I'm just a bill

The debate is back: New York state leaders introduce bill to overhaul teacher evaluations

Ally Duncan, an elementary school teacher in Lake County, works with students on sentence structure. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Top New York lawmakers are pushing for an overhaul of the state’s controversial teacher evaluation system, which would eliminate the current law’s focus on rating teachers based on standardized tests.

A bill introduced in the Assembly on Thursday would prohibit the state from requiring districts to use grades 3-8 math and English test scores or Regents exams in teacher evaluations. Instead of championing one statewide evaluation system, the bill would allow local districts to craft their own teacher rating systems.

The bill would mark a dramatic about-face for New York on an issue that has galvanized protests, helped fuel one of the country’s largest testing boycott movements, and affects more than 70,000 teachers in New York City alone.

“The Assembly Majority has heard the concerns of New York’s educators and parents and we know that teachers’ performance and that of New York’s students may not be truly reflected in test scores,” Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said in a statement. “Students learn in a variety of ways and this bill reflects that reality.”

The state’s teachers union has been pushing for immediate action on the teacher evaluation law all session, but lawmakers had so far been silent on the issue. Cynthia Nixon, who is challenging Gov. Andrew Cuomo for the Democratic primary, came out in favor of immediately repealing the current teacher evaluation law earlier on Thursday, though lawmakers and union officials say they had been working on the bill long before her announcement.

The legislation has some important starpower behind it: It’s being sponsored by Heastie and Education Committee Chair Cathy Nolan. In Heastie’s statement about the bill, he noted that it comes after conversations with lawmakers, educators and the governor. A spokesman for Cuomo suggested that the governor is interested in tackling teacher evaluations this year but did not expressly support or oppose the bill. 

“We have been working the Legislature and education community for months to address this issue and would like to reach a resolution this session‎,” said Cuomo spokesman Rich Azzopardi.

If Cuomo supports this or similar legislation, it would mark a major reversal for the governor, who led the charge to create a new teacher evaluation system in 2015 that allowed half of a teacher’s rating to be based on test scores. Since then, one in five families boycotted state tests in protest of a host of state educational policy changes, including teacher evaluations.

In the wake of the law’s passage, Cuomo appointed a task force to review the state learning standards, and members called for a pause on the use of test scores in teacher evaluations. The state’s Board of Regents soon passed a moratorium on the use of grades 3-8 math and English testing being used in teacher ratings until 2019.

But as the moratorium comes to an end, state officials have started to grapple with the lightning rod subject again. Members of the state’s education policymaking body favored a slow, deliberate process with teams of experts and educators.

The state’s teachers union, which has pushed for quicker action, expressed excitement about the bill.

“We thank Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Education Chairwoman Cathy Nolan for listening to parents and educators and introducing a bill that would ensure that students and teachers are once again valued as more than a test score,” said NYSUT President Andy Pallotta in a statement.

The head of New York City’s teachers union praised the measure and suggested that Nixon’s teacher evaluation comments earlier in the day were not driving support for the bill.

“We are happy to hear of any and all support for a measure to limit the problems of standardized tests.  But let the record be clear: we have been working with legislators and the executive branch for months to reform New York State’s obsession with and misuse of standardized tests,” said UFT President Michael Mulgrew. “Ms. Nixon’s 11th hour public statement on the bill – while it may score political points – won’t help it get enacted.”

The mayor's role

Duggan’s schools commission has already brought charter and district leaders to the table. Here’s what else it can do (and what it can’t)

Mayor Mike Duggan plants to appoint Superintendent Nikolai Vitti to a commission that will focus on issues facing students in district and charter schools.

For the first time in years, Detroit’s mayor will have a small hand in shaping education in the city.

A new commission, whose nine members will be appointed by Mayor Mike Duggan, will include representatives of the main Detroit school district and charter schools, whose competition for teachers and students has made them reluctant to come to the same table.

The group will focus on services that have fallen between the cracks in a city where decisions about transportation and after-school programming are made by dozens of unaffiliated charter schools in addition to the main district.

The commission will run a new bus route that will transport students to both district and charter schools on Detroit’s northwest side — a controversial proposal that got official approval from the Detroit school board this week.

