only just begun

Even if deal on teacher evals is reached, logistical matters loom

Negotiations between the city and teachers union over new teacher evaluations appear likely to come down to the wire yet again.

Earlier this year, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that he would withdraw increased state aid from any district that does not negotiate a teacher evaluation system with its union by Jan. 17, 2013. As the deadline nears, state education officials have said repeatedly that they need weeks to review systems that are submitted for approval. Districts should submit plans by the first week of December, they have urged.

Most districts have responded to the urgency. About 85 percent of New York State’s 700 school districts have turned in at least the first draft of required teacher evaluation plans, Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch said today.

In New York City, where $300 million in state aid is at stake this year, city officials say they feel confident that they will reach a deal before Cuomo’s deadline, and union leaders say constructive discussions are back on track after a nearly monthlong hiatus following Hurricane Sandy. But both said there is significant ground yet to cover.

Comparing the introduction of new teacher evaluations to a 26.2-mile marathon, Chancellor Dennis Walcott said on Tuesday, “We’re at mile five, and our goal is to make this a long-distance run.”

Speaking an event about teacher evaluations hosted by the advocacy group Educators 4 Excellence, Walcott said he aimed to finalize an agreement with the UFT by the end of December, more than two weeks before Cuomo’s deadline.

“It is my goal to ideally wrap this up before the seventeenth of January,” Walcott said. “I’m putting pressure on myself to do that.”

But Deputy Chancellor David Weiner, who is in charge of labor negotiations, signaled that he expected discussions to go until the last possible moment. “I assure you, from about January second to January seventeenth, I have told my wife, I’m not around,” he told the teachers.

The city’s pace has state education officials concerned. “The commissioner [John King] has spoken very clearly that if we get an application on January fifteenth, it’s going to be hard to say yes to it by January seventeenth,” Tisch said.

Advocates for more sophisticated teacher evaluations are working to turn up the heat on the city and union. StudentsFirstNY held a parent rally supporting an evaluation deal earlier this month, and Educators 4 Excellence members are planning a rally of their own for Sunday. On Thursday, college students in a group called Students for Education Reform are planning a protest march from the UFT’s offices to the Department of Education’s headquarters.

But meeting the state’s requirements is no easy task. State law requires not only a deal on the books by January but full implementation of a new evaluation system for the current school year, complete with final scores for each teacher delivered by next fall. That could prove a challenge in a mammoth school system where many schools have little experience with likely components of new evaluations.

Most city schools have been practicing with the Danielson observation rubric, seen as likely to account for a significant portion of teachers’ scores. But less groundwork has been laid for other likely components of new evaluations. Only a handful of teachers have been involved in building local assessments that must count for 20 percent of each teacher’s score, for example. And some required pieces, such as setting “student learning objectives” to measure student growth in classes where there is no state test, would be hard to make happen mid-year.

Tisch suggested that she thought the complexity of implementing an agreement could be one thing stopping the city and union from reaching one. “I don’t know why they are delaying, but if the delay is for the purpose of not implementing this year, I would say to all of them think about that twice,” she said.

Weiner said the city is prepared to begin a full implementation as soon as a teacher evaluation system is approved. But Walcott signaled that getting to full speed could take longer than the state would like.

“We’re going to have ongoing discussions with the state about the implementation timeline, as well, and also our union partners,” Walcott said. “We want to do it the right way. … We need to talk about the reality of what’s doable and what’s not doable, so we’ll see what happens.”

Asked today what could happen if the city and union ink a deal but do not have the systems in place to generate complete teacher ratings this year, Tisch took a deep breath. “Let’s get to that,” she said.

“We have never said that the implementation of evaluation was going to be easy [but] we can work with districts to help them manage the challenges,” Tisch added. “But we can’t manage challenges of implementation if we do not have an agreement.”

early dismissals

Top Newark school officials ousted in leadership shake-up as new superintendent prepares to take over

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Incoming Newark Public Schools Superintendent Roger León

Several top Newark school officials were given the option Friday to resign or face termination, in what appeared to be an early move by incoming Superintendent Roger León to overhaul the district’s leadership.

The shake-up includes top officials such as the chief academic officer and the head of the district’s controversial enrollment system, as well as lower-level administrators — 31 people in total, according to documents and district employees briefed on the overhaul. Most of the officials were hired or promoted by the previous two state-appointed superintendents, Cami Anderson and Christopher Cerf, a sign that León wants to steer the district in a new direction now that it has returned to local control.

The officials were given the option to resign by Tuesday and accept buyouts or face the prospect of being fired by the school board at its meeting that evening. The buyouts offer a financial incentive to those who resign voluntarily on top of any severance included in their contracts. In exchange for accepting the buyouts, the officials must sign confidentiality agreements and waive their right to sue the district.

Earlier this week, León submitted a list of his choices to replace the ousted cabinet-level officials, which the board must approve at its Tuesday meeting. It’s not clear whether he has people lined up to fill the less-senior positions.

It’s customary for incoming superintendents to appoint new cabinet members and reorganize the district’s leadership structure, which usually entails replacing some personnel. However, many staffers were caught off guard by Friday’s dismissals since León has given little indication of how he plans to restructure the central office — and he does not officially take the reins of the district until July 1.

A district spokeswoman and the school board chair did not immediately respond to emails on Friday about the shake-up.

