These are whiplash-inducing times for public schools in New York, as state education leaders keep hitting the brakes on the very reforms they had aggressively pushed only a few years ago.
The Common Core standards that were supposed to assure that students were better prepared for college, careers and citizenship? Both the Board of Regents and a Gov. Cuomo-appointed task force are subjecting them to what Cuomo has called a “total reboot.”
The tougher standardized tests that students would have to pass to receive a diploma? The Regents have delayed that by five years, to 2022.
Also on hold are tougher teacher certification exams, meant to boost the quality of new educators entering the classroom.
And in what would be the most stunning turnaround of all, Cuomo is reportedly reconsidering the very teacher evaluation regime he fought hard to win—and hailed as a major accomplishment—just nine months ago.
That system, approved by the Legislature as part of the state budget in March, effectively mandates that student test scores count for half of teachers’ performance evaluations. The goal was to identify sub-par teachers and either get them help or remove them from the classroom.
Now, as reported by the New York Times and confirmed to The Seventy Four by insiders, Cuomo is considering a plan to roll back or eliminate that controversial requirement, at least temporarily. And late Wednesday, Politico New York published a summary of a draft report from the state’s Common Core-task force, which will apparently advise the governor to impose a four-year moratorium on using student test scores in teacher evaluations while potential impacts are being studied [UPDATE: On Thursday, the task force officially released its report.].
When the initial Times report broke on Thanksgiving, a tweet by Jon Campbell of the Gannett News Service captured the shock of many in Albany:
*Rubs eyes* Awhaaaaaaaaa? This would be one of the flippiest flops that ever flipped. https://t.co/GYEXvWKG7V
— Jon Campbell (@JonCampbellGAN) November 25, 2015
Cuomo’s aides acknowledged that they are rethinking several education policies, including teacher evaluation, but said last week they were waiting to hear back from the task force before settling on a particular proposal.
These developments are at least a partial victory for those who oppose the reforms, including teachers union officials, who argue the laws are unfair to their members and harmful for students, and the parents of 200,000 children—primarily from middle-class, suburban districts—who joined an unprecedented “opt-out” movement against state tests this spring.
But the delays are an undeniable setback for those who believe accountability is the key to improving an education system in which, by the governor’s own count, two-thirds of third- and eighth-graders are flunking math and reading tests and 109,000 mostly poor, urban kids are languishing in persistently failing schools.
The governor and his fellow policymakers are clearly reacting to a political backlash, both in New York and nationwide, against the Common Core and high-stakes testing.
Knowledgeable observers say Cuomo is understandably worried about the anti-testing movement—both because it could cost him support from suburban voters (a key constituency if he seeks reelection in 2018) and because it threatens to undermine the whole accountability project.
“We have a very real opt-out crisis in the state,” said one pro-reform activist who asked not to be identified. “If opt-out grows and we don’t have data to say, ‘Hey, poor kids are getting screwed here,’ it’s much harder to make the case that we need change.”
But other forces are working against accountability, some of which have little to do with policy itself.
One is the downfall of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, whose 20-year reign as one of Albany’s most powerful figures was ended by federal corruption charges. He resigned as speaker in January and, on Nov. 30, was found guilty on seven felony counts, leading to his automatic removal from the Assembly.
As the Assembly’s top leader, Silver effectively controlled appointments to the Board of Regents, the 17-member panel that runs the state Education Department and sets policy for public schools. He could have used that power to install regents who would vote in lockstep with teachers unions, who were his political allies. Instead, he largely chose to protect incumbents, even as they enacted rules the union opposed.
Shortly after Carl Heastie took over as speaker, the Assembly moved to oust two board stalwarts and replace them with outspoken critics of the Common Core. Late this year, Chancellor Merryl Tisch, a reform proponent and longtime friend of Silver’s, announced she would step down next March.
Also contributing to the sense of gridlock is a dramatically changed political climate since 2010, the year New York first committed to the outlines of its current reform laws.
Back then, the economy was just emerging from the Great Recession. State government faced massive budget deficits and the Obama administration, through its Race to the Top program, was offering billions in grants to states who adopted the Common Core curriculum and test-based teacher evaluation. At the time, those idea had broad bipartisan support.
It was a black-swan confluence of events that set the stage for then-Gov. David Paterson and the Legislature to override teacher resistance and grab for a share of the federal cash.
Today, the state’s economy and finances have stabilized.“Common Core” has become a dirty word in politics. And President Obama just signed the new education bill (the Every Student Succeeds Act) aimed at getting the federal government out of the business of setting standards for schools—a clear repudiation of both Race to the Top and President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind law.
In retrospect, what’s surprising is that New York’s reforms happened in the first place. That they’re bogging down now is a reversion to the state’s change-averse norm.
Going forward, the long-term fate of the accountability regime depends on yet another unpredictable factor: Cuomo’s shifting political calculations.
Although the Common Core and other measures were in place before he took office, he came to embrace them as part of his larger agenda of making state government more effective and efficient. Given that New York spends more per pupil than any other state, he argued, its students should do better than merely average on national tests.
Relishing the clash with teachers unions, he portrayed them as an entrenched special interest and declared in his second “State of the State” speech that he would be “the lobbyist for the students.” During his reelection campaign last year, he described the education system as “one of the only remaining public monopolies” and vowed to break it.
He has also expressed frustration that the evaluation system has rated fewer than 1 percent of teachers statewide as “ineffective,” and repeatedly pushed through revisions to make it more stringent.
At the same time, Cuomo has at times aligned himself with critics of the Common Core and excessive testing, blaming the Board of Regents for poorly implementing the reforms. And he has proposed or gone along with many of the postponements and delays that have effectively ground progress to a halt.
In this context, a rethinking of his own evaluation law could be a temporary retreat, aimed at easing parents’ anxieties so that the system can ultimately move forward. Or, if he does indeed adopt a four-year moratorium, it could be a sign that Cuomo sees it as a losing battle.
One frustrated reform proponent contrasted his hesitation with what happened in Massachusetts, which implemented a similar accountability program in the 1990s. “They got the exact same pushback but they stayed with it,” this source said. “And now Massachusetts is the No. 1 state in the country on its NAEP performance”—a reference to National Assessment of Educational Progress tests.
Reached the week before the draft report leaked to Politico, groups that have spent heavily in support of Cuomo and the accountability agenda said they are giving him the benefit of the doubt.
“Gov. Cuomo has been a champion for kids and a champion for educators,” said Shavar Jeffries, president of Democrats for Education Reform. “We fully support him. We fully support his efforts.”
As for reports that Cuomo might delay his teacher evaluations: “We think it’s premature to assume what comes out of that process,” Jeffries said.
Also expressing optimism was Jenny Sedlis, executive director of Students First New York.
“For years, the teachers union literally wrote state education law and faced no competition either in schooling or in the halls of Albany,” Sedlis said last week. “Today, parents wanting better schools have marched in the tens of thousands, school choice has been expanded, educational standards have been raised, and there are leaders in Albany willing to do what’s right for students.”