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State education officials tell Cuomo law changes would improve schools

A student writes out a math problem on

A student writes out a math problem on a chalkboard. Credit: iStock

State education officials, in a letter to the governor's office Wednesday, said the only way to improve education was to change state law -- particularly as it relates to poorly rated teachers and schools -- and to boost education funding.

The statement, signed by Merryl H. Tisch, chancellor of the state's Board of Regents, and Elizabeth R. Berlin, who will become New York's acting education commissioner on Saturday, replacing John B. King Jr., is an answer to a Dec. 18 letter written by the governor's office that posed the question, "What is the right thing to do for our students?"

Among many suggestions, Tisch and Berlin recommend changes to the controversial teacher evaluation system, which links educator ratings to student test scores and other academic data.

Currently, 20 percent of a teacher's rating is linked to student performance on state tests while another 20 percent reflects their achievement on local exams. The remaining 60 percent is based on such factors as classroom evaluations.

Tisch and Berlin recommended in their letter eliminating the local testing element and further regulating the remaining 60 percent.

New York teachers had opposed a similar move when the evaluation system was being developed, saying test scores are not solely responsible for student achievement.

Other factors, including poverty and attendance, play even greater roles in a child's success, they said, adding that the state exams are flawed.


Common Core controversy

Tens of thousands of parents across the state, upset by the high stakes nature of the tests, have refused to allow their children to sit for them. Test scores generally plummeted when the new state exams, meant to reflect the Common Core academic standards, debuted.

Carl Korn, spokesman for New York State United Teachers, which represents 600,000 educators, said yesterday's proposed changes to the evaluation system distracts from much larger and more important issues.

With tens of thousands of homeless students, English language learners and special needs kids in its schools, New York needs to invest in surefire ways to improve achievement, including smaller class sizes, he said.

"Parents and teachers have already spoken: There is an overreliance on standardized testing and data that is sucking the joy out of teaching and learning," Korn said. "Until there is equitable, adequate and consistent funding, the conversation is about the wrong remedy."

Sean Feeney, principal of the Wheatley School and an outspoken critic of the move to link teacher evaluations to student data, said there is only a "dubious connection" between the two.

"This is not the lever we should be using to try and improve our public schools," said Feeney, who works in the East Williston district.

Feeney said he was not surprised by the governor's recent decision to veto his own bill on Common Core, one that would have slowed the impact on teachers of the tough, new academic standards.

"He has proved himself no great advocate for public schools and public schoolteachers," he said.

The Dec. 18 letter from Cuomo's office, written by Jim Malatras, director of state operations under the governor, pointed out New York's low graduation rates, lackluster performance in math and English language arts and college readiness among high school students.

It questioned the validity of the teacher evaluation system -- very few were rated poorly -- and asked how to expedite the ouster of the lowest performing educators.

"What steps would you take," Malatras asked, to improve the lowest scoring schools, ones that condemn generations of children "to poor educations and thus poor life prospects?"


Aid increase sought

In answering these questions, state education officials said they want a $2 billion increase in aid and also point to other solutions.

For example, Tisch and Berlin want to hasten the removal of poor performing teachers by replacing the current group of independent contractors who oversee their termination hearings with state employees who might be able to move through the process more quickly.

And they want the governor to adopt a law stating that students can't have two "ineffective" teachers in a row.

Tisch and Berlin also want the governor to devote more money to educator training and to extend the probationary period for teachers and administrators to five years.

They said, too, that the legislature and governor should pass a bill that would put chronically underperforming school districts into three levels of academic and/or fiscal restructuring, "in an effort to provide them with the tools and supports they need to get them back on track."

And there should be no "arbitrary barriers" that would prohibit an increase in the number of seats at high performing charter schools, state education officials said. Conversely, they said, the governor should strengthen the law that allows for their closing when they perform poorly.

Tisch and Berlin said mayoral control of the New York City public schools should be renewed and that the state should work to integrate its schools, considered the most segregated in the nation.

The governor's office is reviewing the letter.

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