Some staffers speculated Friday that the buyout offers were a way for León to replace the district’s leadership without securing the school board’s approval because, unlike with terminations, the board does not need to sign off on resignations. However, it’s possible the board may have to okay any buyout payments. And it could also be the case that the buyouts were primarily intended to help shield the district from legal challenges to the dismissals.

León was not present when the staffers learned Friday afternoon that they were being let go, the employees said. Instead, the interim superintendent, Robert Gregory, and other top officials broke the news, which left some stunned personnel crying and packing their belongings into boxes. They received official separation letters by email later that day.

The people being ousted include Chief Academic Officer Brad Haggerty and Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon, who oversees enrollment. Also included are top officials in the curriculum, early childhood, and finance divisions, among others, according to a list obtained by Chalkbeat.

In addition to the 31 being pushed out, several assistant superintendents are being demoted but will remain in the district, according to the district employees.

There was concern among some officials Friday about whether the turnover would disrupt planning for the coming school year.

“I don’t know how we’re going to open smoothly with cuts this deep,” one of the employees said. “Little to no communication was provided to the teams about what these cuts mean for the many employees who remain in their roles and need leadership guidance and direction Monday morning.”

fight another day

In union defeat, lawmakers end session without revamping teacher evaluation law

After a hard-fought battle by the state teachers union, New York lawmakers went home for the summer without overhauling a controversial teacher evaluation law that ties state test scores to educator ratings.

The bill pushed by the unions would have left decisions about whether to use state test scores in teacher evaluations up to local union negotiations. While the bill cleared the Assembly, it was bottled up by the Senate’s leadership, which demanded charter school concessions in return that Assembly Democrats wouldn’t agree to.

The effort to decouple test scores from teacher evaluations was one of several that fizzled out at the end of a lackluster session characterized by lawmaker gridlock.

“Sen. Flanagan, his caucus and five Democrats chose to betray the state’s teachers,”  said New York State United Teachers President Andy Pallotta in a statement. “Make no mistake, New York teachers, parents and public school students will remember which senators voted against their public schools when we head to the polls this September and again in November.”

There is some possibility that lawmakers could return to finish a few unresolved issues this summer, but Pallotta told Chalkbeat he is not holding out hope for that outcome.

The lack of action is a defeat for the state teachers union, which fought hard for the bill since the beginning of the session. Union officials have staged musical rallies, bought balloons, rented a truck with a message urging lawmakers to pass the bill, and capped off the last day of session handing out ice cream for the cause.

However, the legislative loss gives the union something to rally around during this fall’s elections. Also, other education advocacy organizations are content to engage in a longer process to revamp evaluations.

“Inaction isn’t always the worst outcome,” said Julie Marlette, Director of Governmental Relations for the New York State School Boards Association.“Now we can continue to work with both legislative and regulatory figures to hopefully craft an update to evaluations that is thoughtful and comprehensive and includes all the stakeholders.”  

The news also means that New York’s teacher evaluation saga which has been raging for eight years will spill over into at least next year. Policymakers have been battling about state teacher evaluations since 2010, when New York adopted a system that started using state test scores to rate teachers in order to win federal “Race to the Top” money.

Teacher evaluations were altered again in 2015 when Gov. Andrew Cuomo called for a more stringent evaluation system, saying evaluations as they existed were “baloney.” The new system was met with resistance from the teachers unions and parents across the state. Nearly one in five families boycotted state tests in response to evaluation changes and a handful of other education policies.

The state’s Board of Regents acted quickly, passing a moratorium on the use of grades three to eight math and English tests in teacher evaluations. But the original 2015 law remains on the books. It was a central plank in that law which could require as much as half of an educator’s evaluation to be based on test scores that the unions targeted during this session.

With the moratorium set to expire in 2019, the fight over teacher evaluations will likely become more pressing next year. It may also allow the state education department to play a greater role in shaping the final product. State education department officials had begun to lay out a longer roadmap for redesigning teacher evaluations that involved surveys and workgroups, but the legislative battle threatened to short-circuit their process.

Now officials at the state education department say they will restart their work and pointed out that they could extend the moratorium to provide extra time if needed.

“We will resume the work we started earlier this year to engage teachers, principals and others as we seek input in moving toward developing a new educator evaluation system,” said state education department spokeswoman Emily DeSantis.

For some education advocates, slowing down the process sounds like a good idea.

“Our reaction on the NYSUT Assembly teacher evaluation bill is that you could do worse but that you could also do better and that we should take time to try,” said Bob Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents.

What seems to be a setback for the union now may be a galvanizing force during elections this fall. Republican lawmakers will likely struggle to keep control of the state Senate, and NYSUT is promising to use this inaction against them. That could be particularly consequential in Long Island, which is a hotbed of the testing opt-out movement.

It’s unclear whether the failure to act will also prove problematic for Cuomo, who is also seeking re-election. Cuomo, who pushed for the 2015 law the unions despise, is facing competition from the left in gubernatorial challenger Cynthia Nixon.

But at least so far, it seems like the union is reserving the blame for Senate Republicans and not for the governor.

Cuomo is “making it clear that he has heard the outcry,” said Pallotta. “I blame Senator Flanagan, I blame his conference and I blame 5 [Senate] Democrats.”