one chamber down

The Assembly passed a new teacher evaluation plan. Here’s how it may — and may not — impact New York City

PHOTO: Photo by Jonathan Fickies for UFT
UFT President Michael Mulgrew interviews New York State Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie.

New York City teachers who are happy with how they’ve been evaluated for the past couple years should be thrilled about a new teacher evaluation bill that passed in the Assembly on Wednesday.

The bill would untie teacher evaluations from state test scores, eliminating the possibility that a law requiring test scores to count for up to half of educators’ ratings could ever be put into action. Now that the bill has passed in the Assembly, it must also clear the Republican-led Senate to become law, whose decision on the bill will likely come down to the wire.

If enacted, the bill might not have a major effect on the lives of more than 70,000 New York City teachers. That’s because the use of grades 3-8 math and English test scores has already been paused since 2015. In that time, the city created a new teacher evaluation system that uses local assessments to gauge student progress and union officials say that it likely will remain in place for the time being.

“Nothing will change for New York City teachers,” UFT President Michael Mulgrew said, “except that the threat was hanging over us … is not there if we get this law passed.”

Here’s what New York City educators need to know about the new teacher evaluation bill:

How are teachers evaluated now?

Since 2010, teachers are evaluated based on a combination of student academic improvement and principal observation. (Using test scores in teacher evaluations was a radical change from a previous system where teachers were rated either “satisfactory” or “unsatisfactory” and principals had latitude to determine how those ratings were assigned.)

Though state law technically requires districts to use test scores in teacher evaluations, the Board of Regents placed a moratorium on the use of grades 3-8 math and English tests shortly after the most recent version of the law was passed.

In place of test scores, New York City teachers are evaluated based on “Measures of Student Learning” or city-created exams that test students on everything from English to art. Each school picks from a list of local tests, and teachers are rated based on the progress students make on the tests.

Teachers are also observed by their principals, who give them a rating based on their classroom practice, preparation, and professionalism in the school. A teacher’s score on academic growth and their principal’s observations are combined to produce one of four overall ratings spanning from “ineffective” to “highly effective.”

What will change for New York City teachers under the bill?

Mulgrew is right: not very much.

The bill precludes the state from requiring districts to use state test scores in teacher evaluations. It also says the assessments must be negotiated by local districts and approved by the New York’s commissioner of education.

That’s already happening in New York City, where grade 3-8 math and English state tests have not been allowed in teacher evaluations since 2015. Additionally, the union was part of negotiations for the city’s new evaluation plan the following year, and state officials have already approved the tests the city uses.

The bill allows districts to keep their current system until there’s a chance to collectively bargain. But assuming that happens at some point in the future, the tests the city uses could change. City officials can always add, alter, or subtract from the list of assessments they use. Mulgrew said the union would likely work with the city to create new testing options. Also, if the bill passes, districts could choose to use state tests in teacher evaluations if their local unions agree.

The law change is important mainly because it would eliminate the chance that the system Gov. Andrew Cuomo pushed three years ago would take hold in New York. That fact has been far from assured for the past several years since the law remains on the books.

What about everything other than tests? Is that changing under this bill?

Nope.

The requirements for teacher observations remain the same. Technically, this includes a controversial requirement that teachers are evaluated by independent observers. However, the state education department has created a waiver so that cities, including New York City, haven’t had to comply with this requirement.

The ratings, spanning from “ineffective” to “highly effective,” would still be used to judge teachers. Also, the consequences for teachers if they score poorly on the evaluations would remain the same. For instance, three “ineffective” ratings can trigger a teacher’s firing and the evaluations must be a factor in teacher tenure.

However, under the current framework used last year, nearly 97 percent of teachers were rated either “highly effective” or “effective.” Less than one percent of teachers were rated ineffective, leaving little room for serious consequences.

What are the potential benefits and problems with the plan?

Union officials argue this will be a more fair system for educators that does not include a state-mandated test to determine an educator’s fate. These tests are an unreliable way to measure a teacher’s success, Mulgrew said.

“Anyone who designs standardized tests keeps saying the same thing,” Mulgrew said, “these are not designed as any sort of accountability measures.”

There are still many unresolved issues, such as the problem that teachers could still be rated based on subjects that they don’t teach. If schools do not have a physical education tests, for instance, those teachers could be rated based on a test in a different subject. Even with the moratorium placed on the use of certain state tests in teacher evaluations, more than half of teachers were rated based on subjects they don’t teach, according to numbers obtained by Chalkbeat.

