Cuomo To Teachers: Get the Hell Out

I'll give Andrew Cuomo this: when he makes threats to come after someone, they aren't just empty political promises. He said he would try to break the public schools, and he appears to be determined to make it happen.

Cuomo's assault has started with a lesson in how data can serve as a mirror to reflect the biases of whoever is gazing into it.

Mangling data 

Cuomo's talking points and reformy agenda have started with a simple set of data. The proficiency rate for 3rd through 8th graders is 35.8 percent for math and 31.4 percent for reading. Over 90 percent of New York teachers received effective ratings. There are three possible explanations for why these numbers don't fit together.

1) The teacher effectiveness ratings are wrong.
2) The student proficiency numbers are wrong.
3) There is no connection between student test results and teacher effectiveness.

#3 is by far the most likely. At the very least, there isn't a shred of documentation, study or much of anything else to support the notion that test results have anything to do with teacher effectiveness. Let's also remember that we're talking about math and reading scores for 3rd through 8th graders––exactly what should tell us about, say, 11th grade history teachers?

#3 is also affected by #2: if the student scores don't actually mean anything, they can hardly be connected to teacher scores. And since student cut scores weren't set by any particular supportable academic standard, it's highly unlikely that they are really telling us anything about how many students are "proficient" (a term that doesn't have any actual meaning in this context). 

Cuomo has, like a student who fails to check all options on a standardized multiple-choice test, simply stopped at answer #1 because that's the one he likes. He has not even pretended to consider the other two options. It would certainly appear that he is less interested in figuring out what's actually going on and more interested in using test results to draw a target on New York's teachers.

And what a target. 

Cuomo proposes that fifty percent of a teacher's evaluations be based on test scores. (This fun starts on page 229 of his Opportunity Agenda Book.) In the case of non-tested subjects or grades, "a student growth measure that measures one year of academic growth." Whatever that is supposed to mean and wherever those are supposed to come from (since the stated goal here is clear: "We will eliminate the local measure." 

Thirty-five percent of the teacher's evaluation must come from an "independent observer" who can be either 1) a principal from within or without the district, 2) an observer from the state-approved list of "entities" that can do that sort of thing or 3) a faculty member from an education program at a state university of New York (and I am imagining college ed professors across the state slapping their heads and saying, "Why, yes, thanks, that's exactly what I want to spend half my year doing!")

The remaining fifteen percent can come from a local administrator.

And that's it. Screw the whole "multiple measures" idea, and nerts to evaluations by people who know the territory, the teacher, the students, the local lay of the land.

But wait. There's more. Cuomo proposes that all cut-off scores be set at the state level. And if the teacher fails either portion of the evaluation, she fails the whole thing. In other words, if the live human says, "I watched her work and she is a great teacher" and the test scores come in low, the live human observer is over-ruled.

Can we make a teaching career less viable? 

Tenure? Screw that, too. It was for 19th century college profs so they could resist political pressure, and of course there are no politics associated with teaching in New York public schools. I wonder how long it took the governor's typist to stop giggling before he could finish this part.

Now tenure requires five straight years of effective ratings. Until you hit those five straight years, you are probationary, and as long as you're probationary, you can be fired at any time for any reason.

Cuomo could not be more clear if he required every college education department to put a giant banner over its doors saying, in huge bold letters, "Get the hell out of New York."

What sane person would try to start a teaching career under these conditions. You must have five straight years of good test scores, which means that taking a job in a high-poverty school would simply be the kiss of death. In fact, if the cut scores are going to be kept the same so that almost seventy percent of New York students are failing The Big Test, well, that means that most of the classrooms in New York will be the kiss of death to a teaching career. You would be better off betting the state of New York that you can roll snake eyes five times in a row.

Best and brightest 

And yet Cuomo's plan blithers on, as if it's not obvious that he's telling future teachers to "get the hell out"! The teacher beatdown section of the Opportunity Agenda starts with some noise about setting up a doctor-style interning program for training teachers, and I actually support that, having come from a similar residency program myself—except that, with the stakes of testing so incredibly high, who in their right mind would let a teacher trainee into their school? The residency idea is probably necessary, because under the new, highly punitive evaluation system, what teacher would agree to host a student teacher? The residency idea begs all sorts of questions (how will the state possibly have enough capacity to handle the number of teachers they need to train) but it doesn't really matter, because given the impossible hurdles placed in the path of becoming a tenured teacher with anything remotely resembling job security, who is going to want to invest the time and effort to start on a path that can at any time, through random factors outside of your control, be yanked out from under you?

But after five sections of flipping the middle finger to every future teacher in New York, the Agenda starts its next section with this sentence:

Once we can attract and recognize the best teachers, we need to keep them in our schools.

