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Battle lines drawn over schools as data, Cuomo agenda collide

As a new report shows that more than 97 percent of area principals and teachers are deemed effective or highly effective, educators across the state are rallying against a plan by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to make the rating system tougher.

Data released by the state Education Department on Thursday show that for the second year in a row, most educators from school districts in Erie and Niagara counties were given the state’s highest ratings, mirroring results seen across the state. Even in Buffalo, where the vast majority of schools fail to meet state standards, 91 percent of educators were deemed effective or highly effective.

While educators say that those results reflect the quality of teachers and principals in New York’s schools, the numbers also raise questions about how so many educators can be effective in a state where many schools are still considered failing.

A report that Cuomo released Thursday, hours before the latest evaluation data came out, shows that 109,000 New York students – about 4 percent – are currently enrolled in 178 “failing schools.” Many of those schools are concentrated in 17 of the state’s nearly 700 school districts. Buffalo is the only district in Western New York cited in the governor’s report.

Cuomo uses the data as evidence the state needs to dramatically overhaul its education system – including how it evaluates teachers. He has proposed using state funding as an incentive for districts to swiftly implement reforms, including allowing for an outside takeover of failing schools, making it tougher for teachers to get tenure and reducing local control over teacher evaluations.

“This is the real scandal in Albany, the alarming fact that state government has stood by and done nothing as generation after generation of students have passed through failing schools,” Cuomo said in a statement. “This report underscores the severity and shocking nature of this problem. The time is now for the State Legislature to act and do something about this problem so we no longer are condemning our children to failing schools.”

Meanwhile, educators all over the state are ramping up their efforts to fight the governor’s proposal, arguing that using high-stakes standardized tests to assess teacher performance does not accurately reflect what happens in the classroom. They argue that although the state’s high-poverty urban districts struggle to meet New York’s tough education standards, suburban districts – which make up the vast majority in the state – fare well.

The state teachers union has launched a high-profile campaign against the governor’s education proposals, including billboards and television ads on the major networks. Teachers across the state also are planning rallies for the next month, including one Thursday night in West Seneca that about 1,500 people attended.

“Midway through a week in which thousands of parents and community members have packed school auditoriums to denounce the governor’s failed education agenda – and to enthusiastically cheer their public schools and their teachers – we’re not surprised at this latest attack by our thin-skinned governor,” said Karen E. Magee, president of New York State United Teachers. “Instead of truly supporting teachers and providing the right investments and tools they need to help all children, the governor is doing the bidding of his billionaire hedge fund friends who bankrolled his last campaign.”

Teacher evaluations have been at the center of the education debate sweeping New York in recent years, as the state has tried to introduce reforms intended to raise standards and improve student performance.

Although 20 percent of a teacher’s evaluation is based on student improvement on state standardized tests, the remaining 80 percent is based on locally selected measures. In many instances, the local measures significantly boosted teacher scores.

Teacher advocates say the results reflect the fact that New York has some of the best trained and most experienced teachers in the country. They also point to factors outside the classroom that can greatly affect how children learn.

“The real problem is, along with the achievement gap, there comes a family gap, a housing gap, a health care gap, an income gap, just to name a few things,” said Ashli Skura Dreher, a Lewiston-Porter special-education teacher who was named the state’s 2014 Teacher of the Year.

“If we want to improve educational outcomes, these are the real issues that the governor has to address.”

Dreher was one of several educators who spoke at Thursday night’s rally at West Seneca West High School, which sought to draw attention to concern over Cuomo’s plan to tie his education reforms to increases in state aid for schools. “The whole mantra that public schools are failing is simply wrong,” Dreher said. “It’s that there are underlying issues that are not being addressed. Those are the reforms that the governor needs to focus his energy on.”

Still, the consistently high teacher ratings for most districts, which sometimes conflict with lower student test results, have led some to question the quality of the state’s teacher evaluation system.

“It’s clear that special interests are hellbent on making sure parents and teachers don’t have accurate information on teacher effectiveness,” said Jenny Sedlis, executive director of Students First, an education reform organization. “When teacher evaluations bear zero resemblance to student learning, which is the case in four out of the five big school districts, it makes a strong case for Gov. Cuomo’s improvements to the system.”

In Buffalo, the percentage of teachers and principals considered effective or highly effective – 91 percent – remained almost unchanged from a year ago, while 9 percent of teachers were considered developing or ineffective. Overall, more Buffalo teachers and administrators were rated as highly effective, while fewer teachers – 3 percent – were rated ineffective.

The Buffalo School District has consistently struggled to evaluate all its teachers and principals since the evaluation system was put in place two years ago. In the last school year, administrators said, a fourth of district educators did not receive completed evaluations. But of roughly 2,800 teachers and principals who should have been evaluated, it appears that fewer than 2,000 evaluations were recorded as part of the state data released Thursday.

District administrators, however, said that based on an evaluation audit, more teachers were given evaluation ratings after the district provided its data to the state in October.

The teacher evaluation data was released hours after Cuomo rolled out his scathing report on “The State of New York’s Failing Schools” in an effort to jump-start his education reform agenda. The 208-page report lists further details of failing schools in 17 New York school districts, including a section on Buffalo.

The Buffalo chart shows that of 27 schools considered failing by the state, half have been considered failing for a decade, as long as the state has been ranking schools according to the federal mandate of No Child Left Behind legislation. The chart also lists the State Senate and Assembly representatives whose districts include these struggling schools.

“The statistics and facts contained in this report and its appendix expose a public education system badly in need of change,” the report states. “Our levels of achievement must increase if we want to ensure bright futures for all New Yorkers.”

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