tests, officials backed away from several controversial education policies.

In late 2015, the state’s Board of Regents approved a four-year freeze on the most contentious aspect of the teacher evaluation law: the use of students’ scores on the grades 3-8 math and English tests. They later allowed districts to avoid having independent observers rate teachers — another unpopular provision in the original law.

Why is the state looking to overhaul the system now?

Over the past few years, state policymakers have revised New York’s learning standards and the annual exams that students take. Now, they are turning to the evaluation system.

The moratorium on the use of certain test scores in teacher evaluations expires after next school year, so the clock is ticking for state education officials to come up with a new system. They have said they hope to have a new system ready for the 2019-2020 school year — but they also floated the idea of extending the moratorium in order to give themselves more time.

What could change?

Everything is up for debate.

First, state policymakers must decide whether to create a single statewide evaluation system or let local school districts craft their own, as the state teachers union is urging.

Second, they must decide what to put in the evaluations. Should they include test scores, principal observations, or other measures? If they allow tests, they must determine which kinds to use and how much to weigh student scores.

However, they may run up against some obstacles. Besides the relatively short timeline, major changes to the evaluation system could require state lawmakers to revise the underlying legislation. And any new student-learning measures they hope to use could prove costly to develop.

Who are the key players and what do they want?

State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia has made it clear she wants to oversee a careful redesign process that will involve teachers and could lead to a revamped, statewide evaluation system. “This isn’t going to be a fast process,” Elia said during a legislative hearing at the end of January.

State teachers union officials have called for a much quicker process that results in local school districts crafting their own evaluations — a move that could eliminate the use of test scores. “First and foremost, the teachers that we represent believe that the time to fix [teacher evaluation] is this year,” said Jolene DiBrango, executive vice president of the New York State United Teachers, after the state outlined its plan earlier this month. Since then, union officials have said they want to work collaboratively with the education department.

Gov. Cuomo has shied away from this issue after pushing for the deeply unpopular 2015 law that tried to toughen evaluations and inflamed the teachers unions. And he does not appear eager to revisit the issue this year as he seeks reelection. His spokeswoman, Abbey Fashouer, told Chalkbeat: “We will revisit the issue at the appropriate time,” and noted that the moratorium will remain in effect until the 2019-20 school year.

State lawmakers have not indicated that overhauling the teacher-evaluation law this year is a top priority.

During a city teachers union event in December, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said he was not sure the state could get to a “final idea” by the end of this year — but that he wanted to “start the dialogue.” The senate majority leader, John Flanagan, did not respond to a request for comment.

“I have not heard any movement on teacher evaluations this year,” said Patricia Fahy, a Democratic assemblymember who represents Albany, in an interview this week. “Normally something about that would be bubbling up already.”

state of the union

New York City teachers union braces for Supreme Court ruling that could drain money and members

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
UFT President Michael Mulgrew (standing) met with teachers during a school visit in 2014.

A few dozen labor leaders gathered recently at the the headquarters of New York City’s 187,000-member teachers union to hear a cautionary tale.

In a glass-walled conference room overlooking downtown Manhattan, United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew settled into a chair facing a colleague from Wisconsin. He asked the state teachers union president, Kim Kohlhaas, how her members have fared after an aggressive rollback of labor’s bargaining power there.

She described rampant teacher turnover, fewer job protections, and ballooning insurance and pension costs. In short, a union’s worst nightmare.

For the UFT, Wisconsin is a harbinger of what could result from a Supreme Court case known as Janus, which revolves around the ability of public unions to collect mandatory fees. Oral arguments begin on Feb. 26, and the decision, which is expected in a matter of months, could dramatically alter the landscape for unions across the country.

The impact will be felt especially by the UFT, the largest union local in the country. If the court rules that teachers are not required to pay for its services, the union is likely to shed members and money — a war chest that has allowed the UFT to be a major player in New York politics and to secure robust benefits for its members.

“This is dangerous stuff we’re getting into now,” Mulgrew told Chalkbeat. “They’re trying to take away people’s ability to come together, to stand up and have a voice.”

While the case deals with different issues than Wisconsin’s anti-union policies did, New York City labor leaders say the limits on their membership and funding would weaken their ability to fight against further restrictions on their organizing and bargaining power.

