A Message to My “Representatives” In Albany

You failed me yesterday.  You failed my children.  You failed my children’s schools and their teachers.

In the New York Assembly, member after member, declared some form of regret or misgiving or “heavy heart” regarding the poisonous education provisions that were woven into the budget bills before them.  They acknowledged that although Governor Cuomo’s back door voucher plan and charter school increases had been purged from the budget, his teacher evaluation plans were based upon the wrong priorities and likely to harm education in the state.  Legislators alternately called the bill “terrible” and declared their belief that teachers cannot be “blamed” for problems that exist well outside their classrooms. They gnashed their teeth and beat their chests.

And then they voted for the budget anyway.

This, in the world of politics, is the much beloved “compromise” whereby supposedly “responsible” politicians and appointees look at their differences and craft some sort of middle ground.  The middle ground is necessary because each side is supposed to give up priorities that matter to them and allow the other to have some say in what is finally crafted for the public good.  Voltaire is credited with coining the aphorism that the “perfect is the enemy of the good,” meaning that those who hold out for results that perfectly align with their priorities fail to let good compromises come to fruition. In the world of politics, it is an affirmation of process that accomplishes something.

In the world of policy analysis it is why we cannot have nice things.

The differences between the original Assembly budget bill and the agenda outlined by Governor Cuomo in his 2015 budget address were not differences between two equally competing visions of education in the state of New York.  They were the difference between a minimally acceptable plan to make a down payment on the money the state owes school districts, and a agenda that was entirely pernicious to the quality of education in the state.  Instead of standing firm on the minimally acceptable opening position, the Assembly negotiation opened the door to revisions to teacher tenure and evaluation that are objectively harmful to educational quality.  New teachers now cannot get tenure until they have taught for four years, and they must be rated as “effective” in three of those four years and may not be rated “ineffective” in the fourth year to obtain tenure.  Tenured teachers who are rated “ineffective” two years in a row may be removed in as little as 90 days.  The New York Stated Education Department will have to create a fully detailed evaluation plan by the end of June and districts will have to adopt an approved version of it by November to get the increased state aid in the budget.  Governor Cuomo wanted, and got, an evaluation system using standardized test scores, outside evaluators, and school principal observations, and the final budget agreement requires that this matrix be used to determined teachers’ final evaluations:

the matrix

(Chart via Geoff Decker of Chalkbeat.org)

NYSED will have to determine how the outside evaluators and school administrator portions balance, but the test score component is effectively 50% of the evaluation as it occupies the y-axis by itself.  No teacher found “ineffective” by the test score component can be found higher than “developing” overall, and an “ineffective” test score component will override an observation based rating of “developing” in favor of finding a teacher “ineffective” overall.  Teachers cannot be evaluated based upon actual artifacts of teaching and student learning unless they are assessed by a state approved system.

The reasons for not using value added models of standardized test scores to evaluate teachers are numerous and, by now, well trodden territory.  Consider how the standard errors in value added models are so large that it would take a DECADE of testing data to reduce the risk of mislabeling a teacher as “effective” or “ineffective” to only 12%. If that is not compelling enough, consider how teachers who score well on value added models often do not score similarly on measures of critical thinking among their students.  Still not convinced?  Perhaps you could consider how very small changes in the predicted growth measures can make teachers who very successfully teach very advanced students come out as “ineffective.”

However, because legislators did not consider these massive and ill-advised changes to education policy in the state through a normal legislative process, very few of them probably understood these issues at all.  There was no committee process.  Experts in statistical modeling and teacher evaluation did not testify.  There was no prolonged public comment period.  There were just a series of budget bills produced and debated for less than 48 hours but with consequences for our schools that will be felt for years to come.  And yet, because the bills came with increased school aid and because some politically unpalatable provisions were not in the budget, the Assembly is congratulating itself for “protecting schools.”

If someone gives you the option of being stabbed repeatedly with a rusty knife or of eating a poop sandwich, I do not think it is reasonable to congratulate yourself for merely eating the sandwich.

