the race continues

Diving into charged debate, Nixon calls for immediate repeal of New York’s teacher evaluation law

PHOTO: Metropolitan Transportation Authority / Patrick Cashin

Cynthia Nixon is calling on lawmakers to immediately repeal New York’s unpopular teacher evaluation law, catapulting her gubernatorial campaign into one of the messiest debates in New York state education policy.

Nixon called on her Democratic primary opponent Gov. Andrew Cuomo to stop making “excuses” about the law that he once championed, which has faced significant pushback for the way it tied educator ratings to standardized test scores and was later put partially on hold. The former “Sex and the City” star’s plan received support from a group of a few dozen education leaders called “Educators for Cynthia,” which includes education historian and testing opponent Diane Ravitch.

The announcement puts Nixon on board with the state’s teachers union agenda and threatens to drive a wedge between Cuomo and the major labor group, which he’s had a tenuous relationship with in the past.

“A couple years ago Andrew Cuomo described teacher evaluation based on high stakes testing as one of his greatest legacies, now he is hoping that parents and teachers have forgotten all about it,” Nixon said in a statement released on Thursday. “Enough of the delays and excuses Governor Cuomo, it is time to repeal the APPR now.”

In a statement, a Cuomo campaign spokeswoman attempted to distance the governor from the issue of teacher evaluations, instead turning the blame on the education department.

“Experts across the board agreed that the implementation of Common Core was botched by SED, which is why they have been tasked to overhaul it and the Board of Regents adopted a moratorium on the use of tests in the evaluation,” said Cuomo campaign spokeswoman Abbey Fashouer.

But it was Cuomo who led the charge to create a new teacher evaluation system in 2015, even calling the old system “baloney” in his State of the State address that year. The measure he fought for passed — allowing half of an individual educator’s rating to be based on test scores — but not without a fued with the unions.

Since then, Cuomo has done an about-face on education policy, leading to a friendlier relationship with the labor groups. The governor has also been courting organized labor this year by standing up for union protections in the face of a Supreme Court case that could hinder the union’s ability to collect fees. Both state and city teachers union leaders said earlier this year they had begun to set aside their differences with the governor and were pleased with his new direction.

But the call to repeal New York’s teacher evaluation law has been a major priority for the state teachers union this year. Officials at the New York State United Teachers have been out on a limb calling for an immediate law change that would allow local districts to craft their own evaluation systems. Their push, however, has gained little traction from lawmakers or officials at the state education department, who are trying to revamp teacher evaluations through a slower process.

“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 NYSUT, during a February Board of Regents meeting. “Now is the time — we’ve been talking about this for years.” (Neither the state or city teachers unions responded to immediate request for comment on Thursday.)

Crucial aspects of the evaluation system that Cuomo championed three years ago are currently on hold. After a spate of education issues — including the teacher evaluation system — caused a statewide testing boycott, the governor began reexamining some of his education policies..

Cuomo appointed a task force to review state learning standards that eventually called for a freeze on the use of test scores in teacher evaluations. The state’s Board of Regents soon obliged, placing a moratorium on the use of grades 3-8 math and English tests in teacher ratings until 2019. But the law remains on the books, and state officials are just starting to dive into the issue again as the moratorium nears its end.

Officials from Nixon’s campaign said that she believes evaluations should be locally designed and that high-stakes tests should not be used to judge teachers.

This story has been updated to include information from Nixon’s campaign on her vision for teacher evaluations.

Top teacher

Former Tennessee teacher of the year wins prestigious national award

Cicely Woodard, an eighth-grade math teacher in Franklin, receives the 2019 NEA Member Benefits Award for Teaching Excellence. (Photo courtesy of NEA)

Former Tennessee teacher of the year Cicely Woodard has received the nation’s highest teaching honor through its largest teacher organization.

The eighth-grade math educator in Franklin accepted the Member Benefits Award for Teaching Excellence from the NEA Foundation. The honor, which includes a $25,000 prize, was presented Friday at a gala in Washington, D.C.

“Teaching can be time-consuming, challenging, and sometimes overwhelming,” said Woodard. “But the impact that we make on the lives of students — and that they make on us — is powerful, life-changing, and enduring.”

A graduate of Central High School in Memphis, Woodard has been a teacher since 2003. She taught in Nashville public schools when she was named Tennessee’s top teacher in 2018 and has since moved to Franklin Special School District in Williamson County, south of Nashville, where she teaches at Freedom Middle School.

Woodard was among 46 educators nominated for the NEA Foundation award by their state education associations and was one of five finalists who received the Horace Mann Award for Teaching Excellence, which carries an additional $10,000 prize. The Member Benefits Award winner was announced at the finale of the gala attended by 900 people.

“Cicely has been selected for this award by her peers not only because of her mastery as an educator, but also because of the empathy and compassion she shows for her students,” said Harriet Sanford, president and CEO of the NEA Foundation.

