SED VS. NYSUT

With changes coming to New York’s teacher evaluations, union and state officials prepare to clash

PHOTO: Monica Disare
State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia at Thomas A. Edison Career and Technical Education High School.

New York’s education policymakers got a lesson Monday in how treacherous it will to be revamp the state’s highly controversial teacher-evaluation system.

Just minutes after the state education commissioner laid out a detailed plan for coming up with a redesigned system by fall of 2019, a state teachers-union official rebuffed it. Arguing that teachers cannot wait another year for fixes to a rating system they say is fatally flawed, the union will ask lawmakers to change the underlying evaluation law this year, the official said.

In fact, she said, the union won’t even ask its members to take a department survey meant to gather feedback on the current system, which rates teachers based on classroom observations and other measures of what students are learning.

“First and foremost, the teachers that we represent believe that the time to fix [teacher evaluation] is this year,” said Jolene DiBrango, executive vice president of the New York State United Teachers, in a conversation with reporters after the state outlined its plan. “Now is the time — we’ve been talking about this for years.”

Even as state policymakers face political opposition from the teachers union — which has long opposed using state test scores to judge teachers, as was required by a 2015 state law — they are likely to run into practical challenges as well.

Any effort to come up with statewide alternative assessments to use in evaluations could prove too costly at a time of fiscal uncertainty for the state. And major changes to the system could require reopening the evaluation law, which sparked a fierce backlash when it was passed. So far, lawmakers have not indicated that doing so is a priority, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo may want to avoid such drama during an election year.

“We have lived in a very toxic landscape,” Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa said Monday during the Regents’ monthly meeting, where state officials laid out their redesign plan. “I think that we have to be so mindful and so strategic and so intentional in our plan.”

The 2015 law — which Cuomo aggressively pushed for after calling the previous evaluation system “baloney” — weakened the role of local districts and teachers unions in crafting teacher ratings, instead shifting more authority to the state. That opened the door for ratings that relied much more heavily on student test scores — a move fiercely opposed by the unions, which worked to fuel the state’s massive parent-led boycott of the state exams.

In response to the backlash, the Board of Regents placed a moratorium on the use of grades 3-8 math and English tests in teacher evaluations until 2019. Instead, districts must find different measures of teacher effectiveness.

But now, the teachers union wants to repeal the state law entirely, and return evaluations back to local districts. Doing so would allow educators to help design systems that take into account unique conditions in each district — and to likely greatly reduce or eliminate the role of test scores in teacher ratings.

“We believe local control is the key,” DiBrango said. “What will work in one school district will not work in another.”

State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia did not rule out returning control of evaluations back to districts. But the lengthy redesign plan she laid Monday seemed aimed at improving the statewide system.

The state will form two redesign workgroups, state officials said. One will concentrate on the components of evaluations, including whether there should be classroom observations, tests, or other ways to judge teachers — and how much weight to give each part. The other group will focus on how student learning is measured, which may include developing new tests.

The education department will also continue to collect feedback from teachers through a survey, which 9,000 educators have already completed. However, DiBrango said the union will not encourage any additional teachers to take the survey in part because they were not consulted about the survey questions, which she said leads teachers into choosing among predetermined ways to evaluate them.

“We have not encouraged our teachers to necessarily take the survey if they don’t want to,” DiBrango said. “They have free will, so certainly some will take it and some will choose not to.”

As the union and the education department pursue their competing plans, the legislature could prove to be a serious roadblock.

Cuomo and state lawmakers have indicated that their top focus this legislative session is beating back funding cuts from Washington — not revisiting a deeply controversial law that is technically on hold until the moratorium ends next year.

On Monday, Elia suggested that her department may be able to make certain adjustments to the evaluation system without changing the law. Still, any major changes would likely require a new law. However, the department’s plan to present its redesign proposal by spring 2019 would give lawmakers little time to debate the proposed changes before the end of their legislative session.

Even if department officials could get lawmakers on board, a new evaluation system — with new tests — could prove too costly to adopt.

Officials recently said they would not join a federal program to create alternative state assessments because it would cost too much. On Monday, Elia said any new tests tied to teacher evaluations wouldn’t necessarily have to be given to as many students as the annual state exams, so they may be less costly.

