An eleventh-hour teacher evaluation deal in NYC is derailed — and saved?

While the front page of last Thursday’s New York Times told the story of “rampant waste” and “runaway costs” at the root of New York City’s first school bus strike in 34 years, the education drama that day was elsewhere. As the education world soon learned, talks between the New York City’s teachers union and the school district, hammering out a mandated teacher evaluation plan, had broken down.  And the result was not pretty.

Because governor Andrew Cuomo had given the state’s nearly 700 school districts a deadline of January 17 to submit acceptable Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR) plans (which had to include radically new metrics, including student test performance), the city would lose $450 million in state and federal aid and grants – potential losses that grew by nearly a billion dollars the next day when the state’s Commissioner of Education threatened to withhold Title I and II aid from the City. Altogether, Gotham was suddenly staring at a fiscal cliff that would peel nearly 10% out of its of a $19.7 billion budget.  At dueling press conferences Mayor Michael Bloomberg and United Federation of Teachers (UFT) president Michael Mulgrew each blamed the other for the failure to come to an agreement.

(This story draws from numerous sources,  including the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the mayor’s press conference remarks, a New York Times editorial, numerous Gotham Schools reports (here, here, here, here, and here), the NY Daily News, the NY Post, and SchoolBook.)

What does it all mean?

In one sense this was a Waterloo moment for the city’s schools and, perhaps, a barometer of reform and governance battles of the future. In another sense, it’s a tempest in a very big teapot. Not only is New York City the largest school district in the country (with 1.1 million students), it has one-third of all of New state’s students, and, under the direction of Bloomberg, who gained authority over the schools in 2002, and his handpicked chancellor, former anti-trust prosecutor Joel Klein, it has been one of the largest education reform incubators in the United States.  On the one hand, it is the nation’s test tube; on the other, it is New York, sui generis. As Frank Sinatra might say, if you can do education reform in New York, you can do it anywhere. But does it also follow that if you can’t do it in New York, you can’t do it anywhere?

The breakdown in talks over this seminal school reform program gave everyone in education the jitters.

Despite Mayor Bloomberg’s high profile makeover of urban education over the last decade, up to now he had done it with a modicum of labor/management peace. He had wrestled “mayoral control” from an unwieldy system of 32 separate sub-districts in the city (with state legislative approval), given teachers a 43 percent pay increase, overseen the creation of nearly 100 charter schools, and won from the union, then run by Randi Weingarten (who is now president of the American Federation of Teachers), concessions on teacher tenure and performance bonuses.  (See my Education Next story here.)

While there were plenty of naysayers along the way, the labor calm lasted through most of 2010 and included Mulgrew and Klein teaming up to help win the state a $700 million Race to the Top grant that year. “The union, in my view, did not want to be blamed for not getting Race to the Top,” Klein told me in 2010, for a story for Ed Next, referring to the New York State United Teachers (NYSUT), the 600,000-member organization of which the UFT (with some 75,000 teachers) is a member. NYSUT supported teacher evaluation reform during the state’s successful RTTT bid, including value-added measures. (Full disclosure, my current boss and founding director of CIEP, David Steiner, was then Commissioner of Education for New York State and lead the team that won the RTTT grant).

At the same time John King, who was then state ed’s #2, told me that “in the first couple of years there will be what I characterize as process wins. You’ll see an evaluation system for teachers and principals, with student achievement built in as a meaningful component.”

Was that wishful thinking?

As it turned out, in New York City, it was.  And King’s fast and dramatic response to the city’s failure to conclude an APPR deal (he is now the state’s #1) – in a letter to Dennis Walcott delivered the very next day — seems to convey King’s sense of betrayal about the deal struck two years before. Were they just promises made with fingers crossed behind the back?

Under the new state law, passed by the legislature in 2010 in order to meet RTTT requirements, teacher evaluation programs had to include a healthy measure of student performance results tied to that evaluation, never an idea favored by teacher unions. In a later implementation deal brokered in part by Governor Cuomo, the new APPRs in New York state required that 20 percent of teacher ratings be based on students’ growth on state tests (the “value-added” metric), 20 percent on local measures, and the remaining 60 percent to include classroom observations and parent or student surveys.  As a result of this review teachers would be rated – this was also new — “highly effective,” “effective,” “developing” or “ineffective,” with the intended goal of making it easier to fire teachers who were repeatedly rated ineffective.

But the fly in the ointment, as the NYC case illustrates, was the provision in the law that left it up to school districts to negotiate these APPR deals with the teacher unions – they could not be unilaterally imposed.  Cuomo’s carrot and stick approach to this – a four percent increase in state aid and a January 17 deadline for having it done — worked for all but four districts in the state – three tiny ones upstate and New York City.  As John King, who had subsequently become the state commissioner, noted in his post-deadline letter to New York City’s chancellor Dennis Walcott (see here), “99.1% of school districts were able to successfully negotiate annual professional performance review (“APPR”) plans for their teachers and principals in accordance with Education Law §3012-c and Subpart 30-2 of the Rules of the Board of Regents.”

What happened in New York City?

