Political Theatre

February 22nd, 2012


 

Start a fire, put it out, take a bow

Published 08:34 p.m., Saturday, February 18, 2012

We can all breath easier. Another near-disaster averted. We have a statewide teacher evaluation plan after all, and miraculously, education in our public schools is saved.

Last week we witnessed a remarkable performance by Governor Cuomo, a masterpiece of control — his speciality. He basked in the news conference Thursday announcing an 11th-hour agreement between the teachers union and the State Education Department over a revamped teacher evaluation plan. And why shouldn't he beam? Cuomo had beat the drum to elevate its importance, set the deadline to make it happen, announced the winners and the losers, framed the question and provided the answer as to what this meant for public education. When it was over, he looked every inch the statesman who had brokered the deal of the century.

A great piece of theater, but that's exactly what it was.

Lost in this glowy narrative is the fact that Cuomo created the problem he is now taking credit for solving. Now, I'm focused strictly of the upstate piece of the teacher evaluation puzzle. There's a City of New York public education piece with different players, a different history and issues.

Two years ago the Legislature passed a law to satisfy Race to the Top funding criteria that included a statewide teacher evaluation plan agreed to by the all the stakeholders. At the time, that legislation was hailed by U.S. education secretary Arne Duncan as a model, and funding was assured. All that had to happen was its implementation.

Except at the last minute, reacting to a letter from Cuomo, the state commissioner of education tried to double the amount a standardized state test score would count in evaluating a teacher, from 20 percent to 40 percent of the total evaluation. Quite rightly, the teachers union immediately sued. And won.

Supreme Court Justice Michael Lynch ruled the plain language of the law stated that the standardized test score could only be used for 20 percent of the evaluation. Still, the plan was left unimplemented as the state appealed, putting the funding at risk. Over the next two years, enter Andrew Cuomo to help put out his own fire, taking time along the way to savage teachers and educators.

So what really materialized out of Thursday's theatrical, once we boil down the baloney?

For teachers, know this: 80 percent of your evaluation is still collectively bargained at the local district level. Cuomo did not get his way with the mandatory 40 percent. It's still all about local control of local education, as it should be, although there remain ominous signs Cuomo and his crowd would like to change that.

The new evaluation plan includes the possibility of using the same standardized test score data of the approved 20 percent in a different way as part of the evaluation process, up to 20 percent more. But that has to be negotiated, and can't be imposed. Interestingly, this was a suggestion first made by Justice Lynch. It turns out his decision was both smart and helpful.

As a practical matter, the basic format of the 2010 law remains intact. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, in applauding Governor Cuomo's leadership yadda yadda, wryly noted "the original intent of the 2010 law that led to New York's Race to the Top award can now be fulfilled."

However, much remains undecided or untested about the upstate teacher evaluation plan. Because as part of the settlement, the education commissioner now has greater powers in terms of vetoing locally negotiated agreements. Since deadlines for getting these agreements approved is tied to school aid, thanks again to the governor, local negotiations may get pretty dicey. Among the great unknowns is how assertive the commissioner will be when it comes to what local or other tests will be acceptable as alternatives to the state standardized tests, and just what will pass muster for the subjective judgment of teacher performance. Not to mention how able the Education Department will be to process in a timely fashion the blizzard of paperwork about to come their way.

What also remains to be seen is if this entire quantification of teacher performance mania isn't just another unfunded mandate for local taxpayers, because school districts will have to hire more administrators as evaluators.

There was one obnoxious moment of the teacher evaluation news conference that did not pass the sniff test in the slightest and reminded us just how theatrical the event really was. That was when Cuomo and State Education Commissioner John King rushed to the microphone to assure us the new teacher evaluation system was never about firing teachers. It's about career development. Not punitive, no, no, no. Rather, something called a "performance management system." Right.

Ask the man in the street, and presumably that's exactly what a Quinnipiac poll did a few days ago, and you can be sure by the overwhelming support for the governor they saw the governor and his mission as making it easier to get rid of bad teachers. As long as there's reasonable due process to avoid unfairness, no one is going to advocate for bad teachers. No one, not even the unions. Interestingly, those same folks in the street have a negative view of public education in New York, except for the schools they are familiar with and the teachers they know. That old cliche comes back around and around.

It's too bad the spinmeister in this case happens to be our governor.

 



Read more: http://www.timesunion.com/local/article/Start-a-fire-put-it-out-take-a-bow-3341828.php#ixzz1n8HCbCkN

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