January 2011 Issue
December 19, 2010

VP Neira holds Q&A with the Commissioner

Source: NYSUT United

New York state is at a critical juncture in implementing its new Teacher/Principal Evaluation Law, which took effect on July 1, 2010. This new law calls for a comprehensive teacher evaluation system that emphasizes teacher development to improve instructional practice and increase student achievement.

All contracts expiring after the law took effect must comply with the new law, which calls for collective bargaining at the local level to develop a new process for teacher/principal evaluations.

The law gives the state education commissioner until July 1, 2011, to develop regulations addressing implementation, leaving a one-year gap between the law's effective date and its implementing regulations. For school districts and local unions with expired contracts, this raises questions about how to negotiate a new evaluation system without the implementing regulations in place.

NYSUT Vice President Maria Neira, who oversees NYSUT Research and Educational Services and is the union's liaison to the Board of Regents, sat down with State Education Commissioner David Steiner for a conversation to attempt to clear up the confusion around implementation.

Neira: Commissioner, educators across New York state are dealing with the real-world realities of implementing the new law that changes the process for Annual Professional Performance Reviews (APPR). We appreciate the opportunity to discuss the specifics.

I would like to focus first on the law's intent to strengthen student learning. Too often, conversations about teacher effectiveness focus narrowly on the use of student test scores in the evaluation process and overlook essential elements with a significant impact on student learning, such as teacher professional development. How will the new evaluation system advance teacher effectiveness?

Steiner: When we discuss teacher effectiveness we are addressing how we can improve teacher practice to have a positive effect on student achievement. The new teacher evaluation law calls for the Commissioner's Regulations to take into account professional teaching standards. The Regents are actively considering the adoption of New York state teaching standards and will be discussing these standards at their January meeting.

These new standards were developed by a group of practitioners, including teachers, principals and superintendents as well as other stakeholders. The standards will inform the basis for teacher evaluation. They will clearly define for teachers what is expected of them and will guide their professional development.

As you know, 40 percent of the evaluation is based on student achievement. In the first year and up until the Regents adopt a value-added growth model, 20 percent will be student growth on state tests and 20 percent student achievement on locally selected measures, consistent with the Commissioner's Regulations. The weighting of the state test results increases to 25 percent once the growth model is adopted. Sixty percent of the evaluation will be based on observational rubrics and other measures consistent with the standards prescribed in regulation.

When teachers are found to need improvement, school districts will work with each teacher to develop an improvement plan. Under this plan, the district will provide for the development opportunities contained in the plan and the teacher will be responsible for addressing those areas requiring improvement in their practice.

Neira: Commissioner, you have said that the new teacher evaluation system came at least partially from the Regents' desire to improve New York's chances to receive a Race to the Top grant. What were your other reasons for developing the legislative proposal that eventually became law?

Steiner: While developing a new teacher evaluation system was a requirement for Race to the Top, the overriding impetus was to make the evaluation process more meaningful and more rigorous.

By meaningful, I mean that teacher evaluations should be focused on observable behaviors, performance data where available, and specific classroom practices so that teachers know what is expected of them and evaluators know what to look for. To be more specific, the model developed by Dean Robert Pianta of the University of Virginia is one example.

The result of our efforts should be instructional improvement and better student performance. If the results of an improvement plan are not forthcoming with a teacher, school districts have a responsibility to take appropriate action.

Neira: Commissioner, when it comes to making law a reality, we all know the devil is in the details. Let's discuss specifics. As you know, contracts negotiated after July 1, 2010, are required to comply with the new law. What can school districts and local unions do to ensure the timeline for issuing implementing regulations does not hold up contract negotiations?

Steiner: Since the new law contemplated a gap between adoption of the law and implementing regulations, school districts and local unions have choices. These range from beginning contract negotiations and holding off on finalizing a contract until all of the issues related to APPR are resolved or establishing a placeholder in an otherwise agreed to contract. I expect the primary consideration at the bargaining table for districts and local unions will be consistent with our intent to achieve improvement in instruction and better student performance.

Neira: We have begun to hear from a few of our locals that some school districts are taking the position that a new APPR process will be imposed if one is not agreed to by July 1, 2011. Do you think this approach will produce the kind of evaluation system you envisioned when developing the legislation?

Steiner: Although I am not aware of districts taking that position, the law describes how districts and unions are to proceed.

The goal of the Regents is to improve teacher and leader performance in order to produce better student achievement. The law contemplates an evaluation system that will advance that tenet.

I think the "give and take" inherent in the collective bargaining process will sort out these issues.

Neira: If a local and a school district agree to a new evaluation system before the regulations are in place, do the district and local subsequently need to go back to the table once regulations are adopted to incorporate any changes into their new evaluation system?

Steiner: That would depend on whether the contract was consistent with our regulations.

NYSUT, SAANYS and CSA, NYSSBA and NYSCOSS as well as a host of other stakeholders — nearly 60 in number, are well represented on the Regents Advisory Task Force on Teacher and Principal Effectiveness.

The work of the task force is very transparent so it may be possible for districts and local unions to be working out these issues in a manner that would be consistent with the regulations we ultimately adopt. If it turned out there was inconsistency with the subsequently adopted regulation the parties to the contract would be responsible for resolving it.

Neira: What about districts and locals that agreed on new contracts before July 1, 2010? Do they have to negotiate a new APPR before the contract expires?

Steiner: Labor contracts in effect on July 1, 2010, that contain teacher evaluation/APPR provisions do not have to be re-negotiated to conform to the new law until the contract expires and the parties enter into a successor labor agreement.

However, in order to receive Race to the Top monies amounting to 25 percent of the district's allocation, the district must certify that contracts for both teachers and principals permit the implementation of the new evaluation system. This may occur anytime after July 1, 2011, with the funding potentially available for use as early as the 2011-12 school year.

Neira: After more than a year of research and development by five labor/management teams, NYSUT's Innovation Initiative is piloting aspects of a comprehensive teacher evaluation model starting in January. How might this initiative lay the groundwork for the state's approach to APPR?

Steiner: When I spoke at the Innovation Initiative's first meeting, I told participants their work would be vitally important. I know their work is helping the Regents Advisory Task Force on Teacher and Principal Effectiveness to develop recommendations that will be considered as we flesh out our regulations.

The U.S. Department of Education showed its support for the Innovation Initiative's continuing work by awarding a $5 million competitive grant to support implementation.

This is very difficult work. We are leading the way to school reform through a Regents agenda that will create a new system of measuring teacher and principal effectiveness.

The success of this effort is critical to the longterm success of our public education system. I remain confident that local unions and school districts will work together to build evaluation systems for teachers and principals within the parameters we establish; and be assured, those parameters will be designed to make student achievement our single-most important priority.

Neira: Commissioner, thank you for sharing your thoughts with us as we work together to ensure all students have a quality public education.

Steiner: Thank you Maria, for this opportunity and for the contributions you and others from NYSUT are making to this important work.