By JENNIFER MEDINA | New York Times
November 26, 2009 -- WASHINGTON — Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said on Wednesday that New York City public schools would immediately begin to use student test scores as a factor in deciding which teachers earn tenure, a proposal that has been bitterly opposed by the teachers’ union and criticized as putting too much weight on standardized exams.
The city already uses test scores in evaluating the system: to determine teacher and principal bonus pay, to assign the A through F letter grades that schools receive, and to decide which schools are shut down for poor performance. The mayor is now putting even more weight behind those scores by using them to decide which teachers should stay and which should go.
In a speech in Washington on Wednesday, alongside the secretary of education, Arne Duncan, the mayor also called on the State Legislature to make a number of changes, some of them also anathema to the unions, that would help New York State compete for hundreds of millions of dollars in the so-called Race to the Top federal grants. The program will distribute $4.35 billion in stimulus financing to states for innovative education programs.
The speech suggested that the mayor may use his third term to take on the United Federation of Teachers, which sat out the mayoral election during a period of relative labor peace. The mayor did not mention that he could achieve some of the same changes by negotiating with the union, whose contract expired shortly before the election.
While many of the changes he is seeking could be accomplished at the negotiating table, his speech indicated that he would turn to Albany to take up much of the fight.
The Bloomberg administration contends that it already has the power to use test scores in tenure decisions. But, he said that the Legislature should require all districts in the state to evaluate teachers and principals with “data-driven systems,” one of the factors Mr. Duncan will use in deciding which states will receive Race to the Top grants.
The mayor also said the state should allow teacher layoffs based on performance rather than seniority, as they are now. It is a particularly crucial topic now, because the city may face large budget cuts and potential layoffs.
“The only thing worse than having to lay off teachers would be laying off great teachers instead of failing teachers,” Mr. Bloomberg said. “With a transparent new evaluation system, principals would have the ability to make layoffs based on merit — but only if the State Legislature gives us the authority to do it.”
Sheldon Silver, the Assembly speaker, suggested that the mayor would not find satisfaction in Albany. “These are all contractual issues that should be dealt with at the bargaining table,” he said.
The teachers’ union has fought the use of test scores in tenure decisions, and last year successfully lobbied the Legislature to ban it for teachers hired after July 1, 2008. That law is to expire next year.
The city contends that it has the power to use scores for the next batch of teachers up for tenure — those hired in 2007 — and if the Legislature does not renew its law, the city could do so for all teachers hired thereafter. Teachers generally receive tenure after three years; 93 percent of teachers up for tenure in the last school year received it.
Mr. Bloomberg said that banning the use of student achievement in tenure decisions is “like saying to hospitals, ‘You can evaluate heart surgeons on any criteria you want — just not patient survival rates.’ ”
Michael Mulgrew, the president of the city’s teacher union, said he was “very, very disappointed” in the tone of the mayor’s speech.
He did not rule out filing a lawsuit once the details of the mayor’s plan have been fleshed out.
He said that using the test scores was a poor way to measure teachers, citing criticism that the tests have become too easy, with so many students showing large improvement that they have lost their meaning as gauges of learning.
“How do we constructively fix that instead of saying let’s play political agenda and propaganda?” Mr. Mulgrew asked.
Perhaps anticipating such criticism, Mr. Bloomberg also urged the state on Wednesday to adopt national standards and make the test more difficult.
Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, called the issue of state tests the “Achilles’ heel of the accountability movement.”
“When you ask any teacher, even a good one, they tend to be pretty leery of being held accountable on these tests,” Ms. Walsh said. “These tests aren’t linked to the actual curriculum, and they have to be.”
But, she said, they have “validity for making decisions at the extreme end: Teachers who are really talented tend to be in the top and teachers who are poor tend to be in the bottom year after year.”
Teachers interviewed on Wednesday about the plan were universal in their condemnation. “It’s ridiculous,” said Kanayo Al-Broderick, a third-grade teacher at Public School 56 in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, who is in her 22nd year of teaching. “It just means they did well on this test. Does it show we’ve built them to be lifelong readers, to love reading? That’s what all teachers want.”
Education officials said they had no details on just how scores would be used for tenure decisions. Many teachers have no scores to go by: Only children in grades three through eight take the annual English and math state standardized tests, and high school students take Regents exams only in certain subjects.
The mayor also called on legislators to make it easier to fire bad teachers and teachers whose jobs have been cut but who are guaranteed their salaries even if they cannot find a new job in the system. The city is now paying more than $100 million for these so-called reserve teachers, many of whom lost their positions because their schools were closed for poor performance. Mr. Bloomberg said that the state should place a one-year limit of teachers in the reserve pool, something he could also press for in the contract.
In a move almost certain to increase that pool of teachers, the mayor also said that his goal was to shut down the lowest-performing 10 percent of city schools. So far, the Bloomberg administration has shut down 91 schools across the city.
Legislators in Albany are preoccupied with cutting the state budget, and Mr. Bloomberg appears to be trying to convince them that changes in state education law could bring much-needed millions of dollars to the state.
“We’re committed to exploring any avenues to bring in increased federal funding to the state,” said Austin Shafran, a spokesman for Senate Democrats.
Many states have made significant changes to state law to improve their chances at receiving Race to the Top money, but the Legislature in New York has not made any considerable effort to do the same.
Mr. Duncan, who sat just feet away from the mayor but remained silent on most of his proposals, said that he supported the idea of tying student data to teacher evaluations but he stopped short of endorsing the administration’s plan.
“Everyone agrees the current system is broken,” he said. “We have to talk about what makes sense.”
Karen Zraick contributed reporting.