let the games begin

Here’s where the key players stand in New York’s renewed teacher evaluation battle

PHOTO: Darren McGee-Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo
Governor Cuomo shakes hands with Assembly Speaker Heastie after his executive budget address.

New York’s top education leaders are gearing up for a spirited fight over teacher evaluations that will likely dominate education policy at end of this legislative session.

The Assembly introduced a bill on Thursday that would overhaul the state’s current evaluation system, which had already been put partially on hold, and prohibit state officials from requiring state test scores in teacher rating systems.

The state’s teachers unions rejoiced at the news, while other education advocates charged that the bill would make it difficult to hold educators accountable — setting up a showdown that lawmakers will have to solve.

The drama surrounding New York’s teacher evaluation system has many characters, including lawmakers, state education department officials, the governor, unions and other advocacy groups. Here’s where they all stand — and why the behind-the-scenes dynamics are so complicated.

Teachers unions could get what they want — but pushback is already forming.

The state and city teachers union are thrilled today. Union members gathering for a meeting in Buffalo this week applauded when the bill was introduced, according to NYSUT spokesman Carl Korn, who called it on Twitter a “Giant step towards protecting kids.” New York State United Teachers President Andy Pallotta said it was “long overdue,” and United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew chimed in with support, too.

NYSUT has been fighting for immediate changes to teacher evaluations all year and has long argued that teacher rating systems should not place too much emphasis on state test scores.

But there are already signs that their fight will be tough. Besides locking down support from Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the Senate, the union is already facing pushback from education groups. Some advocates warn that a dramatic reversal would move the state backwards, depriving officials of an important way to distinguish whether educators are helping students learn.

Cuomo hasn’t said much — and that might say it all.

No one’s in a more interesting position than Cuomo. If he opposes the legislation, the state’s powerful teachers unions might throw their support to Cynthia Nixon, who’s challenging him for in the Democratic gubernatorial primary — something that he desperately wants to avoid. If he backs the bill he could come off looking like a flip-flopper who let himself get pushed into restoring a patchwork of teacher evaluation rules that he once called “baloney.”

Looming behind the entire saga is the question of what Cuomo, who is seen as a political mastermind, benefits from the ordeal — and if he doesn’t, will he have to swallow this pill for the union’s endorsement or will he let it fall apart in the end?

Republican Assemblyman Edward Ra asked as much on Twitter earlier on Friday. “For some reason no one is asking one obvious question: is the Governor on board on board or I’m gonna veto this in 6 months on board?” Ra tweeted.

So far, Cuomo hasn’t taken a stand. A spokesperson for the governor suggested that he is interested in tackling teacher evaluations this year but did not expressly support or oppose the bill. The governor must have at least some interest in the plan, however, since he’s been participating in discussions behind-the-scenes, according to a statement sent by Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie’s office.

But by not taking a stance immediately, he can avoid a public flip-flop for now and wait and see how the battle plays out among lawmakers.

The Republican-led Senate is a wild card.

While the Assembly is likely to pass its own bill, the Republican-controlled Senate is more of a mystery.

Republican control of the Senate is already precarious. Though Republican Senators are technically outnumbered by Democrats, a single Brooklyn Senator is keeping the GOP in power by conferencing with the opposite party. And the Republicans will be fighting for seats in Long Island, which is the white hot center of the state’s testing boycott movement.

It could be hard for Senators to explain to their constituents that they blocked a bill that reduces the state’s emphasis on testing and you can bet the state’s teachers union, which will be fighting hard for this to pass, will not let them forget it come election time.

State education officials have stayed quiet — and gotten the blame anyway.

We’ve heard little from the state education department, but officials there could well be frustrated. They laid out a timeline for improving the teacher evaluation system by 2019, which coincides with the end of the moratorium on the use of certain state test scores in teacher evaluations. Now this legislation may circumvent that plan.

Plus, Cuomo staffers are actively blaming state education officials for creating the current education crisis in the first place — when in fact the department has been charged with executing on a law that Cuomo spearheaded in 2015. (Cuomo officials say the state education department botched the roll-out of of the Common Core learning standards, leading to much of the dissatisfaction among parents and educators.)

State education department officials said they do not comment on pending legislation but that their process to revamp teacher evaluations has already begun.

Nixon made the first move — and potential supporters were not thrilled.

Nixon, who is challenging Cuomo for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, offered the first indication that something was brewing in Albany on Thursday morning, when she announced that she would push for a repeal of the state’s evaluation rules.

It looked like an obvious choice as she seeks to win over the state’s teachers unions, but by the afternoon, the unions were criticizing her for jumping into a fight where she wasn’t invited.

“Ms. Nixon’s 11th hour public statement on the bill — while it may score political points — won’t help it get enacted,” UFT President Michael Mulgrew said in a statement.

