Governor Cuomo at Molloy College talking about his 2012-2013 budget...

Governor Cuomo at Molloy College talking about his 2012-2013 budget and reform plan. (Feb. 2, 2012) Credit: Alejandra Villa

When Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo Thursday announced a break in a years-long stalemate over teacher evaluations, he showed his ability to prod an agreement and advance the narrative on another high-profile Albany issue.

Cuomo adorned the event with the phrases "historic agreement," "a great day for the schools," a "victory for all New Yorkers," and "a major step forward" toward better school performance.

Not to be one of those naysayers, but so many proclamations of great milestones in education reform, from so many officials over so many years, have so quickly proven perishable that it may be time for a new program called "No Superlative Left Behind."

Critical details of these evaluations have yet to be crafted and approved, let alone carried out in school districts. By the brightest of educators' forecasts, these are works in progress. At worst, they promise a labor-intensive exercise of unknown or even questionable value.

Carol Corbett Burris, principal of Rockville Centre High School, has been vocal in critiquing the drive toward new evaluations as plotted so far. In one published commentary, she played on what sounded like a marvelous bureaucratic absurdity.

The state Education Department presented a video portraying teachers and principals completing construction of an airplane in midair -- presumably to show the excitement of a challenging mission, or something like that.

Think about that for a second. Nobody finishes building planes in midair. What are we talking about here?

"It is labeled a 'funny video' on YouTube," Burris wrote last year in a commentary published on academic websites. But when those being introduced to an outline of New York's so-called Annual Professional Performance Reviews system saw the video, "not a school leader in the room laughed."

The evaluation push involves teachers and principals and students, for sure, but also a daunting tangle of unions, labor agreements, bureaucratic processes, and political appeal. Even Charlotte Danielson, well known in the field for designing evaluation systems, has publicly suggested that carrying them out might require "changing the culture surrounding evaluation."

Upbeat declarations about school improvement are legion on the local, state and federal level as new programs are introduced and systems reorganized.

After serving as New York City's schools chancellor between 2002 and 2010, even Joel Klein recently wrote: "Having spent eight years trying to ignite a revolution in New York City's schools . . . I am convinced that without a major realignment of political forces, we won't get the dramatic improvements our children need."

From a different perspective, when it comes to evaluations, Terry Orr, a professor at Bank Street College in Manhattan, was quoted by Newsday's John Hildebrand at a special forum at LIU Post in Brookville: "We're doing things straight off the drawing board with no trial period."

In 1810, Thomas Jefferson envisioned the goal of public education as "to enable every man to judge for himself what will secure or endanger his freedom."

How far have we come?