Education Politics is a Blood Sport: Chancellor Tisch Responds to the Threatening Cuomo Letter

The last two weeks have been strange: the NYS Director of Operations, Jim Malatras, the Cuomo policy guru sent a public letter to Chancellor Tisch and Commissioner King raising “questions” in twelve different areas.
(Read the letter here)

The confrontational letter challenges the teacher evaluation system (“How is the current teacher evaluation system credible when only one percent of teachers are rated ineffective?”) The letter claims the current teacher discipline law (3020a) “makes it virtually impossible” to remove low performing teachers and asks why teachers with “disciplinary problems continue to be paid in the absent teacher reserve as opposed to being terminated.”

The “questions” challenge the length of the probationary period, encourages more rigorous standards for pre-service teachers, supports monetary incentives for high performing teachers, asks the Chancellor to address the “deplorable situation in Buffalo,” the charter school cap, online courses, the consolidation of school districts, mayoral control in New York City, the system for selecting Regents members and the process for selection the new commissioner.

I was not surprised by the letter.

NYSUT, the state teacher union has been tussling with the Governor for months, demonstrations, e-blasts to members, press releases, a steady stream of criticisms of Cuomo policies and statements. Cuomo was on his way to another term with meager opposition, suddenly, an obstacle. An unknown Fordham law professor, Zephyr Teachout challenged Cuomo at the Working Families Party (WFP) convention. The WFP is actually the left wing of the Democratic Party. Many in the WFP were unhappy with the Governor; he hadn’t pushed hard enough on the Women’s Equity Agenda, on ethics reform, on the public funding of elections and a range of other issues. Surprisingly Teachout became the darling of the left wing of the left wing, the left wing of the WFP; after considerable arm-twisting the WFP endorsed Cuomo giving him another line on the ballot.

Out of nowhere Teachout announced she was a candidate in the September Democratic primary. In only three weeks she collected 40,000 signatures to secure a place on the ballot.

NYSUT did not make an official endorsement, however, teachers all over the state worked for Teachout and a few teacher locals, including Buffalo, endorsed Teachout. She garnered 34% of the vote with no money. In November Teachout voters either stayed on the sidelines or voted for the Green Party. Cuomo, who was polling in the mid-sixties won with 54% of the vote.

I mentioned to a teacher activist to expect “consequences” if the local endorsed Teachout. He thought Cuomo “would understand.”

Politics is a blood sport. When your guy/gal wins you expect them to support your issues and when your guy/gal loses you can expect the winner to seek retribution. A deeply embedded political aphorism: screw with me and I screw with you.

Maybe you didn’t learn this in your civics class and maybe you’re willing to take the heat and continue to battle and maybe you’re simply an idealist.

In my view, the major issues for NYSUT are not charter schools and the teacher evaluation law; the major issues are the 2% property tax cap and the Gap Elimination Adjustment.

The property tax cap makes it almost impossible to negotiate a contract. Normal inflationary day-to-day expenses eat up the 2% cap. Locals who have negotiated contracts have negotiated contracts in the 1% range, sometimes with no retroactive raises, some have agreed to freeze step increases to avoid layoffs.

The Gap Elimination Adjustment (Read explanation here) was the way the state survived the economic meltdown in 2008 – basically cutting away dollars that school districts should have received under the state funding formula.

The property tax cap and the GEA are opposed by NYSUT, the State Superintendents Association as well as the School Board Association, it might have been possible to work together to ease these issues.

Unfortunately the charter school and the teacher evaluation system have eaten up all the air.

Malatras closed his letter with, “Several weeks ago Governor Cuomo said that improving education is thwarted by the monopoly of the education bureaucracy. The education bureaucracies main mission is to sustain the bureaucracy and the status quo is the enemy of change.”

Earlier today Chancellor Tisch respond with a 20-page missive (Read letter here), Geoff Decker at Chalkbeat muses on the Tisch response,

The letter offers the first comprehensive look at what the Board of Regents and State Education Department are willing to support as Cuomo prepares to push for aggressive changes to the way teachers are hired, fired, and evaluated.