Still, Regent Judith Chin, who chairs the board’s workgroup that focuses on standards and assessments, questioned whether the state could feasibly create a whole new set of tests to use for teacher ratings that would be ready for the 2019 school year.

“Is it realistic that we could build that capacity in a short period of time?” Chin asked.

First Person

I’m a fifth-year Chicago teacher, and the challenges aren’t letting up. Now what?

PHOTO: Getty

When I started as a teacher in Chicago Public Schools, I remember hearing that half of teachers in urban school districts leave them in their first five years. When I went through rough patches I would wonder, was I going to make it?

I did make it, completing my fifth year of teaching last spring. But I can’t help but feel like something still isn’t right.

I feel like this should be the time when I am starting to really develop my expertise, feel secure in my skills and abilities, and build the self-confidence that I am effective in my craft. Instead, I  feel lucky just to be surviving day to day and week to week.

I thought that by now I would be in a groove with planning and preparation. I thought that my Sundays might actually be relaxing. Instead, I find myself filled with the “Sunday scaries,” scrambling to get materials created, adjust lesson plans, and polish final drafts of IEPs. I never feel “caught up,” and can’t say I have ever known what that feels like.

Even though my class sizes are not the largest in the district, they are filled with students who — although so talented, resilient, and special — have such a wide variety of needs and deficits that I don’t feel I can adequately address given all of the constraints I face. There simply are not enough resources and time to do everything I need to do to give my students the best that they deserve. This weighs on me, leading to overwhelming feelings of guilt and helplessness that are often paralyzing.

In short, I am mentally and emotionally exhausted, and I know many of my fellow teachers are too.

I’ve been thinking about this reality more since I joined a number of colleagues at an educator mental health-focused event in October. We dug into our own struggles and and then worked on ways to manage our stress. We named our biggest day-to-day stressors and then explored different ways to practice self-care — such as journaling, meditation, or picking up an instrument — to balance out the feelings of high anxiety and pressure we feel at work. I left with a number of resources to seek out on my own as well as a sense of renewal. But the onus was on me to find solutions moving forward.

Now, Chicago’s mayoral race is heating up. And while I work on managing the stress of this job, it’s also on policymakers — including our next mayor — to address the stressors themselves.

Large class sizes, the limited time we are allotted to plan and prepare for the school day, insufficient paid time-off policies, and ever-tighter budgets we are asked to stretch to meet our students’ needs are all the result of policies that could be changed.

I can’t practice enough self-care to replace the structural changes needed to make our profession more sustainable.

But school leaders, the mayor, and state policymakers, could make a difference. More independent and collaboration time in teachers’ days would help give us time to chip away at expanding to-do lists. Real teacher-leader roles would give teachers power and voice in school decisions. Schools destigmatizing “mental health” days and organizing activities to help teachers de-stress would help, too.

Dissenters may point to the fact that in many other jobs you’re expected to manage your work-life balance and handle stress on your own. But teaching isn’t like every other job: the stakes are especially high, and we have less control of our time and are more isolated in our work. Students benefit from teachers with experience, and every time a capable teacher leaves Chicago’s schools because they were overwhelmed, students lose out.

For my part, I pledge to be aware of my mental health needs and plan to be intentional about my self-care this school year. I hope Chicago Public Schools, the Chicago Teachers Union, and our city and state elected leaders will commit to helping me and my colleagues not only to survive, but to thrive in our jobs.

As mayoral candidates continue to flesh out their education plans, they need to acknowledge that our mental health and well-being is critical to our success as teacher. How are they planning to help us access resources like counseling services? Prioritizing how to best care for educators will help us continue to provide the best care possible for students.

Teachers are already doing exceptional work given the many constraints they face. Imagine what more we could do for our students if we were better equipped ourselves.

Dayna Heller is a special education teacher at Roger C. Sullivan High School in Rogers Park. She is an active member of the Chicago Teachers Union and Educators for Excellence, a national teacher-led policy organization.

tick tock

Denver district, teachers union make some progress as contract deadline looms, but still far apart

PHOTO: Erica Meltzer/Chalkbeat
Denver teachers listen to an update on bargaining during the second to last day of negotiations before the ProComp contract expires.

