Albany ed deal was just the beginning: Now how to test new subjects?

Collage at a Bronx elementary school. Photo: Nicole Marti/Flickr

Now comes the hard part.

After a long impasse, New York state and the teachers’ union reached a deal last week on the evaluation of public school educators. Under the agreement, which will enable New York State to secure some $700 million federal funding it has been awarded through the competitive Race to the Top program, 40 percent of the measure of a teacher’s success will be based on students’ test scores — and half of that amount is to be based on statewide tests.

But the only subjects currently covered by statewide testing in New York are math and English. Four out of five teachers aren’t currently being evaluated based on student performance, and under the new deal most of them will have to be.

New York State’s Race to the Top application promises assessments in areas that are not currently evaluated – social studies, science, the arts, economics and multimedia and computer technology – “to ensure our graduates are fully literate in 21st century skills.”

State education officials must now decide exactly how to grade teachers in subjects in which they’ve never before been under scrutiny.

“The state has to come up with an assessment piece,” said Joe Williams, executive director of Democrats for Education Reform, a multistate advocacy group, “new criteria if not a statewide test.”

Emily Richmond, public editor of National Education Writers Association, confirmed that the federal Department of Education will likely insist on a new teacher testing battery for New York. “The most important thing is what the state promised to do in its own plan and its scope of work, she said. “That’s what the feds are holding states to.”

Other states receiving Race to the Top money have struggled with implementation. In Tennessee, one of the states that won the Race to the Top grant, music teachers were held accountable based on their students’ writing scores.

The evaluation agreement, widely considered a coup for Gov. Andrew Cuomo, is destined to affect all 222,000 public school teachers in the state. Besides creating new evaluation systems, state education officials will have to align those with testing and assessments already in place in local school districts.

Thomas Knab, vice-president of New York State Arts Teachers Association and president of the Williamsville Teachers Association teaches in a district, near Buffalo, that has already devised its own system of evaluations in subjects beyond math and English. He’s concerned about what will happen as the state’s new standards, which will have to be devised quickly, descend onto local districts.

“The changes seem to be developed on an as-needed basis without sufficient planning,” said Knab. He notes that his own subject, art, is especially subjective and tough to evaluate. Currently, each school district determines how students and teachers are graded.

Under the new deal, which gives local districts the power to determine 40 percent of a teacher’s evaluation, localities will still have some leeway to determine how educators will be graded.

But even within a district individual schools use widely varying curricula and materials for the same subjects, making it difficult to develop a single yardstick for measuring teachers. A principal on Manhattan’s West Side, who spoke on condition of anonymity, warned that evaluations could be difficult to carry out consistently. “Teachers should be held accountable but currently there is no common curriculum that schools can focus on,” she said. “It seems misguided simply because there isn’t a statewide curriculum and teachers are then graded on these tests.”

Within her Manhattan district, she added, different schools follow very different paths to learning. Said the principal, “You walk into an English class here and one across the street and the kids are using different reading materials.”

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