Many of the other proposals and positions aren’t new, Tisch noted in an interview. Others were unsolicited, such as an increase in funding for underserved students, boosting school diversity and passing the DREAM Act.

But the letter’s contents stuck out because of the areas that Tisch and Berlin wade into that the State Education Department and Regents rarely speak up about, in part because they have limited power to change them.

“The questions and concerns outlined in the letter relate to issues of State Law, which are under the direct control of the State Legislature and the Governor, not the Department or the Board of Regents,” they write.

The Tisch-Berlin response is a defense of their own actions, a reiteration of policies that State Ed has sought from the legislature for years as well as support for issues raised in the Malatras letter. On a core issue in the original letter, the future of the Board of Regents, the Chancellor is curt – leave us alone.

The response letter calls for the extension of probation from three to five years, the elimination of independent arbitrators and the replacement with state employees, the restructuring of the teacher evaluation system with the state/school district not having to negotiate with local unions, termination without hearings for teachers with two consecutive ineffective ratings, fiscal incentives for high performing teachers, greater authority for the state to intervene in low performing schools and districts and greater funding for a range of initiatives.

For me, the most significant part of the response letter is the sections that are not a response. At the conclusion of the letter Tisch adds two areas for consideration: school desegregation and support for the Dreamers Act. Tisch-Berlin suggest exploring a number of efforts to reverse the deep segregation of schools and references a number of programs and goes on to urge the Governor to support the New York State Dreamers Act that makes a category of undocumented students eligible for state financial aid.

Next Wednesday the Governor will deliver his State of the State message, I expect he will continue to attack, and the unions will respond, the questions are whether the Governor and the unions can find some common ground, and, whether the Governor seeks changes in education governance at the state level.

In 1968 the UFT and the John Lindsay, the New York City mayor were engaged in a bitter struggle – the 40-day teacher strike, racial invective, the “white. liberal intelligentsia” traditionally pro-union viciously attacking the UFT, the growing and militant black power movement painting the union as akin to the worst of the racists of the South. A year later John Lindsay and the union negotiated a dramatic change in the teacher pension system, called Tier 1. (Read Dana Goldstein, The Teacher Wars). John Lindsay was considering running for president in 1972 and wanted to heal wounds and a spectacular increase in pension benefits was the salve.

Cuomo wants to “punish” teacher unions, to make it clear that attacking the Governor will have repercussions. A lesson for teacher unions and a lesson for other unions, the teacher unions have to fight back as well as seek avenues for reconciliation.

As a history teacher I’m reminded of “Going to Canossa (“Canossa” refers to an act of penance or submission), Henry IV, the Holy Roman Emperor, dressed in “sackcloth and ashes,” humbled himself in the snow outside of the castle of Pope Gregory seeking absolution from the threat of excommunication. Henry retained his throne.

Charter school quotas and the teacher the evaluation system are negotiable, and, the core issues are the Gap Elimination Adjustment and the property tax cap, the union has to seek absolution from Pope Andrew and move on to resolve the core issues.

9 responses to “Education Politics is a Blood Sport: Chancellor Tisch Responds to the Threatening Cuomo Letter

