What a difference a year makes. Last year, incumbents seeking re-election to the state Board of Regents found themselves defending the state's teacher evaluation system, testing program and the State Education Department's botched implementation of Common Core. One incumbent on the hot seat abruptly decided to retire after tough questioning by legislators.
This year, incumbents seeking reappointment to the statewide policymaking board clearly tried to distance themselves from much of the controversy — and told lawmakers they do not support the governor's plan to more than double the weight of students' state standardized test scores for teacher evaluations. One questioned whether student test scores should carry any weight at all.
For two, Regent Robert Bennett of western New York and James Dawson of the North Country, their opposition was an about-face from previous comments and their voting records.
"Personally, I wouldn't increase the value of the state tests in APPR at all," said Bennett, who served as chancellor from 2002-09. "If the intent is to improve teaching, (the 50 percent proposal) won't change that."
When lawmakers pressed Bennett on a letter to the governor by Chancellor Merryl Tisch indicating Regents support for 40 percent, Bennett hedged. "I support going to 40 percent if the school district wants to do so. Twenty percent should be it in my opinion, but it could be 40 percent as a local option and many have done that already."
When asked about the Regents' recommendation for 40 percent, Dawson was more emphatic: "To me, the coupling of our state exams with the assessment of teachers is a mistake," said Dawson, a SUNY Plattsburgh geology professor who has served four terms.
"It's the law and we did the regulations, so we get the blame … But personally, I don't think it's the right way to go. I would keep those things separate."
For the three other incumbents, their comments were generally in keeping with their previous postures.
Regent Roger Tilles, who has represented the Long Island region for 10 years, voiced the strongest opposition to the governor's plan. Fifty percent? "I, for one, would suggest zero percent," Tilles said. "There are better ways to evaluate teachers."
He referenced an op-ed he wrote in May 2011: "Why we shouldn't link teacher evaluation to test scores." His bottom line: "Using student test scores for teacher evaluation is a bad way to go."
Regent Kathleen Cashin, a former superintendent in New York City, cited research questioning the validity of using student test scores to assess teacher performance. "It's not reliable," Cashin explained. "A teacher is not a direct connect with the child's score. Research shows that a teacher has about 14 to 20 percent impact on a student. The other impacts on the students are the home, the guidance counselors in the school, experiences the child has had, museums the child has visited …"
Cashin, who frequently speaks out at Regents meetings, voiced strong reservations about Common Core.
"Parts of CCLS are developmentally inappropriate and we need a committee of practitioners to review and suggest modifications," she said. "We need to treat people with respect ... We can bounce back from this but policies must be from the ground up. We must get buy-in from the field and we must value the insights from the field."
Regent Lester Young, an at-large representative from Brooklyn, acknowledged the state should have been more thoughtful before rolling out so many education changes at once. "We implemented a new set of assessments; we raised the score on the assessments; we put in place a new evaluation system; we rolled out (Common Core) curriculum modules; and all of this before we clearly had a strategy for working with communities so they could understand the full intent," Young said.
The five were responding to questions by lawmakers on the Assembly Education and Higher Education committees who interviewed nearly 50 applicants for seven open seats on the 17-member board.
Aside from considering the five incumbents seeking re-election, the Legislature will fill two open seats — one held by Harry Phillips, who represented the lower Hudson Valley, and Geraldine Chapey, of Queens, who stepped down last year.
The Regents board members are elected to five-year terms by a joint session of the Legislature in March. Since Assembly Democrats have the numbers to decide the outcome, they generally control the process.