Any State of the State speech has its share of self-celebration, some of it likely exaggerated. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's address to New York on Wednesday was no exception. But one thing that stood out in Cuomo's list of accomplishments (many of them significant and unprecedented) was his "congratulations" on the state's performance evaluations of public school teachers, as a slide behind him read, "Our teacher evaluation system has been a great success."
What New York has on the teacher evaluation front is measurable progress, and a clear sense of how long and difficult the journey is going to be. The last of the almost 700 individual district plans are trickling into the state Education Department this week, and officials say all but New York City's (perhaps even that one) are expected to be in by Thursday's deadline. That date was actually set as a cutoff for the Education Department to approve the plans, not receive them, with the penalty for failure being a loss in state aid. But having seen almost 700 plans, the agency is getting pretty quick at reviewing them, and school districts that have submitted decent blueprints likely won't lose any funds, state officials say.
But the teacher evaluation plans are a means to an end, not an end in itself. The purpose is creating a system in which educators can be fairly evaluated -- with the good instructors being rewarded and emulated, the mediocre ones being helped to improve, and the worst ones being let go -- to ensure that all New York's kids have access to a good education.
Between the state's current level of progress and that destination lie the multiple years of results necessary to identify the teachers in each of these categories. The new system is controversial because it includes student performance on standardized tests and releases evaluations to the public on a limited basis. As a result, it's likely that court challenges will continue. Education Department officials say 90 percent these hard-fought agreements between local school districts and unions on local evaluation systems in the state's school districts are only one-year deals, meaning negotiations ranging from slam-dunk to severe may be happening again this time next year. And the final process of terminating an ineffective teacher, known as 3020A, is still arduous, expensive and yet to be reformed.
In his speech Wednesday, Cuomo introduced new ideas for K-12 education in the state. Several sound great. His offer to provide state funding to pay 100 percent of the costs for districts that expand class time, whether through longer school days or longer school years, will be a godsend if he can find the money. The universal prekindergarten he touted would also be wonderful, but on that one the governor didn't offer to have the state foot the bill, and many districts can't. These would be fine new programs, but we can't afford to take our attention away from the education efforts the state has already begun, and teacher evaluations are first on that list.
There has been progress, and it's laudable. But much of the really difficult work is still ahead, and the performance evaluation for this important transformation is still far from complete.