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A Last-Minute Deal on Teacher Evaluations

Thursday, February 16, 2012 - 12:03 PM

10:30 p.m. | Updated New York State education officials and the state teachers’ union reached an agreement on Thursday on a new evaluation system, just hours before a deadline set by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who had threatened to impose his own way to measure the quality of teachers’ work.

The agreement, which also applies to principals, puts the state one step closer to safeguarding $700 million in federal education aid.
By pushing the two sides toward a compromise, Mr. Cuomo ended a nearly two-year stalemate and stole the spotlight from Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who for a decade has focused much of his attention on education.

The governor also broke a down-to-the-wire impasse between New York City’s teachers and its Education Department over how teachers classified as ineffective could appeal that rating — an issue the mayor had been working for months.
The agreement, announced at a news conference in Albany, allows school districts to base up to 40 percent of a teacher’s annual review on student performance on state standardized tests.

Half of that portion must be based on students’ test score growth from one year to the next.

For the other half, the agreement offers the roughly 700 school districts in the state some latitude. They could use test data to measure student achievement in some other way — say, the progress of specific groups of students, like those who are not proficient in English or have special needs. They also could devise their own tests, or use tests developed by a third party, provided that the tests were approved by the state.

The remaining 60 percent of a teacher’s rating is to come from subjective measurements, primarily classroom observations by principals.

“It’s a victory for all New Yorkers,” Mr. Cuomo said. “Government works, and that makes this state a better state.”

The resolution came after all-night negotiating sessions in Albany and New York City, and it included concessions from all sides.

The negotiators reached a handshake agreement at 5:30 a.m. Mr. Bloomberg said he was asleep at the time; he had been under the weather. Mr. Cuomo ironed out the final details through e-mails and phone calls with his negotiators, people involved in the talks said.

He used his broad powers under the state’s budget process to push for the compromise. A month ago, the governor warned the sides to reach a deal by midnight on Thursday — the last day he could submit his amendments to the budget — or he would impose his own evaluation system. And on Thursday, Mr. Cuomo emerged as the clear winner.
For the first time, all school districts will have to abide by the same tight guidelines to assess teachers and principals, using a scoring system intended to take into account their performance and student achievement.

The announcement brought together the state’s education commissioner, John B. King Jr., and the president of the state’s teachers’ union, Richard C. Iannuzzi, who had been wrangling over the parameters of the statewide system since shortly after it was written into law in 2010 as part of the state’s application for a federal Race to the Top grant.

Michael Mulgrew, the president of the New York City teachers’ union, was also there, but Mr. Bloomberg was not. At one point, while the governor’s staff was posting Twitter messages about the agreement, Mr. Bloomberg posted Twitter messages about the inauguration of the city’s Facebook page.

The mayor addressed the agreement later, however, before a bill-signing ceremony at City Hall. He said it resolved “the lion’s share of issues” between the city and its teachers’ union.

“Historic,” Mr. Bloomberg said, “is probably not too strong a word to use.”

New York is one of 19 states that received grants under the Race to the Top competition, which requires every recipient to adopt a teacher evaluation system. In January, the federal Education Department warned New York that it could lose its share of the money if it did not comply.

On Thursday, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in New York City that the agreement resolved “a major roadblock,” but he did not rule out the possibility that the state could lose its funds over other issues.

The mood at the Albany news conference was festive, but elsewhere there were critics of the agreement.

Arnold Dodge, an assistant professor of educational leadership at Long Island University, said it was a “political deal” that would reduce the complexities of teaching to a simple number. “It’s not fair, it’s not reliable, and it’s not stable,” he said, adding, “You’re going to get a superficial number that has virtually no meaning for the long term.”

At the news conference, everyone made a point of thanking Mr. Cuomo. Mr. Mulgrew did so while slighting the mayor, saying the agreement on the appeals process became possible only after Mr. Cuomo intervened. “The governor came in, he assisted us, and we now have a fair appeals process,” Mr. Mulgrew said.

The city agreed to use an independent panel to hear appeals from teachers seeking to dispute a rating of “ineffective” on a four-point scale for reasons other than their job performance. That recourse, however, is available only to 13 percent of the teachers receiving such a rating for the first time.

Under the new system, teachers are ranked ineffective, developing, effective or highly effective. The current system has only two rankings, unsatisfactory or satisfactory.

Teachers who receive an “ineffective” rating are to be given a development plan to address weaknesses. Principals, as well as outside observers, will monitor them. In cases in which the observers back the principals’ findings, the city would move to fire the teacher with a presumption of incompetence and an expedited procedure. Currently, the city has the burden of proof, making dismissal much more difficult.

The appeals had been the most significant impediment to a compromise over an evaluation system for New York City teachers, but there is another hurdle: the fate of 33 struggling schools the city wants to close and reopen under an arrangement that would allow it to dismiss half of their teachers.

It is a plan created to restore $58 million in federal funds the schools had been receiving — but a plan Mr. Mulgrew opposes. If Mr. Bloomberg pursues the plan, Mr. Mulgrew said, it will be “very difficult” to put an evaluation system in place in the city.

Mr. Cuomo gave school districts across the state until January to sign off on their version of the evaluation system, or else lose their 4 percent increase in education aid. State union officials said nearly 100 districts had already reached agreements with their local unions and another 250 had agreed on key parts.


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