The bitter fruits of Race to the Top

February 28, 2012

New York City teacher Peter Lamphere analyzes an agreement that gives up even more concessions from teachers to the demands of the corporate school deformers.

NEW YORK state school officials and teachers union leaders reached an agreement in mid-February over teacher evaluations that cements the basic logic of President Barack Obama's Race to the Top program: All tests, all the time.

The deal is the bitter fruit of the New York State United Teachers' (NYSUT) endorsement of the state's 2010 Race to The Top application, which included a promise to implement a new evaluation system. It will fuel the development of an entire new range of tests, so that teachers in all grades and all subject areas--including band, pre-kindergarten and art--can be evaluated, much to the delight of test-prep companies like Pearson.

Just as importantly, perhaps, the agreement will result in major modifications to the state's tenure law, putting the burden of proof on teachers in most cases to show why they should keep their job. Previously, districts had the burden of showing teachers were incompetent.

The changes are certain to increase already abysmal teacher turnover rates--and force teachers to teach to the test, or lose their jobs. As education expert Diane Ravitch wrote for the New York Review of Books website, "No student will be left untested. Every teacher will be judged by his or her students' scores. Cheating scandals will proliferate. Many teachers will be fired. Many will leave teaching, discouraged by the loss of their professional autonomy."

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (Azi Paybarah)

The NYSUT and its largest affiliate, New York City's United Federation of Teachers (UFT), had at first signed on to using test-based evaluations, but disagreed when New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo tried to make the law even worse for teachers.

Initially, the legislation required that 20 percent of annual ratings for teachers be based on standardized test scores, while another 20 percent be based on evaluation tools to be locally bargained with unions in each school district. Cuomo--a Democrat who campaigned on promises to "declare war" on unions and has made good on those promises with pay freezes and layoffs--pushed for districts to be allowed to make 40 percent of ratings be based on the state tests.

The NYSUT sued and at least one judge agreed with the union, but Cuomo threatened to force his proposed changes through the state legislature unless the union made a deal with the New York State Education Department.

In the end, the agreement--reached hours before Cuomo's deadline for carrying out his threat--accepted the basic premise put forward by the governor: 40 percent of teachers' ratings will be based on test scores.

Districts will have three options in negotiating with unions about how the second 20 percent of the rating will be determined--through state tests using an analysis of a subgroup of students (like English Language Learners or Special Education students), through locally designed district tests, or through tests designed by private subcontractors.

Regardless of which option is chosen, 40 percent of teachers' ratings will be based on some variation of discredited value-added measurements, which have been shown to have a margin of error as high as 30 percent.

[UPDATE: Recent information released by the union indicates that it still may be able to negotiate for a "performance-based assessment" that is not a high-stakes test for the locally determined 20 percent component of evaluations. However, any local deal must be approved by the State Education Department, and the governor has threatened to withhold a 4 percent increase in state education aid to districts that can't agree to a deal, which leaves the union with very little leverage.]

Value-added measurements have fallen into such disrepute that the release of New York City's teacher data reports, forced by a judge this week, was greeted with silence by most education "reform" groups. Even the scab organization Educators for Excellence was compelled to condemn the publishing of the report.

IN ADDITION, the NYSUT made two additional major concessions that weren't in the original 2010 law passed as part of the state's Race to the Top application.

First, any teacher who is rated as "ineffective" in the testing portion of their rating must receive an ineffective rating overall--which means that testing is really 100 percent of the rating for some teachers, and 40% for others, as teaching veteran Gary Rubinstein pointed out at his blog on the Teach For Us website.

Second, the agreement mandates, as part of the 60 percent of teachers' ratings based on administrator observations and other subjective measures, that at least one of those observations be unannounced. Previously, teachers in New York City had a contractual right to a pre-observation conference, which, for teachers in danger of an adverse rating, had to include a specific discussion of the content of their lesson.

The state-level agreement also encompassed a side deal between New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and UFT President Michael Mulgrew over an appeals process for ineffective ratings that had caused previous local negotiations around evaluation models to collapse.