  1. You can talk ad infinitum about the best way to have a fair method of Teacher Evaluations and their dependent factors. In the end, it won’t mean a thing”.(Cab Calloway) Trying to apply an exact and precise and objective tool to a process that is entwined with so myriad a set of varaibles as to render it the single most subjective profession in all the civil services is futile. In the Old Testament, when they tell the story of Masada, the leader of the Jews is told of a new threat posed to their safety by a particularly varying Roman strategem. The aid asks the leader, what is possible and the leader gives him a counter strategem that works.This situation arises on a continuing basis, each time being resolved by the leaders wise decision making. Finally at the end of the story the Romans build a road that will take them directly up to the Masada fortress. The aid asks, in light of this development, what is possible? Nothing replies the leader. In my opinion, this is whats possible. ATR must be stopped. It is a monetary wasteland. Teachers who are awaiting any kind of ajudication must be ajudicated. If that means buyouts for discontinuance of service, so be it.School leaders must bare the weight of teacher evaluation and pupil achievement. Are pupils failing to achieve because their teachers cant teach, or are teacher failing their students because Principals cant develop them? Or worse, dont know how to. As I visit schools and conference with my 1st year teachers, I learn very quickly what I can expect from that schools adiinstation in terms of their approach to teacher development. I simply ask my charges about their ovbservation visits, their post observation conferences,and their receipt of the written reports. All too often, I find that in some instances they hadn’t had a Post Obs Conference, weeks after the visit.They hadn’t received a written report, weeks after the visit. In other cases I’m told that upon going in for a post observation conference, they are handed the written report and told to sign it, without the benefit of a constructive oral review of the reports findings. Many years ago, I took an “on the job” performance test for the Principals license. One of the main focal points of that exam was for me to identify up to 2 teachers in my various departments who were weak in their instructional delievry. I was then requested to present evidence of the strategies and types of feedback i used to improve their service. Later on as a school supervisor, a strategy that I employed to raise up achievement of my bottom quartile students was to rotate a senior and well accomplished teacher into an assignment which included that particular class. Very often the growth was minimal, not supersonic. Under today’s evaluation system I would have to give that teacher a negative evaluation, because the system insists on being objective, without understanding as to such a variable and valid instructional philosophy. With all of the legally declared immigrant children entering our schools, and all the many variables that they will bring mostly centered around literacy, it may well take those students up to 2 years to approximate “on level” grade status.Can we therefore expect that their teachers will all of a sudden have become failures because of this variable? They could be so regarded under present circumstances. I believe that our syatem can no longer be goverened from a five boro perspective by a downtown Chancellor. We need to get back to district superintendents and hold them responsible for total staff developemnt in their schools. I do not advocate a retrun to the good old decentralized school boards however. These superintendents would be accountable to the downtown Director of the DOE.(replacing the word Chancellor). As for setting the system free of poor/ineffective teachers, until and unless the UFT is willing to say that such individuals after 2 years of corrective action,and having shown insufficent growth pn their instructional delivery that such an individual may be discontinued with just cause, nothing will ever change.You cannot apply an objective solution to a problem that is manifest in a subjective heritage..


  2. Politics IS a blood sport.

    During the Shanker led strikes in the sixties, the Mayor learned firsthand that the educators were ready to do what it took to protect themselves and their kids. That lesson stuck for a LONG time.

    This Governor and all those watching need to contemplate the specter of another lesson. This one will ruin his Presidential chances. You don’t come back from that.

    Either he recognizes, and deals with the extraordinary disparity of educational opportunity in NYS instead of attempting to scapegoat educators, or he faces the consequences.

    If educators wish to be supported in their tasks, they need to get prepared to shed some blood. The Empire State will suffer as its once vaunted schools drop in reputation, whether in Westchester, Nassau, or the City. Everyone will lose in the short run, but for Cuomo, the loss will be permanent, and the educators will be OK.

    The time is now for the educators to relearn the lessons of the sixties, and for this candidate to decide his fate.

    Smarter men than he have chosen poorly.


  3. Peter:

    It seems to me that caving to the Governor hasn’t worked previously and won’t work this time.

    The union must draw a line in the sand and not give in and fight back with lawsuits and a media campaign.


  4. Cuomo is far, far removed from any sort of pope.

    Evaluation based on VAM based on Common Core is beyond total insanity, it’s out of a subplot to an acid novel.


    • Keith
      I agree with you that VAM-based assessment is invalid, however, how many teachers in NYS have received consecutive “ineffective” ratings on the 20% VAM section of the assessement – the answer is very, very few, in fact only a handful of the 400,000 teacherss in the state. There are other battles on which to expend energy and resources.


      • Pretty cold comfort to those undeservedly screwed.

        Increasing the percentages of ineffectives is precisely what is being eyed and is a mere adjustment of bands away.

