Observers of the budget negotiation process in Albany, N.Y. had some reasons to be hopeful over the past week. Various reports indicated that the new Assembly Speaker, Assemblyman Carl Heastie of the Bronx, was holding firm against various education proposals from Governor Andrew Cuomo. Backed by polling showing the public in New York dead set against the Governor’s proposals by wide margins, it looked like much of the education agenda laid out in the January budget address was at risk. And early reports from Sunday suggested that the Assembly representatives secured significant increases in education aid and managed to trim a number of the worst proposals from the budget framework. An aid increase between $1.4-$1.6 billion dollars is in the agreement, and Governor Cuomo’s plans to lift the charter school cap and provide a new tax credit for donations to private schools are both absent from the framework.
Teacher evaluations and tenure, however, remained problematic. The evaluation agreement still relies upon standardized testing, outside evaluations, and principal evaluations, but at unspecified weightings. In a tenure process extended to four years, new teachers would have to have three years rated as “effective” to earn tenure, and teachers earning “ineffective” in consecutive years would face an expedited removal process of 90 days. Reports of these proposals reaching the budget framework obviously concerned those hoping for relief from test based accountability and an evaluation process that recognized the mounting evidence against value-added models of teacher effectiveness based on standardized tests.
Oh, what a difference 12 hours has made.
Not only are the evaluation proposals worse than originally feared, but also the desperately needed increase in school aid is contingent upon cities and towns adopting the evaluation framework and having it approved by Albany before November. According to the Capital New York report, Deputy Commissioner Ken Wagner explained the following details of the agreed upon evaluation framework in the budget negotiation:
- Increase in state aid will not happen if a district fails to submit a new evaluation and have it approved by November 15th.
- Tenure will be extended to a four year process, and a probationary teacher must have an “effective” or better rating for three of those four years. A rating of “ineffective” in the fourth year will deny tenure.
- The state Education Department will be tasked with creating a “matrix” based upon test scores, outside evaluators, and principal evaluations; districts may request an additional state examination to be developed by the NYSED, but it is unclear how many districts would want more testing in the current environment.
These conditions were on top of earlier reports that stated that the evaluation system would be designed so that a teacher who is found “ineffective” based on the testing portion of the matrix will not be able to be rated higher than “developing” overall regardless of the observation scores. In essence, the state Education Department has until June to craft a teacher evaluation system where test scores will govern whether or not a teacher can be rated “effective,” and districts have until November to submit their plans to implement such a system or they will receive none of the budgeted aid increase.
This is not a plan to strengthen teaching. This is a plan to use test scores to severely curtail the teaching profession in the state of New York.
The reasons not to use value-added models for teacher evaluation are numerous, but the most important ones are:
- Teacher input on the differences among student test scores is too low and the models used to locate that input are not reliable enough to be used to evaluate individual teachers. This is the judgement of the American Statistical Association whose statement on using value-added models makes it clear the models have very large standard errors that make ranking teachers by them unstable.
- The instability of VAMs is considerable, and teachers who are deemed “irreplaceable” because of a VAM ranking in one year can be ranked very differently in subsequent years.
- Even teachers who are known to be excellent and teach advanced students can be found “ineffective” by VAM ranking. Working in an excellent school with highly privileged students who score extremely well on tests is not a guarantee of an effective VAM ranking.
- Teachers who score well on VAM ranking do not necessarily score well when their students are tested on measures of critical thinking, suggesting that VAMs do a poor job of finding out which teachers are actually promoting meaningful learning with their students.
What possible outcome will be the result of the teacher evaluation proposals in Albany? For starters, it will not only be much more difficult to obtain tenure, it may become impossible without converting significant portions of the curriculum into test preparation. If teachers are held to a top ranking of “developing” if the test based portion of the evaluation is “ineffective” then it is distressingly possible that many new teachers will not be able to reach “effective” or better for three out of four years, and it will be through no fault of their own given the problems with VAM derived rankings. Just as the No Child Left Behind act resulted in a narrowed curriculum due to pressure from high stakes testing, New York is poised to exacerbate that problem, and parents can expect their children to spend fewer hours with social studies, science, art, music, health, and physical education. The final results of the budget negotiation may not be as bad as Governor Cuomo initially proposed, but there is still a hefty dose of poison in it that threatens to increase the replacement of our schools’ curricula with testing while gaining no actual improvement in the teacher workforce.
Noticeably absent from anyone in Albany who professes to care about the quality of teachers in the Empire State? Support. Meaningful professional development and education. Mentoring and induction proposals. While there is no “one size fits all” in helping teachers grow in their jobs, there are general principles that matter. The Albany budget negotiations offer no support for schools to improve their working conditions and general environment, factors that research shows have impact on both teacher satisfaction and student learning independent of demographics of the school. Supporting principals in being genuine instructional leaders within their schools and providing teachers with real opportunities to collaborate and to lead across experience levels would do far more to substantively improve student achievement than hanging yet one more Sword of Damocles over teachers’ heads. Doing so would require an actual investment of funds and resources not tied to blackmail demands.
That might be a novel approach for Albany these days, but it is the only one that is right.
New York Assembly members can be found and contacted from this page. Members of the Senate can be found here. The New York State Allies for Public Education has a list of the important leaders’ offices here. Every phone call, email, and Tweet makes a statement.