“During the last year,” reported Philissa Cramer of Gotham Schools, “Mayor Bloomberg repeatedly accused the United Federation of Teachers of trying to prevent a new teacher evaluation system from being adopted. At the same time, the union repeatedly questioned whether Bloomberg himself was committed to making a deal on evaluations.” The UFT released a TV ad criticizing Bloomberg for taking a “his way or the highway” approach to running schools. Bloomberg responded, comparing the union to the National Rifle Association, asserting that most UFT members “are not in sympathy” with their union’s leaders.  “The NRA’s another place where the membership, if you do the polling, doesn’t agree with the leadership.”

Comparing the UFT to the pro-gun group was a lightning rod moment for Bloomberg, a crusader for strict gun laws, and it did not sit well with the union. (It reminded some of the comment by Rodney Paige, George W. Bush’s Secretary of Education, comparing the National Education Association “a terrorist organization.”) Randi Weingarten, president of the UFT’s parent American Federation of Teachers, called Bloomberg’s remarks “offensive and way over the line” and urged him to apologize.

This was not a good sign as the two parties entered their final weeks of negotiations.

And Gotham Schools’ Cramer provides a succinct summary of what went wrong over the course of the last months of negotiations: teachers hate value-added measures and don’t trust management; the union has nothing to lose by waiting for a new mayor, hopefully a Democratic one more sympathetic to its views; Bloomberg never thought the APPR arrangement was very helpful.

Everyone knew that Bloomberg’s big issue was the “Triborough Amendment,” a law that mandated that teacher layoffs be made according to seniority, the infamous Last in first Out rule (LIFO), and some suggested that he was angry at Cuomo for not fixing that problem as championed education reform   This was a major obstacle to school improvement, according to Bloomberg; clearly, more important than the APPR.

Bloomberg cited two specific flaws in the current APPR proposal that he said made it “a non-starter”:  a “sunset” provision that required a renewal of the APPR after just two years, and a grievance procedure that would require a “doubling of the number of arbitration hearings” for those teachers deemed ineffective.

For Mulgrew this was just more “my way or the highway” bluster from Bloomberg.  But in fact, Bloomberg had called attention to a problem with the APPR proposal that the 99 percent had ignored: that the evaluation programs would expire before they could be meaningfully implemented. “The process of removing an ineffective teacher requires two years,” explained Bloomberg at his January 17 press conference, but “if the agreement sunsets in two years the whole thing would be a joke.”

The point hit home in NYC. According to a New York Daily News editorial, the teacher evaluation talks were “doomed to fail.”  The paper didn’t fault Mulgrew or Bloomberg but a “fatal flaw in Gov. Cuomo’s approach: letting districts and unions negotiate their plans rather than imposing one from the start.”  The New York Post took things a step further, offering “kudos to Mayor Bloomberg for rejecting the charade.”  The “real culprit,” opined the Post was “the law,” which “left the unions veto power” over the APPRs. “Of course, the UFT was ready to accept a  sham evaluation system. For example, it wanted any plan to be scrapped after two years. The catch: it takes at least that long to get rid of poor teachers, so no teacher could’ve been removed in time.”

In fact, it was Bloomberg who had called the proposed deal a “sham.”  In his press conference he accused the Mulgrew of “unilaterally walk[ing] away from our negotiations.”

Mulgrew denied any 11th-hour proposals, but had told UFT members in a letter prior to the 17th that if no agreement were reached, “it will be because the mayor cannot be brought to accept our position of what a teacher evaluation system needs to be, and he will once again try to blame teachers.”

Thus the “breakdown” in talks was more a matter of retreating to the verities – the unions objecting to value-added evaluation measures and the City objecting to measures that did not insure those same metrics.  But there was some side-effect pressure that helped negate the negate the Cuomo carrot-and-stick. For Bloomberg, walking away was the result, according to some observers, of the mayor’s grudge against Cuomo;  for the unions it was the bracing backbone moment when Chicago teachers went on strike last fall.

Even Governor Cuomo, who had pushed the teacher evaluation law through the state legislature but had remained silent during the negotiations, joined in the argument on deadline day, issuing a strongly-worded statement that read, “Please hear me — there will be no extensions or exceptions. Since we established one of the strongest teacher evaluation models in the nation last year, 98% of school districts have successfully implemented them. The remaining districts and their unions have until midnight tonight to do the same or they will forfeit the increase in education aid they have been counting on and both parties will have failed the children they serve.”

The New York Times editorialized on Saturday,  “The old system, which everyone agreed was terrible, relied on spotty observations by administrators and found an overwhelming majority of teachers `satisfactory’ whether or not they were performing on the job….  To avoid that disastrous outcome, Mr. Bloomberg and the union will need to return to the bargaining table and get this deal done as quickly as possible.”

Commissioner King has made that possible.  His letter to Walcott is a wonderfully layered text that is both complicated in its detail and clear in its message. If the parties did not have an initial agreement by February 15, he writes, including “a plan, timeline and budget,” to begin implementation by March 1, King would not only withhold the billion-plus in federal dollars, he would assert his “authority to allocate and monitor” all state and federal funds, a de facto state takeover.

“It’s unclear whether or not this is tantamount to a teacher evaluation deal,” conclude WNYC’s Yasmeen Khan and Beth Fertig of School Book.  But by responding quickly and forcefully to the APPR meltdown, Commissioner King has not only proved the value of education leadership, he has given the two sides a way out.


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