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Just How 'Wink-Wink' Was a Deal on N.Y. Teacher Evaluations?

UPDATED

The New York State Education Department is upset because it believes at least one district subverted state law by reaching a sotto voce, improper agreement with its teachers' union that new evaluations wouldn't lead to teachers getting fired.

The Buffalo News has a useful summary of the situation. Essentially, the state department has discovered that Buffalo Superintendent Pam Brown told the Buffalo Federation of Teachers President Philip Rumore in a Jan. 15, 2013 letter that the district's new teacher-evaluation deal about to receive approval from the state education department wouldn't impact any teacher's employment. Specifically, teacher ratings based on evaluations from the 2011-12 and 2012-13 school years wouldn't lead to any teacher being fired, whatever the results were. These evaluations have been the subject of controversy because of how much they rely on standardized test scores.

Two days after Brown wrote that letter to Rumore, the News reported, the state education department signed off on the Buffalo evaluation deal, apparently unaware of Brown's letter to Rumore.

Now the department is aware of the deal that Brown discussed with Rumore. The problem is encapsulated in New York Commissioner of Education John King's assertion in the paper that the allegedly wink-wink side deal violates state law: "The law says the evaluations 'shall be a significant factor in employment decisions.'"

Buffalo could lose its increase in state education aid slated for this year, according to King. According to the paper, that would mean a $30 million hit for Buffalo. In a letter the state department's Julia Rafael-Bar wrote to Brown on March 25 about the situation, she also said that the district could jeopardize its $11 million in School Improvement Grant funding from the federal government for 2012-13 (and $40 million over the remaining life of SIG for Buffalo) if it did not conform to state law about teacher evaluations.

Earlier, it had been reported that Rochester's school district had reached a similar deal with its teachers' union, but department spokesman Tom Dunn told me today that Rochester has no such deal. He did say the department was trying to determine if any other districts had similar arrangements. Rumore also indicated that other districts have these deals in place with unions, although he didn't specify which ones.

Teachers' union officials have a counterargument. Carl Korn, a spokesman for New York State United Teachers, told the paper that King was wrong, since the law says only that districts "may" decide to dismiss teachers based on what their new evaluations say. I've asked Korn to tell me exactly where the law specifies this, and when I hear back from him, I will update this post. UPDATE: The teachers' union, to back up its assertion, is citing a memo from the state department to the Board of Regents last year which contains this background sentence about the evaluation law: "Tenured teachers and principals with a pattern of ineffective teaching performance — defined by law as two consecutive annual "ineffective" ratings — may be charged with incompetence and considered for termination through an expedited hearing process."

The regulations adopted by the New York State Board of Regents based on the 2010 law changing how the evaluations must work includings a line that says the new evaluations must be "a significant factor in employment decisions such as promotion, retention, tenure determinations, termination, and supplemental compensation," as well as how teacher and principal development is approached.

One reason to think that the district at least thought it was acting properly is that it's hard to imagine that a superintendent would try to knowingly and surreptitiously circumvent state law, only to describe the illegal act in correspondence. On the other hand, if the state department is telling the truth that it only recently became aware of the deal, Buffalo K-12 officials failed to inform the state about it for some reason.

The union's long-term position has been that the true purpose of the new teacher evaluations is to enhance learning and student achievement.

Remember, the 2010 evaluation law was critical to the state's successful bid for $700 million in federal money in the Race to the Top grant competition. How could that situation be affected if these deals turn out to be widespread and are deemed improper?

The evaluation deal wasn't officially reached until the start of this year, yet the state superintendent said the evaluation's terms would apply retroactively to the 2011-12 school year, as well as the current school year. That's explained by the Regents memo I linked to above, which does say that the evaluations would apply only to teachers of "common branch" subjects (like math and English) and some principals, and then to all teachers and principals in the 2012-13 year. That covers a big gap between when the law revamping teacher evaluations was passed (2010) and when Buffalo actually reached an evaluation deal with teachers.

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