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School breakthrough Cuomo ends years of delay by crafting a fair plan for evaluating teachers

The state's students caught a break last week. Their self-appointed lobbyist -- also known as Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo -- used his considerable political clout to break through years of resistance and craft a strong, useful and fair system for evaluating the performance of teachers.

Negotiated with the state education commissioner and the president of New York State United Teachers, the agreement will not only help to ensure the quality of classroom instruction, but seems likely to pry loose $700 million in federal Race to the Top money that was at risk.

The state was awarded that pot of money in 2010, but it has been withheld over the state's failure to produce a strong evaluation system. While U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan didn't specifically say the money would now flow, he did praise the agreement. "This puts them in great shape," he said.

Critically, all three negotiators noted that the agreement is not about firing teachers. Rather, as Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. said, the system is about "ensuring a rigorous system of performance management so our students can succeed." Agreeing, NYSUT President Richard C. Iannuzzi said, "Teachers support high standards and accountability for our profession. We believe today's agreement is good for students and fair to teachers."

The performance system, which is to take effect in the 2012-13 school year, is based on a 100-point system: 20 points based on state-determined measures of student growth; 20 based on locally determined measures of growth; and 60 based on more subjective means, primarily classroom observations. The categories: highly effective, for scores of 91 to 100; effective, 75 to 90; developing, 65 to 74; and ineffective, below 65. Teachers deemed ineffective based on the 40 points tied to objective measures must be rated ineffective overall. Two years with a rating of ineffective can lead to termination proceedings but, as Cuomo said, "Teachers who need assistance should get the assistance."

Because of NYSUT's approval, the State Legislature -- which doesn't like to breathe without the union's approval -- is expected to pass the bill as part of the state budget before the April 1 deadline. But work remains.

By the middle of next January, all of the state's 700 school districts will have to strike teacher evaluation deals with their local unions, based on the state agreement, or forfeit a previously promised increase of 4 percent in their state aid. That ought to seal the deal in Buffalo, but the School Board should not expect to have a willing partner in Philip Rumore, president of the Buffalo Teachers Federation. Rumore's only concern is the members of his union, which explains why he has been hostile to teacher evaluations. Parents, students and other parties interested in the education of Buffalo's schoolchildren should make their support for the deal known.

The Buffalo School District is involved in a separate dispute over teacher evaluations for this school year. The district agreed to implement a teacher evaluation system in six low-performing schools in return for federal school-improvement grants. In January the state suspended those grants because the proposed evaluation system was inadequate. The district has submitted a revised agreement and is awaiting the state's response.

Whatever the outcome of that case, Buffalo still needs to negotiate a new agreement for the 2012-13 school year.

Buffalo can take some satisfaction that one of its own played a significant role in the development of the statewide plan. Katie Campos, the founder of Buffalo ReformED, is now assistant secretary for education in Albany. People familiar with the development of this plan say Campos played a key role in forging the agreement.

It is important to remember what this deal is about. It all traces back to the need to ensure that New York's students are getting the educations they deserve. That is what the Race to the Top competition was about and it is what the teacher evaluation system is about. You can't improve what you can't measure.

Indeed, it was intolerable that one of the most expensive and critical of all state functions has been allowed to operate for so long without any performance measures. Such are the skills and clout of this governor that years of resistance were swept away and a strong but equitable system was created. It's a good day to be a student.