tallon talents

Changing education is like ‘moving a battleship on the ocean’: Departing NY Regent reflects on his tenure

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Regent James Tallon after a recent Board of Regents meeting.

Regent James Tallon will not seek another term on New York state’s education policymaking body, he told Chalkbeat this week, opening up an empty spot on the board and continuing the transformation of the 17-member group.

“I have told the Senate and Assembly that I don’t intend to seek a fourth term on the board,” Tallon said. “I’ve really enjoyed my 15 years of service and this is largely a personal decision.”

Tallon, a former state assemblyman who chaired the Regents’ budget committee, led discussions about ensuring all schools, particularly high-needs schools, have the resources necessary to improve. Though budgetary power rests with the legislature, Tallon is well-versed in school funding and has been a strong advocate for the Regents’ agenda, said Peter Goodman, who attends the Regents meetings and writes a blog about New York state education policy.

That loss is particularly important this year, since Governor Andrew Cuomo has proposed significant and controversial changes to the way the state funds schools, drawing ire from several education advocacy groups, he said.

With Tallon’s term finishing at the end of March, the state legislature will appoint a new member.

“He’s not replaceable,” Goodman said. “He knows all the ins and outs of the budget and he’s very, very well regarded by the legislature.”

Chancellor Betty Rosa said Tallon has made “vast and substantial contributions” to the board.

“His knowledge, decorum and counsel have proven invaluable to the Board time and time again,” Rosa said.

Tallon’s departure comes in the aftermath of other major transitions on the board. The Regents gained seven new members in the last two years and elected a new chancellor in March — ushering in a shift in the dynamics and policy direction of the board. It has, in general, moved away from the learning standards and teacher evaluation system ushered in under Chancellor Merryl Tisch. Those changes were partially responsible for an opt-out movement that spread to one in five New York families.

Tallon said the most important lesson he learned during his time on the board is that big changes take time.

“The controversies that sprang up about all those things, I think, in many respects were influenced by the speed with which we attacked all those issues,” Tallon said. “It is an enormously complicated space and making changes is, to some extent, moving a battleship on the ocean.”

Tisch voiced a similar sentiment when she stepped down last year. Tallon said he sees promise in the way the board is now looking to implement a new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, which allows the state to redesign how it measures and intervenes in schools.

The state’s education commissioner praised Tallon’s work and service to the Board of Regents.

“It is hard to imagine a more thoughtful, intelligent and forceful advocate for New York’s students, parents and educators than Regent Jim Tallon,” said State Commissioner MaryEllen Elia in a statement. “I thank him for his decades of service to the people of New York. He will be sorely missed by all of us at the Education Department and the Board of Regents.”

Incentives

Westminster district will give bonuses if state ratings rise, teachers wonder whether performance pay system is coming

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students work on an English assignment at M. Scott Carpenter Middle School in Westminster.

Teachers and employees in Westminster Public Schools will be able to earn a bonus if they help the struggling district improve its state ratings next year.

The district’s school board on Tuesday unanimously approved the $1.7 million plan for the one-year performance stipends, the district’s latest attempt to lift the quality of its schools.

School employees can earn $1,000 if their school meets a district-set score, or up to $2,000 if they reach a more ambitious goal the school sets. District employees, including the superintendent, can earn $1,000 if the district as a whole jumps up a rating next year.

“We recognize that everyone plays a critical role in increasing student achievement and we decided that if a particular school or the district as a whole can reach that next academic accreditation level, the employees directly responsible should be rewarded,” board president Dino Valente said in a statement.

The district is one of five that was flagged by the state for chronic low performance and was put on a state-ordered improvement plan this spring.

District officials have disputed state ratings, claiming the state’s system is not fairly assessing the performance of Westminster schools. Middle school teacher Melissa Duran, who also used to be president of the teacher’s union, drew a connection between that stance and the new stipends, saying any extra pay she gets would be based on one score.

“The district has gone to the state saying, ‘Why are you rating us on these tests, look at all the other things we’re doing’” Duran said. “Well, it’s the same thing for teachers. They’re still basing our effectiveness on a test score.”

Teachers interviewed Thursday said their first thoughts upon learning of the plan was that it sounded like the beginnings of performance pay.

“I already get the point that we are in need of having our test scores come up,” said math teacher Andy Hartman, who is also head of negotiations for the teacher’s union. “Putting this little carrot out there isn’t going to change anything. I personally do not like performance pay. It’s a very slippery slope.”

District leaders say they talked to all district principals after the announcement Wednesday, and heard positive feedback.

“A lot of the teachers think this is a good thing,” said Steve Saunders, the district’s spokesman.

National studies on the effectiveness of performance pay stipends and merit pay have shown mixed results. One recent study from Vanderbilt University concluded that they can be effective, but that the design of the systems makes a difference.

In Denver Public Schools, the district has a performance-pay system to give raises and bonuses to teachers in various situations. Studies of that model have found that some teachers don’t completely understand the system and that it’s not always tied to better student outcomes.

Westminster officials said they have never formally discussed performance pay, and said that these stipends are being funded for one year with an unanticipated IRS refund.

Westminster teachers said they have ideas for other strategies that could make a quick impact, such as higher pay for substitutes so teachers aren’t losing their planning periods filling in for each other when subs are difficult to find.

Waiting on a bonus that might come next year is not providing any new motivation, teachers said.

“It’s a slap in the face,” Duran said. “It’s not like we are not already working hard enough. Personally, I already give 110 percent. I’ve always given 110 percent.”

Last month, the school board also approved a new contract for teachers and staff. Under the new agreement, teachers and staff got a raise of at least 1 percent. They received a similar raise last year.

Human Resources

Leanne Emm, Colorado education department’s chief financial officer, to retire

Leanne Emm, the state education department's retiring chief financial officer. (Photo courtesy Colorado Department of Education)

A long-running joke among Colorado education officials, policymakers and activists is that only a handful of people really know how Colorado’s complex school funding system works.

One of those people — Leanne Emm, the state’s education department’s deputy commissioner — is retiring later this month after nearly 30 years in public service.

Emm announced her retirement in an email to other school finance officers late last month. Her last day at the department is Sept. 22.

“Each of you helps your students, communities, stakeholders and decision makers with a huge array of issues,” she said in her email. “I can only hope that I will have helped contribute to an understanding of budgetary pressures that we have within the state.”

Emm was appointed to her position in 2011 — about the same time the state’s schools were grappling with deep budget cuts due to Great Recession. She worked at Jeffco Public Schools for 14 years before joining the education department.

Katy Anthes, the state’s education commissioner, said Emm’s exit will be felt at both the state and local school district level.

“Leanne’s leadership and her deep knowledge of the school finance system will be sorely missed by all of us at CDE and by the districts she has supported over the years.” Anthes said in a statement. “I will be forever grateful for her support as I transitioned to this role. I’m sad to see her leave CDE, but I suspect that her love for the state of Colorado and passion for improving education will cause our paths to cross again.”