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Step back, breathe and improve New York’s education system

Members of the state Board of Regents

Members of the state Board of Regents meet in Albany on Monday, Dec. 14, 2015. Credit: Hans Pennink

Now that a truce seems to have been reached in the battle over standardized testing and teacher evaluations, the question is: How can New York State prevent the same war from breaking out when the moratorium ends in 2019?

Although Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s Common Core panel announced recommendations last week, most of them aren’t terribly important or have already been put forward. Fewer and shorter tests for children in third through eighth grades are already the plan, according to both Albany and Washington. Better tests are on tap for New York, too, as the state replaces test developer Pearson Education. Cuomo’s panel recommended the creation of new academic standards built with input from parents and teachers to replace the Common Core, but a state Education Department review of the Common Core standards by New York parents and teachers shows most are appropriate. And the state will stress the fact that districts alone control curricula, but that’s a clarification, not a change.

The reality is none of these things were the biggest cause of strife in the past couple of years. Anger and fear over teachers being evaluated based partly on the standardized test scores of students, which began in 2013, mobilized the New York State United Teachers union and its members against the evaluations in 2014 and 2015. Then Cuomo, furious that the system still found only about 1 percent of teachers “ineffective,” doubled down, signing a law this year to withhold new funding for districts that don’t base 50 percent of teacher evaluations on test scores.

Parent activists were mobilized by the fear of teachers focused entirely on test results. The combination of furious parents and teachers culminated in a boycott last spring that saw 200,000 students opt out of standardized tests statewide.

And now Cuomo has folded his cards. He may not have had a choice. The standoff was only getting worse. And although the four-year moratorium brings down the temperature of the debate, it won’t put out the fire. The state needs to show how it’s going to create and sell a workable system of rigorous evaluations for teachers acceptable to the union and parents. We need a road map and a process to solve the underlying problem.

It is possible to evaluate teachers. The state has to do that, and find ways to get rid of persistently bad teachers and help struggling ones to improve. New York State United Teachers says it favors that, but kiboshes every proposed method to actually remove teachers found lacking from their lifetime jobs. The losers are mostly poor and minority kids trapped in bad schools where terrible teachers tend to end up. But some of the losers are also middling students in great schools who don’t get the attention they need, or kids in classrooms run by once top-performing but now burned-out teachers.

The next battle is over whether Cuomo’s last evaluation law needs to be repealed or whether the moratorium can be handled administratively. The law needs to stay on the books. It’s still the best tool Cuomo will have in crafting a deal that gives every student the top-notch teachers and valuable education he or she needs.