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Evaluating the Evaluators

During a hurriedly organized “emergency” public forum in the Buffalo Common Council’s chamber a couple of weeks ago, called by the city’s District Parent Coordinating Council (DPCC) to discuss the increasingly jeopardized application to Albany for $5.3 million in School Improvement Grant (SIG) money, there was some oddly out-of-synch material available to attendees. On a table outside the chamber, copies of an article by education scholar Diane Ravitch were piled. In a way, this material was symbolic of the contending assumptions and visions that could be identified at the meeting and in the school district’s imperiled efforts to obtain the money.

The DPCC, a parent and student advocacy group, lays the bulk of the responsibility for the latest in a number of difficulties in obtaining SIG money at the doorstep of the Buffalo Teachers Federation (BTF), and its President Philip Rumore. The crux of the current three-month controversy is that Rumore and his union object to a state-mandated requirement that teacher evaluations, a condition for state approval, include chronically absent students in any calculation of year-to-year class achievements. Sam Radford III, the popular, dynamic president of the DPCC, has made this point repeatedly, tagging the teachers union as self-serving and obstructionist. But Ravitch, a New York University research professor and former federal education official, has cast doubt on this kind of evaluation program and its empirical justifications. Whoever was responsible for placing the article copies outside the meeting probably didn’t intend it, but they had a certain symbolic value in the circumstances.

Teacher evaluations are requisite for states and localities seeking SIG money from President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top program, which provides the funds Albany dispenses to cities like Buffalo. State education commissioner John King slammed the door shut on Buffalo’s application shortly after the year began because the district had reached an agreement with the BTF to exclude chronically absent students from the one-fifth of the teachers’ evaluations that measures class achievement. Several months of negotiations and reapplication have followed.

Almost two weeks ago, a last-ditch negotiation seemed on the verge of success. The district, under acting superintendent Amber Dixon, reached a tentative agreement with the BTF essentially to employ a sliding scale based on the extent of student absenteeism in a class, and a corresponding adjustment in the expectations for yearly individual student and class achievement. But on Tuesday of last week, hours before the BTF Council of Delegates was to vote on this proposal, King registered his objections to the new approach and things ground to a halt again. An extension of time—at least the third this year—was granted the district to apply, and yesterday Dixon was to attend a hearing in Albany to present tweaks to the application, and appeal the rejection. But, according to at-large school board member John Licata, the hearing was canceled and negotiations recommenced. He said he received an email from the district Tuesday night, but that no specific reason was given. (Efforts to obtain information from Dixon’s office Wednesday were unsuccessful.)

While recriminations were muted at that public forum, Radford and the DPCC have continued the criticism of the teachers union and its president. Tuesday evening, prior to the start of the council’s monthly meeting, Radford told Artvoice that the standoff and imbroglio were primarily the result of Rumore and the union’s “spinning” of the evaluation process to its “public relations” benefit, and that it was largely a fabricated issue. “Who’s asking them to teach students that aren’t there?,” he asked. “Commissioner King never said that.” The state, in his view, had only established terms for the grant. “You’re not required to apply,” he said, and went on to accuse Rumore of seeking to “protect the status quo.” “He’s always resisted change,” Radford said.

This critique does seem rather wide of the mark, even when Radford and many parents’ frustrations are considered. The state’s consistent position certainly has continued to emphasize inclusion of absentee students in the evaluation calculations. On March 4, Dixon emailed a number of local and state officials to say that the district “would not agree to an application with student attendance included, having been advised that such an argument will be rejected [by the state].”

Rumore, meanwhile, was threatening at least one lawsuit against the education department and King. On Friday, he sent Dixon a memo, writing that, “Teachers feel the commissioner and the Board of Regents have toyed with them and are using our students as pawns. They believe we...should proceed with legal action against the secure SIG funding.”

The union chief told Artvoice Tuesday that the BTF is contemplating an Article Seventy Eight suit to allege that the state has exceeded its authority by imposing the evaluation—attendance requirement as it has. “We don’t believe there’s anything in the state law, the commissioner’s regulations or federal regulations” to support King’s position he said. Rumore termed that stance “arbitrary and capricious.” “Children will suffer from the withholding of funding,” he said.

In the handout that mysteriously turned up at the DPCC’s public forum, Ravitch wrote, “The no-excuses reformers maintain that all children can attain proficiency without regard to poverty...or other conditions, and that someone must be held accountable if they don’t. That someone is invariably their teachers.”

Licata expressed some of his own reservations about state requirements in a telephone interview Wednesday, calling them “cookie cutter solutions.” Speaking of the effect of the conflict on the city’s teachers he said, “This hits morale when we least need that.”

“If you talk to effective teachers,” he observed, “they’ll usually say that one method won’t work for all teachers and all students.” Like many others, he traces the contested state standards to President Obama and his education secretary Arne Duncan, and their sink-or-swim requirements for federal monies, leaning heavily as they do on teacher transfers and school closings. New York’s educational reform regime seems to be in ideological lockstep with the Obama administration.

In a recent issue of the Nation magazine, Stanford University’s Charles E. Ducommus education professor, Linda Darling-Hammond, wrote that “the test and punish” approach to school reform hasn’t delivered improved results, and leads all too easily to a further weakening of public schools.

The current triparte impasse increasingly resembles a product of an ill-defined, ill-explained and insufficiently justified political position.

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