Both Sides Hang Tough on Teacher Evaluations

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When it comes to labor issues, it is often difficult to tell what is really going on. Negotiations are often a game of chicken, with each side holding firm and acting tough -- until one side pulls the brake or jumps to safety.

In the case of the city's Education Department and the United Federation of Teachers, it appears, from the outside, that both sides are determined to sail off the cliff.

Negotiations broke down last week over a system of evaluating teachers at the city's struggling schools -- a system that was required to be in place by Dec. 31 in return for nearly $60 million in federal grants -- and the rhetoric since has been bitter and unwavering from both sides, according to news reports.

The Daily News reported on Tuesday that the state is giving the city another chance to reach an agreement before a hearing on the decision by the state education commissioner, John B. King Jr., to suspend the $60 million in federal money, which he controls.

“At the hearing, the commissioner’s decision could be reversed,” said state spokesman Dennis Tompkins.

That would seem to hint that the state will give the city and the teachers union another chance to reach agreement.

But Natalie Ravitz, the spokeswoman for the city's Education Department, left little hope that would happen. According to The New York Times on Wednesday:

While Michael Mulgrew, the president of the city’s teachers' union, still had hope for a compromise, city officials stood their ground. “Negotiations are over,” Natalie Ravitz, a spokeswoman for the Education Department, said on Tuesday.

The article goes on to say:

Dennis M. Walcott, the city’s schools chancellor, has blamed the United Federation of Teachers’ intransigence for the collapse of the negotiations, writing in an op-ed published in The New York Post on Tuesday that the union “threw away those desperately needed federal dollars because they wanted new job protections for the worst-performing teachers.”

For the union, however, the objections were a matter of fairness. Mr. Mulgrew wants the city to hire independent arbitrators to run the process used by teachers to appeal poor ratings.

The city, nevertheless, has advised principals at the affected schools to carry on as usual -- which was a relief to some principals, who have already allocated the promised money for programs to help improve their schools, The Times reports.

Mr. Mulgrew was busy on Tuesday, defending the union's position to bring a third party into the matter. According to Gotham Schools:

Whether third-party arbitrators would rule on appeals for teachers who get low ratings was a key sticking point in negotiations between the city and the union. Now, a secondary impasse has opened over arbitration about the arbitration — that is, whether a third-party negotiator should figure out final teacher evaluation details for the city and union.

Appearing on "Inside City Hall" on NY1 and on the John Gambling Radio Show on WOR on Tuesday, Mr. Mulgrew said:

“I’m willing to abide by whatever [arbitrators] decide,” he told Gambling. “If it comes out that I don't like it, ahead of time I’m going to say I will agree to it.”

In a statement, Walcott said he rejected the union’s “last-minute” proposal for arbitration because he is not willing to accept the union’s demands.

“This is frankly too important to leave to an arbitrator,” he said.

Education reform groups are asking Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to install a "shot clock" on future negotiations on this matter, in anticipation of further deadlock as school districts attempt to impose an evaluation system on all its teachers as a condition of the state's acceptance of federal Race to the Top money. A deal must be reached by June 30 to meet the federal deadline. According to Gotham Schools:

When the clock expires, a teacher evaluation system devised by the State Education Department would go into effect, according to the plan outlined in a letter signed by 13 reform organizations from across the state and country. The groups — which include Democrats for Education Reform and and StudentsFirst, Michelle Rhee’s new lobbying outfit — argue both that more stringent evaluations are needed and that the state cannot afford to leave funding on the table during tough budget times.

Speaking of Governor Cuomo, expect to hear about a new state commission to look into student performance and school accountability when he makes his state of the state address to the Legislature on Wednesday, The Times reports.

Also on Wednesday, sad news from New Dorp High School on Staten Island, where a student is said to have committed suicide because of bullying. As is often the case in such matters, friends and relatives offered conflicting accounts of the circumstances and the possible cause.

According to The Times:

Deirdre DeAngelis, the principal of Amanda’s school, New Dorp High School, declined to discuss specifics, but warned against drawing hasty conclusions. “Don’t believe everything you read,” she said.

Finally, you may have read last week about an unusual protest outside of St. David's School by Ben Hume, 56, the son of a former headmaster, over -- what else in New York? -- a housing dispute. According to The Times on Wednesday:

Citing the First Amendment, a judge on Tuesday denied a request by a New York City private school to prohibit the son of a former headmaster from picketing in front of the school as students arrive for class each morning.

Room for Debate, The Times' Web feature that pulls together experts on provocative questions, has a doozy running right now: Are teachers overpaid? Feel free to weigh in.

And on The Learning Network on Wednesday, a timely question for students following the results of the Iowa caucuses. Playing off the article on Tuesday about Rick Santorum's sweater vest, it asks students: Do You Have a Signature Clothing Item?