Elia warmly received amid concern about future of teacher evalutions

by Cathy Woodruff

On Board Online • October 23, 2017

By Cathy Woodruff
Senior Writer

Next up, teacher evaluations.

In an address to NYSSBA's 98th Annual Convention & Education Expo in Lake Placid, Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia delivered a status report on new learning standards, test reforms and a new accountability plan to comply with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).

The audience of school board members and administrators punctuated Elia's speech with applause more than a half-dozen times as she explained her priorities and promised to remain responsive to continuing feedback as the initiatives roll out in schools.

One of the most enthusiastic responses came when she broached the subject of creating a new system to evaluate teachers and principals.

"I really can't tell you what that revised evaluation system is going to look like," Elia said. "It's too early for that. But I can tell you that the new system we develop will be one developed by teachers and principals with us, not one done to them."

She pledged that the Education Department's process would be deliberative, inclusive and without haste - just as she had described the work done on the other initiatives, including standards and testing reforms.

"It will be developed in the same way as our ESSA plan, with transparent and thorough engagement," she said. "We certainly will not rush this . In New York, we learned a lesson. Doing things fast is not always the best way to do it."

Evaluations tied to student test scores were required as part of the 2015-16 state budget, which revised the state's system of Annual Professional Performance Reviews (APPR).

However, in December 2015 the state Board of Regents placed a moratorium on allowing student test scores to have any consequence for teachers or principals based on a recommendation from Gov. Andrew Cuomo's Common Core Task Force. That moratorium is scheduled to run through the 2018-19 school year, but Elia raised the possibility that the moratorium could be extended.

She said she does not want a return to the kind of evaluations that existed prior to the moratorium. "I don't want to do that," she said. "There are much more effective ways to give feedback to teachers" than high-stakes evaluations, she said.

What the Regents can do to revise or replace APPR is limited by legislative language that was written chiefly by staffers working for the governor and the state Legislature. After her speech, Elia told reporters it's also too early to say how much the next evaluation system will be shaped by state lawmakers.

"I think we have to work together," she said. "I've tried really hard to develop the relationships with the Legislature and the governor's office, as well. I think that's the productive way to work on getting a product done. We'll continue to do that."

Elia returned several times to a theme of collaboration during her speech.

She said New York's ESSA plan will contrast sharply with the previous plan prepared to comply with No Child Left Behind because of a deliberate choice to follow approaches that are designed to be supportive, rather than punitive.

"We see ourselves as partners" for districts as they implement the ESSA plan, she said.

Elia appealed to school board members to help ensure that teachers have the professional development time and resources they will need to master the revisions incorporated in the Next Generation Standards for ELA and math and to develop curriculum aligned with the standards.

Full implementation of the new standards isn't scheduled until September 2020, with grades 3-8 tests fully aligned with the new standards slated for the spring of 2021.

"Our teachers need to be able to do the work of crossing over from the old standards to the new standards and be very much a part of the development of the curriculum and the work that is done in their classrooms," she said.

She also appealed to board members to help get the word out about changes to the state tests, intended to reduce test refusals and assuage concerns of parents involved in the opt out movement. Next spring each grade 3-8 test will be administered over two days instead of three.

"We believe the two-day testing is the next step in being more responsive to our stakeholders," she said. "I hope you'll communicate the changes we've made to your school communities, so they can understand that we are listening and responding."

Elia has repeatedly stressed the involvement of the state's teachers in writing and reviewing the state exam questions, and she again touted the value of that collaboration in her speech to NYSSBA, drawing applause.

"This spring, every question on the state test will be written by New York State teachers," she said. "Let me tell you, I think that is a big deal."

Elia's declaration came on the heels of news that voting delegates for New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) voted last spring to limit the ability of the union to officially promote or encourage teachers to participate in writing the grades 3-8 exams.

The resolution, which was among dozens passed in April, recently came to public attention through a report by Politico New York. The resolution, titled "Oppose teacher participation in generating test questions," declares that NYSUT will "refuse to participate in any endeavor to promote, support or organize efforts to have teachers write test items for the 3-8 math and ELA state assessments until the benchmarks have been corrected."

NYSUT spokesman Carl Korn said the union is honoring the resolution by refraining from "promoting, supporting or organizing teachers to participate in test-writing activities" through its official channels.

Ensuring that the questions are written by the state's teachers has been a key element in the state's effort to restore trust and confidence in the exams.

In response to a reporter's question after her speech, Elia said she is "very concerned" about NYSUT's resolution.

"I thought we were partnering to try to support teachers across the state, and I will continue to do that," Elia said. "But rest assured, there are teachers that are not going to take a directive from NYSUT on helping or not helping the profession to grow."

She added: "We will continue to have teachers writing (questions), and I'm disappointed that NYSUT doesn't want to be part of that," she said. "But I don't really need NYSUT. I'm well-aware that there are teachers in New York State, and I have the capacity to ask them to come in and help us."

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