Cuomo Takes the Reins On the Teacher-Bashing Bandwagon

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

It is fair to conclude that Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York wants to be President.  If Hillary Clinton chooses not to run in 2016, Cuomo would immediately be cast as the favored candidate of the Democratic "centrist" establishment.  He certainly has spent a great deal of time and effort trying to prove that he is not a liberal, at least not on economic issues.  And he seems especially keen to provoke a confrontation with New York State's teachers and their unions, apparently in the belief that this will make him appear not to be "captured by special interests," or something like that.

At this point, it is becoming rather tiresome to read supposedly non-editorial news reports (like this one) saying that Cuomo's proposals, "atypically for a Democrat, will put him in direct conflict with teachers’ unions."  Atypically?  It is surely true that more Democrats than not support the positions favored by teachers and their representatives, but the implication in such language (stated explicitly elsewhere) is that there is something courageous and rare going on when a Democrat "defies" the teachers' unions.  Plenty of Democrats, including President Obama and his Secretary of Education, have taken positions against the teachers, and there is all kinds of "liberal money" (especially from Silicon Valley) that will not only back anti-teacher Democrats, but that is committed to attacking public education directly.  (From the same news article: "Charter school advocates have also spent heavily on lobbying [in New York], with one group, Families for Excellent Schools, spending close to $9 million last year, according to state filings.")

Cuomo, for his part, is happy to take their money: "In the most recent election, Mr. Cuomo raised more than $2 million from supporters of charter schools and school choice, from their companies or from their families. (His campaign raised $47 million over all.) Several gave the maximum allowable contribution, $60,800."  This is not even a situation in which it is necessary to figure out the direction of causality between Cuomo's positions and the money that he receives.  That is, it could be that the anti-union money is backing Cuomo because he is already a like-minded soul, or he could be shading his position their way in order to capture their money and support.  Either way, it is simply not credible to suggest that Cuomo is being politically bold in opposing a core constituency of his party.  He can win the nomination without them, and he knows that they will fall in line in a general election.

In short, this is classic Clintonian triangulation: Announce that you are a "different kind of Democrat" who is willing to confront the "powerful teachers' unions" for the good of America at large (and, of course, "for the children"), and then count on gullible journalists and pundits to make it all sound principled.

So much for the politics.  What about the substance?  In his State of the State speech earlier this week, Cuomo said that he wanted to change the system that New York State uses to evaluate its public school teachers.  He was hardly subtle: "They are baloney.  Who are we kidding, my friends?"  His complaint, such as it is, is that too many teachers received high ratings.  Why is that a problem?  Cuomo apparently believes that the answer to that question is obvious, but in any event, he does not say more.  Even so, it is worth examining what he is complaining about.

With the cooperation of the teachers' unions -- yes, those supposedly intractable blocs that, if we are to believe the hype, oppose all efforts at reform -- New York State recently changed its evaluation system.  "The system, enacted into state law in 2010, was created, in part, to make it easier to identify which teachers performed the best so their methods could be replicated, and which performed the worst, so they could be fired."  Sounds like the kind of reform that people who bash teachers have been talking about for years, and that supposedly cannot happen in a unionized environment.

So what do the results tell us?  "Nine out of 10 New York City teachers received one of the top two rankings in the first year of a new evaluation system that was hailed as a better way of assessing how they perform, according to figures released on Tuesday."  This might appear to be good news, but no.  Now that the first set of ratings is in, the claim is that they are bogus.  The tone is obvious in this strange comparison: "Although very few teachers in the city were deemed not to be up to standards, state officials and education experts said the city appeared to be doing a better job of evaluating its teachers than the rest of New York State."

How do we know that the city is doing a "better job" than the rest of the state?  "In the city, only 9 percent of teachers received the highest rating, 'highly effective,' compared with 58 percent in the rest of the state. Seven percent of teachers in the city received the second-lowest rating — 'developing' — while 1.2 percent received the lowest rating, 'ineffective.' In the rest of the state, the comparable figures were 2 percent and 0.4 percent."

Get it?  The whole point was to make it easier to fire teachers, but too few of them are being rated as fire-able.  If ever there were a result in search of a justification, this is it.  The core assumption by people like Cuomo is that there are bad teachers who are being coddled by the system, and they must be found and dealt with.  If they are not being found, then the system that was just adopted is "baloney."

