New York Governor Andrew Cuomo began 2015 with a hard charge against public schools and public school teachers in particular. Having called public education a “monopoly” he wanted to “bust” during his reelection campaign in 2014, he vetoed a bill his own office had proposed that would have protected teachers and principals from consequences because of low test scores for a two year period, and his office opened a correspondence with Regents Chancellor Dr. Merryl Tisch where they both agreed that it was necessary to change teacher and principal evaluations to greatly increase the portion determined by growth measures on standardized tests.
The Governor came out swinging for New York’s public schools in his 2015 State of the State Address, delivered on January 21st:
Education – the great equalizer. And this is the area, my friends where I think we need to do the most reform and frankly where reform is going to be difficult, given the situation of the way education is funded in this state. Our education system needs dramatic reform and it has for years and I believe this is the year to do it. This is the year to roll up our sleeves and take on the dramatic challenge that has eluded us for so many years for so many reasons.
Governor Cuomo dedicated 2,254 words of his 10, 324 word speech to P-12 education, and he certainly kept his promise to put forth “dramatic reform.” He attacked the quality of teachers by citing a entry exam that nearly a third of prospective teachers did not pass in the previous year. He attacked the then existing teacher evaluation system in the state, which he had previously championed, as “baloney” because it rated too many teachers as effective and highly effective. The Governor justified this by citing that “only” 38% of students were “college ready” and he rattled off other proficiency levels on state exams as more proof that very many more teachers have to be rated ineffective. In doing so, he failed to mention that the cut scores for “proficient” and “highly proficient” were deliberately pegged by the New York State Education Department to scale scores that only about a third of students were expected to reach. Despite this, Governor Cuomo took it as a matter of faith that many more teachers deserved to be labeled ineffective, and his proposed teacher evaluation system shifted 50% of teacher evaluations to student growth on standardized exams. Further, he demanded the use of outside evaluators for teacher observations, and the book that was released with his address specified that those evaluators would count for 35% of teachers’ ratings, leaving local administrators with only 15% of input on their own teachers. He also called for tenure to be limited to teachers who received 5 consecutive years of effective ratings, and he offered a $20,000 bonus for highly rated teachers. That was joined by a proposal to allow school districts to get rid of any teacher with two ineffective ratings.
The Governor went on to scoff at the idea of more money helping the schools he labeled as failing, and instead called for any school that is deemed failing for three years to be turned over to another school district, a not-for-profit, or a turn around “expert” and he specifically cited charter schools as part of that effort, calling for statewide cap to be lifted. Governor Cuomo addressed funding, but largely to hold the state’s school hostage to his reforms: he proposed an increase in funding of 4.8% or $1.1 billion if, and only if, the legislature passed his reforms – otherwise, the increase would top out at 1.7% or $377 million. Mind you, this is in a state where Albany has continued to use the Gap Elimination Adjustment for years after the economic crisis eased, cutting promised aid from school districts to plug holes in revenue shortfalls for the entire state budget. This accounting trick has cost New York public schools billions of dollars in promised state aid from an aid budget that itself was short $5.6 billion needed to meet long promised commitments to equity in school funding.
The Governor forcefully went after this agenda, spending copious amounts of political capital and goodwill among the public, and while he did not get everything he wanted, on teacher evaluations, he finally forced state lawmakers to give him precisely what he wanted in order to meet the budget deadline. By all accounts, Governor Cuomo had won a sweeping change that was bound that transform New York into a cutting edge laboratory in the “test and punish” philosophy of education “improvement”.
What has happened since then has been a lot different.
Over the summer, NYSED’s new Commissioner, MaryEllen Elia, went on a “listening tour” of the state to, in theory, hear concerns of parents and teachers after the rocky tenure of her predecessor Dr. John King, Jr., but she also made her take on high stakes testing apparent by calling life “one big test“. Commissioner Elia’s “charm” took a different turn when she announced to reporters that her office was in communication with the federal education department over potential consequences for schools and school districts that failed to test 95% of all students. However, that stance was almost immediately reversed by Regents Chancellor Tisch who declared that Washington was leaving the matter to the state and that the Regents had no intention of withholding funds, and even Governor Cuomo echoed that sentiment, leaving the new Commissioner out on a limb from which she bid a hasty retreat.
