On teacher evaluations, the reformers win

New York

February 17, 2012

Learning six lessons from this big deal

By Joe Williams

(From NY Daily News, February 17th, 2012)

Weeks after declaring he would be a “lobbyist for students,” Gov. Cuomo delivered his 2.75 million young clients a major victory Thursday, using the weight of his office to break through the logjam blocking a common-sense mechanism for evaluating teachers based on whether children are learning.

In addition to helping create a system that prizes quality and performance, Cuomo’s leadership here likely saved more than $1 billion in federal funding. The usual suspects in education policy had dragged their feet for so long that even Washington got the message that we had no intention of doing what we promised when we won President Obama’s Race to the Top prize.

For students of education reform like me, there are six big lessons here.

Progress, while painful, is possible. For the last century, a teacher rated “satisfactory” was the best we offered to New York State public school students. We have pushed students to strive for A’s and B’s, but tolerated a system in which nearly all teachers passed and very few were ever deemed “unsatisfactory.” It’s hard to imagine an evaluation system more insulting to the great teachers who move mountains for the children under their charge.

Getting good teacher evaluations in place will not, itself, take public schools to the higher level where they need to be. But it is impossible to get to that point without basic building blocks in place that allow excellence to win out over mediocrity.

Cuomo is now, officially, the “education governor.” Make no mistake about it, the governor took a huge risk when he waded into this mess. One of the reasons politicians — particularly Democrats — don’t usually attempt to tame the political beast that is public education because the beast fights back. And it fights back hard.