For the sake of argument, let us imagine that the new system is not identifying all of the teachers who should not keep their jobs.  One possible explanation for this, I suppose, is that the new system somehow allows bad teachers to be protected from reality.  Who protects them?  "Teachers in the city tended to do best in the more subjective portions of their evaluations, which included principals’ observations of their work. On that portion, principals gave 30.8 percent of teachers the highest rating."  So, the logic goes, the problem must be that the principals are not being honest, and they are refusing to tell it like it is.

Why might this happen?  The anti-teacher explanation would be that the principals are afraid of the teachers (and the hovering specter of the unions), so that the principals are unwilling to take the heat by giving a low evaluation to a teacher.  That might (or might not) have a grain of truth to it.  To the extent that it is true, however, it raises two further issues.  First, the principals themselves are subject to evaluation, including by higher-level administrators.  And since the current atmosphere is very much oriented toward finding "bad apples," with all kinds of political pressure coming from above, it is hardly the case that the principals' incentives are all aligned with giving every teacher a pass.

Second, and much more fundamentally, if the problem is that a system of personal evaluations by principals cannot be trusted, it must be because we think that some significant number of school principals are unwilling to do what they know to be right, because they knuckle under to pressure.  If that is true, however, then what are we to imagine would happen if tenure for teachers is abolished and the unions are disbanded?  Now, with no pressure from the teachers' side, and principals' incentives all aligned in the same fire-the-teachers direction, we are to believe that the principals will suddenly discover their better angels, and never fire a good teacher without due process?

In a Dorf on Law post a few months ago, I mocked a New York Times op-ed by Frank Bruni, who wrote glowingly of a Colorado school principal's dedication to the "team-building" that is possible in a no-tenure system.  The principal said: "Do you have people who all share the same vision and are willing to walk through the fire together?"  Bruni then wrote: "Principals with control over that coax better outcomes from students, he [Bruni's source] said."  Ignoring the complete absence of logic needed to reach that conclusion, the question is why we are to believe that too many principals are patsies to the teachers, but that they suddenly will become paragons of integrity who inspire people to walk through the fire together, without bending to political pressures.

At its most elemental level, the argument against teachers' job protections (for which their unions fought, and which they safeguard, even as they cooperate in trying to improve the system) is based on the simple idea that bad outcomes in schools must be teachers' fault.  As I noted in another Dorf on Law post last August, the spokeswoman for an anti-tenure group put it this way: "91 percent of teachers around the state of New York are rated either effective or highly effective, and yet 31 percent of our kids are reading, writing or doing math at grade level."  If the children are not succeeding, then the only conclusion that the anti-tenure/anti-union side considers is that the teachers must be blamed and fired.

Consider this comment by the NYS Education Commissioner, in response to the new rankings of teachers: "I’m concerned that in some districts, there’s a tendency to blanket everyone with the same rating. That defeats the purpose of the observations and the evaluations, and we have to work to fix that."  Revealingly, the state's top education official tells us that the purpose of the system is to differentiate people.  But what if it were true that teaching is a profession that draws in sufficiently dedicated teachers, who do their jobs well?  What if the vast majority of them really are as effective as they can be, under the often difficult circumstances that they face, and the ones that are ineffective are already being identified and moved out of the profession?

To be particularly blunt, why is the commissioner so sure that everyone should not have the same rating?  And if people like Governor Cuomo are so certain that there is no alternative explanation, where is the evidence?  Certainly, there is no evidence showing that states and districts without tenure achieve better outcomes than those that have not abandoned job protections for teachers.  Yet that glaring lack of evidence does not deter those who are looking for easy scapegoats.

I hope it should be clear, but I will say it anyway: There are surely some bad teachers out there.  (There are bad professors.  There are bad barristas.  There are bad insurance agents.  There are bad cops.  There are bad ministers.  There are ...)  And the systems that we use to evaluate teachers should always be scrutinized and revised.  This must happen, however, in a way that is not merely a response to political pressure to blame teachers, or that burnishes the presidential credentials of a particularly craven and ethically challenged Democratic politician.