It will lead an effort to grade city schools, taking over for the advocacy group Excellent Schools Detroit, which dissolved last year. The rating system has the potential to dramatically impact the fortunes of schools whose survival depends on their enrollment figures.

And it will serve as a conduit for philanthropic dollars that could lead to other cooperative programs between district and charter schools typically wary of working together.

The mayor’s involvement is politically delicate in a city where years of state intervention in local schools have left voters wary of outsiders overruling the elected school board.

The school board’s decision to support the effort was controversial, with critics at a public meeting this week arguing that the board was giving up too much authority to the mayor.

But Vitti argued successfully that the district is carefully limiting its involvement in the effort with an eye toward preserving local control. He pointed to guidelines for the commission that insist, in bold print, that it “will not encroach” on work being done by existing school operators in Detroit.

Following the board’s approval, Vitti will be among the mayor’s appointments to the commission, which will also include parents and educators from both district and charter schools, a teachers union representative, and community leaders (see below for a full list).

The commission plans to meet eight times a year, and will voluntarily submit to state open records laws, according to its guidelines. It will not begin meeting until Duggan has formally appointed directors to the commission. It’s not clear when that will be.

But as plans for the commission emerge, equally important is what’s missing.

It won’t have the power to hold district and charter schools to performance standards. It won’t be able to determine which schools in the city open and close, and — crucially for a city where many neighborhoods lack access to a quality school — it won’t decide where new schools are located.

Earlier proposals, including one for a powerful central body called the Detroit Education Commission, would have done all of those things, placing substantial school oversight responsibilities in the hands of Detroit’s mayor for the first time since mayoral control of schools ended in 2005. Following a fierce lobbying effort, state lawmakers rejected the plan in 2016.

That was a defeat for advocates who have long pushed for an organization that can bring cohesion to the city’s schools. They argue that the proliferation of school options in Detroit and elsewhere is creating problems for families in low-income, urban districts. Detroit has plenty of schools, but large swaths of the city lack a quality option, and some families must make extreme sacrifices to navigate the system.

Other cities with high concentrations of charter schools have created centralized school agencies. In New Orleans and Washington, parents can go to a single agency to learn about individual schools and enroll their children.

The intent of the Detroit commission is similar, but its scope has been constrained by fierce opposition from both ends of the ideological spectrum.

On one side, those criticisms have not dissipated. Vitti sought to reassure board members on Tuesday that the commission won’t undermine local control.

“A rating system is inevitable, and this allows us to create a rating system with Detroit stakeholders, not led by a process in Lansing,” he said.

That argument was enough to win over most the board, but not everyone was convinced. Voters “elected a board that would work with them,” said LaMar Lemmons, one of the “nos” in a 5-to-2 vote. “I am vehemently opposed to giving away our authority.”

Lemmons also opposed the Detroit Education Commission when it went before the state legislature in 2016. “The mayor should not have anything — absolutely anything — to do with the schools,” he said Tuesday.

He was joined in that view in 2016 by Betsy DeVos, now the U.S. Secretary of Education, whose school choice advocacy groups donated $1.45 million to state legislators in a matter of weeks to forestall what they viewed as a new layer of charter school oversight.

This time, however, charter advocates didn’t show up to oppose the pared down commission.

“We all need to work together on how schools are evaluated,” Dan Quisenberry, president of a charter organization, the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, said. “Transportation? Yes, please.”

But he cautioned against the “other extreme,” in which official oversight powers would be handed to the mayor’s office.

Expected appointees to the Community Education Commission include Vitti, district teacher Marsha Lewis, charter school operator Ralph Bland; charter school teacher Rachel Ignagni; at least one parent of a child attending school in the city of Detroit; and Nate Walker of the American Federation of Teachers.

The remaining slots are expected to go to activists and non-profit leaders, including Monique Marks of Franklin-Wright Settlements; Tonya Allen of the Skillman Foundation; Teferi Brent of Detroit 300/Goodwill Industries; and Sherita Smith of Grandmont-Rosedale Community Development. All will be unpaid.

classroom to congress

Can Ms. Hayes go to Washington? A national teacher of the year explains why she’s running for Congress

PHOTO: Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
2016 National Teacher of the Year Jahana Hayes after taking the stage with U.S. President Barack Obama, Education Secretary John King, and her fellow state teachers of the year during a ceremony in the White House in 2016.

