THE BLOG
01/12/2015 04:54 pm ET Updated Mar 14, 2015

Andrew Cuomo Has the "Chutzpah" to Blame Teachers and a Veteran Teacher Responds

There are probably words to describe shameless audacity in many languages. In Yiddish, the language of Eastern European Jews, we call it "chutzpah." Somehow, when they invented this word, they must have been looking to the future and thinking about New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo. The man has "chutzpah," especially when it comes to public education. Two weeks ago, Cuomo vetoed Cuomo, refusing to sign a bill he had previously endorsed, because he decided it should be easier to fire teachers. According to the New York Times, these kinds of switches marked much of his first term in office. Oh, the chutzpah!

When he was running for reelection, Cuomo thought it would be unfair to fire teachers whose students scored badly on standardized tests because many other factors affect student performance. Coincidently, Cuomo was also running on the Working Families line, a political party with strong ties to unions, including the teachers' union. But now that he has been reelected, Cuomo does not have concern himself with teacher support, the validity of the tests, conditions that affect students living in poor communities, or the fact that an overwhelming majority of teachers in New York State, close to 95%, scored well on a ratings system that he had also endorsed in the past.

In December, Cuomo declared that a major goal during his second term would be what he considered sweeping changes in the state's education system, an agenda he hopes will propel him onto the national stage and bring him attention as a presidential contender. But his proposals so far are firing more teachers, increasing the number of charter schools, and a back-door voucher plan using tax credits that will channel more money and students to private and parochial schools.

Cuomo had Jim Malatras, director of state operations, send a letter to the departing education commissioner, John King, and the chancellor of the Board of Regents, Merryl Tisch, soliciting their advice on how to shake-up a school system Malatras described in the letter as "unacceptable." The letter posed twelve largely rhetorical questions that expose Cuomo's direction. Teacher unions were described as "special interests," but charter schools and their hedge fund supporters, textbook and test prep companies, and anti-union groups like StudentsFirst NY are all "reform" allies.

Tisch and King, who is leaving to work in the federal Department of Education, quickly announced support for Cuomo's plan to create a more efficient process for firing teachers. They also want to make the tenure process more difficult and double the weight of student scores on standardized tests in the evaluation of teachers. Apparently they hope to scare teachers into committing even more time to test preparation instead of education. Tisch and King also want to crack down on lenient principals who mistakenly think teachers in their schools are actually doing a good job.

A twenty-page letter from Tisch and King's temporary replacement, Elizabeth Berlin, laid out what we can expect to be the Cuomo-Tisch educational agenda. Basically they call for the deprofessionalization of teaching, turning it into a temporary job instead of a career.

1. Count student scores on high-stakes Common Core standardized tests as 40% in teacher evaluations even though the test have not been demonstrated to be a reliable measure of student or teacher performance.
2. Although they are our most experienced school-based administrators, limit principal options when evaluating staff because they grade too high.
3. Effectively end teacher tenure through three ploys. Extend the probationary period for newly hired teachers to five years, allow districts to remove untenured teachers without cause at any time, and eliminate impartial review of appeals when tenured teachers are dismissed.
4. Teacher unions oppose "merit pay" because it leads to favoritism and cronyism. Do an end-around renaming "merit pay" a "leadership bonus."
5. Eliminate opposition to the deprofessionalization of teaching by replacing Schools of Education with internships through organizations like Teach for America that pump unprepared, transitory, and low-paid college graduates into revolving door jobs.
8. End limits on charter schools to weaken teacher unions and provide investment opportunities for hedge funds and Cuomo's political allies.

Karen Magee, president of the statewide teachers' union, called these proposals disingenuous and a distraction from the real problems facing schools like poverty and inadequate funding, but of course Magee and the teachers' union can be dismissed as a "special interest."

The NYS Allies for Public Education (NYSAPE) sent Cuomo a response to the Malatras letter that is definitely worth reading. They urged the Governor to hold public forums across the state on the future of education so he could "hear directly from parents, teachers, and other stakeholders how they want their schools improved -rather than remain in a bubble up in Albany, separated from the constituents whose interests you should be dedicated to serve."

My friend and colleague Henry Dircks is a high school teacher in Nassau County on Long Island, a parent with two children in public schools, and a leader in parent and teacher campaigns against Common Core. This is his response to the Cuomo administration's request for advice on improving education in New York State. While I do not agree with everything Henry writes, on balance, he offers a much stronger point-by-point response to Cuomo, Malatras, Tisch, and King than I would have. Henry agreed to let me include his letter in this post.

Dear Mr. Malatras,

As you know, recently, the New York State Education Department bungled implementation of the Common Core Standards, misinformed the public in a report about high school graduates' college enrollment, and approved a charter school led by a 22-year-old who misrepresented his qualifications and academic achievements. Now, in your letter of today to Chancellor Tisch and Commissioner King, Governor Cuomo is calling upon the less-than-competent leaders of the State Education Department to offer recommendations about "the right thing to do for our students".

