Andrew Cuomo continues to be the governor who gets things done. His latest accomplishment, getting the unions to agree to the teacher evaluation system he wanted, shows once again that he’s not only interested in having power, but knows how to use it effectively. Since taking office last year he has been leading New York state — and in mostly good directions.
Reaching agreement on a plan for evaluating teachers (and principals) was important, and not just because $700 million in badly needed federal funds was at stake. Evaluation is a way to recognize the best teachers, use them as models and (if the unions would ever allow it) reward them with bonuses. It’s also a way of identifying the weaker ones and helping them improve, or, if they are incapable of that, firing them.
That’s important because even though (thanks to the union) all teachers with the same education and experience are paid the same, they aren’t all the same. A really good teacher can reach even the toughest students and help them advance academically more than a grade level in a year, while a bad one can move them half a year or less. The aim should be to make all teachers really good — “highly effective” in the evaluation system’s terminology, or at least “effective.”
The question that the unions, state Education Department and governor have been arguing over for more than a year, and was finally settled with last week’s agreement, is how should those determinations of teacher performance be made? The biggest sticking point was how much state standardized tests should count in evaluating teachers, with state Ed and the governor saying they should be allowed to count for as much as 40 percent and the union saying no more than 20 percent, with another 20 percent from locally developed tests. A court last year agreed with the union; but Cuomo, in presenting his budget in January, threatened to impose his own evaluation system if a negotiated agreement couldn’t be reached, and the union gave in just before last week’s deadline.
The double-counting issue was never worth going to court over and delaying evaluations, because Cuomo wasn’t requiring that the state tests be double counted, only allowing it. And any locally developed tests would have had to be rigorous and approved by state Ed, anyway. These things are still true with the new agreement, and now in addition the education commissioner will have the power to reject a district’s overall evaluation plan if it isn’t rigorous enough.
While the new agreement is tougher in that respect, it has the potential to be weaker in others. One is the appeals process for teachers, which is still to be negotiated. Another is the curving that will be applied to teacher performance. It makes sense to curve for teachers with many at-risk kids, and to consider such things as academic progress as well as just test scores, as the agreement calls for. It’s a question of how much progress, though — if, for instance, a teacher advances a kid academically less than a year in a year, that isn’t progress, it’s losing ground.
Much will depend on a union’s good will, and the relationship between it and the school administration. And the commitment of principals, who will play a big part in the evaluations, spending more time in the classroom, as they should. And the commitment of the education commissioner, John King, to reform in this area. He seems genuinely interested, and has a powerful governor who is, too.
Cuomo should make clear that this general agreement isn’t enough; repeat his threat to withhold state aid from those districts that don’t have an acceptable evaluation plan by next January; and be prepared to follow through.