Standing Strong in New York

Back in the fall, we noted that teachers unions in New York appeared to be resorting to Tea Party tactics in an attempt to bully Governor Andrew Cuomo and Education Commissioner John King into backtracking on two of their signature achievements: Implementing a state law that requires better teacher evaluation systems, and adopting the Common Core State Standards, a set of more ambitious and coherent learning standards for students.

What has happened in the months since? Despite all the maneuvering, Cuomo and King haven’t backed down. In fact, Cuomo reiterated his focus on these achievements in his State of the State address last week, pointing to the evaluation law as a success story and proposing to use the results from evaluations to award bonuses of up to $20,000 to the state’s highest-rated teachers.

But this doesn’t mean it’s going to be all smooth sailing in 2014 for education reform in New York. The unions are continuing to ratchet up political pressure to delay full implementation of the evaluation law. Last week, New York State United Teachers president Richard Iannuzzi made good on a recent threat to come after King’s job, organizing an unprecedented no-confidence vote on the commissioner. At the same time, he and AFT president Randi Weingarten are continuing to stoke fears about the implementation of Common Core—as are many Tea Party conservatives

Let’s be clear. Implementing any new policy across thousands of schools and hundreds of districts will always be a challenge, and the shift to stronger academic standards and more meaningful and useful teacher evaluations in New York has been and will continue to be difficult. These are historic changes with wide-ranging implications. But the kinds of cynical tactics we are seeing in New York have nothing to do with improving implementation and everything to do with old-school power politics.

When national momentum for the standards was at high tide, the union was all too eager to accept national praise for embracing change. We should know – TNTP President Tim Daly joined others at the time in praising Weingarten for her willingness to lead on the issue. But now that the going’s getting tougher, Weingarten and other union leaders are changing their tunes. Faced with pressure from hardline internal factions and the arrival of the accountability that comes along with higher standards, unions are backing away from their commitments and threatening to bring down superintendents like King if they don’t do the same.  

What’s happening in New York is an important lesson for leaders across the country: If you’re serious about education reform, be prepared to fend off a steady stream of political attacks from both sides of the aisle, even after your policies have been adopted.

Fortunately, Governor Cuomo and Commissioner King don’t scare easily, and they finish what they start. They’re setting a commendable example by sticking to their principles in the face of all these attacks. Here’s hoping they keep it up, for the sake of the millions of students in New York who will benefit from higher standards.

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, stands in front of her students while introducing them to the captivating world of science

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, introduces her students to the captivating world of science.

About TNTP

TNTP is the nation’s leading research, policy, and consulting organization dedicated to transforming America’s public education system, so that every generation thrives.

Today, we work side-by-side with educators, system leaders, and communities across 39 states and over 6,000 districts nationwide to reach ambitious goals for student success.

Yet the possibilities we imagine push far beyond the walls of school and the education field alone. We are catalyzing a movement across sectors to create multiple pathways for young people to achieve academic, economic, and social mobility.

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