NYSUT is deeply disappointed in the State Education Department's first draft of recommendations for a new evaluation system for educators — and it appears many of the Regents are frustrated, too.
"We were heartened to see pushback by several members of the Board of Regents at this week's meeting as they questioned SED's overly narrow approach to remedying problems with the evaluation policy," said NYSUT Vice President Catalina Fortino. "But NYSUT is disappointed in the weight provided to the state tests and independent evaluators. This is not good policy."
In interviews with several statewide reporters, Fortino said the union is urging the Regents to stand tough — and keep meeting and listening to educators and parents.
After receiving more than 3,000 emails and hearing several hours of testimony at a "Learning Summit" earlier this month, SED unveiled a complex proposal that addresses some concerns — but would still increase the weight of standardized tests in determining teacher evaluations.
SED Deputy Commissioner Ken Wagner also seemed to backtrack on the idea of granting one-year "hardship" waivers to districts that are unable to negotiate teacher evaluation agreements by Nov. 15. Instead, he said SED intends to grant short-term, two-month waivers "accompanied by good-faith attempts to collectively bargain and train for the new system." The waivers would be renewable up to September 2016.
At the summit, NYSUT and representatives of superintendents, principals and school boards strongly made the case for SED to be flexible and liberally grant waivers to give districts some breathing space and time to negotiate local details.
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Several Regents expressed frustration that the new evaluation system, which was largely prescribed in law as part of the state budget, leaves them little latitude and sticks them with implementing an unworkable, unfair and test-heavy system. A number voiced concerns that the onerous new system will encourage more parents to opt their children out from testing and discourage excellent candidates from entering the teaching profession.
"We have been out-positioned and we are trying to defend something that you can't defend," said Regent Lester Young, an at-large Regent and former superintendent from Brooklyn. "We have a responsibility to do something by a date. However, I think we also have a responsibility to do the right thing."
Regent Betty Rosa agreed: "I think, as a Board of Regents, we have a moral and ethical responsibility to do the right thing, not just comply."
As it became increasingly clear many of the details were prescribed in the law, a number of Regents suggested sending the law back to the state Legislature for revision.
"We don't have the ability to change law," said Regent Roger Tilles, who represents Long Island. "Let's send it back as soon as we can. Let's start working on a new system, a new plan that we can wholeheartedly endorse, instead of having a touch-up here or touch-up there."
"We are the educators," said Judith Johnson, a new Regents board member representing the Hudson Valley. "We could lose, but I wonder whether we should be silent."
Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch said the Board could issue a "position paper," but is still expected to enact regulations by the June 30 deadline.
Regent Josephine Finn of Sullivan County, said she felt like the board's hands are tied.
"When I read the legislation, I felt like somebody asked me to bake a cake and they gave me the flour, the sugar, the butter, everything I need," she said. "They mixed up the batter; they put in the pan, they stuck it in the oven and then they said, 'OK, now you can turn the oven on.'"
After considerable pushback, Tisch urged the members to focus on what they wanted SED to change in the proposed regulations. She noted there are four areas in the proposed scoring matrix where testing results would override teacher performance in the classroom.
"Show me what you can do to mitigate that," Tisch said.
Regent Kathleen Cashin, a former New York City superintendent, suggested adjusting the scoring bands to give teachers the benefit of the doubt. "We need to start low and see how it pans out," she said. "We have to make it as teacher-friendly as possible … start small and over time increase weight."
Wagner said if too few teachers are deemed ineffective, critics would complain.
"I know you are under pressure," Cashin responded to Wagner. "But so are the teachers in this state."
Cashin asked for measures to be built in that would be more flexible for teachers of English language learners and students with disabilities.
Tisch noted it's important for lawmakers to change the law so that state aid is not withheld from any districts that are unable to negotiate an agreement before the Nov. 15 deadline. "Practitioners and districts are being held hostage," she said.
Other contentious items remained, including how much weight independent observers would have. While NYSUT recommended the weight of the outside evaluators' opinion would be subject to collective bargaining and less than 5 percent, SED's plan called for independent observations to count for 20 percent.
After several hours of back and forth, Wagner agreed to rework the proposal and the Regents will take it up again at their June 15-16 meeting.