evaluation games

New York’s teacher evaluations aren’t going anywhere. In fact, they’re getting a makeover that nobody planned

PHOTO: NYS Governor's Office/Flickr
Gov. Andrew Cuomo gave his 2016 State of the State address Wednesday.

To hear most education officials tell it, teacher evaluations in New York state have come to a screeching halt.

They are “unplugged,” according to State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia. “The gotcha system is over,” according to a spokeswoman for the city teachers union. Evaluations will likely “just sit on the shelves and gather dust,” according to a state teachers union representative.

But there is a catch. School districts are still on the hook to evaluate every teacher, the results can still be used to make decisions about educators’ futures, and a 2015 law is about to require a host of new rules. And with just days left in this year’s legislative session, it’s becoming clear that Gov. Andrew Cuomo has little desire to see that change.

“This is a major issue that is right now going ignored,” State Senator Todd Kaminsky said. “People are saying it’s a time-out and it’s not.”

The strange situation came about because legislators passed a law overhauling the state’s teacher evaluation system last year to put more emphasis on state tests — and then education policymakers walked it back, banning state test results from being used altogether.

Lawmakers were responding to Cuomo’s view that too many teachers were earning top ratings. The state education department was listening to a growing movement of educators and parents upset about the growing influence of state tests.

In the end, the state education department decided teachers would get two evaluations. Next year, one will include state test scores but have no consequences. The real evaluations will use different metrics and can affect teacher tenure and firing.

Within those frameworks, districts and their teachers unions will have to agree on key details and those negotiations are ongoing.

“We are working with districts across the state to support their efforts as they complete their contract negotiations and to provide them as much flexibility as possible within the law,” State Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said.

But many had hoped that lawmakers would agree to scrap the universally unpopular 2015 law by now, making it unnecessary for districts to negotiate the details of the two new plans at all. So far, that hasn’t happened — and since there are just three days left in the legislative session, few think change is on the way.

“The big hangup is obviously the governor’s office,” said Assemblyman Edward Ra, who supports repealing last year’s law. “It really creates a little bit of a mess for everybody.” (Officials from Cuomo’s office did not say whether the governor would support changes to teacher evaluations.)

Now, it’s up to school districts like New York City to work out the details of new evaluation plans with their teachers unions. Barring a big change in the next few days, they are facing a tight timeline: They need an agreement by Sept. 1 or they risk losing state funds.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie wants to untie evaluations and funding, but whether that happens or not, many are still frustrated: It’s the third time in five years many districts and their unions have had to change the way evaluations work. This time, the cause is a law that has been widely rejected and that state officials say they are already planning to replace.

For now, “It’s more time and an extra burden,” Regent Roger Tilles said.

The biggest changes teachers are likely to see next year have already been decided by law. Both halves of the evaluation system, classroom observations and measurements of student growth, are about to shift — potentially in unpopular ways.

Some classroom observations will now require outside observers, not just school administrators. Cuomo had pushed for those independent observers as an objective way to measure teacher quality, but others argue they will not understand the nuances of each school and could undermine the autonomy of the principal.

Meanwhile, districts are searching for ways to gauge student progress using local tests, instead of state test results. Local assessments have been part of evaluations in the past, but now they will be a larger part of teachers’ scores.

The evaluations still will have consequences attached. By law, they must be a main factor in tenure decisions, low ratings will prompt improvement plans, and three “ineffective” ratings are supposed to lead to firing.

Jake Jacobs, an art teacher at New Directions Secondary School in the Bronx whose evaluation already uses a local measure, is worried that the new evaluation system will still be a problem for teachers.

“Everyone’s saying, ‘Calm down, the tests don’t count anymore,’” Jacobs said. “Tests count just as much as they ever did. It’s just we’re using the local tests instead of the Common Core math and ELA. I really think when they did the moratorium, it was just a facade.”

legal opinion

Tennessee’s attorney general sides with charter schools in battle over student information

PHOTO: TN.gov
Herbert H. Slatery III was appointed Tennessee attorney general in 2014 by Gov. Bill Haslam, for whom he previously served as general counsel.

Tennessee’s attorney general says requests for student contact information from state-run charter school operators don’t violate a federal student privacy law, but rather are “entirely consistent with it.”

The opinion from Herbert Slatery III, issued late on Wednesday in response to a request by Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, was a win for charter schools in their battle with the state’s two largest districts.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen

McQueen quickly responded by ordering school leaders in Memphis and Nashville to comply. In letters dispatched to Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson and Director Shawn Joseph of Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, McQueen gave the districts a deadline, adding that they will face consequences if they refuse.

“If you do not provide this information by Sept. 25, 2017, to the (Achievement School District) and any other charter school or charter authorizer who has an outstanding request, we will be forced to consider actions to enforce the law,” she wrote.

Neither superintendent responded immediately to requests for comment, but school board leaders in both districts said Thursday that their attorneys were reviewing the matter.

Chris Caldwell, chairman for Shelby County’s board, said he’s also concerned “whether the timeframe stated gives us enough time to make sure families are aware of what is happening.”

Wednesday’s flurry of events heats up the battle that started in July when charter operators Green Dot and LEAD requested student contact information under the state’s new charter law, which gives districts 30 days to comply with such requests. School boards in both Memphis and Nashville refused, arguing they had the right under the federal student privacy law to restrict who gets the information and for what reasons.

The attorney general said sharing such information would not violate federal law.

The requested information falls under “student directory information,” and can be published by school districts without a parent’s permission. For Shelby County Schools, this type of information includes names, addresses, emails and phone numbers.


To learn what information is at stake and how it’s used, read our in-depth explainer.


The opinion also backs up the new state law, which directs districts to share information that charter operators say they need to recruit students and market their programs in Tennessee’s expanding school-choice environment.

However, the opinion allowed for districts to have a “reasonable period of time” to notify parents of their right to opt out of sharing such information. It was not clear from the opinion if the two school districts have exhausted that time.

A spokeswoman for Shelby County Schools said Tuesday the district had not yet distributed forms that would allow parents to opt out of having their students’ information shared, although the district’s parent-student handbook already includes instructions for doing so.

Below, you can read the attorney general’s opinion and McQueen’s letters to both superintendents:

Clarification, Sept. 14, 2017: This story has been updated to clarify the school boards’ arguments for not sharing the information.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.