Teacher Evaluation Debate Wasn't Always Contentious

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By the end of the day on Thursday, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo says, he will impose his own teacher evaluation system if school districts and unions do not come to an agreement on their own about how to assess teacher performance.

The governor said he would include the evaluation system in his budget amendments, which are due Thursday. Without an evaluation system in place, school districts will not be eligible for additional state education aid, he said, so they must reach agreement on a framework, and fast.

All sides agree that a new evaluation system is necessary to replace the current "satisfactory/unsatisfactory" scale that has been used to judge teachers for decades. And despite a standoff, there has been substantial agreement on how to do it. Now it's down to the sticking points and the political calculations behind compromise.

To understand the current impasse, it may be best to look back.

May 2010 : This was a time of relative harmony. In 2010, the New York State Education Department and the teachers' unions, under the umbrella of the New York State United Teachers, agreed on a new way to evaluate teachers and principals. Lawmakers wrote that agreement into a bill, and then passed the bill in an effort to secure federal Race to the Top money.

The language of that agreement specified that 40 percent of a teacher's evaluation would be based on student achievement: 20 percent from state tests of the students and 20 percent from other measures, to be determined at the local level. (The other 60 percent of the evaluation would also be determined at the local level.)

New York City's Education Department and its teachers' union, the United Federation of Teachers, agreed -- and still do -- with the idea of basing 20 percent of a teacher's evaluation on standardized tests and finding another way to assess student achievement for the other 20 percent. Education officials said the city was now pilot-testing methods, like measuring student growth based on things like research papers, applied math problems and other academic projects.

This is where New York City and some other parts of the state diverge.

May 2011: Fast forward a year. Some districts asked to use the state tests for the entire 40 percent of the student achievement piece of the evaluation. They said they did not have the time and means to develop other methods to assess student success.

Governor Cuomo responded positively, requesting in a letter to the State Board of Regents that draft regulations should be changed to allow up to 40 percent of a teacher's evaluation to be based on the state tests. He said that percentage was closer to what was used in many other states.

The Board of Regents adopted the changes and approved the regulations. Districts now have the option of using state tests to measure up to 40 percent of a teacher's rating.

Here is where the harmony ends.

June 2011: The New York State United Teachers was not pleased. It sued the Board of Regents to block the new system, saying it gave undue weight to state tests in evaluating teacher effectiveness.

August 2011: A Supreme Court judge in Albany ruled largely in favor of the unions, saying that the legislation passed in 2010 stipulated that state test scores could not be used alone in the student achievement part of the teacher evaluations.

The State Education Department immediately started to plot how to overcome the judge's ruling, and an appeal is now pending in state court. In the meantime, state education officials said they would not impose the new evaluation system.

December 2011: Meanwhile, in New York City, there was agreement on many aspects of the evaluation system, including how to measure student achievement. But another issue was blocking a deal: the appeals process for a teacher given a low rating.

The United Federation of Teachers prefers third-party arbitration for a teacher appealing a low rating. But city education officials have said that a deviation from the department's current appeals process could keep substandard teachers in the classroom.

At that time, the two sides, along with several other districts in New York, faced a Dec. 31 deadline to agree on an evaluation system in order to share close to $100 million in federal grant money. No district reached an agreement that satisfied the state, and the education commissioner, John B. King Jr., withheld the funds.

January 2012: In his budget address on Jan. 17, Mr. Cuomo announced a 4 percent spending increase for education -- on one condition. He tied additional aid to the adoption of a new evaluation system.

He gave the Regents and the New York State United Teachers 30 days to settle the lawsuit. Either that, or he would impose his own evaluation system as part of his budget amendments.

And in response to pressure from the governor, New York City education officials and union leaders resumed talks.

February 2012: As Thursday's midnight deadline approaches, Mr. Cuomo says he is "optimistic" that there will be a deal and that he will not have to impose his own plan.

The governor has said his plan would reflect the ideas he outlined in his letter to the Regents back in May. But he has not specified how the plan would be carried or a timetable. Talks were continuing on Wednesday afternoon.