The bill on education and teacher evaluations passed 135-1 last week by the State Assembly is almost certainly a dead end, but it may have set some sort of speed record. After all, the Assembly, Senate and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo had agreed to a new evaluation plan less than two months ago.
Some of what the Assembly bill calls for is needed. It would return results of spring standardized tests to parents and teachers each year by June 1, rather than the next school year, making them more valuable as assessment tools. And in a huge improvement, it would allocate $8.4 million to provide answers to more questions and tell how students did on each. Now, kids get scores on a vague 1-4 scale; they need results that pinpoint their strengths and weaknesses. Also fine are provisions to have a content review committee of educators check the tests for age-appropriateness and review the Common Core learning standards. We should be evaluating our tests and standards at all times.
The positive proposals have one thing in common: They seek to make education work better for students.
But there are poison pills in the bill, changes the Senate and Cuomo won't approve, including an attempt to kill results-based teacher evaluations. The bill would postpone the requirement that districts implement new evaluation plans until November 2016, a cynical political play. Teachers unions hope Democrats can take over the Senate in elections held days before that deadline, and then kill meaningful evaluations. The proposed postponement to November of the Board of Regents' June 30 deadline to draw up rules on teacher evaluations is also too lax.
The bill also would make voluntary the use of outside observers for even a small percentage of evaluations. Under the law passed as part of the state budget in April, they are required. This rule is a priority for Cuomo, who felt evaluators from a teacher's school or district can tend toward too-easy grading. It's not a position he's likely to walk away from. The same is true of a clause in the Assembly bill that would remove a bar on state aid increases to districts that don't implement the new teacher evaluation rules.
These poor ideas have one thing in common: They're all about tweaking the system to benefit teachers rather than students.
So why would the Assembly pass a dead bill? It sends a message that Assembly members who rely on the support of the New York State United Teachers are fighting for the union. And it serves as a first offer in bargaining with the Senate and Cuomo as the legislative session nears an end in June. It also comes at a time when the Board of Regents is in flux. New members and some old ones sympathetic to NYSUT are testing their power by balking at Chancellor Merryl Tisch's sometimes wavering support of an objective evaluation system and Cuomo's insistence on one.
Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan (R-East Northport), until recently the chairman of the Education Committee, knows the issues. He needs to pass a bill that improves education for the kids without eroding the teacher evaluation system. Then the Assembly will have to decide, quite publicly, whether it stands on the side of the unions or of the children in the battle to reform education.