A deal to strike on evaluating teachers
There’s rarely much progress on education policy in the state Legislature. The Republican-led state Senate tends to support charter schools and lament the quality of traditional public schools. The Assembly, with its Democratic majority, is friendly to teacher unions and regularly seeks to increase school aid.
Gov. Cuomo typically has a foot in both camps.
In 2015, during the height of the school accountability movement and at the urging of Cuomo, both sides came together to pass a strong teacher accountability measure tying teacher evaluations to students’ standardized test scores.
But because of opposition to the rollout of the Common Core standards and the new law’s unpopularity with teachers and parents, the tide turned against testbased accountability. As a result, with bipartisan agreement and Cuomo on board, the use of test scores alone for high-stakes decisions was temporarily suspended by the state Education Department, effectively nullifying the law.
That suspension period is running out. So, with the governor’s election-year agreement, the Assembly recently passed a bill to let districts opt out of the testing regime, allowing them to substitute their own teacher assessments for state exams. Predictably, Senate leader John Flanagan raised concerns, stalling further action.
This disagreement threatens to derail needed reform of the testbased evaluation law with no obvious way out.
But an opportunity for resolution exists through a grand bargain: liberalizing test-based teacher evaluations as Democrats want, while attracting Republican votes through teacher tenure reform, ending the indefensible ability of a few bad apples to hang onto their paychecks.
There are all sorts of problems with tying teacher evaluations to test scores. Some subjects aren’t tested. The exams are multidisciplinary, which means, for example, math scores may not reflect computational ability but poor reading of word problems. Then there are issues of student stress, test prep, loss of instructional time through overtesting, and nonuniform student enrollment.
And linking test results to teacher ratings will create perverse incentives for good educators to try to avoid weaker classes.
What simplistically seems like a causal straight line — good teaching resulting in higher scores — turns out to a disastrous mix of false assumptions and unintended consequences.
But this doesn’t mean our hands are tied when it comes to rooting out bad teachers. We can do it if we finally target aspects of tenure, which broadly protects public-school educators from being summarily fired.
The first reaction from teacher unionists on tenure reform will be “never!” But there are rational changes to current protections that can maintain necessary due process while rooting out those who create widespread public suspicion of the profession and undercut able colleagues’ hard work.
Tenure is an important shield for teachers to protect against instructional interference. It should not be a procedural sword to vanquish responsible supervision.
For example, it is illogical for districts to pay the salaries of tenured teachers who lose their certification, but are still entitled to separate, redundant termination procedures. Existing common-sense provisions for expedited hearings when teachers get two or more consecutive ineffective ratings could be extended to all proceedings seeking to dismiss tenured teachers.
Districts’ duty to provide years of excessively documented, timeconsuming remediation to demonstrably incompetent teachers delays proceedings and unfairly shifts the burden for improvement to already busy principals, diverting them from other school responsibilities while inept instructors continue to undermine children’s education.
These provisions, often resulting in six-figure district legal fees and settlement costs, give undue aid to undeserving educators, burdening all members of the school community, including and especially students.
Compromise is never easy. Opposition will come from left and right. But our debilitating overemphasis on standardized testing has widespread negative consequences. Similarly, the overwhelming difficulty of removing the small percentage of poor teachers impoverishes education for all. Tackle both.
Attack tenure; forget test scores