The week before a watershed Regents meeting in June, new Regent Catherine Collins told educators and parents at a southwestern New York community meeting to expect the unexpected.
"I am not going to be a rubber stamp for SED and neither are my colleagues," she promised. No more business as usual.
Those words proved prophetic, as she joined with six other Regents to stand up for what parents and educators want — and dramatically shifted the debate over the governor's "test-and-punish" evaluation law. It was unprecedented action, clearly signaling, along with public opinion polls and editorials, the growing momentum in support of parents' and educators' concerns.
"We applaud those courageous Regents who listened carefully to parents and educators and strongly pushed back," said NYSUT Vice President Catalina Fortino. "They really shifted the debate and opened up the meeting to a completely different discussion about how to fix this broken system."
The seven Regents — four of them newly elected with a clear charge by the Assembly to fix problems with testing and evaluations — redirected the meeting by authoring for discussion a bold position paper that rejects passive approval of the governor's dictates and supports a number of research-based reforms to his agenda. At the May meeting, several Regents expressed frustration that the governor's law, pushed through as part of the state budget, left them little latitude and stuck them with implementing an unworkable, unfair and test-heavy system.
"There are instances in America where we've had to break the law for purposes of social justice," said Regent Judith Johnson. "Rosa Parks — she broke the law."
The Board of Regents worked carefully to develop regulations that comply with the current law, while many made it clear they want to ultimately ensure a better system that is fair and meaningful, uses multiple measures and fosters professional dialogue and collaboration that will improve teaching, learning and achievement.
The new regulations, approved after nearly three hours of debate, also reflect some compromises:
- The Regents agreed to give districts four-month "hardship" waivers from the Nov. 15 deadline if they show good faith in trying to negotiate teacher evaluation plans with local unions. This measure provides districts and locals with the opportunity to delay implementation until the 2016-17 school year.
The Regents agreed there would be no cap on the number of districts granted waivers, and that they should be granted liberally so districts do not risk losing the state aid increase if they don't make the Nov. 15 deadline.
While the Regents can't change the law's matrix-style review, they do have the authority to weight subcomponents. After much debate, they voted that at least 50 percent of the student performance category must be made of growth on state tests (or Student Learning Objectives for teachers without a state-provided growth score) and the other half can be on locally selected assessments. That marked a compromise between a State Education Department recommendation that 80 percent of the student performance be based on state tests and the dissenting Regents who pushed for 20 percent.
The board created a workgroup of stakeholders and experts who will look at the whole evaluation and assessment system and make comprehensive recommendations for the future. This goes far beyond what SED proposed: the creation of a "metrics" workgroup. After several Regents made impassioned pleas for less standardized testing and to give educators more flexibility, the board unanimously agreed to broaden the workgroup's mission.
- For the observation part of the evaluation, the Regents broadened the scoring ranges as recommended by NYSUT to allow for more local flexibility.
More local flexibility for the number and duration of observations was also provided. While SED initially proposed a minimal number of minutes for observations, the regulations now leave it up to local collective bargaining and simply require two observations (one announced and one unannounced, with one done by an independent evaluator). If a district negotiates it, videos may be used by independent evaluators.
While many provisions in the evaluation system remain problematic, the Regents' compromise actions give educators, districts and the SED a little breathing space and add a little more flexibility to the onerous new law, Fortino noted.
NYSUT, meanwhile, will not rest until tests and evaluations are good for students and fair to educators, and continues to push lawmakers for amendments to the law. Nearly a dozen Assembly members attended the Regents meeting — an unusual occurrence.
NYSUT has developed a fact sheet explaining the provisions of the complex law.
"It's a stop-gap measure, but it is progress. Our activism with the Board of Regents is clearly working," Fortino said. "Educators and parents have sent thousands of emails and many of the Regents answered our call for local forums so they could hear directly from community members."
Fortino noted the Regents' new dynamic sets the stage for incoming Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, who will have to tackle these issues when she takes office July 6.
"We've elevated the discussion and gained time to continue the fight," Fortino said.
Here are the seven Regents who penned a position paper calling for bold action:
Judith Johnson, Hudson Valley
Beverly Ouderkirk, North Country
Judith Chin, Queens
Catherine Collins, Western NY
Kathleen Cashin, Kings County
Betty Rosa, Bronx
Josephine Finn, Capital District/Catskills
To find out who your Regent is, go to www.regents.nysed.gov/members/findrep.