Students Lose as State Softens Pressure on Districts to Hold Teachers Accountable

December 30th, 2011

By B. Jason Brooks

When New York failed in its first attempt to win hundreds of millions of federal dollars in the competitive Race to the Top (RttT) grant program, it was clear that the state’s education leaders had not proposed enough reforms that were designed to increase accountability for increased student learning.  Seeking to avoid being blamed for the loss of an estimated $700 to $800 million in school funding during tough financial times and under intense public and political pressure, leaders of the statewide New York State United Teachers union and the United Federation of Teachers, New York City’s large and influential teachers union, caved and ended their long-time opposition to including student achievement results as part of teacher evaluations.  (In 2008, the unions successfully lobbied for a law banning such practice, making New York one of only a few states in the nation with such a policy.)  Without repealing this law, New York didn’t stand a chance at winning a RttT grant.  With great fanfare, the state education commissioner took the podium with these union leaders and announced a plan that included requiring up to 40 percent of each teacher evaluation to be based on some measure of student achievement results.

The state legislature swiftly adopted the plan and it was signed into law by then-Gov. David Paterson in order to put New York in the most competitive position possible for the federal RttT grant.  An impressive 91 percent of the state’s district superintendents, school board presidents, and local teachers union leaders signed memoranda of understanding (MOU) supporting the new teacher evaluation program as part of the state’s round-two RttT application and agreeing to implement the reforms in their local schools.  As clearly stated in the MOU, districts and unions would have to negotiate new contracts in order to implement the plan and implement the new evaluations:

Implementing a comprehensive evaluation system for teachers and principals based on multiple measures of effectiveness, including student achievement measures, which would comprise 40% of teacher and principal evaluations and ratings in accordance with the following minimum requirements:

– 2011-2012: 20 percent student growth on state assessments or comparable measures for teachers in the common branch subjects or ELA and Math in grades four to eight only, and 20 percent other locally selected measures that are rigorous and comparable across classrooms;

– The remaining 60 percent of the evaluations and ratings would be based on locally developed measures (e.g., classroom observations by trained evaluators), according to standards prescribed by the Commissioner.

The seven-page MOU signed by superintendents, school board presidents, and local teachers union leaders required the education leaders to certify that they were “familiar with the State’s Race to the Top grant application [including the teacher evaluation plan] and [were] supportive of and committed to working on all portions of the State Plan.”  The state wisely wanted to ensure that districts fully knew that the grant funding came with an unavoidable commitment for real reform.

The effort on the new teacher evaluation plan and the overwhelming local support paid off, with the federal government awarding New York a $700 million RttT grant in August 2010.

Now that the time has come for the new teacher-evaluation plans to be implemented – evaluations which actually take into consideration whether students are learning or not from individual teachers and thus have one of the first real elements of accountability for the state’s public school teachers – leaders of the entrenched local education bureaucracy are thumbing their collective noses at the state’s new teacher-evaluation law and the leadership at the State Education Department that is desperately trying to implement the plan. Despite districts signing on to the state’s new evaluation system a year and a half ago when money was at stake, more than 4,500 principals now have signed onto a petition opposing implementation of the evaluations, instead arguing for watered-down alternatives that in the end fail to hold teachers and principals accountable for genuine student achievement.

In addition to the push-back from principals, school boards, superintendents, and teachers unions are ignoring the commitments they made to reform.  As announced earlier this week by state education commissioner John King, an amazing 80 percent of of districts eligible for $105 million in School Improvement Grants (SIG) to fund reforms to fix chronically-failing schools have failed to implement the new teacher evaluations, a required component of the grant.  Unless districts have the new teacher evaluation plans in place by January 1, 2012, grant funds to fix their most broken schools could be lost.

When districts and union leaders agreed to implement the teacher-evaluation plans back in May 2010, the MOU signed by 91 percent of the state’s school districts outlined the recourse the state had if districts failed to live up to their commitments, consequences that include the withhold of funds and requiring districts to pay-back grant funds they may have received:

“If the State determines that the LEA is not meeting its goals, timelines, budget, or annual targets or is not fulfilling other applicable requirements, the State grantee will take appropriate enforcement action, which could include…putting the LEA on reimbursement payment status, temporarily withholding funds, or disallowing costs.”

Commissioner King stated on Tuesday, “The last thing the students need is to lose resources because the adults who run those schools won’t fulfill their responsibilities…The clock is ticking.  When the ball drops at midnight on New Year’s Eve, the money drops off the table, and it will be difficult to get it back.”  King went even further claiming that failing to follow through on implementing new teacher evaluations could result in districts losing federal Teacher Incentive Funds and RttT funding.  These were tough words from the reformer now in charge of overseeing the state education department.  But astute observers couldn’t overlook the wiggle room that the commissioner left for himself and those dissenting districts, claiming that “it will be difficult” – not entirely impossible – for districts to somehow keep the grants even if they fail to follow through on their commitments to implement the new teacher evaluations by the deadline.

Opponents pounced.  The day after Commissioner King’s statement, the superintendent of the Schenectady City School District, John Yagielski, announced that the commissioner had backed down and was allowing districts to keep their grants as long as it simply submitted a progress report outlining where the negotiations between the school board and the teachers union stood.  If the progress report provided insufficient information, the state would then take the step of calling for a “hearing” to examine the matter more closely.  If the hearing found that the steps taken by the districts and teachers unions was insufficient, the grant funds would then be “frozen.”  So much for the tough claims of “When the ball drops at midnight on New Year’s Eve, the money drops off the table.”

If districts and teachers unions are going to continue stonewalling the state’s new teacher-evaluation mandates – well-founded, well-intended, and reasonable reforms that make student achievement a significant factor in determining who has done a good job of teaching and who hasn’t – the State Education Department and Commissioner King should slam closed any perceived loophole and use the tools at its disposal by revoking the grants uncommitted districts have received.  Otherwise it becomes nothing more than simply throwing money at failing schools, a course we know from generations of such practices won’t achieve the dramatic improvements that are needed.

B. Jason Brooks is director of research at the Foundation for Education Reform & Accountability and may be followed on Twitter at @bjbrooksNY.

1 Comment

  1. A misleading figure:

    There are 4,511 principals listed in the state.

    OF THOSE, 1,046 have currently signed a letter objecting to the NYS system of teacher evaluations.

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