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Doubling Down On New York’s Education

January 28, 2015

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is back in the news after announcing an ambitious education policy agenda in his recent State of the State address. Cuomo wants to make more changes to the state’s teacher evaluation systems, which still aren’t giving teachers useful or accurate feedback on their instruction. He also wants to make it easier for schools to replace tenured teachers who receive “ineffective” ratings for two years in a row.

This isn’t the first time New York policymakers have attempted to resolve these longstanding issues. Former Governor David Paterson assembled a broad coalition in 2010 to push through changes to the state’s teacher evaluation and dismissal laws. Governor Cuomo later insisted on additional changes to hold school districts accountable for following through.

He’s back for more because even those legislative changes haven’t actually solved the problems at hand. The vast majority of teachers in the state are still rated “good” or “great” regardless of how much or how little their students are learning. Schools are still mostly unable to identify the truly irreplaceable teachers they need to retain from the teachers who are struggling and need to improve. And it’s still nearly impossible to replace a tenured teacher, even when there is overwhelming evidence of incompetence.

It sounds like common sense for an education leader to come back to a problem that hasn’t been solved, but it rarely happens. All too often, governors and state legislators are content to pass promising new laws and move on to other priorities, without paying much attention to what happens when the laws are implemented. But as we’ve written before, quality implementation is what matters most when it comes to improving evaluation systems. It’s when district leaders, union leaders, principals and teachers can either commit to more evaluations that provide meaningful, accurate feedback to teachers — or, more often, when new systems become meaningless compliance exercises that don’t change anything for teachers or students.

New York is in many ways the worst-case scenario of implementation gone awry, one we’ve followed closely on this blog. The state teachers’ union, which helped pass the new evaluation law, later pulled its support and has been actively resisting the implementation of these new evaluation systems. Meanwhile, as the results make clear, most school districts across the state haven’t yet implemented these systems in a meaningful way.

In short, you can’t really blame Governor Cuomo for sizing up the situation and concluding that there are better uses for his time and political capital.

Yet he’s not backing down in the face of resistance. He’s doubling down, and making serious proposals intended to elevate the teaching profession and help millions of students in the process. The recent events that have upended the power dynamics in Albany—and arguably create a whole new degree of uncertainty for Governor Cuomo during upcoming negotiations with the legislature—should make the whole thing even more fascinating to watch. In the meantime, we’re glad to see that Cuomo remains committed to making sure teachers and students actually see the benefits from good policy ideas.