Things got even weirder in the Fall when Governor Cuomo, citing widespread dissatisfaction with the implementation of the Common Core State Standards as well as questions about their quality and lack of input from stakeholders, announced a new commission to review the standards, review New York’s curriculum guidance and support, and review the testing environment in the state. The commission returned in December with a framework of proposals, including pushing full transition of changes to how standards are implemented and teachers are evaluated out to the 2019-2020 school year, although critics remained only cautiously skeptical.
Meanwhile, Regents Chancellor Tisch was seeking wiggle room in the reform environment as well. As early as April last year, she suggested that school districts would need an additional year to implement the evaluation system passed in the state budget, and in December, the Board of Regents went further by pushing the deadline for using state test scores in teacher evaluation to the 2019-2020 school year as well. While most districts are still operating under the previous evaluation system where 20% of teacher evaluation is based upon state scores, 20% based upon local measures, and 60% on observations, this move by the Regents means that the portion tied to the contentious state tests needs to be replaced locally – and if implementation of the new evaluation system happens in the following year, towns will still need more local measures since the state tests will not be used in evaluation. Currently, 83 districts managed to negotiate an approved implementation of the new evaluation system, but they will now need measures other than the state exam.
Governor Cuomo took to the stage again this month to deliver his 2016 State of the State address, and the tone could hardly have been more different. Last year, more than a fifth of the 10,300 word address was dedicated to his punishing P-12 education agenda. This year? 364 words. Out of a 9,683 word speech. Barely 3.75% of his address. And what did he offer?
- He bragged a little bit about reforms that he made no mention of last year – like increasing parental involvement and reducing testing and the Common Core recommendations.
- An increase of $2.1 billion in funding over 2 years.
- Using that money to end the Gap Elimination Adjustment.
- He made a vague call to turn “failing” schools into community schools, and repeated a positive platitude or three about charter schools.
- Suggested that we can attract and keep the best teachers – by offering a $200 tax credit to cover their out of pocket expense. New York teachers may not have to worry any more about choosing between decorating their classrooms and a visit to the dentist.
This is, shall we say, a far less ambitious and far less confrontational agenda for a Governor whose donor base expects sweeping changes that benefit their interests. Is there something that might account for such a dramatic change in tone and ambition?
After months of Governor Cuomo’s aggressive charge against New York teachers, and after months of protests across the state, the Common Core aligned state assessments were given and reports of huge opt out numbers came in. In August, those numbers were confirmed: 20% of New York State students eligible to take the tests, roughly 200,000 in all, refused them. This was huge increase over the previous year, and a majority of New York school districts did not test the 95% of all students required by federal law with a substantial number seeing refusal rates above 50%. Governor Cuomo, aided by Chancellor Tisch and former NYSED Commissioner John King, managed for foment a full blown parents’ revolt against his education priorities, and everything we’ve seen since the budget bill last April – Commissioner Elia’s threats and rapid retreat, Chancellor Tisch pushing the new evaluation system off for a year, Governor Cuomo’s Common Core and testing commission, the Regents delaying using state test scores in teacher evaluations, Governor Cuomo reducing his own education agenda to “YaddaYaddaYadda – Teachers are swell” – is likely a sustained effort to put out fires and take the urgency out of test refusal.
This being Andrew Cuomo, of course, changes in tone are not necessarily tied to changes in substance. While state tests may be on hold for teacher evaluations until 2019-2020, that merely represents a delay, and districts will still have to use some kind of test data for 50% of teacher evaluations when the new teacher evaluations actually get started next year. Assemblyman Charles Barron correctly points out that Governor Cuomo’s promised increase in school funding is more spin than substance, amounting to barely a portion of what the state still owes school districts under agreements made long ago. In fact, the governor’s proposal would use much of that increase to stop hacking away at promised, inadequate, aid via the Gap Elimination Adjustment, which is a bit like asking school districts to be happy that they will only be starved rather than starved and punched. Finally, nobody should forget how Governor Cuomo made a long list of promises to secure the endorsement of The Working Families Party and head off a challenge from his left in 2014 – only to give the progressive party the royal shaft.
Andrew Cuomo wants New York’s families and teachers to believe he is a changed and humbled man. History suggests it is a scam.