Other critics say that not requiring state test scores in teacher evaluations may eliminate a reliable metric to track whether teachers are helping students learn.

Teacher Pay

‘Our teachers have waited long enough’: Educators say Indiana needs to act now on teacher pay

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Students in Decatur Township work on physics problems with their teacher.

Educators and advocates are pushing state leaders to take action this year to raise teacher compensation — not to wait for additional research, as Gov. Eric Holcomb proposed last week.

“Our teachers have waited long enough,” said Teresa Meredith, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, the state’s largest teachers union. “It doesn’t take a two-year study to discover what we already know: teachers need to be valued, respected, and paid as professionals.”

Holcomb’s proposal last week to study raises in the upcoming budget-writing session and make bigger steps in 2021 didn’t sit well with some, since lawmakers and advocates spent the fall talking up the need to make teacher salaries competitive with other states. But given the state’s tight budget situation, Holcomb suggested studying the impact of raises for at least a year, as well as looking at how much money would be needed and how districts would be expected to get the money to teachers.

Read: Raising teacher pay likely to be at the forefront for Indiana lawmakers and advocates in 2019

The proposal drew quick criticism. Education leaders and advocacy groups took to Twitter to express their hopes that Holcomb and lawmakers would find ways to address teacher salaries this year as well as into the future.

“IN must respond now,” State Superintendent Jennifer McCormick tweeted Friday morning, remarking that too many teachers across the state are leaving the profession because pay is too low. “Kids deserve & depend upon excellent teachers.”

“We can’t wait to act because Hoosier children are counting on all us to come together to ensure our schools can attract and retain the best teachers,” Justin Ohlemiller, executive director of Stand for Children Indiana, said in a blog post titled “The time to act on teacher pay is now.

ISTA’s 2019 legislative agenda, released Monday, will continue pushing for lawmakers and state leaders to find creative solutions to raise teacher pay and make Indiana competitive with other states.

And ISTA says they might have voters on their side. A recent ISTA poll of more than 600 Hoosiers, conducted by Emma White Research, shows that funding for education is a priority across the state, with more than 86 percent of those sampled supporting sending more money to public schools. About 72 percent of people polled believe educators are underpaid.

But it’s unclear if there would be enough money in the budget to spend on across-the-board raises after other funding obligations are met, such as funding needed by the Department of Child Services to deal with effects of the state’s opioid crisis. Senate Democrats have called for $81 million a year to ensure 5 percent raises for teachers and counselors over the next two years. Republicans have strong majorities in both chambers.

Neither ISTA, lawmakers, Holcomb nor other education groups have released specific plans for either how much they’d like to see set aside for teachers or strategies for how a pay increase could feasibly be carried out. However, the effort has brought together some unlikely allies — the union, a vocal advocate for traditional public schools, rarely aligns its education policy with groups like Stand and Teach Plus Indiana that have favored increased school-choice options, such as charter schools.

With limited dollars to go around, the focus will have to also be on how to make existing education dollars go farther, Meredith said. She, along with Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma last month, pointed to the need to curtail spending on administration, which, they argue, could free up money for other expenses such as teacher compensation.

Some have also pointed to the state’s recent budget surplus and reserves as evidence that Indiana could spend more on education if there was political will to do so.

“The surplus has come on the backs of educators and their students,” Meredith said. “Elected leaders must do more. They must do more to declare teacher pay a priority in this session, and they must take action.”

ISTA is also hoping lawmakers will act to:

  • Restore collective bargaining rights so educators can negotiate work hours and class size, as well as salaries and benefits.
  • Remove teacher evaluation results from decisions about salary until the state’s new ILEARN test has been in place for a few years.
  • Invest in school counselors, psychologists, and social workers
  • Strengthen regulations for charter and virtual charter schools, including putting a moratorium on new virtual schools until those safeguards can be enacted.
  • Study districts that have focused on how to best teach students who have experienced trauma.

Indiana’s next legislative session begins in January.

Correction: Dec. 11, 2018: This story has been updated to reflect that Stand for Children Indiana doesn’t take a position in regards to private school vouchers.

Charter strike

Chicago charter files federal labor complaint against union over strike

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat Chicago
Chicago Alderman Ed Burke, left, met Dec. 7, 2018, with striking Acero teachers and their supporters, who were protesting at his office.

As the acrimonious teacher strike against Acero charter schools wound down its fourth day, both sides ratcheted up pressure, neither giving any indication of backing down.

The charter network sought a court order to halt the strike, and filed a federal complaint claiming that the strike was illegal.

