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Attending the Issue of Teacher Performance

The way New York Governor Andrew Cuomo explained it at Monday evening’s public forum in Buffalo’s Common Council chamber, it was all rather obvious.

Of course, the governor wasn’t actually at this “emergency” meeting called by the District Parent Coordinating Council. The parents’ organization opened the forum with a video of Cuomo holding forth at an Albany news conference as he PowerPointed his way through a kind of summary of New York’s new statewide public-school teacher evaluation requirement, and its tie to the release of federal money for the improvement of Buffalo’s failing schools, most prominently six PLA, or persistently low achieving, schools that could receive $9.3 million this year. That money is at risk this week.

The state “needed to shift the focus back to the students,” Cuomo said on the big screen at the front of the chamber. “Evaluations were supposed to be in place two years ago,” he went on, referring to the federal government’s Race to the Top program, intended to turn around the nation’s failing schools with new money that Albany dispenses, or withholds, as it is currently threatening to do. Cuomo made his point bluntly, gesturing to a digital display at his side which read, “Evaluations = money.

The opposite is also true, state education commissioner John King has made clear. And without that money, Buffalo’s already seriously burdened schools will likely be pushed further into dysfunction. A total of $50 million over three years is at stake.

This threat results from the Buffalo Teachers Federation’s refusal to agree with the state that chronically absent students should be included in the 20 percent of a teacher’s performance evaluation that is to be based on student achievement. Buffalo’s application for RTF funding, reached in agreement with the teacher union, excluded these students from the calculation, and the state has rejected it. To the governor, it was all rather straightforward.

But the tenor of Monday’s meeting wasn’t so uncomplicated. “We’re in a crisis here,” DPCC second vice president Jessica Walker Bauer said, but neither she nor most of the other speakers struck strident, or accusatory notes. They were usually temperate and seemed to be trying to find a way out of this critical situation. Walker Bauer, whose group has sometimes had conflicts with the BTF, stressed parent empowerment in her comments, not the merits of any side’s position. DPCC president Sam Radford said, in a brief interview, that his organization was committed to “what works.”

“What we’re not committed to,” he said, “is to keep doing the same thing.”

Except for a blast-from-the-past statement from former Common Council member Charlie Fisher, who laid historical blame on the BTF for allegedly sabotaging educational reform in the black community, there was little recrimination. There was a sprinkling of teachers among the 80 to 90 people in the audience, but none spoke. Some speakers expressed sympathy, and even support, for the teachers’ position. Wendy Mistrella, a parent from International School 45, and a member of a district multilingual advisory committee, noted the 70 languages spoken by Buffalo students and the sometimes serious difficulties teachers faced. “Teachers need more freedom,” she said. They have, she noted, “very little say in how they teach. They’re told, ‘Welcome to unremarkable school, we’ll tell you what to teach and how to teach it.’”

Hannya Boulos, director of Buffalo ReformED, an advocacy group that has often been identified with the charter school movement and with the DPCC, had a concrete proposal—one, she told Artvoice, that drew on the scholarly work of Columbia University’s Jonah Rockoff. In her proposed compromise, the contribution of a student’s academic record to an evaluation would be weighted on a sliding scale based on his or her attendance record. “It wouldn’t negatively impact a teacher,” she said in a brief interview, if a student was a chronic truant.

BTF president Phil Rumore was noncommittal but skeptical during a telephone interview this week. “It’s not really new,” he said, and suggested that the state already seemed to have ruled this out. Rumore pointed to a comment by the state’s deputy education commissioner, Ken Slentz, relayed to him by acting school superintendent Amber Dixon, he said. “I will not accept a document that shows insufficient rigor, and any document that seeks to exclude students based on their attendance would not meet that standard,” Slentz says, in the version offered by Rumore.

In a response provided by her spokeswoman, Elena Cala, Dixon said the district is continuing its efforts to reach an acceptable solution and that she has hope that the efforts will be successful. Cala told Artvoice that there was a possibility that the weighted scale could be adopted, despite BTF skepticism.

But Rumore’s last comment in his interview Wednesday was, “Commissioner King is going to have to back down on this.”

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