Something unusual happened near the end of bargaining Thursday between the Denver teachers union and school administrators: The district offered a change to its proposal, and some teachers gathered in the audience snapped their fingers in approval.

The two sides are still far apart in terms of reaching an agreement on Denver Public Schools’ ProComp system, which offers teachers bonuses on top of their base salary for things like teaching in a high-poverty school or earning a strong evaluation. The deadline for a deal is Friday, with teachers set to vote on either strike or ratification Saturday and Tuesday. The district’s and the union’s proposals still reflect different ideas about how teachers should earn more compensation — and have very different price tags.

But Thursday’s session was a far cry from the intense frustration that marked Tuesday’s bargaining session. On that day, district officials departed the bargaining table to “process” after the union refused to make a counteroffer to the most recent district proposal. Teachers filled the room after school and waited in hot, cramped conditions for a response that never came.

Thursday’s session opened with tense verbal sparring, but by the afternoon, the union had made changes to its proposal that reduced the cost by an estimated $2.5 million. District officials said they would spend the night and early Friday morning analyzing the proposal and seeing where else they might be able to move.

The district did offer a small concession Thursday that some teachers seemed to appreciate: increasing tuition reimbursement 50 percent, to $6,000. Denver Superintendent Susana Cordova said research shows this type of incentive is a strong tool for recruiting and keeping teachers, especially teachers of color. The money for this will come from reducing the bonus that teachers get for teaching in a so-called “distinguished” school.

More often, Denver teachers have reacted with boos to offers that the district saw as significant steps toward the union position.

Beyond small steps like the tuition reimbursement, Cordova said she was “very open to considering” aspects of the union proposal, a sentiment that seemed to clear the way for more back-and-forth.

“The district has moved and DCTA was willing to change their proposal,” said Tiffany Choi, a French teacher at East High School who attended the bargaining session. “We both showed willingness to compromise, and that’s positive.”

Dana Berge, a member of the union bargaining team, said the district is “beginning to listen to us, but they are not listening to us in terms of the values in our proposal.”

Both proposals keep some bonuses, at much more modest levels, and put more money into base pay. And both proposals lay out a schedule for how Denver teachers can earn more money, both by “steps,” or number of years of service, and by “lanes,” or additional educational achievement.

The union proposal has more lanes and allows Denver teachers to start moving up by earning additional college credit or by taking the kind of professional development that teachers need to do anyway. Teachers take such training to maintain their teaching licenses — or because they see a need, for example, to learn more about helping students with trauma. The union’s counteroffer Thursday removed one of the lanes, bringing down the total cost.

The district’s first lane change comes with a master’s degree, completing 10 years of service, earning an advanced license, or earning national board certification.

Berge said the union proposal more closely mimics those in other districts and will keep “highly dedicated, highly trained, highly experienced teachers” in Denver and reduce the problem of losing more experienced teachers to better-off suburban districts while less experienced teachers concentrate in the highest-needs schools.

She argued that a more stable salary structure would do more to keep teachers in high-poverty schools than the bonuses given under the current system.

The union proposal will cost a lot more than the district proposal. Cordova said the district is in the process of identifying “deep, deep cuts” to administrative positions to redirect money to classrooms, but even those won’t provide all the money needed to close the gap between the two sides.

During the long period in which each side was working separately on its proposals, a group of religious and community leaders from the Industrial Areas Foundation arrived to offer support to teachers and then a direct message to Cordova. They criticized her for framing the disagreement as one about values.

“Please don’t dare insinuate that you care more about the children in hard-to-serve, high-poverty schools than we do,” said Susan Cooper, a retired teacher and member of the organization. “We value solidarity, not a divide and conquer approach. We value stability, which we don’t have because we can’t keep teachers in Denver.”

Billy Williams of the Denver chapter of the NAACP said parents and community members would support the teachers “if they are forced to strike.”

Cordova said it was never her intent to suggest one side held the moral high ground.

“We can have similar goals, similar values, and different ideas about how to get those done,” she said. “Good people can disagree and still care about our kids.”

The two sides expect to resume bargaining at 10 a.m. Friday.