Jahana Hayes thinks what Washington, D.C. needs is a schoolteacher — one of the nation’s top teachers, in fact.

Hayes, the 2016 national teacher of the year, is running for Congress. The history and civics teacher says she hadn’t expected to get into politics. But after more than a year of traveling the country talking to teachers, and continuing to encourage her own students to take on new responsibilities, she said she had an epiphany.

“Who’s going to speak for them?” she said. “I started to think about it in a realistic way. There’s a perspective that has been missing for way too long.”

Hayes is vying for an open Democratic seat in Connecticut, where she’s taught high school for over a decade in the same school district she grew up attending. She’s been in the race for a drama-filled few weeks: she seemed to have won the party’s endorsement at the state convention before a vote switch turned a narrow victory into a defeat.

But she’s still set to compete in the state’s Democratic primary in August, running against another candidate with an extensive education background. And her candidacy comes as teacher strikes across the country have focused new attention on educators in politics.

Hayes has won over some institutional support, including the backing of some local unions, and was encouraged to run by U.S. Senator Chris Murphy.

Voters may be attracted to Hayes’ personal story. “Despite being surrounded by abject poverty, drugs and violence, my teachers made me believe that I was college material and planted a seed of hope,” Hayes said at the National Education Association convention in 2016. “I identify with my students because I am my students and I know what it feels like when every statistic and everything around you is an indicator or a predictor of failure.”

For now, Hayes still works for Waterbury Public Schools, a largely low-income district where she is a talent and professional development supervisor; if she wins, Hayes would be only the second African-American to represent Connecticut in Congress.

Hayes recently spoke with Chalkbeat, and although she generally avoided offering specific policy proposals, Hayes said she hoped that her knowledge of the classroom could help policymakers — including Betsy DeVos — make smarter decisions.

“I need for this president to do well, because if he does well that means we do well,” she said.

Chalkbeat: Why are you running for Congress?

Hayes: I have always been involved — very civically engaged, registering people to vote, holding forums about the issues, sort of the mule that helps other people get over the line and get elected. When the seat opened up, some of our party leaders approached me and said, you should really think about this. I was like, no way. I started to think of all the reasons why I shouldn’t do it or why I couldn’t do it because I’ve never considered myself a politician.

I took a group of kids to California over spring break to build for Habitat for Humanity and I’m saying to myself, you’re telling these kids they can do whatever they want, you can be whatever you want, and here you are checking yourself. I kind of just had an epiphany, like, who’s going to speak for them?

I started to think about it in a realistic way. There’s a perspective that has been missing for way too long. My husband’s like, “Why do you keep thinking about it if the answer’s no?” And I said,  “Because I think I can be impactful,” and he said, “Then you have to do it.”

I think it was kind of my drive to just do for myself what I’ve done for so many young people.

If you’re elected, what substantive things are you hoping to accomplish?

One of the first things that I think that me being elected would do is help to expand the definition of what a representative is supposed to be. I’ve had people say to me, “I think that the legislative branch should be composed of people who have a law degree or have political experience.” I have to remind them that’s not a true representation of all people in this district.

As far as issues, I think obviously there are so many challenges in education. It pains me to think that public education is in peril right now. I know that I can bring a perspective and knowledge and expertise in that area that is critical. If we start to dismantle public education now, I don’t know how we’ll ever rebuild it.

Can you talk about what you mean when you say ‘dismantling public education’?

I think that there needs to be a true balance. There’s a lot of talk about moving public money to charter schools and letting the parents decide. Whenever I hear that I’m reminded of the fact that that’s a system that would have excluded me because I didn’t have a parent to do that, to advocate for me.

Isn’t a better solution to make all of our schools the best that they can be, so that even absent a parent, if a kid attends a school in this country, they’ll get a high-quality education?

The response to that would probably be, “We’ve tried to make all schools better, but some schools are still struggling and we should give parents and families an option out of those struggling schools.”