We can all agree that this is simply unacceptable.

If Governor Cuomo really believes in public education, as your letter states, why doesn't he ask these same questions of experienced educators and qualified administrators who can offer thoughtful recommendations for improving education in New York State?

What makes Governor Cuomo believe that NYSED is able to accomplish anything beyond a "political maneuver"? Educators throughout the state are prepared to offer valid and workable recommendations for improving education based on the reality of our classrooms, schools and communities, not political motives. Whether Governor Cuomo is prepared to listen to and act upon these recommendations is another story.

Your letter states that "Governor Cuomo believes in public education...." and "While some seek to demonize teachers, Governor Cuomo believes the exact opposite - wanting to reward excellence in teaching, and by recruiting the best and brightest into the profession." The governor's pronouncements before his recent reelection to break the "monopoly" of public education makes it extremely difficult for educators to believe these statements. However, as a veteran social studies educator, I'd like to offer these answers to the 12 questions you posed:

1. The Value-Added Model of evaluating teachers based on the test scores of their students has been credibly debunked. To propose that the state set "scoring bands" and codify the percentages of state assessments and classroom observations only adds another layer of political posturing to an unworkable model.

2. While Governor Cuomo believes that removing poorly performing educators through the current 3020-a Process is virtually impossible to do, I disagree. Effective administrators can work with union representatives to address deficiencies in poorly performing teachers long before a 3020-a is necessary. Beyond that, the process ensures due process, not a job for life.

3. Does characterizing public education as a "monopoly" or a "bureaucracy" advance the governor's desire to attract the best and the brightest candidates into the education profession?

4. Merit pay has been credibly debunked. Financial incentives increase the opportunity and likelihood for corruption (DC and Atlanta scandals) and inject competition where cooperation is necessary within and between schools to spread best practices.

5. Personal story: I was hired along with ten other educators in 1995. When I received tenure three years later, only three of the original ten still taught in the district. Elongating the tenure process would accomplish nothing that effective supervision can't already do.

6. While politicians decry the inequitable funding of schools, most educators agree with increased funding for "priority or struggling schools". The state should provide funding to raise pay in these challenging locations to attract better teachers; increase school security to ensure the safety of the staff and students; prioritize discipline within the schools. "Solutions" like Teach for America only compound the problem.

7. The benefit of charter schools to a community is questionable in most locations. A recent CREDO study questioned whether charter schools, in general, outperform neighborhood public schools. What charters do accomplish is to create a segregated system of education, especially in co-located schools. As well, charters siphon funding away from public school systems strapped by the 2% tax cap.

8. If concerns about on-line universities posed by PBS' Frontline are any indication, state education officials should be wary of introducing on-line learning proposals without extensive investigation into its benefits to the user. Question: would the introduction of on-line learning be in the best interest of students or be characterized better as a cost-cutting measure for districts?

9. Proposing distant state-level control instead of reinforcing local control - whether it be in a city, town or other municipality - runs contrary to the idea of providing greater support of teachers, individualizing professional development based on need, and addressing problems unique to a community.

10. Decisions concerning consolidation and regionalization should be left to the municipalities involved.

11. As last year's reappointment of Regents Cea, Norwood and Cottrell demonstrated, the current system encourages the appointment of politically-connected individuals and businessmen who lack educational expertise. Over the past two years, New Yorkers have learned the problematic nature of these appointments, and public education has suffered as a result. Members of the Board of Regents should be elected to their positions, including the post of Chancellor.

12. In the current climate of distrust between educational professionals and the politicians seeking to reform education (a great deal of which Governor Cuomo is responsible for), is a transparent selection process for a new Commissioner of Education possible?

How can Governor Cuomo call upon NYSED to provide bold leadership that can "truly transform public education" while he has refused to do so himself? Failing to question the efficacy of the Common Core and standardized testing, despite the outcry of educators and parents alike, shows a lack of leadership. Only when Governor Cuomo distances himself from the efforts to privatize public education and favors common sense over the Common Core, will educators believe that he has the interests of New York's students at heart.

Sincerely,
Henry Dircks

Note: Now that John King has moved on, the State Board of Regents and the Governor are looking for a replacement. Because of the politics behind the appointment, it is hard to predict what kind of candidate they are looking for, but I expect they will choose between a figurehead, a bulldog, and a go-fer; I always consider John King a go-fer for Merryl Tisch. However, if Cuomo is serious about finding an experienced, effective, and independent New York State Education Commissioner, I recommend Carol Burris. Dr. Burris is principal of South Side High School in Rockville Center, New York. Before becoming principal in 2000, she was a middle and high school teacher. She has been New York State high school principal of the year, is an expert on detracking schools, and is a national leader in the fight against Common Core and high-stakes testing. If anyone is thinking of nominating me, I am not really qualified for the job and will not work with Andrew or Merryl. In the words of General William Tecumseh Sherman, when he was asked to run for President of the United States, "I will not accept if nominated and will not serve if elected."