Teachers College Sociologist Attacks Cuomo’s Strategy of Blaming School Teachers

Aaron Pallas, a sociologist and professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, responds to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s attack on school teachers in the recent State of the State address and Cuomo’s plan to make the state’s teacher evaluations tougher.

Pallas quotes Cuomo: “Last year, less than one percent of teachers in New York State were rated ineffective; but state test results show that statewide only 35.8 percent of our students in 3rd through 8th grades were proficient in math and 31.4 percent were proficient in English Language Arts.  We must ask ourselves: how can so many of our students be failing if our teachers are all succeeding?”

Pallas, an academic, provides a scatterplot demonstrating the correlation of student poverty with tested academic proficiency: “In schools where 90 percent or more of the students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, 15 percent of the students are proficient.  Conversely, in schools where fewer than 10 percent of students are free-lunch-eligible, an average of 53 percent are proficient.  This is not because all of the good teachers are in low-poverty schools.”  Pallas suggests that, failing to understand the concept of risk adjustment, Cuomo neglects to consider “factors outside of the teacher’s (or school’s) control such as a student’s prior academic achievement or socioeconomic background.”

Pallas also reminds us that students’ test scores were higher across New York before the state instituted new standardized tests based on the Common Core standards.  Scores dropped immediately.  “Setting standards is a political process infused with values. Teachers across the state of New York haven’t suddenly gotten worse,” writes Pallas. “Their students are being asked to do more.”

Pallas suggests that a different diagnosis of the problem would result in a different treatment.  “The governor’s diagnosis… is that the problem lies in our state’s teachers.  The treatment?  Increasing the role of standardized tests in annual evaluations of teacher performance, and requiring that teachers have five consecutive ratings of ‘effective’ or ‘highly effective’ to be eligible for tenure.”  What treatment would be a better choice for the problem of low test scores? “We could start by honoring the state’s obligation to fund school districts at a level adequate for a sound basic education.  Since 2007, the state legislature and a series of governors have ignored the New York State Court of Appeals’ ruling to direct several billions of dollars of funding annually to the state’s neediest school districts.”

Cuomo’s chosen strategy of making teacher evaluation more dependent on students’ standardized test scores and making it harder to achieve tenure are likely, in Pallas’ opinion, to cause another very serious problem.  “If the governor’s proposal were enacted… I estimate the odds of a teacher earning the due process protections of tenure within six years at just under 50 percent.  In the meantime, the governor’s proposal would allow the firing of any probationary teacher at any time without cause.  This would make entering teaching in the state of New York a very high-risk career choice.”

In the context of the Alliance for Quality Education’s new report, Record Setting Inequality: New York State’s Opportunity Gap is Wider than Ever, last week this blog critiqued Governor Andrew Cuomo’s education policies here.

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