I get it, I get it. As a parent, especially in a community like mine, we have schools that have been on the failing list year after year after year. A parent doesn’t want to hear that we’re working on public education and we’ll have it fixed in the next 20 years because they’re worried about their child right now. So I get it, and I recognize that those parents deserve the option to save their child, which is in essence what they believe they’re doing.

I think that there’s value in that and they should be given the option, but there has to be a healthy balance, because those options — of having the funding follow kids — really service a small group of kids and leave so many other kids behind.

So what is your specific policy view on charters and vouchers? Would you say they should not exist?

There is value; those are not very simplistic systems. That also is a response to some of the challenges in public education, but is there the same level of accountability? What happens when kids have specific special needs that need to be addressed? What happens if they’re not successful in those schools? What plans are put in place? We have to make sure that even in that system, people’s human and civil rights are still protected.

A better idea than drawing a hard line of demarcation and separating the two is to work together to see what is working about this network. What can we duplicate and filter out into the public education system?

Just to totally understand your position: Is there any sort of private school voucher system that you would support, that you would say, ‘This makes sense, let’s try this at some scale’?

There is. I have seen some public charters that have been very successful. The process has to be transparent. All kids have to have a fair opportunity for admittance or acceptance. Some of the model that I’ve seen work very well in charters is the parent engagement piece, which has been tremendous. That’s something that the public school system is starving for.

I was asking there about vouchers, though, as in vouchers to send a kid to a private school. Do you have a similar position on charters and vouchers or do you see them differently?

I see them differently. A charter system can still be public and continue to support the public education system. I think as we increase the number of vouchers that are provided, it takes away from the public school system. I think it’s critical that we have a viable and robust public school system. If changes need to be made for improvement, then we make changes and improve it.

One of the cornerstones of this country is the fact that we educate our children. I have to stand for public education.

What do you think about Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos?

I think that there’s been a lot of missed opportunities.

I was teacher of the year doing that transition. I had done a lot of work with the previous Secretary John King. When she came in I was actually excited because I recognized that she had a very different position, but I said, this will be an opportunity to sit at the table and learn from each other.

It almost feels like she’s going to avoid anyone who thinks differently than her. This could have been an opportunity to invite public school teachers in, to invite teachers unions, all of these entities, and have some robust and real conversations like, “Help me understand what your concerns are and I’ll tell you why I believe in the system that I believe in,” and then we can come to some healthy consensus.

I know she did have some state teachers of the year and spoke to them.

Even that, and I’ve said this as teacher of the year, the conversation with teachers can’t just be with the most celebrated teachers in the country. One of the things that when she did the interview with CBS, and she said she hadn’t been into some of the most challenging schools in the country. I think that’s the only way you get a realistic way of what is happening, especially when you’re new to education. Take the time to hear everyone’s perspective.

This conversation only happens if it includes teachers who are struggling, teachers who are not being recognized, teachers who are in situations that are detrimental.

If you were elected, would you reach out to Secretary DeVos? Would you work with her?

Absolutely, absolutely. The only way this works, even with the current administration — I need for this president to do well, because if he does well that means we do well. I need for the secretary of education to be successful because if she’s successful that means kids are thriving.

I would welcome the opportunity to work very closely with her, to share ideas, to just be at the table to give a different perspective, to give some insight into what is happening on the ground, to say, “I know what you’re proposing, but let me help you understand what that looks like by the time it gets to the classroom level.”

Can you talk to me about your experience as teacher of the year? What did you get out of it, what did you learn, what did you do as teacher of the year? I don’t think everyone actually knows.

I don’t think I knew how it was going to be. They said you’re going to be out of the class and travel, and I was like oh OK, this will be easy. My students were like, “Wait, so you’re teacher of the year and now you don’t teach?”

I traveled the country — I was in almost every state — and what I learned is when you’re in an urban public school and you are faced with so many challenges, you kind of get this idea that you have the monopoly on the problems in public education. But I went to some of the most affluent communities that were struggling with the same challenges. I went to rural communities that had the same challenges. I talked to college presidents, institutions of higher learning, boards, policymakers.

