A new plan for teacher evaluations that was furiously negotiated this weekend in Albany may offer a real chance at progress. It's hard to say without knowing the full details. In truth, it will be hard to say even after we know the full details.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has been demanding evaluations that culminate in some meaningful percentage of New York's public school teachers being identified as ineffective. Teachers unions and the state legislators they support have been fighting him. Meanwhile, districts and parents are being misled into battling Common Core curricula and the standardized tests on behalf of teachers, who often don't oppose the tests or the lesson plans. The teachers simply resist being evaluated on student mastery of those tests.
But whether this iteration does the trick won't alter the long-term reality: New York will eventually get an evaluation system that identifies and rewards the best teachers, provides training for those who need it and flushes out the worst. It's not going to happen because Albany deems it so, but because the courts, parents and stark facts of student failure demand it.
The state budget is due Wednesday, and Cuomo has made this issue central to this year's negotiations. Evaluations of educators in New York's schools for the past two years found very few teachers ineffective or developing. On Long Island, 104 of the 124 districts didn't find a single teacher or principal ineffective, and 54 districts evaluated every educator as "highly effective" or "effective."
The system has been gamed. The 80 percent of each evaluation not based strictly on student test results is slanted to favor educators, with even some teachers classed as "developing" getting as many as 76 of those 80 available points.
The unions have proved they knew a lot more about how to finesse an evaluation system than the reformers. The unions may, with this new plan, do so again. It's difficult to believe they and their political supporters will accept a system that is, in fact, acceptable.
And it's important to remember that the current, skewed evaluation results aren't the fundamental reasons the system must change. It's the number of students getting to Long Island's community colleges in need of remedial help, 60 percent to 70 percent. It's the mere 38 percent of the state's high school graduates who are ready for college or careers.
This isn't just about poor kids or minorities. The Board of Regents says that even in districts with good graduation rates, graduates are often unprepared for the next level.
This year's standardized testing for Long Island students in grades 3 through 8 begins on April 14. Calls to opt children out of the tests are again mounting. But parents will eventually realize that their kids aren't getting the education they need, or that we're paying for.
The courts are figuring that out. In California and Pennsylvania, judges recently came down against both teacher tenure and layoffs by seniority. In New York, a lawsuit has been filed in pursuit of similar goals. Teacher tenure and difficult firing mechanisms are an equity issue: Underprivileged students suffer the most when bad teachers are retained. But affluent children are not well-served by such a system either.
Teachers absolutely can be evaluated in a meaningful way, with student achievement as part of the equation. Washington, D.C.; New Haven, Connecticut; Massachusetts and other places offer vaunted models of teacher evaluation to look at. We know it would help to add components of parent and student evaluations and classroom observers who aren't employed by the same school. Better standardized tests that tell us more about each student's needs and triumphs would be a boon, too.
What's needed is a rigorous, fair system, and the willingness of teachers unions to work within such a system, rather than working to get around it.
If this new plan achieves that, wonderful. If not, then eventually the courts, parents and the reality of poor student achievement will.