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.

silver screen

United Federation of Teachers drops more than $1 million on new ad campaign

PHOTO: Courtesy photo/UFT
In a new ad released by The United Federation of Teachers, a teacher crouches at a student's desk and smiles.

Amid a wave of teacher activism nationwide and major threats to the influence of unions, the United Federation of Teachers is expected to spend more than $1 million on a primetime television and streaming ad featuring local educators.

The 30-second spot hit the airwaves on Jan. 23 and will run through Feb. 1, with an expected audience of 11 million television viewers and 4 million impressions online, according to the union.

Featuring a chorus of singing students, bright classrooms, and a glamour shot of the city, the ad is called “Voice.” A diverse group of teachers declares: “Having a voice makes us strong. And makes our public schools even stronger.” It ends with the message, “The United Federation of Teachers. Public school proud.”

The union, the largest local in the country, typically runs ads this time of year, as the legislative session in Albany heats up and city budget negotiations kick-off. But this time, the campaign launches against the backdrop of an emboldened teaching force across the country, with a teacher strike in Los Angeles and another potentially starting next week in Denver.

UFT is also eager to prove its worth after the recent Janus Supreme Court ruling, which could devastate membership by banning mandatory fees to help pay for collective bargaining. So far, membership has remained strong but the union could face headwinds from organized right-to-work groups and the sheer number of new hires that come into the New York City school system every year.

The ad will run locally during programs including “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” and “Good Morning America,” on networks such as MSNBC and CNN, and on the streaming service Hulu. You can watch the ad here.

'Clarity 2020'

Superintendent León calls on Newarkers to help shape his plan for city’s schools

PHOTO: Chalkbeat/Patrick Wall
Superintendent Roger León unveiled his strategy to improve the district at Central High School on Wednesday.

Newark Superintendent Roger León unveiled his strategy for transforming the school system at a community forum Wednesday, the first of several meetings where residents will be invited to help shape the plan.

The strategy, dubbed “NPS Clarity 2020,” calls for closer cooperation among schools and between them and the community. The strategy’s premise is that schools must challenge students academically while also attending to their physical and emotional needs.

Over the next few months, officials said, the district will turn the strategy into a detailed, three-year plan with help from families, students, and partner organizations, who will be invited to planning sessions in each of the city’s five wards. The final plan will be released in June.

“How are we going to do this? Everybody in here — all of you,” León said to hundreds of mostly invited guests at Central High School. “There’s a lot of hard work we’re about to do, and we’re not going to be scared about it.”

While Wednesday marked the start of public feedback on the strategy, León has been referencing his plan at meetings for months. Some leaders, including Mayor Ras Baraka and a few board members, have previously urged León to publicly share his plan, along with specific goals he hopes to achieve.

Baraka, who was Central’s principal when León was an assistant superintendent, made a brief appearance at Wednesday’s event to lend his support to León’s vision. He said the two have been working in particular on a plan to get local universities to enroll more Newark Public School graduates.

“I just want people to know that the superintendent and I are on the same page,” said Baraka, who famously clashed with León’s state-appointed predecessor, Cami Anderson. “And it hasn’t been that way for a very long time.”

Baraka is also part of a new advisory committee that will provide input on the plan. The 24-member committee includes teachers, principals, and advocates, along with business, higher-education, and philanthropic leaders.

PHOTO: Chalkbeat/Patrick Wall
Newark residents wrote down challenges and opportunities in the district during Wednesday’s forum.

The district hosted a similar series of public forums in 2016 under Superintendent Christopher Cerf, which led to the district’s current three-year roadmap.

The district has hired a Newark-based consultancy, Creed Strategies, to lead the current planning process. The firm’s founder and president, Lauren Wells, is a former advisor to Baraka and previously helped spearhead a high-profile reform effort in Newark called the Global Village School Zone.

Started in 2010, the program lengthened the school day and added extra support services at seven Central Ward schools, including Central High School. It also brought the schools’ teachers together for joint trainings and made sure their courses were in sync so students could easily progress from the elementary schools to Central. However, Anderson abruptly ended the effort in 2012.

Now, Wells is helping incorporate elements of that program’s approach into León’s strategy. At the forum, Wells described some tenets of the strategy: recognizing and addressing poverty’s effects on students; helping schools work together rather than in isolation; taking advantage of the resources that families and local organizations have to offer schools; and measuring student success on a variety of scales.

“They will be risk-takers, they will be sought-after,” she said. “They will pass assessments — and not just the PARCC, but the bar.”

Attendees were also given a document with an elaborate diagram representing the “Clarity 2020” approach, which district employees received at an August conference where León previewed his plans. The diagram features a dozen “keys to 2020,” such as higher education and social services, and six “game changers,” including alumni and internships, but provides no details beyond those broad headings.

The district has not yet posted the document online or announced dates for the forums in each ward. León declined to be interviewed after the event.

Several attendees said they were energized by Wednesday’s forum, which included small-group brainstorming sessions where participants listed challenges and opportunities in the district.

“You don’t usually have a superintendent that asks questions,” said Nitia Preston, the community engagement specialist at Peshine Avenue School. “He’s asking, ‘What change do you want? What strengths do you have?’ I love that.”