On Friday, however, Nixon tried to drum up support from union members at a state teachers union meeting. Though she had not been expressly invited, according to Ryan Whalen, a Capitol Tonight reporter, on Twitter, she took pictures with members and tweeted that they should be “treasured and lifted up” for the work they do.

This story has been updated to include information from state education department officials.

To and Through

Newark’s post-grad paradox: More students are entering college, but few earn degrees

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
Newark Mayor Ras Baraka wants 25 percent of residents to have college degrees by 2025, up from 19 percent today.

When it comes to college, Newark faces a good news-bad news paradox.

More students than ever are graduating high school and enrolling in college, according to a new report. Yet fewer than one in four Newark students earns a college degree within six years of graduating high school — leaving many with limited job prospects in a city where an estimated one-third of jobs require a four-year college degree.

Now, city officials are promising to build on the report. They want to ramp up the rigor of high-school classes and create more early-college programs to increase the odds of students entering college and leaving with a degree.  

“How do we teach our children to perform — to graduate?” Mayor Ras Baraka asked at a press conference Wednesday to mark the official release of the report of Newark students’ college outcomes. “We got them in the door,” he said of students who attend college. “Now how do we make them stay?”

The city’s plans, to which Superintendent Roger León is lending his support, reflect a growing recognition that simply getting students into college is not sufficient — and can even backfire if they drop out before graduation, leaving them with college debt but no degree.

Until recently, the charge given to high schools in Newark and across the country was to foster “college-going cultures.” And these efforts showed promising results: On average, 51 percent of Newark Public School students who graduated high school between 2011 and 2016 immediately enrolled in college, up from 39 percent who did so between 2004 and 2010, according to the report by the Newark City of Learning Collaborative, or NCLC, and Rutgers University-Newark’s School of Public Affairs and Administration.

But entering college didn’t guarantee its completion. Of those students who started college straight after high school, only 39 percent earned a degree within six years, the report found.

As a result, educators and policymakers have begun to think harder about how to help students “to and through” college — to ensure they actually earn degrees. Toward that end, Baraka and the NCLC — which includes roughly 40 colleges, schools, nonprofits, and corporations — has set a goal of 25 percent of Newark residents earning college degrees or comparable credentials by 2025.

Today, just 19 percent of Newark adults have associate degrees or higher — compared to 45 percent of adults across New Jersey and 40 percent nationally.

Superintendent León, who began overseeing the city’s schools on July 1, said his main strategy for supporting these efforts will be to expose students to challenging work early on.

“If we don’t do something dramatically in classrooms to improve instruction and make it rigorous,” León said after Wednesday’s event, then students are “getting into college but they’re not completing it.”

Source: “Post-Secondary Outcomes of Newark High School Graduates (2011-2016)” report. Note: The four-year rate is an average of the classes of 2011 to 2013. The six-year rate is from the class of 2011. Graphic: Sam Park/Chalkbeat

For starters, León said he wants high schools to offer more college-level classes. In the 2016-17 school year, just 21 percent of Newark students were enrolled in one or more Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate classes — compared to 42 percent of students statewide.

He also vowed to raise the quality of instruction in the district’s traditional high schools. Only 14 percent of their graduates earn college degrees within six years, compared to 42 percent of graduates from the city’s selective magnet schools, the report found.

To do that, León said he will create specialized academies within the traditional schools modeled on the magnets, which have specialized themes such as science, technology, or the arts. The academies, which will partner with colleges, will most likely feature admissions criteria similar to those of magnet schools, which select students based on their academic and attendance records, León added.

And, for the first time, all ninth-grade students this academic year will take the Preliminary SAT, or PSAT, León said Wednesday. An additional 1,100 eighth-graders who passed at least one of their seventh-grade PARCC exams will also take the PSAT when it’s administered on Oct. 10.

Since 2016, the district has provided the PSAT to all 10th and 11th-grade students. But León said that giving the test to younger students will focus their attention on college and help identity those who are ready for advanced classes. The PSAT is designed to help students prepare for the SAT, which is used in college admissions, and to qualify for National Merit Scholarships.

The district, which was under state control for 22 years until February, is getting some assistance in its effort to improve students’ college outcomes.

For instance, KIPP, the national charter-school network with eight schools in Newark, is sharing its strategies for helping students choose the right college with guidance counselors at three district high schools.

And the higher-education institutions in the Newark City of Learning Collaborative, including Essex County College and Rutgers University-Newark, plan to create more “dual-enrollment” programs that allow high-school students to earn college credits, said NCLC Executive Director Reginald Lewis.

“We’re all going to do a better job,” Lewis said, “of making sure that once Newark residents get in our doors, that we help them persist.”

Time crunch

In victory for teachers union, Newark superintendent scraps longer hours for low-performing schools

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
Superintendent Roger León at Hawkins Street School, one of the schools that will lose its extended hours.