        I don’t believe in playing politics with total insanity. Sometimes it’s integrity first, then politics as usual, even in the real world.


  5. Wow. We had several ineffective teachers in my high poverty NYC school. I’m sure they’d be happy to hear that you don’t think it’s worth the union’s time and resources to fight. Here’s a question: How many teachers have to be rated ineffective before it is worth fighting? Isn’t odd that I’m even asking this question? Shouldn’t preserving jobs be the top priority for the teachers’ union?


  6. Camille

    In the 12-13 school year 2.8% of teachers were rated unsatisfactory, in the 13-14 school year 1.2% were rated ineffective. The new contract allows the union to challenge “mismatch” ineffective ratings, meaning situations where the 20% teacher score grade and the 60% principal observation grade were ineffective in one and effective or highly effective in the other – those appeals go to an impartial third party and the appeals are in progress.

    Randi Weingarten speaks about “solution-driven unionism.”

    How would you improve the current teacher eval plan?

    Go back to the old “principal as the only rater” system?

    Include a peer review option – colleagues would participate in the observation process?

    I would want to investigate the ratings of special education teachers? Did they receive lower scores? If so, why, how can we define and measure “growth” for stduents with disabilities?

    English language learners are required by the feds to be tested after one year in country, the union and the Regents are advocating to increase the number of years before students are tested.

    Teaching in a high poverty school should not impact scores – the plan is a “growth model,” you’re compared against teachers teaching similar students.

    I agree VAM is highly unstable, the scores swing widely from year to year, which means the number of teachers who received ineffective scores on the 20% student test scores for two years was very, very few. Two teachers received ineffective on student data and effective by their principal – those cases are being challenged in court.

    To the best of my knowledge the union is totally engaged in improving the evaluation law, and, Congress is working to reauthorize No Child Left Behind, I’ll be following and blogging about the plans. A reauthorized plan may completely change the landscape.


  7. Growth model or not, teachers in high poverty schools, both urban and suburban, scored significantly lower than others in NY this year. While I can’t know for sure why this is so, my experience tells me that there are more students in high needs schools who have decided, for many reasons, that they are unwilling to learn. It’s pretty hard for a teacher to add value to a kid’s learning when they are too tired, too stoned, too hungry, too far behind or just plain not interested in graduating from high school. It’s also pretty difficult to get a kid who’s been in the U.S. for two years to write English well enough to pass the English Regents.

    You should see what happens when students who enter high school three or four years below their expected reading level and unable to do basic math sit for the Algebra Regents. Many will try to answer a few questions before they give up and put their heads down until they are allowed to leave. I wonder what that does to their teachers’ APPR scores. I’m willing to bet that there aren’t as many kids like that in middle class schools.

    Do you know that Advance assigns baseline scores for the illiterate children from Guyana (we have quite a few in my school) that is the average of the other literate, American-educated children in our classes? How’s that for fair? I’m a pretty decent teacher, but I’d have to be a miracle worker to take a kid from learning his ABC’s to writing an argument in just a few months. Guess how those kids affect our APPR scores,

    You ask what I would do to fix our evaluation system? I would scrap it. According to the research, it’s inaccurate and unreliable. Why support or try to fix something that is so wrong, that can do so much damage to good teachers? The old way was better. From what I have seen, the same administrators who were giving bad evaluations to good teachers are still doing the same with Danielson. Peer review is definitely worth looking into. I think teachers would be more likely to give each other useful feedback.

    The governor has promised to “fix” APPR so that more teachers can be rated ineffective and be fired. That’s the goal here anyway, right? Fire more teachers. I guess most teachers will be okay. Teachers who are unlucky enough to work in high poverty schools AND have bad administrators will be the first to go. But I don’t doubt that there will be more ineffectives next year than this year, which brings me to my original question. How many teachers have to be rated ineffective before it’s worth fighting?

    Oh, and if our union is doing something to fight this, I’d love to know what it is. I’d also like to know what teachers can do. I’ll bet that there are quite a few of us who are dying to do something.


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