By Michael Lillis
President, Lakeland Federation of Teachers and ST Caucus Hudson Valley Coordinator
What’s a teacher unionist to do?
It’s clear that nothing will be the same in education after last year’s budget vote that completely redefined teacher evaluation in New York, followed by a tidal wave of test refusals. As a result of this budget, we are expected to negotiate “in good faith” to develop local teacher evaluation systems that are compliant with the law.
I have been president of the Lakeland Federation of Teachers for 13 years and I understand the benefits of good faith negotiations. We have used them to keep education moving forward in Lakeland, despite the fact that we still receive less state aid than we did in 2009. Putting leaders together in a room to have good faith discussions of what is best for the students, teachers and taxpayers is a very effective way to run a district.
Issues arise, however, when we are expected to negotiate in good faith to comply with a law that is a bad faith attempt at teacher evaluation.
The new teacher evaluation law, 3012-d, operates in bad faith. For the last few years, I have served on the New York State Commissioner of Education’s Teacher Advisory Committee, which meets three times a year to discuss education issues. We had our first meeting with Commissioner Elia on October 14, 2015. To the commissioner’s credit, it was a very genuine and rich discussion.
Here is the first issue for me. During a discussion of teacher growth scores, I brought up that from my experience as a local president, the state’s growth scores lack validity because they do not correlate with teachers who are under-performing. In my capacity as president, a year has not gone by where I do not counsel a tenured teacher out of the profession because the teacher has not responded to remediation efforts. However, not once since the state has started calculating growth scores has anybody asked, “What is the teacher’s growth score?” The reason for this is simple: nobody cares. Nobody believes growth scores are valid, and low growth scores simply do not correlate with ineffective teaching in the same way high growth scores do not correlate with effective teaching.
The second issue is the state’s growth scores lack reliability. They fluctuate wildly from year to year for individual teachers. A teacher can receive a 3 out of 20 one year, and a 17 out of 20 the next. These numbers appear to be the result of a random number generator. None of this is new and it will sound very familiar to any local president.
The shocking thing was the commissioner’s response to this issue. Commissioner Elia agreed and said based on her experience in New York, the growth scores appear to be “random” in nature.
Though I give Commissioner Elia tremendous credit for her honesty, where does this leave teachers?
I am still expected to negotiate in “good faith” an evaluation system that will increase from 20 to 50 percent the role of a number that is “random.” If I do not, we lose our increase in state aid. How can we have sunk so low in our treatment of children and educators? We are holding school aid hostage to adopting a teacher evaluation system that is equal parts teacher observation and a random number. Who does this serve?
So I ask again, what’s a teacher unionist to do?