Meanwhile, powerful Alderman Ed Burke, who represents areas heavy with Acero schools, addressed strikers who had marched into his office Friday.

“My heart is with you,” Burke told them. He promised to speak with Acero CEO Richard Rodriguez in an effort to end the strike before Monday, according to both Burke’s office and Acero.

Some 30 teachers and parents wedged into the foyer of Burke’s office between a lit-up Christmas tree and a statute of a horse wearing a green beanie labeled “Ald. Ed Burke.”

They demanded that he use his clout to pressure Rodriguez to agree to teachers’ contract demands, among them smaller class sizes and better compensation for teachers and paraprofessionals. Later Friday, Acero issued a statement confirming that the two, political allies, had met. The network did not explain the content or nature of the discussion.

About 500 teachers have been striking since Tuesday, with 7,500 students out of school. Seven of Acero’s 15 schools are in Burke’s ward.

Acero filed an unfair labor practices complaint against the Chicago Teachers Union and is appealing to the National Labor Relations Board to halt the strike. The charter management organization also sought a temporary restraining order to force teachers back to work. You can read the NLRB complaint below.

In response, CTU President Jesse Sharkey said in a press release, “Acero’s management is desperate and our pressure is working.” He insisted that the strike is a legal protest over wages and working conditions.

In response to strikers’ accusations that Rodriguez is uninvolved in the negotiations, Acero also issued a statement insisting that Rodriguez had met with management negotiators throughout the talks. Union officials have complained of Rodriguez being absent from the bargaining table.

Acero’s roots

Acero, once the nation’s largest Hispanic charter school operator, sprang from a community organizing tool to build Latino political power on Chicago’s Southwest side.

The history of Acero illustrates how charter schools in Chicago are intertwined in local politics, and how their growth would have been impossible without political support.

The United Neighborhood Organization was founded in 1984 by a Jesuit priest who recognized the struggle of immigrants in Chicago’s fast-growing Mexican-American community. Soon a South Side community organizer named Danny Solis joined and turned the organization’s focus first to local school politics and eventually to citywide influence.

Over the years, UNO’s power in neighborhoods grew as it nurtured local leaders like Juan Rangel, who eventually became CEO of the network. Both Rangel and Solis also ran for aldermanic positions, with Solis eventually winning an appointment in 1995 as alderman of the 25th ward, which encompassed the Pilsen neighborhood.

Rangel, meanwhile, had worked his way to the head of UNO just as then-Mayor Richard Daley and his school leadership team were ushering in an era of school choice in Chicago, and looking for community groups to take up the mantle.

“When charters emerged, UNO was one of the first entries into the charter market,” said Stephanie Farmer, a professor of sociology at Roosevelt University who researches charter school finance. “They did work their political connections to get state funding.”

UNO first proposed two charter schools in 1997.  Two decades later, it runs 15 schools spread across both the Southwest and Northwest sides of the city.

Enter Ed Burke. Halfway through an ambitious construction project for a new campus, UNO ran out of money and was forced to turn to its political allies, among them Burke, who helped the network get a $65 million low-interest loan from bankers. Several years later, Rangel supported Burke’s brother in his run for an Illinois House seat.

Farmer called this a clear example of the benefits of political patronage, without which Acero could not have grown as much as it has.

“They became patronage benefactors. It was both a way for UNO to build political power and then also a way for Burke to solidify his relations with the Latino political machine,” she said. “They were the only [charter school] who got as much state money as they did for the buildings.”

Rangel’s tenure at UNO ended abruptly and in disgrace. Accused of nepotism and misusing public funds, and under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission, he quit.

The charter school arm of UNO formally separated from the organization in 2013 and, in 2015, renamed itself the UNO Charter School Network (UCSN). In 2017, it rebranded itself as Acero in an effort to distance itself from Rangel’s misdeeds.

Today, charters in Chicago face a harsher climate than they did during Acero’s initial expansion.

Chicago Public Schools recommended this week that the school board deny all new charter applications for the next school year, bending to the political tide rising against the independently operated public schools. And the state’s new governor, Democratic businessman J.B. Pritzker, said while campaigning that he supported a moratorium on new charters.

But Burke’s ability to call Acero’s CEO and encourage him to come to an agreement shows that politics may still play a significant role in the charter industry.

It also shows a more critical turn both toward machine politics and education in Chicago, Farmer said,  “The strikers are highlighting that Burke’s machine doesn’t work for the ward’s children.”