First of all, this new system defines "best teacher" as "teacher who has class of good standardized test takers." This idea fails twice—once by basing teacher evaluations on the results of bad invalid tests and again by removing all other considerations of quality from teaching. Nothing matters in this system but test prep. Nothing.

The Agenda goes on to say that we don't want to lose great teachers to other "more lucrative" professions. It does not say anything about losing future great teachers to other professions where they have greater work to do than spend all their days preparing children to take a pointless standardized tests. Or losing future great teachers to other professions where they are treated like professionals. Or losing future great teachers to other professions where job security is not based on a random roll of the dice.

Sigh. Cuomo proposes to set aside $2 million for incentive payments of up to $20K to encourage great teachers to stay in hard-to-staff schools. Do you know how many payments of $20K you can get out of $2 million? 100. What do you think, Andy? Will 100 teachers take care of all the hard-to-staff schools in New York?

I can answer that. No, no they will not, because those hard-to-staff schools will become super hard to staff once you implement a system under which teaching at high-poverty low-achievement schools is an excellent way to never get to start your teaching career.

But just in case, Cuomo also wants to streamline the firing process, and since all non-tenured teachers will be fireable at any time for any reason, I think he's got that covered. Also, no more trying to rehab incompetent teachers, because under this new system, New York will be up to their collective tuchus in eager new educators.

The kisses of death

What's next? Well, back in the first section, Cuomo allowed as how teacher traineess need less theory and more real-world classroom training and experience. However, in this next section, he wants to make sure the new teachers are Good Enough by giving them some standardized tests, which I was going to mock, but you know, since in Cuomo's New York a teacher's job is to prepare students to take a standardized test, it does make sense that taking a standardized test should be the basis of teacher training. So prospective teachers will have to pass some standardized tests, and if too many of them fail, their college program will be shut down. So congratulations, future New York teachers, and welcome to four college years of test prep. Wow. I bet that will attract even more of the best and the brightest to teaching.

I know this is running long, but I want you to get the full grandeur of Cuomo's public school-crushing plans.

We'll make it harder to get into grad school. We'll make your certificate dependent on getting continuing ed hours, but we'll put all of those programs under the direct control of the state education department.

This next one is genius. Cuomo wants to guarantee that not student will have an ineffective teacher two years in a row. Let's think this through. An ineffective teacher is one who is put in a room with the low-scoring students. Whatever teacher we send those students on to will likely also "become" ineffective. Some schools can look forward to small packs of teacher-crushing students, moving like kryptonite through the system. Depending on the VAM sauce that's being brewed, those packs could be composed of low-ability- high-poverty, or even highly gifted students. This schedule shuffling will also guarantee that teachers can't easily develop a specialty, and that administrators can't schedule based on what they know about teacher strengths and weaknesses. And those young teachers trying to get their five straight years of good test scores in? It just became even harder. What, I wonder, does Cuomo propose if a grade level or subject are in a school runs out of teachers who were rated effective this year?

Once again, the message is clear: whatever you do, don't get a job in a high-poverty low-achievement school.

Finishing touches 

Cuomo commits to the Bottom 5 percent model of school failure, guaranteeing that there are always failing schools. Lucky for them he has decided to scrap time-consuming turnaround plans and just implement receivership, a nifty technique for privatizing a school and handing it over to a specialist for carving up.

Carving up for whom? Well, the very next item is the abolition of caps on charter authorization, so that charters can bloom across the land like a thousand flowers. This comes attached to a meaningless provision that is hilariously called an "anti-creaming provision" because what fun are these long government documents if you can't slip some mildly obscene easter eggs in there? Cuomo also wants to establish educational tax credits, aka vouchers by another name.

Final touches? Let's expand the market for Pre-K providers by pumping more money into that, along with a rating system. The term "high-quality" let's you know that it's nothing but the best, spared no expense. It also lets you know that the state will require assessment so that presumably parents will know how well their four-year-olds are learning to take standardized tests. Oh, wait—did I say four-year-olds? Let's up the ante and extend this to three-year-olds. Opening up new markets is always good for entrepreneurs, and those three year olds have all been slacking anyway.

So you see? When Andrew Cuomo says he wants to bust up the public ed monopoly, he's not just generating sound bites for the evening news—he means it. The program is bold and audacious in the same way that pushing a carload of nuns and puppies into the East River is bold and audacious. In particular, it reduces teaching to a job that people would be less likely to want, and then makes it nearly impossible for them to hold onto it anyway. I try to stay away from reaching conclusions about character, but looking at this, I have to figure that Andrew Cuomo is an incredible dolt or a giant prick. I will leave it to my brothers and sister in New York to decide.


Read more from Peter A. Greene at Curmudgucation. 

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