Inside NYU Steinhardt: Sean Corcoran Talks Teachers Union vs. New York City

Thursday, Jan. 17, 2013 marked the deadline for the city and the New York City teachers union (the United Federation of Teachers (UFT)) to reach an agreement on how to evaluate NYC educators. An agreement was not met. Sean Corcoran, associate professor of educational economics and author of “Can Teachers Be Evaluated by Their Students’ Test Scores? Should they Be?,”explains some of the issues to At-A-Glance.

Why wasn’t an agreement reached? What were the issues that each side could not come to agree on?

Under the new law, all New York school districts are required to implement educator evaluation systems that differentiate teachers and principals based on performance. A teacher’s annual performance review is to be based on student growth on state tests (20% of their overall rating), student progress on other locally-selected measures of achievement (another 20%), and other measures of performance, such as classroom observations (the remaining 60%). The new evaluation tool must play a significant role in tenure and retention decisions. By most accounts, the city and the UFT had largely agreed on the key parameters of a new evaluation system, but it appears the UFT insisted on a “sunset clause” that would allow the agreement to expire after two years. Such clauses are not uncommon, but the city viewed the clause as a tactic to undermine full implementation of the system.

Without the evaluation plan, $250 million in state aid and $200 million in grants were lost. How will this financial blow impact local schools?

In these tight budgetary times, any loss of resources is bad news for local schools. That said, the $450 million is a reduction in planned increases in state aid to New York City. To put these numbers in perspective, $450 million is less than 2% of the district’s annual $24 billion budget.

Where do you think a balance can be achieved between the city and the union?

The most promising feature of the new evaluation framework is its potential to provide teachers with new and vastly improved forms of feedback on their practice. Traditionally, in-class observations were few and far between, and formal evaluations typically rated the vast majority of teachers as “satisfactory.” The new framework aims to reform this in a significant way, with a balanced approach that incorporates measures of student growth and subjective assessments of other professional educators. The city and the UFT should view this as an opportunity to create a model, sustainable system that has long-run benefits for teaching quality in the city. A form of “sunset clause” is needed, that provides an opportunity to assess how the system is working. But such a clause need not create the specter of a renewed battle in two years’ time.

If you had the opportunity to speak with the major players involved in this ongoing saga, what would you say to both Mayor Bloomberg and UFT President Michael Mulgrew? What would be your words of wisdom?

Other states and school districts have mandated a minimum of 50% weight on student test scores, and have not shown the same commitment to providing constructive, actionable feedback to teachers that New York State has. Those states have taken a “sort-and-fire” approach that, so far, New York has not. I would encourage both parties to renew their focus on what is good about this law, and not let details about a sunset clause get in the way of progress.

As Bloomberg’s term draws to a close, what piece of advice do you offer to the mayoral candidates as they prepare their platforms relating to the future of NYC public education?

Mayor Bloomberg brought the New York City schools sweeping, signature reforms that touched on everything from leadership to accountability to school choice. While there is room for disagreement over specific changes Bloomberg has made, the last thing the city needs is for a new mayor to upend everything that has been implemented thus far. Now is a good time to take a step back and allow these policies to mature and be assessed. I encourage our mayoral candidates to look outside of the school walls for opportunities to improve educational outcomes. New York City’s children face considerable challenges outside of school, including high rates of poverty, homelessness, family instability, mobility, crime, poor nutrition, and a lack of essential health care. Policies aimed at improving children’s’ lives outside of the classrooms may not be labeled “education reforms,” but they will surely have big educational returns.