Teacher Evaluation Funding Follies

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo listens to a speaker during a cabinet meeting in the Red Room at the Capitol in Albany, N.Y., on W
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo listens to a speaker during a cabinet meeting in the Red Room at the Capitol in Albany, N.Y., on Wednesday, May 9, 2012. Cuomo says he didn't discuss the effort to legalize gay marriage during his private conversations with President Obama on Tuesday, and doesn't intend to push it. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)

With all of the recent jockeying over the stalled New York City teacher evaluation deal, little has changed in the last several weeks. The governor's threat to withhold state aid has been temporarily enjoined while the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) and mayor, also prevented from implementing the State cuts, still seem at loggerheads. And has anyone noticed that the State Education Department's sword rattling deadline for withholding federal funds has come and gone? That possibility vanished because John King was blindsided when Arne Duncan blinked.

King, New York State's Education Commissioner, had previously threatened to suspend or redirect over a billion dollars of federal education aid, including our entire Title I allocation, if New York City and its teachers union did not agree to a formula for job-threatening teacher evaluations by February 15. This unilateral dictate -- holding over three million students as financial hostages to force a supposedly voluntary contract agreement -- was demolished when the U.S. Department of Education headed by Secretary Duncan, stated on February 1 that the agency "had no plans to withhold grant money," as reported by the Wall Street Journal and the city DOE issued a rehashing of its so-far incomplete teacher evaluation efforts that King had already criticized.

The pressure being put on the City and the Union to agree to a set of standardized test-based teacher evaluations is absurd. City schools' potential loss of approximately $250 million in State funds based on Governor Cuomo's decision to punish districts that failed to agree to his January deadline is threatened as contrary to the State's obligations to adequately fund City schools. In a counter-move, Cuomo has reeled in Senate and Democratic leaders to propose repeal of the collective bargaining provision that gave rise to the evaluation impasse.

Most district unions caved to Cuomo's threat since they are more dependent on State money than New York, which is routinely shortchanged by Albany and can withstand this deprivation -- while very serious -- without core instructional impact. Besides, the teachers probably reasoned, it remains to be seen if any are eventually fired as a result of the new evaluation system. Termination hearings are notoriously complex and questions over highly-variable test results may even protect teachers with poor principal evaluations. So it is understandable that union locals would take this calculated risk -- certain money now in exchange for few possible firings later -- in agreeing to Cuomo's now-suspect conditions.

These evaluation funding follies have been perpetrated by politicians, policy wonks, and their deep-pocketed patrons to solve an imaginary problem through an untested solution. Even the conservative TNTP emphasizes that our greatest need is to retain good teachers (however that may be defined) since most teachers of any stripe leave the system early in their careers. In addition to King and Cuomo, Mayor Bloomberg has damaged whatever little education credibility he has left by denouncing a sunset provision in the potential UFT agreement, though almost every other State-approved plan contains that element. Even Duncan's Pollyanna pronouncement that New York has made "notable gains" toward implementing its Race to the Top promises is fallacious. As King has noted, we are far from meeting the goals set forth in our RttT and No Child Left Behind waiver (formally, "ESEA Flexibility") proposals. Just as no knowledgeable participant thought there was truth in the phrase "No Child Left Behind" so we are caught again in a duplicitous series of false promises and gamed results.

The next steps? First, King should lose his job, having put the ideological purity of the accountability movement ahead of a billion dollars critical to the education of millions of mostly poor children in his charge. His legal arguments are wrong since, under his own Department's Regents Rule 30-2.1(c), interpreting his statutory powers regarding a teacher evaluation system, no evaluation system is permitted unless there is union signoff. As important, his letter to Chancellor Walcott presumes to speak for the federal Education Secretary in threatening "suspension and/or redirection of federal funds and/or determination that NYC DOE is a 'high risk grantee'" under federal regulations. When Arne Duncan pulled that rug out from King's empty pronouncement, he proved that the commissioner is less interested in kids than in unproven evaluation mechanics.

Second, the new commissioner should renegotiate our RttT and ESEA Flexibility agreements to provide for a more realistic implementation schedule, with substantive changes to student, teacher, and teacher prep evaluation systems more consistent with current research. The Department of Education has never walked away from a RttT or ESEA deal and is unlikely to do so now.

Finally, the governor, having at least temporarily failed to punish New York by withholding funds this year, should keep his powder dry and await results from the teacher evaluation plans already in place before re-imposing cuts next year, as he recently announced. Real cuts = real kids, Governor. Don't do it again without more information.

No one is arguing against hard-headed teacher evaluation and removal of poor performers, tenured and untenured. I have repeatedly written that the probationary period be extended from three years so that principals and teachers alike have time for evaluation and improvement without the premature attachment of increased due process through tenure. I teach my Leadership grad students that it is God's work to terminate a bad teacher. But the current use of student test scores for such decisions is so fraught with unknowns that we do a disservice to all when we pretend they have any statistical utility in personnel decisions. The chief myth underlying this set of political follies is that we know enough to do no harm. Our leaders are jeopardizing scarce funds for children in need to hide their basic ignorance.