Cuomo to teachers: Who are we kidding?


Most pols  love industries. The more the better. They offer them tax breaks and other perks in the hope that they’ll create jobs. But Governor Andrew Cuomo made it clear in his State of the State speech yesterday that there’s at least one – what he calls the education industry – that is no longer welcome in New York.

Cuomo shrewdly framed New York’s k-12 education system as a remnant of the past; part of the old and declining New York — a bureaucracy fixated on self-preservation. And he outlined a set of reforms that should remove any doubt that he sees teachers and their unions as the root cause of the state’s education problems. And he’s ready to go to war to fix them.

“Our education system needs dramatic reform and it has for years,” Cuomo said. 

Branding the current teacher evaluations “bologna,” he said that he wants new evaluations to be based 50 percent on standardized tests and 50 percent on independent observations. Teachers who receive “ineffective” scores for two years in a row could be fired, diluting the state law that educators refer to as 3020A. Critics say that the law has made it nearly impossible to fire poor-performing and misbehaving teachers in less than two years.

“Who are we kidding,” Cuomo said. “We need real, accurate, fair, teacher evaluations.”

Cuomo wants to lengthen the probationary period for teachers before they can receive tenure from three years to five. And he wants to reward highly effective teachers with a $20,000 annual bonus.

Cuomo also wants to give mayors in the cities with the state’s largest school districts more control over their schools, citing New York City’s success under mayoral control. And he said that the state needs to have a faster response mechanism for failing schools and the roughly 250,000 mostly minority children that attended them during the last decade.

Improving education generally receives strong public support, and Cuomo is not the first person to call for raising education standards for teachers. And he has some support for making it easier to fire incompetent teachers.

But it’s hard to see how making the evaluation system more test-driven and changing the eligibility requirements for tenure will have a significant impact on student performance.

How can Cuomo sell the public on an evaluation system that is half based on testing data when the public is already concerned about the overuse of testing, says Willa Powell, a member of the Rochester school board and the representative of the “big five” district boards for the New York School Boards Association.

“The governor is basically a race horse with blinders on,” Powell says. “He refuses to see what doesn’t fit his agenda.”

And Cuomo’s deference to charter schools echoes education themes similar to those espoused by Republican governors Scott Walker of Wisconsin, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, and Chris Christie of New Jersey. Cuomo wants to add 100 charter schools to the state’s public school system, yet most studies show that on average their test scores are not much different than those of traditional public schools. And we don’t have sufficient data on their graduation rates at this time.

How does the governor, who says that he’s concerned about wasting tax dollars on the public school bureaucracy, know that he’s not creating another one?

Cuomo said that he would provide an additional $1 billion to the state’s $23 billion education budget if all of his reforms are enacted; a tactic used by US Education Secretary Arne Duncan for the federal Race to the Top program. Play ball or you don’t get the money.

But perhaps most concerning is that Cuomo’s reform plans don’t begin to address the inequity of our highly segregated public schools. It’s not as if he doesn’t understand what a New York Times editorial described as the state’s most serious and systemic education problem: insufficient funding for high-needs schools.

“The truth is we have two systems: one for the rich and one for the poor,” Cuomo said in yesterday’s speech.