Travis Durfee teaches English and journalism in the Watkins Glen Central School District. He is the president of the Watkins Glen Faculty Association. He is also a public school parent. Travis is disgusted when he reads about the reforms that Andrew Cuomo is pitching. It reminds him of a scam he once witnessed years ago. Here is what he wrote.
Andrew Cuomo: Report Card Shark
It was a cautionary tale, and I learned it in public school.
Technically, I learned the lesson in NYC at the South Street Seaport, but it was a field trip with my high school Spanish Club that brought me there, so I’ll count it as extracurricular learning.
In our quest to experience everything NYC had to offer (we’d already purchased Yankees caps and a Kriss Kross cassette), a friend and I approached a hustler running a game of three-card monte on a cardboard box.
“Five gets you twenty.”
I shook my head, even after witnessing a stranger win twenty bucks right before my very eyes. My friend, however, was feeling lucky.
“I’ve only got a twenty.”
“I make change.”
My friend threw Andrew Jackson down on the box and the hustler, a stack of bills in one hand, slid the twenty beneath one of his cards. He flicked his wrists, rapped the table, and shouted. He made a big show before he pointed to my friend.
“Your call, big man.”
My friend picked wrong. The hustler never made change. The squabble that broke out between the stranger and the hustler ended as they overturned the table and chased each other down the street, which was all probably part of the con in the first place. We stood in the street with our mouths gaping, $20 lighter in the pocket.
The lesson? Never trust a card shark. It’s stuck with me throughout the years, and I am reminded of it now as I consider NYS Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s education policy proposals. Make no mistake about it—Gov. Cuomo is a report card shark.
Lost in the shuffle of Albany’s awful politics this week are Gov. Cuomo’s recent education proposals. He threw his cards on the table, his latest attack on teachers, public education and the basic tenets of our democracy. If adopted by the state legislature, Cuomo’s policies would undermine the teaching profession, incentivize test-driven instruction and weaken local control of schools. Let’s evaluate each card at face value.
Undermining the Teaching Profession:
Gov. Cuomo would gut tenure for all new teachers. Under his plan, new teachers would remain in probationary status until they received five consecutive effective or highly effective ratings on their Annual Professional Performance Review.
What sounds like a reasonable goal is effectively randomized, however, when he pegs these ratings to student growth as measured by standardized tests—an increasingly discredited method of assessing teacher effectiveness.
At least one researcher estimates that fewer than 50% of all new teachers would earn tenure in under 6 years under Cuomo’s proposal. Teaching would become a very high-risk profession.
You wonder who would choose to enter a profession when your livelihood is contingent upon a child’s performance on a Common Core exam that is meaningless to their education?
Gov. Cuomo wants more state control of our local classrooms, and would use state tests to blow down the doors. The governor proposed more than doubling the required weight of Common Core test scores in evaluating of teachers and building principals.
Further, Gov. Cuomo would consider two consecutive ineffective ratings as sufficient legal evidence of educational incompetence, even for effective, tenured teachers with decades of experience. In those cases, a teacher would be allowed to rebut charges of incompetence “only by clear and convincing evidence that the calculation of one of his or her summative ratings was fraudulent.” Proving “fraud” would create an impossibly high hurdle and in effect allow no rebuttal at all. A teacher’s tenure in the classroom would essentially hinge on effectiveness ratings that would be randomly determined by questionable state tests.
Make no mistake about it, the added emphasis on testing will lead to more teaching to the test. The result would no doubt stifle creative educators from developing collaborative, authentic curriculum. What teachers will risk otherwise when the ability to support their families rely on student success on Common Core tests?
By unfairly holding teachers accountable for factors that are beyond their control, such tests have been rejected by the types of statisticians who know best. Last year the American Statistical Association essentially labeled such value-added modeling of teacher effectiveness by student test scores as junk science that violates the first commandment of social science research—conflating correlation with causation. Teaching and learning are more complicated than the policy wonk’s attempts to quantify education with effectiveness ratings and state test scores.
And the governor knows that this is bad policy. After compromising last year, Cuomo prohibited the state 3-8 Math and ELA exams from being used against students. He agreed to do the same for teachers—and even advanced a bill to hold teachers harmless—only to change his mind after the election and veto his own bill.
Weaken Local Control of Schools:
The overarching theme of Gov. Cuomo’s policies is to centralize power in Albany over local schools statewide.
He is holding school budgets hostage as he makes state aid contingent upon adopting his policies. Gov. Cuomo proposed two options for his education budget: A) NYS public schools could receive a 4.8% increase of $1.06b if the Legislature adopts all of the proposed proposals, or B) NYS schools receive a 1.7% increase of $377m if the Legislature does not adopt all of the governor’s ideas. The governor wants power in his hands and he is using the strong-arm of state funding to take control.
Another of Cuomo’s power grabs would void all locally bargained agreements between teachers unions, school districts and school boards to be replaced by his misguided evaluation proposals. State-sanctioned “impartial observers” would be hired to evaluate classrooms statewide. In addition to being an unfunded mandate on districts, the proposal would remove the ability of locally-hired principals to serve as instructional leaders within their buildings.
Gov. Cuomo has fanned the flames on an exaggerated crisis in public education that cites as evidence plummeting test scores on recently changed learning standards. Remember the good old days of 2011 when 53% students statewide met the ELA standards and 63% met the standard in math? Compare that to the predicted and delivered drop in scores statewide after the first year of Common Core testing in 2012 when only 31% of kids were proficient in both math and ELA. Change the standards, rush the tests to the schoolhouse gates and assign blame when the scores drop. Sounds like a hustle, or an opportunity for a self-proclaimed reformer to fix a manufactured crisis. Gov. Cuomo called his budget address the Opportunity Agenda, but his proposals would only benefit an opportunist like himself.
The governor claims that public schools are a monopoly to be broken. He has it all wrong. Public education is central to our democracy and the ladder of opportunity for many New Yorkers. Public schools are transparent, accountable and democratically governed by locally elected school boards directly accountable to voters. Gov. Cuomo’s attempt to centralize power over public education in Albany would rip control away from parents and their local, democratically-elected school boards by forcing state standards and outside “impartial observers” on communities that know their kids deserve better.
Perhaps such an overreach is why the public trusts teachers, more so than the politicians, when it comes to developing education. A recent Siena poll shows that the public trusts professional educators more than politicians when it comes to creating policy and educating children. It’s time for the people who support their children’s teachers and the teachers themselves to rise up against this governor and his destructive ideas.
Like any good hustler, Gov. Cuomo makes a sweet offer.
He wants to turn our schools around. He says he’s doing it for the kids, for America. And like that con man on the street in NYC, Gov. Cuomo is promising to make change. But the only change he offers is the same tired and empty reforms of data-driven instruction and state tests that were supposed to reform our failing schools since No Child Left Behind.
The public had better act fast before Gov. Cuomo and his ilk run off with what’s on the table–our children, our public schools, our democracy.