THE BLOG

Hey, Hey, Cuomo, Your Education Plan Has Got to Go

03/17/2015 09:13 am ET | Updated May 17, 2015

That was the chant I heard go up from the crowd of parents and teachers gathered at one of the dozens of protests held at public schools all over New York City on Thursday. What is Gov. Andrew Cuomo's plan? He offers increased funding, but only if his reforms on teacher evaluation and so-called merit pay are also adopted. An open letter from teachers to parents at the highly regarded Public School 321 in Brooklyn discussed the changes to the way teachers would be evaluated:

50% of a teacher's rating would be based on state test scores. (Currently it is 20%).

35% of a teacher's rating would be based on the findings of an outside "independent observer" who will conduct a one time visit to the classroom. (This has never been done before. Currently our principal and assistant principals' observations count for 60%).

15% of a teacher's rating would be based on observations by the principal or assistant principals. The very people who know our work best would have the least input into our evaluation.

50% + 35% = 85% of our evaluations would be removed from the hands of our community and placed in the hands of the state.

And then, using these numbers, any teacher who is rated ineffective two years in a row can be fired.

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Here's something parents need to understand. Even though when our students take the standardized tests most of them do just fine, many PS 321 teachers do not. Teachers' ratings are not based on their students' raw scores for the year, but whether their students improved from one year to the next. If a student with a '3' [note: 3 means the student has met the standards for that grade] gets one fewer question correct in 4th grade than she did in 3rd, that student might not have demonstrated the "added value" their teacher is expected to have instilled. Even though the student has mastered that grade's content. Even though it's just one question. And that teacher might, therefore, be rated in the bottom percentile of teachers.

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The values present in Governor Cuomo's proposals are antithetical to our own. And they place them at risk. The numbers are clear: 50% of our value will be six days of tests. 35% of our value will be one day with an independent observer. And 15% of our value will be in evaluation by [the principal] and the assistant principals, those who know us best as educators.

In addition to the points raised by the teachers at PS 321, the reality is that using students' results on standardized tests to measure the effectiveness of teachers -- also known as Value Added Assessment (VAM) -- is simply not supported by research on the matter. According to an analysis produced by the American Statistical Association:

Most VAM studies find that teachers account for about 1% to 14% of the variability in test scores, and that the majority of opportunities for quality improvement are found in the system-level conditions. Ranking teachers by their VAM scores can have unintended consequences that reduce quality. This is not saying that teachers have little effect on students, but that variation among teachers accounts for a small part of the variation in scores. The majority of the variation in test scores is attributable to factors outside of the teacher's control such as student and family background, poverty, curriculum, and unmeasured influences.

New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña -- herself a former principal at one of the most highly regarded elementary schools in the state -- explained her opposition to Cuomo's teacher evaluation plan:

I want to be very clear: 50 percent of teachers' evaluations based on testing to me is not what should be happening. Teachers are not test results. Teachers should be assessed based on many things. They should be assessed on their work with parents, how they collaborate with each other, their ability to get better at their jobs through professional development. The other thing about this is it also takes away principal autonomy. No CEO in the city would allow an outside force to tell them who to hire or how to keep them.

Aside from the fact that individual teachers have little control over their students' test scores, Cuomo talks about the test scores in a way that is completely divorced from reality, as Aaron Pallas, a professor of sociology and education at Columbia University's Teachers College, explained. Here's what the governor said in his State of the State address in January:

31% of third to eighth graders are proficient in English, but 99% of the teachers are rated effective. 35% of third to eighth graders are proficient in math but 98% of the math teachers are rated effective. Who are we kidding, my friends? The problem is clear and the solution is clear. We need real, accurate, fair teacher evaluations.

Sounds terrible, right? But, as Pallas notes, in 2011 the proficiency figure for English wasn't 31 percent but 53 percent. And in math, it wasn't 35 percent but 63 percent. Go back to 2009, and 77 percent of third through eighth graders were proficient in English, and 86 percent in math. Did New York state's teachers undergo a collective, gradual lobotomy over the past five years? Of course not. What happened was that the state changed its academic standards -- not only implementing Common Core but testing students on this new material. The principal at Brooklyn's PS 321, the "well-respected" Liz Phillips, diagnosed some of the more significant problems with the process in a New York Times op-ed piece last year.

So why is Andrew Cuomo rolling out this education "reform" plan? Why has he, in the words of Karen E. Magee, president of New York State United Teachers, "declared war on the public schools"? He wants people to think he's for the students, even if that means being against the teachers, as seen in a recent question-and-answer session in which the governor apparently interviewed himself.

"You would fire a teacher?" Cuomo asked rhetorically. "Yes I would, because education is about the student, and if you have data that shows the teacher is not effective and you can't help the teacher become effective, yes I would."

Of course, as we have seen above, he has no such data. Most directly, it's about shifting the blame. If Cuomo can blame public school teachers, maybe we'll forget that he has, as Laura Clawson so eloquently put it, "stiff[ed]" the state of New York's public school students to the tune of $5.9 billion.

Additionally -- and this one simply reflects the governor's own self-delusion -- he thinks he can be the president of the United States. Andy Smarick, a partner at a major non-profit organization that promotes Cuomo-style education reforms, noted, "If [Cuomo] wanted to run for president he could clearly stake out the education-reform-friendly position among the candidates." Maybe Cuomo thinks that beating up on teachers and their unions is a way of showing that he's a different kind of Democrat. Maybe he thinks there's a Scott Walker wing of the Democratic Party.

I don't know what Andrew Cuomo is thinking, but for me, this is personal. I'm a New York City public school parent. I desperately want what is best for my own children, for their school, and for the public school system as a whole. I've seen what high-stakes testing has done to the classroom already, and I certainly don't what to see what happens if it becomes half of what determines every teacher's job status.

I've known my school's principal for many years, having volunteered at the school and served on a parent-teacher-principal committee that deals with curricular and other school issues. I'm firmly convinced not only that she cares deeply about her students but that she is better-positioned by far to assess the effectiveness of teachers than a test crafted by a for-profit company, combined with a one day drop-in that's been outsourced to someone who has no idea, beyond a snapshot, of exactly what teachers and students are doing over the course of a school year.

So that's why I was out there protesting, chanting, and clapping a few days ago, standing with my fellow parents and the teachers we respect. Will Cuomo's plan become law? The Democrats who control the State Assembly oppose it. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio rejected it as well. But the plan is part of the broader New York state budget, which must be voted on by April 1.

Forget all the politics. Forget the presidential ambitions of the son of the Hamlet on the Hudson. To me, this is a simple question: How should the effectiveness of my kids' teachers be assessed? Should it be done by the senior-level educators who watch them work every day? A better question is: Why would it be done by anyone else?