Chalk up a loss for New York’s students

Opponents of using school test scores to evaluate teachers demonstrate back in 2013 in East Setauket, Long Island.
Opponents of using school test scores to evaluate teachers demonstrate back in 2013 in East Setauket, Long Island. Photo Credit: Alberto Mojica

The push to base evaluations of New York’s public school teachers partially on how much their students’ standardized test scores improve is on its deathbed.

The number of state legislators supporting a do-not-resuscitate order has grown. Gov. Andrew Cuomo, once a leading advocate of linking student performance on the federally mandated tests to teacher evaluations, is poised to help shovel dirt on the coffin.

That means the movement to identify effective and ineffective teachers, rewarding the good ones and retraining or firing the bad ones, will again suffer. That means students will continue to suffer.

A bill to disconnect scores from evaluations is being heavily promoted by the state’s powerful teachers union, and it has overwhelming support in the Assembly. That Democrat-dominated body has been ready for years to desert evaluation measures passed in 2011, then abandoned with a four-year moratorium in 2015. What has changed is the climate in the Republican-controlled Senate, where that bill has 51 sponsors this year, including most Republicans.

Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan always supported using the test scores in evaluations, but it’s increasingly unlikely that he can hold out. New York State United Teachers, the state’s largest teachers union, has won battle after battle, including the opt-out war that has 20 percent of test-eligible students in the state skipping federally mandated exams in math and English. And Flanagan and the Republicans could lose their majority in November, an outcome NYSUT will fight hard for if Flanagan keeps battling.

Make principals accountable

Both Flanagan and state Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia warn that putting teacher assessments in the hands of local districts could mean even more standardized tests for students. But parent sentiment against standardized tests makes it clear the odds of this are low, and Flanagan and Elia don’t need a false narrative to address the real concern.

The tragedy of this bill is that it would mean the end of the movement Flanagan and Elia both support, as Cuomo once did, to rate teachers, schools and districts based on objective standards used across the state to measure what students learn. Their strategy is to keep fighting, but they’ve run short of allies, weapons and time. Yet they are right.

There is no secret in any school or community about who the bad teachers are. Students, parents and educators know. The best system would be to evaluate principals based on the performance of their students, and to let those principals determine who should be rewarded, who needs further training and who needs to be dismissed. Principals who are judged on student performance can be trusted to pick teachers, just as bosses do in practically every professional setting.

Teachers unions oppose that. They also oppose objective standards that could be applied and understood uniformly across districts, the state and the nation. The reality is that the very nature of the union’s role is to oppose dismissing the worst teachers and rewarding the best.

But the schools exist to serve the students’ needs, not teachers’ desire for job security. Even if this battle is lost, the fight to provide the best possible teachers must continue.