So my question for representatives in Albany, especially those who voted “yes” with a “heavy heart”: What next?  What will you do now to protect and nourish public education after agreeing to such an egregious set of policy incentives?

This is no idle question.  The governor’s education agenda only enjoys a 28% approval rating. 65% do not want tenure tied to test scores.  Yet, despite overwhelming disapproval, the Assembly was unable to hold fast with the voting public and stare down the governor. Mark Naison of Fordham University poignantly noted that the vote represents a complete failure of democracy as the will of the people could not win the day over the will of interests who are only interested in unleashing disruption upon our schools.  If the Assembly collectively believes that, backed by the clear will of the people, they cannot take an unwavering stand against blatantly harmful education policy, then what do they intend to do now that the budget is passed?

  • What will they do to ensure that local input on teacher quality is respected and not shunted aside by the yet to be named “outside evaluators”?
  • What will they do to ensure that districts do not have to reach into their own personnel budget to pay for outside evaluators who will be hired to replicate work done by 4500 principals across the state?
  • What will they do to facilitate teachers who challenge their standardized test based evaluation components given the enormous standard errors involved in evaluating teachers based on a single year of test data?
  • What will they do to allow those challenges to help young teachers gain sufficient effective ratings to reach tenure?
  • What will they do ensure the greatly expedited removal provisions for tenured teachers do not rely upon the statistically invalid standardized test portion of teacher evaluations?  How will they guarantee that the 90 day process requires the districts and the state to present a VALID case for dismissal and allows for a teacher response?
  • And, most importantly, how will they help principals, teachers, and parents to maintain real quality teaching in the face of these distorting incentives that will influence teachers to mimic the practices of schools that are actually proud of how they turn their students into “little test-taking machines“?

These questions demand serious responses given the failure to take a stand last night.  They cannot be answered by passing legislation limiting the number of hours spent on test preparation and calling it a win for students.  Our children’s teachers have been put on notice that the standardized test is valued above all else, and we deserve meaningful answers.

Do you have any?

7 Comments

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7 responses to “A Message to My “Representatives” In Albany

  1. I have a “heavy heart” today because of legislators’ passing of this “I do not really care about children” budget. If President Obama could extend the deadline for the talks with Iran about nuclear power, then our legislators could certainly have stood firm and taken more time to look at these educational issues and to debate the repercussions of them. They could have stood firm and asked for time to hear expert testimony regarding the proposed changes that so many citizens of New York were asking them to consider. I listened to senators and assemblymen who did at least stand firm by voting no to the budget, and I applaud them. I also read statements from some of our legislators who tried to rationalize their yes votes for the budget. I agree that this whole process had nothing to do with democracy. It is a very sad day for education in New York.

  2. Lynne Semprivivo

    So let me get this straight. My student are disabled AND live in poverty. They will not pass a test that is even developmentally inappropriate for their non-disabled peers. All regular and special education teachers will lose their jobs within one year of this reform bill unless they work in a wealthy district. Politicians, who are elected by the citizens, did not side with its citizens. This is UNCONSTITUTIONAL and must be challenged by the masses NOW!

  3. Joel

    First off, let me say your blog is great. I enjoy reading it, even though it was discovered as a result of recent legislation. But I am wondering something that may or not be possible. I realize that the matrix is intended for teachers but what if there was a way to rate districts using it? Meaning would it show districts with wealth score more favorably than those in poverty? I currently teach in a district with high poverty which just so happens to be grossly underfunded compared to its suburban counterparts. Not to say money, or “throwing money at the problem” are the solution but it seems the playing field isn’t a level one and they want to evaluate teachers like it is.

  4. Rich Guillen

    THANK YOU FOR SUCH A WELL WORDED LETTER! I used it to send to my representatives. LOVE IT! Thank you!

  5. patriciahale

    You could be describing the AZ budget process and outcome for both K-12, community colleges and state universities. State by state public education policies are being created that are destroying the intent of an education.

  6. Pingback: Defeated? Yes, but I’m going to teach anyway. - Teachers

  7. Pingback: Andrew Cuomo and the Difference a Year Makes | Daniel Katz, Ph.D.

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