Newark’s new superintendent is eliminating a program that extended the hours of struggling schools, which the teachers union has long attacked as ineffective and unfair to educators.

Teachers at roughly 30 schools will no longer receive $3,000 annual stipends for the extra hours, a provision written into the current teachers contract, which extends to 2019. Instead, all 64 district schools will get extra funding for before and after-school programs, Superintendent Roger León said in an email to employees on Tuesday.

The changes will go into effect Monday, Sept. 10, resulting in new hours for the affected schools just days after the new school year began. The district is still working to adjust pickup times for students who are bused to school, according to León’s email. A few of the schools will phase out their extended hours later in the year, the email said.

“We will not continue to do the same things as before and be surprised when the results do not change,” León wrote, adding that cutting the extra hours would save the district $5 million.

In an interview with Chalkbeat Thursday, León said the move is intended to create more uniformity among schools and the services they provide. Now, all schools will get additional money to pay for programs outside of the regular school day, which schools can tailor to their individual needs, though students who are struggling academically will continue to receive “intensive” support, he said.

“Ultimately, the idea would be by October having completely different after-school and before-school programming that meets the needs of each respective school,” León said.

The extended time was first included in the teachers contract in 2012 as part of a larger improvement plan for the targeted schools, which was developed by Cami Anderson, Newark’s former state-appointed superintendent. The plan also designated some low-performing schools as “renew” schools, where teachers had to reapply for their positions and work longer hours.

Anderson also closed some schools and gave principals new hiring authority. Both actions left dozens of tenured teachers without positions, so Anderson created a fund to pay those teachers to perform support duties in schools. In 2014, that fund for “employees without placement” cost the district $35 million out of its nearly $1 billion budget, though by last year the fund had shrunk to $8 million for about 100 unassigned teachers, according to officials.

León said in Tuesday’s email that he was also eliminating the fund, which he said would save the district another $6 million. The teachers union president said he believed all the unassigned teachers now have placements, but the district did not respond to a request to confirm that.

León is also removing the “renew” and “turnaround” labels from low-performing schools, citing their “progress and student achievement,” according to the email.

“I applaud everyone’s efforts at renew or turnaround schools and acknowledge what has been accomplished,” he wrote.

Now that León has abolished his predecessors’ school-improvement program, he will be expected to create his own. Many schools remain mired in poor performance, even as the district overall has made strides in recent years.

When the teachers union agreed to the extended hours in its 2012 contract with the district, it was hailed nationally as a major breakthrough in efforts to revamp troubled schools. But even as the union agreed last year to keep the provision in its current contract, union officials have assailed the turnaround effort as a failure.

NTU President John Abeigon told Chalkbeat on Thursday that the program had been a “scam” and “nothing more than extended childcare.” He added that the stipend teachers received amounted to about $7 per hour for the extra time they worked.

In 2016, a district-commissioned survey of 787 teachers at schools with extended hours found that two-thirds of teachers at schools where the extra time was spent on student instruction said the time was valuable. But in a survey the union conducted in April, the 278 teachers who responded gave the extended hours low ratings for effectiveness in boosting student achievement.

Some teachers in the union survey praised the longer hours, saying their schools used them effectively to lengthen class periods, run after-school clubs, or allow teachers to plan lessons or review student data. But others said the extra time was squandered, leaving staff and students exhausted with little evidence of improved student outcomes to show for it. (Students’ pass rates on state tests stayed flat or declined at most “renew” schools in the first years of the program.)

The union also has complained that many teachers felt compelled to work the extra hours because those who refused to could be transferred to different schools. Under the terms of the original extended-day agreement, teachers were required to work an extra hour per day and attend trainings during the summer and some weekends.

In León’s email to employees, he said every extended-day school had set different work requirements and “none are consistent with the original design.” The longer days may also be contributing to high teacher turnover in those schools, he wrote, adding that principals of schools with regular hours told him they did not want to extend their hours.

Abeigon, the union president, applauded León’s decision to scrap the extra work hours.

“He came to the conclusion that we expected any true educator to reach: that the program was not working and was never going to work,” he said.

León said Thursday that he is now working on a new turnaround program. Once it’s ready, he promised to share the details with affected families before publicly announcing which schools are part of it — an effort to avoid the student protests that erupted when Anderson identified her “turnaround” schools.

He also said he was still considering whether he would ever close schools that fail to improve or to reverse their declining enrollments. Anderson’s decision to shutter nearly a dozen long-struggling schools continues to fuel resentment among her critics even years later.

“I think the whole idea of how much time does a school get to correct itself is a very important one and I’m going to need to be really reflective on it,” León said. “I’ve seen what closing schools does with people who do not feel that they were aware of it or a part of fixing it.”