With $700 million in federal Race to the Top money at risk, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the New York Federation of Teachers worked out a deal on a new teacher evaluation system this week. On Friday, Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, praised the agreement, which calls for 40 percent of a teacher’s evaluation to be based on student achievement. The rest of teachers’ evaluations will be based on observations by principals, independent trained observers, peers and feedback from students and parents. “Evaluating teachers in a comprehensive way that is focused on improving teachers’ instructional skills is what’s best for kids,” she said in a statement.
It’s not yet clear, however, what affordances teachers will be provided to help them get better. Generally speaking, this critical element of teacher evaluation systems is less clear and less helpful than it must be if the goal of evaluating—which presumably isn’t solely to get rid of bad actors—is to be achieved.
Michael Mulgrew, the head of the United Federation of Teachers in New York City congratulated the governor on the deal. However, Mulgrew wasn’t ready to fully endorse the state plan until the local union can get a separate agreement it likes with Mayor Michael Bloomberg about both teacher evaluations and the city’s intent to close 33 low-performing city schools.
The important role of local collective bargaining and the power of labor contracts is often glossed over in our focus on statewide teacher evaluation systems, which until recently have largely been statements of intent that did little to differentiate among teachers. To compel local districts and their teachers to endorse the state agreement, Gov. Cuomo would deny districts that fail to do so 4 percent of their state money and their entire share of the federal money. This is the situation right now in lots of places, including Illinois, which did not get a Race to the Top grant, and Hawaii, where the lack of a state collective bargaining agreement is holding up $75 million. Delaware also is negotiating with its statewide teacher union on issues related to school turnarounds, trying to wrap things up even as the U.S. Department of Education has warned of consequences if they do not succeed.
The education department had a lot at stake in New York, as it does in all of the states that have made certain promises in return for more federal dollars to be used for various school improvement purposes. The Feds really don’t like to take education money away and they almost never do. They look like big meanies denying kids services. But that threat, and the government’s willingness to act on it, is one of the few tools available, in a federalist system, to pressure states to carry out reforms that will change the cozy agreements that serve adult interests at the expense of kids. If the Obama administration wants to bring about reforms by conducting high stakes competitions, then the promises states make have to matter. The administration is pushing past the failure of Congress to reauthorize NCLB by granting states waivers from much of its rules. In return for greater freedom it is demanding a lot to make sure kids are well served—and that’s as it should be.