It just widened my lens, broadened my scope and helped me to understand that everyone plays an integral role in this process. People do care about what’s happening in the classroom. There were congresspeople and legislators who were fighting just as hard as I was, and I was unaware of the work that they were doing on my behalf and on behalf of other teachers.

Can you talk to me about your actual experience as a teacher in the classroom? What were your favorite parts of it, and what were some of the biggest challenges you faced?

I loved working in this community because I’m from this community. Kids would say to me, you don’t get it, you don’t understand. They assumed — a lot of our teachers commute in from surrounding towns. I had a student, and I said to her, “You live in the same apartment that I grew up in,” and she was like, “You did not!” Just to provide that level of hope, because many of them don’t see themselves getting out of the situation that they’re in.

The other thing that I loved about being a teacher — because I am so connected to this community, I was able to engage families. My students and I, we were known for doing community service, for going into the toughest neighborhoods, and taking a blighted property and cleaning it up, or doing a Habitat for Humanity build right here in this city. What I wanted them to see was you still have the capacity to be a giver, no matter how bad things feel or seem to you.

That’s a very non-traditional way to look at teaching, but what I found very quickly was that those two things helped me to be a really good teacher in my classroom because I had a different level of investment.

When kids came to my class they wanted to do well. They wanted me to see what they were capable of. And I saw tremendous improvement in so many ways. I became a part of their life in a very different way. I went to college graduations, I went to weddings and birthday parties and cultural festivals around the city because I wanted them to know that their life and what they were experiencing was very important to me. So that’s what I loved about working here.

When I was named teacher of the year I had so many people say, oh, now you can go work here or you can go work here. And I was like, you don’t understand. I’m right where I want to be.

Can you talk about some of the challenges you faced as teacher or you think other teachers faced, and then segue into what some of the policy solutions that policymakers should be paying attention to help improve schools?

One of our biggest challenges here was obviously parent engagement and the views of parents who are disengaged. One of the things I tried to do in my district was to help them understand we need to look at this differently, maybe we need to be a little bit more proactive, schedule things differently, get out into the communities instead of expecting parents to come to us all the time.

Most of our school systems promote post-secondary education. I live in a factory town where most of the families are blue-collar workers; we really have to do more to support those families and children, so really investing in and supporting career-readiness programs and helping to ensure kids have what they need if they choose not to go to college.

What has it been like to run for Congress? What has surprised you about the process?

I am so pleased with the number of young people who have expressed an interest in being involved in the process. I had hundreds of former students, community members who had previously not been engaged in the process show up at the convention. That for me was great.

I entered the race on May 2, the convention was on May 14, and I secured the nomination and then lost it by three points. I thought that was tremendous.

The call time, the fundraising, that’s something that is very different for me. I’ve been told I have to raise $2 to 3 million to be viable for a primary. That in and of itself is a system that would exclude someone like me.

You don’t know a lot of millionaires?

No! One of the strategies I was told was you need to Rolodex all your friends, and I was like, uh … yeah, I don’t have million-dollar friends, and I don’t think you should have to to represent people. I don’t think most people have million-dollar friends or are part of a million-dollar network.

How much time have you been spending raising money?

Oh my gosh, probably about four to five hours a day. Literally I’ll get out of work and I’m right on the phone, when I’m in the car I’m on the phone, I’m pulling over to send an email to follow up the phone call.

There have been a lot of teachers’ strikes, uprisings, and protests across the country with concerns about school funding and teacher pay in a lot of states. What’s your take on that? Why is it happening?

I think that for a longtime teachers, we don’t see ourselves as political people. Even though we operated in the backgrounds, I don’t think we were ever truly involved in the process.

I think what’s happening is that many people think that our profession is being threatened. People say it’s for the kids, you come early, you stay late, you do all this for the kids — but there is another narrative playing out, and that is that this is profession that people spent lots of money going to school, getting degrees and certified to do this work. It is a profession and it should be treated as such.

I’ve traveled around the country and you have people with postgraduate degrees who are pouring their heart and soul into this profession and can’t support their families. It shouldn’t look like that. My husband’s a police office and he made double my salary every year.