This is a first grade classroom at the end of...

This is a first grade classroom at the end of the day Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2011. Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

Public education in New York and around the country is undergoing tremendous change as parents and citizens demand more performance, accountability and results. And nowhere has the subject been more controversial than on Long Island.

The education system is deeply entrenched, localized, unionized and personal to the families of the state -- as it should be. Changing our education system leads to disruption and misunderstanding but also offers New York the opportunity to grow.

Unfortunately, the headlines have too often been about the proposed teacher evaluations and conflicts with teachers unions and the education bureaucracy. Lost in this noise have been the specific proposals, which seek to ensure we have the best teachers and to establish statewide standards.

My plan to comprehensively reform how we teach our sons and daughters recognizes the need to attract, support and keep good teachers. They are the heart of our education system. My plan seeks to:

- attract and keep good teachers;

- offer full scholarships to top graduates who serve five years as public school teachers;

- incentivize teachers with $20,000 bonuses for high-performers, offer more professional support and ensure they complete degree programs with high standards;

- make it easier for school districts to remove persistently bad or failing teachers.

Not surprisingly, the teachers unions and educational bureaucracy oppose parts of my plan.

The lightning rod has become the teacher evaluation process, which would assess teachers and schools statewide. The acceptance and implementation of an evaluation system predates my administration. Teacher evaluations are being instituted in the vast majority of states across the country as part of President Barack Obama's Race to the Top initiative.

Virtually everyone agrees that teacher evaluations are positive and necessary. Virtually everyone also agrees that New York's teacher evaluation system is not accurate and is skewed in its construction to provide favorable results for teachers. In New York last year, about 99 percent of the teachers were rated effective while only 38 percent of high school graduates are ready for college or careers. How can that be?

A review of the states implementing evaluations shows two central components to conduct and compare teacher evaluations: in-class observation and growth in student performance on assessments, including standardized tests. While different states weigh and conduct the components differently, they, like New York, tie teacher performance only to student growth, not raw test scores, so as not to disadvantage teachers whose students hail from challenging socioeconomic backgrounds versus teachers in wealthy districts.

I believe both components -- in-class observation and growth in student performance -- are necessary and that use of the state test is needed to provide a statewide basis of comparison. Suffolk County will want to know how its teachers and schools compare to those in Westchester County. Towns will want to be able to compare themselves to other towns. Done correctly, evaluations can establish best practices and significant data for improving performance but only if there is an objective, uniform, statewide component.

Unfortunately, "testing" is itself a contentious issue and the testing component in teacher evaluations has been conflated with the student testing issue. I believe students are tested too often, creating undue anxiety and stressing the entire system. Many parents share this view. I have signed a law reducing the significance of testing for students, including eliminating standardized testing for students in grades K-2 and removing standardized test results from students' permanent records for five years. My proposed reforms to the evaluation system reduce the amount of testing by eliminating the existing local component of the system that leads to more testing.

At the same time, I believe that a test component should be part of the teacher evaluation and have proposed that testing comprise 50 percent of the evaluation. The State Department of Education suggests 40 percent. Still, teachers and administrators prefer that the emphasis be on classroom observation as opposed to testing. Interestingly, whatever percent is assigned to standardized testing will only affect a small minority of teacher evaluations as only 20 percent of teachers are in subjects and grades that have state testing.

There is no magic formula for the perfect teacher evaluation system today. It is a work in progress that will no doubt be refined as time goes on. While teacher evaluation is the most political issue, it is not necessarily the most dramatic or impactful education reform I have proposed this year.

Transforming failing schools, reforming tenure, expediting removal of underperforming teachers, providing performance bonuses, adding wraparound services to create Community Schools and reducing testing, are all reforms that have the potential to dramatically improve our system. While change is difficult, it is also the only way to get better, and this state, and this nation, must continue to improve our education systems to give our kids the opportunities they deserve.

Andrew M. Cuomo is governor of New York.