The UFT, to its credit, had insisted on some kind of independent review of principals' ratings. This was response to numerous scandals involving evaluations doled out as retribution for union activity or as a policy of harassment. As a direct response to the union's stand, Bloomberg unveiled a new plan for imposing a turnaround model at 33 schools--where staff will have to reapply for their jobs, with only half eligible to be rehired and the rest forced into the city's rotating pool of substitutes.

The agreement forced through in Albany includes an appeals procedure, but one that shreds the union's proposal. Furthermore, the mayor--with Cuomo's support--refused to back down on his turnaround threat despite the settlement. Bloomberg and the union still have to negotiate the final details of the local evaluation system, so there may be further concessions on both sides.

All teachers who are rated ineffective by principals would be observed by an independent "evaluator." If they are rated ineffective a second time, they would be forced into expedited termination proceedings. Even if the independent evaluator disagrees with the principal's evaluation, the teacher would still face termination, but the school district would have the burden of proof to show that the teacher is incompetent (as is the case for all teachers under current law).

The key question, of course, is who hires the "independent" evaluators. According to the New York City education watchdog website, "Although city officials said they would like to work with the union to pick the vendors jointly, they added that the UFT would not have the final say. That decision would be made by the State Education Department."

This is even worse than the current situation with the Peer Intervention Plus system, in which evaluators are employed by a vendor chosen jointly by the UFT and the city's Department of Education. The system has been an almost unmitigated disaster for teachers facing dismissal, with recommendations almost always going against the employee.

UNSURPRISINGLY, THE state-level agreement and the local deal for New York City won praise from both national union leaders and corporate education deformers.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) gushed that "kids win when adults are committed to solving problems together." She said that "teacher evaluations must go beyond using standardized test scores," all the while applauding a deal which ensured that standardized test scores are all-important. The AFT, while it has been verbally critical of aspects of Barack Obama's Race to the Top policies, has already given Obama its endorsement for the November presidential election.

Meanwhile, the New York Times' Nicholas Kristoff praised a concessionary AFT contract in New Haven, Conn., that served as the model for the New York deal, and declared: "If the American Federation of Teachers continues down this path, I'll revisit my criticisms of teachers' unions. Maybe even give them a hug for daring to become part of the solution."

The union leadership's strategy of compromise in order to maintain a seat at the table has led to an acceptance of the testing agenda that will make rank-and-file educators' lives increasingly miserable--for those that who can hang on to their jobs. The inability to imagine a different strategy reflects union leaders' distance from classroom professionals, decades of compromise with the school deformers and, ultimately, a deep-seated fear of mobilizing the rank and-file, which could threaten their own lucrative positions.

It's clear that teachers' unions, if they are to preserve anything of working conditions for their members, must make a sharp break with Race to the Top that is more than just a verbal rejection or a call for modifications. Reliance on Democratic politicians has only resulted in increased testing, privatization and charter school takeovers.

As James Eterno, the opposition candidate for UFT president in 2010, put it:

The only way to stop any of this from going into effect is for us to raise our collective voices loudly and say that we're not going to voluntarily walk into the guillotine. If today's agreement becomes our actual teacher evaluation system, then there will more than likely be massive teacher firings beginning in 2014.

Fortunately, there is a bubbling movement of rank-and-file teachers and educators that is organizing to resist this onslaught.

The worsening working conditions have led to increased anger in schools, along with some inevitable demoralization. Even principals are opposed: more than 1,000 have risked their positions to sign a letter opposing the evaluation plan. Over 2,000 parents, students and educators packed the last meeting of Bloomberg's puppet school board in a mass effort to disrupt it.

Students at two different schools targeted for the turnaround ax have organized successful walkouts in the past couple of weeks. Teachers at turnaround schools are organizing to go beyond what the UFT has planned for them. Two hundred UFT rank-and-filers gathered to strategize at a "State of the Union" conference earlier this month in New York City, and they have plans for a follow-up strategy meeting.

At the time of the initial law that accompanied the state's Race to the Top application in May 2010, the New York Times perceptively commented "The unions...did not gain any clear benefit from the deal, other than shielding themselves from criticism that they were hurting the state's chances in Race to the Top. And union leaders who backed the plan could face significant backlash from members."

Both statements remain even more true a year later. The only way forward for the education union movement is a complete rejection of Race to the Top and its associated mandates--no matter what the cost in grant money to the state.

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