eval battles

Senate Majority Leader proposes new teacher evaluation bill — but it comes with charter school concessions

PHOTO: Creative Commons, courtesy JasonParis
Albany statehouse.

The most powerful man in the New York State Senate released his own version of a bill that would overhaul teacher evaluations but it has strings attached that will make it hard for some lawmakers to accept.

The bill still includes a lot of elements the teachers union has been pushing for, including eliminating a requirement that state test scores are used in teacher evaluations. But the legislation also increases the charter school cap which limits the number of charter schools that can open in the state by 100 schools and lessens oversight for private yeshivas.

“We have achieved a complete repeal of APPR, permanently decoupling student test scores from the evaluation of teachers, and rightly returning to a system of local control of education,” said Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan in a statement on Tuesday.

A bill delinking state scores from teacher evaluations, a top priority for the union this year, has already passed the Assembly with overwhelming support, and the governor has signaled he will not block the legislation. That leaves the Senate as the major obstacle to the bill’s passage.

But it’s unclear whether Assembly lawmakers are willing to sacrifice anything to ensure the legislation passes. In response to Flanagan’s bill, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie has reportedly already said he does not want to attach extra provisions to the bill. Union officials have also made it clear they want to see the bill pass without any concessions. (In fact, they purchased balloons to send the message that they want it passed with “no strings attached.”)

“Instead of passing a clean bill  that has 55 sponsors to reduce testing and fix the evaluation system, Sen. Flanagan is tying it to millions of dollars for the charter industry and his donors, and loopholes for private, religious schools,” said NYSUT President Andy Pallotta in a statement on Tuesday. “Our message has not changed. The Senate must pass S.8301 with no strings attached.”

The current teacher evaluation law dates back to 2015 when Gov. Andrew Cuomo backed a plan in which state test scores could count for as much as half of an educator’s evaluation. Though the law technically remains on the books, the state’s Board of Regents passed a moratorium on the use of grades 3-8 math and English test scores in teacher evaluations. Without further action, the moratorium will expire in 2019.

The Senate’s bill — unlike the Assembly’s proposal — would repeal the teacher evaluation law passed in 2015, dramatically expanding the power of local unions to help craft their own evaluation systems. Though teachers would still be rated on a scale from “highly effective” to “ineffective,” how teachers receive those ratings would be completely up to local communities to collectively bargain. That means local communities would have the power to figure out how much tests should count for evaluations — or whether they should count at all.

Putting so much power in the hands of local unions is opposed by some advocacy groups.

“We have grave concerns about the expansion of collective bargaining as it relates to employee evaluations,” said Julie Marlette, Director of Governmental Relations for the New York State School Boards Association.

Meanwhile, the provisions about charter and private schools are being forcefully fought by the unions. In addition to increasing the charter school cap statewide, the bill would allow more charter schools to open in New York City, where demand for the schools is greater. 

Charter school advocates say lifting the charter school cap this year is critical for the sector’s growth.

“Limiting the number of potentially high performing public schools that can be created has never made sense,” said James Merriman, Chief Executive Officer of the New York City Charter School Center. “But now, with high demand from parents, a dwindling number of charters available, an increasing number of skilled educators willing to do the hard work of starting a new school, and an increasingly long record of charter schools improving achievement, lifting the cap doesn’t just make sense. It is an imperative.”

Additionally, the bill would reduce oversight of yeshivas, some of which have come under fire for failing to offer an adequate education. A powerful Brooklyn Senator that represents an Orthodox Jewish community has been pushing for the change. This bill would take power away from the State Education Commissioner to regulate the schools.

A spokesman for the Alliance for Yeshiva Education pushed back on the notion that this bill would reduce oversight at the private schools.

“Concerning oversight of Yeshiva education, this legislation would provide common sense protections for schools, and the state, by providing for a qualified and professional accreditation intermediary, as well as a clear process for remedying deficiencies,” said Michael Tobman, the alliance’s spokesman.

The union has organized a series of musical guests, including bagpipers, a gypsy jazz trio and a brass marching band to serenade Flanagan Wednesday so that he Senate will stop playing “such sour notes.”

However, another piece of the bill may be welcome news to the union. It repeals a requirement that teachers can only earn tenure after working four year and would return that time limit to three years.

This story has been updated with a statement from the New York City Charter School Center and from a spokesman for the Alliance for Yeshiva Education. 

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.