Illustration by David Brion

Illustration by David Brion

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo didn't do that much to change the teacher evaluation law passed in 2010, but he did figure out a way, by combining a tweaked version of the rules with the power of state money, to enforce it.

After concerted negotiations on the part of the governor and the New York State United Teachers, as well as Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the United Federation of Teachers, Cuomo and union officials announced yesterday that the state is actually where then-Gov. David A. Paterson and those unions pretended to be two years ago.

Back then, the unions agreed to an evaluation system in order to get $700 million in federal Race to the Top education grants. Under this week's deal, school districts will actually have to improve the system to get that cash.

Now there is an agreement between the state and the unions on a framework for evaluating teachers and identifying the ones who excel, the ones who could use more training and the ones who need to stop being teachers. The new agreement marks progress, mostly because the old agreement was poorly written and vague, but also because the new one is enforceable and the unions are publicly embracing it.

In the plan outlined Thursday, 60 percent of teacher performance will be graded on criteria including classroom observation, parent and student feedback, and analysis of student work. The other 40 percent will be based on student academic achievement in standardized tests, with half of that required to be from state tests and the other half still to be negotiated locally. Districts could also choose state tests for the second 20 percent, or other standardized tests approved by the state Education Department.

This law will ease the difficulty of local negotiations by giving districts a specific menu of state-approved options in how evaluations are handled, and demands approval from the state Education Department for each district agreement -- but it's not so different from the 2010 law. The real game-changer Cuomo introduced is embedding in law, and with union approval, his "shot clock," a clause stating any district that doesn't have a teacher evaluation deal that meets the new criteria by January 2013 won't get annual increases in state school aid.

Now, 700 school districts have a year to make deals with local unions. Officials say this could go better than the pessimists expect, with several hundred districts ready to approve agreements soon. Two upstate BOCES have worked with all of their members to ink agreements in lockstep, a method other regions would be wise to try.

But even with the governor's deadline, and its wise manipulation of state money, we are years away from seeing poor teachers lose their jobs. They must have bad annual evaluation results twice, they can appeal -- as should be their right -- and the earliest cases may well end in grievances or courtrooms as educators with a lot to lose push back.

This fight likely isn't over. The road to improved schools will remain arduous, and it demands unrelenting attention. As we've seen already, this process could still be sent back to the starting line, even after years of effort.