In anticipation of the ruling, union leaders have reportedly already considered downsizing their operations. And they have undertaken a preemptive information and recruitment campaign to hold onto members — who, soon, may be free to choose whether to keep supporting the union financially.

“Much as I oppose Janus, it’s kind of a wake up call for entrenched union leadership,” New York City teacher Arthur Goldstein blogged recently. “People need reasons to pay, and it’s on leadership to provide them.”

At issue is whether public unions can continue to charge “agency fees,” which are payments collected from people who are not members. Sometimes called a “fair share” fee, it is meant to help unions cover the cost of bargaining contracts that cover all workers, regardless of whether they are union members. Only a fraction of New York City teachers currently opt out of the union and pay the agency fees rather than dues — but experts expect many more teachers could leave the union if the Supreme Court bans the fees.

Mark Janus, a government employee in Illinois, is challenging the fee on the grounds that it violates his right to free speech. The Supreme Court deadlocked on a similar case in 2016 after the sudden death of Justice Antonin Scalia. With Neil Gorsuch now on the bench, observers expect a conservative-leaning court will side with Janus. If that happens, workers covered by unions — including the UFT — will be able to opt out of paying the fees that help keep the unions in operation.

“What that means is there will be a lot of teachers — potentially a lot of teachers in New York — who do not invest in the union,” said Evan Stone, co-founder of the teacher advocacy group Educators for Excellence. “There will be potential growth in free riders who are benefiting from the work of the union without contributing to it.”

That’s why the UFT is kicking into action. The union has trained scores of members to knock on doors and talk to fellow teachers about the case. In about two months, the union estimates its members have knocked on 11,000 doors, sharing stories about how the union has helped them and hoping to convince teachers to keep financially supporting the work, even if the courts decide they’re no longer required to.

Union leaders are also launching “membership teams” in every school. Tasked with “building a sense of unity,” the union is asking the teams to engage in personal conversations with members, and plan shows of support for the union. Stone said his organization is organizing focus groups across the city to inform members about the case.

New York City teachers automatically become union members. They pay about $117 a month in dues, while social workers, paraprofessionals, and members in other school roles pay different amounts. Members can also choose to contribute to a separate political fund, which the union uses to lobby lawmakers and support union-friendly candidates.

About 2,000 educators opt-out of the union and pay agency fees instead — which are the same amount as regular dues, according to a UFT spokesman.

Ken Girardin, who has studied the potential fallout of Janus for New York’s unions as an analyst for the right-leaning Empire Center for Public Policy, said the number of agency-fee payers is low compared to other unions. But the Janus case could change that.

Girardin looked at what happened after Michigan enacted a “right to work” law, which forbid mandatory agency fees. The result: The Michigan Education Association, among the state’s largest unions, saw a 20 percent drop in dues and fees. Among full-time teachers, membership declined by 18 percent.

Girardin estimates an equivalent decrease in New York would mean the state’s teachers unions would take a $49 million hit annually. The UFT relies on dues and agency fees for about 85 percent of its $185 million budget, according to federal documents.

“It means they’d have to make up a course change,” Girardin told Chalkbeat, referring to the potential impact of the Janus decision. “They would have to treat their members like customers instead of people who are going to pay them regardless.”

Behind the scenes, the union is reportedly making contingency plans to deal with the potential budgetary fall-out. The New York Post recently cited unnamed sources who said union leadership is considering reducing the staff at some of its borough offices and cutting back on discretionary spending.

Girardin said public-sector unions in New York have already begun to fight for state legislation that would make it harder for members to drop out — a potential work-around in case the court sides with Janus.

Some UFT members say the threat of Janus is already being felt. The union recently voted down a resolution to support Black Lives Matter after leadership said it was a divisive issue at a time when the union can’t afford to lose members, according to an NY1 report.

Rosie Frascella, a Brooklyn high school teacher who helped organized Black Lives Matter at School events across the city, said she was disappointed in the leadership’s decision. But despite those internal disagreements, she said the threat posed by Janus should compel all teachers to speak out in support of their unions.

“You need to be in a union because it protects your right to teach,” she said. “And it stands up for our students and it creates the schools our children deserve.”