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Education summit airs grievances over new teacher evaluation law

Karen DeWitt
The education summit held in Albany Thursday.

Disagreements that have roiled the state’s education community in the wake of new teacher evaluation laws approved by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the legislature as part of the budget were highlighted at a day long summit called by education officials.

Principals, teachers and school boards have objected to the tight deadline in the law, as well as the greater reliance on standardized tests, a component that Cuomo has insisted upon.

The first panel of the day was the school superintendents, who expressed deep unease with the new law. Neil O’Brien, president of the New York State Council of School Superintendents, joked that the new teacher performance standards were the 4.0 version, as they have been revised four times just since 2010. He says the new rules are as flawed as the old ones.

“The definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over again expecting a different outcome,” O’Brien said.

O’Brien says school leaders says won’t be forced into making the same mistakes as the last time.

Jack Bierwirth the superintendent of the Herricks Public Schools on Long Island, and a former advisor to the State Board of Regents, says student test scores have become a political battleground and created a poisonous environment that has made rational discussion of the issue impossible.

Schools across New York were shaken this spring when nearly one-fifth of students opted out of the required English tests for the third through the eighth grades. Nearly as many missed the math tests. The exams will be used to measure teacher performance, and the absence of so many students could skew the outcome.

Bierwirth, who says he formerly worked at disadvantaged schools, says there’s a worry that an overreliance on test scores will unfairly penalize teachers at the state’s poorest schools, where test scores are low and instructors and their students are struggling. And he says Cuomo is fueling those fears, by calling the poorly performing schools failing schools, and advocating for a state takeover.

“When I have read statements by the governor equating low scores with the quality of teaching, I cringe,” Bierwirth said.

He says it makes it difficult to recruit and retain the good teachers.

“If you work in a district like that, no matter how effective you are you come out with a scarlet A on your head,” he said, to applause from the audience, which included state legislators, Board of Regents members, school board leaders and teachers union officials.

All of the key groups who spoke are also concerned about what they say is an impossibly tight deadline for enacting the new standards. The Board of Regents must create the new rules by June 30, schools must adopt them over the summer, and have them in place by November 15, or they risk a loss in state aid.

Tim Kremer, with the New York State School Boards Association, is asking the Board of Regents to extend the deadline for another year. He says trying to make major changes over the summer is unrealistic.

“We don’t have both parties easily available,” said Kremer. “Unfortunately, it’s a lousy time to force us to the negotiating table.”

Kremer admits, though, that the current evaluation system is broken.

Billy Easton, with Alliance for Quality Education, a pro school funding organization partly financed by the teachers unions. He says he hopes the summit will convince the state education department and board of Regents to “de-emphasize” standardized tests for measuring teacher and student performance.

“It drives teaching to the  test, and it  undermines quality education,” Easton said.

The biggest unanswered question, though,  is how much leeway do the Board of Regents, which are appointed by the legislature, have in straying from the new law, that was spearheaded by Cuomo.

Assembly Education Committee Chairwoman Kathy Nolan is one of many lawmakers who came to listen to the discussion. Nolan says the Assembly was not enthusiastic about all of the changes, but agreed to them to keep the state budget from being late. She says she’s counting on the Regents to use their authority to fix the flaws in the law.  

“I think the Regents are going to be very effective,” Nolan predicted.

Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch said in late April that she could administratively delay the implementation of the latest version of teacher evaluations until September of 2016, if schools can demonstrate that it would be a hardship to meet the short time frame imposed in the new law.

But, after Cuomo said he hoped the hardship exemption would be the exception and not the rule, she said  much would depend on how the Regents define the meaning of hardship.

In addition to the day long summit, the state education department has been accepting public comments. Deputy Commissioner Wagner says they’ve already received thousands of responses.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.