Known for her inquiry-based approach to mathematics, Woodard holds a bachelor’s degree in math from the University of Memphis and a master’s degree in secondary math education from Vanderbilt University.

She has had numerous state-level roles, including serving on the education department’s teachers cabinet and on the testing task force created by former Education Commissioner Candice McQueen. She also is on the steering committee for the State Collaborative on Reforming Education, a Nashville-based education research and advocacy organization.

You can watch Woodard in her classroom in the video below.

Penny Schwinn

What we heard from Tennessee’s education commissioner during her first week

Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn (right) speaks with students during a visit to LEAD Neely's Bend, a state-run charter school in Nashville. (Photo courtesy of LEAD Public Schools)

From students in the classroom to lawmakers on Capitol Hill, Penny Schwinn introduced herself as Tennessee’s education commissioner this week by praising the state’s academic gains over the last decade and promising to keep up that momentum by supporting school communities.

Schwinn toured seven schools in Middle and East Tennessee during her first three days on the job to get a firsthand look at what’s behind the academic growth that she’s watched from afar as chief accountability officer for Delaware’s education department and more recently as deputy commissioner over academics in Texas. She plans to visit schools in West Tennessee next week.

The goal, she said, is to “listen and learn,” and she told a statewide gathering of superintendents at midweek that Tennessee’s successes can be traced to the classroom.

“It has to do with the hard work of our educators … every single day getting up, walking in front of our children, and saying ‘You deserve an excellent education, and I’m going to be the one to give it to you,’” she said.

On policy, she affirmed Tennessee’s decade-long blueprint of setting rigorous academic standards, having a strong assessment to track performance, and holding school communities accountable for results.

“If we can keep that bar high … then I think that Tennessee will continue to improve at the rate that it has been,” she told legislators during an appearance before the House Education Committee.

Schwinn was the final cabinet member to start her job after being hired by Republican Gov. Bill Lee just days before his inauguration on Jan. 19. Her whirlwind first week began with school visits on Monday and concluded on Friday by attending a policy-heavy session of the State Board of Education.

But perhaps the biggest introduction came on Wednesday before district leaders attending a statewide meeting of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents, also known as TOSS. These are the local administrators she’ll work with most closely to try to improve student performance.

The superintendents group had stayed neutral about who should succeed Candice McQueen in the state’s top policy job but hoped for a leader with extensive experience both in the classroom and as a Tennessee school superintendent. Schwinn is neither, having started her career in a Baltimore classroom through Teach For America and later founding a charter school in her hometown of Sacramento, California, where she also was a principal and then became an assistant district superintendent.

She appeared to wow them.

“Our job at the state Department of Education is to figure out what you all need to help your teachers be the best that they can be for our students. My job is to lead this department to ensure that this happens,” she told the superintendents.

Schwinn shared a personal story about adopting her oldest daughter, now age 6, and the “powerful moment” at the hospital when the birth mom said she loved her baby but couldn’t provide her with the future she deserves. “I think you can,” she told Schwinn, “and so I’m giving you my baby.”

Penny Schwinn speaks to the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents. (Photo courtesy of TOSS)

“When I think about my responsibility as a teacher or a principal or as commissioner of the state of Tennessee, I think about all of our parents … who pack up lunches, pack up backpacks, drop them off at the door and they give us their babies,” she said.

“That is the most powerful and important responsibility that we have as educators,” she said, “and I take that very, very seriously.”

Several superintendents stood up to thank her.

“I am encouraged. I feel like you have the heart that we all have,” said Linda Cash, who leads Bradley County Schools in southeast Tennessee.

“What she did most is she listened,” said TOSS Executive Director Dale Lynch of his earlier meeting with Schwinn. “As superintendents and directors, that’s very important to us.”

Here are other things we heard Schwinn say this week:

On whether Tennessee will continue its 3-year-old literacy program known as Read to be Ready:

“It is incredibly important that we have initiatives that stick and that have staying power. I think we’ve all had the experience of having … one-and-done initiatives that come and go. … From [my early school] visits, it was underscored time and time again the importance of initiatives like that.”

On the role of early childhood education:

“I think that early education — and that’s both academic and social development — is incredibly important to ensure that we get kindergartners who are ready to learn and ready to be successful.”

On the state-run turnaround district for Tennessee’s lowest-performing schools:

“High expectations are the vision of the Achievement School District, but I think there’s a lot of work to be done candidly. There are good conversations to be had and some questions to be asked. But I will say that I am committed to ensuring that our lowest-performing schools achieve and grow at a much faster rate than they have been.”

On Texas’ academic growth in the 1990s that later flattened:

“They got very comfortable. It was, ‘We’re just doing just fine, we’re doing a great job,’ and then slowly some of the big reforms that they put into place in the ’90s started peeling back little by little. … It’s hard to get things done, but it’s really hard to hold the line.”

Here are six other things to know about Penny Schwinn.