New York State Budget’s Education Reforms Draw Criticism

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Just before graduation, Jessica Warne takes one last walk down the hallway at Pierson High School in Sag Harbor. Photo by Michael Heller.

Just before graduation, Jessica Warne takes one last walk down the hallway at Pierson High School in Sag Harbor. Photo by Michael Heller.

By Tessa Raebeck

New York’s school districts have watched Albany intently since January, when Governor Andrew Cuomo promised a $1.1 billion increase in education aid on the condition that the Republican-controlled State Senate and Democratic-led State Assembly agree to his series of education reforms.

Those reforms, called a “disgrace” by the state’s teachers’ unions and denied by a growing movement of parents who are “opting out” of state tests, include linking teacher evaluations more closely with student test scores, making it harder for teachers to be hired and easier for them to be fired, and allowing state takeovers of schools whose students perform poorly on tests.

Democrats in the Assembly, members of the governor’s own party, voiced their strong opposition to the reforms as they voted on the budget on Tuesday, March 31, but conceded that passing the budget and avoiding a government shutdown was of greater priority than preventing the education overhaul. An aide  to Senator Kenneth P. LaValle confirmed Tuesday afternoon that the budget’s final language was still being worked on before the formal adoption. By Wednesday, some concessions had been made, but not enough to quiet the worries of educators across the state and the growing opposition of parents and their children.

Although legislators, educators and teachers unions opposed the bulk of the reforms, the primary standout is teachers’ evaluations, which will be taken further out of the hands of the schools themselves. The governor wanted half of a teacher’s evaluation to be based on student performance on state tests, which educators and parents alike have decried, saying the system would put even more emphasis on “teaching to the test” and less on creative, engaging learning.

Administrators and school board members in Sag Harbor, East Hampton, Southampton and Bridgehampton have publicly spoken out against the governor’s reforms.

“It is ridiculous,” said Chris Tice, vice president of the Sag Harbor School Board, at a meeting last month. “It just puts more pressure on that single test being the only measure of effectiveness…it’s very unhealthy—this increased anxiety-ridden testing environment that the governor’s creating and ratcheting up.”

The new budget removes teachers evaluation planning from the legislative process and places the power of determining the weight of the various components, primarily test scores and observations, into the hands of the State Education Department, which will have to come up with a plan by June. The department gained notoriety last year for its haphazard rollout of the Common Core standards  when it administered tests to students before providing teachers and parents with basic materials like lesson plans and textbooks.

Under the new evaluation system approved Tuesday, teachers will continue to be judged on the current scale as “ineffective,” “developing,” “effective,” or “highly effective.” Those who teach math and English to third through eighth graders will be judged on their students’ performance on state tests in those subjects and high school teachers will be judged on the Regents exams. Educators whose courses don’t end in state exams, such as art or kindergarten teachers, will be evaluated based on “student learning objectives” determined by the state.

Observations conducted by a principal or administrator within the school and an “independent” observer from a different school will also play a role in a teacher’s grade. Lesson plans, student portfolios, and student and parent feedback surveys may no longer be considered in determining whether or not a teacher is doing their job.

In addition to requiring that 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation be based on tests, the governor wanted 35 percent to come from an observer from outside the district, with the remaining 15 percent determined by the teacher’s school itself, numbers that education proponents are urging the state to abandon.

“The idea of a teacher evaluation system being related to 85 percent coming from outside local control is absolutely horrific,” said Jim Kinnier, a math teacher at Pierson Middle/High School and president of the Teachers Association of Sag Harbor, who fears the Education Department is under the governor’s control and will end up implementing his desired weighting regardless of the input of legislators and educational experts.

“A lot of what this is, is the governor is unhappy with the teachers union on the state level because the teachers union didn’t endorse him…. a lot of this on his part is an eye for an eye kind of thing.”

Other components of the budget will make it harder to become a teacher in the state, which has been struggling to recruit new educators in recent years, and for teachers to keep their jobs. Every five years, teachers and administrators with lifetime certification will be required to register with the state again and complete 100 hours of continuing education or professional development under “rigorous standards” to be released by the Education Department. There is no funding mentioned to help school districts comply with the mandate. The state’s graduate schools of education will be required to “adopt rigorous selection criteria,” including a cumulative 3.0-grade-point average during an applicant’s undergraduate career. Teachers will not be able to qualify for tenure until they have taught for four years, as opposed to the current three.

“We’re reading articles about less and less people wanting to become teachers in New York State because we have a governor that’s creating a platform that seems to be…hostile to teachers and children, both,” said Ms. Tice.

In addition to the teachers union and state legislators, a grassroots movement of opposition has formed in the state and is swiftly growing on the East End. New York State United Teachers Union President Karen Magee encouraged parents to “opt-out,” or remove their children from standardized testing, saying it is the only effective method of resisting the governor’s changes, and a group of local parents is taking up the charge, opting their children out of the state exams, which begin on April 14.

“The goal for us parents and teachers is to get as many families to refuse the test as possible, because that’s where it gets noticed,” said a Pierson Middle School parent who wished to remain anonymous until the group comes out publicly. “I don’t really have a political bone in my body, but at this point it’s really hard to ignore…. the testing is ineffective and it’s not pro-student, it’s not pro-teacher, it’s not pro-school.”

Mr. Kinnier said he is generally in support of standardized testing because it helps teachers to serve their students and “the school can look at their program and make adjustments based on results. It allows you to compare where our students are compared to other students across Long Island and across New York and I think those are good things.”

On the state exams for third through eighth graders, however, teachers do not receive students’ results. They are given a numerical grade of one through four for each student, but no additional information on what a student struggled with or what areas were challenging, so they cannot diagnostically look at the right and wrong answers and adjust their program accordingly.

“The state exams on the seventh and eighth grade level are more challenging than the Common Core Algebra Regents Exam,” said Mr. Kinnier. “And the reason why the state makes the Common Core Algebra Regents Exam so easy is because it’s one of the requirements to graduate from high school, so they have these other tests which their only purpose is to judge teachers.”

Teachers across the state write the Regents exams, which are included on students’ high school transcripts, but Pearson, a for-profit testing company with strong lobbies in Albany, writes, administers, and grades the exams for younger students.

“That’s another thing that virtually all teachers are opposed to—these state exams ought to be written by teachers and not a for-profit test writing company,” said Mr. Kinnier.

The teachers union is “taking a close look” at how the state is spending money for testing purposes and links between leaders in Albany and profiteers at Pearson, he added.

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