Two weeks ago, the governor, the state education commissioner, and the president of the statewide teachers union were thrilled to get up in front of the cameras and announce that they had struck a deal on teacher evaluations in New York State.
Everyone hailed Gov. Andrew Cuomo's leadership on the issue -- he had, just weeks earlier, after all, declared public education the most important of issues to the future of the state and proclaimed himself "the students' lobbyist."
And that was not long after the governor announced he was making schools' state aid increases in 2012-13 contingent on them implementing teacher evaluations that incorporate student performance -- leading some experts to say Cuomo had taken the boldest moves among governors to advance the federal government's education reform agenda.
A critical issue on those teacher evaluations is bubbling up here in Buffalo, with clear implications for the rest of the state, and Cuomo refuses to take a position on it -- a spokesman, in fact, said the governor is planning to wait a few months before he thinks it through.
Likewise, state Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. -- said by many to be exerting pressure behind the scenes on this particular issue -- will not take a position on it publicly.
What's it all about?
At the heart of the issue is a debate over whether teachers should be held accountable for the performance of all the students in their class, or just the students who show up consistently.
Buffalo is still waiting to find out whether the state will approve its 2011-12 teacher evaluation plan for six low-performing schools.
One of the key issues here is a provision in Buffalo's plan that says the performance students who miss 20 percent of the school year or more would not count toward a teacher's evaluation. For four of the six affected schools under the proposed plan (South Park, Bennett, Riverside and Burgard high schools), more than 40 percent of students missed that much school in a recent year.
BTF President Phil Rumore says that's only fair -- if students don't show up, teachers can't be held accountable for how well those students do. Teachers can't control student attendance, Rumore says.
And I've heard plenty of teachers from low-performing high schools say that while their Regents exam passing rate looks awful on paper -- in many cases, well below 50 percent -- if you look just at the kids who showed up consistently, their passing rate is actually pretty good.
Education reformers say that it is the school's -- and the teacher's -- responsibility to make sure kids are in school. If classes are engaging and schools are welcoming, they say, students will come.
Not including students with poor attendance in a teacher's evaluation lets teachers off the hook, they say. And, in a worst case scenario, they say, it could create an incentive for teachers to not try so hard to encourage struggling students to come to school.
What both sides can agree on, though, is that the decision on whether to exclude students with excessive absences is critical.
Will a teacher at Burgard, for instance, be evaluated based on the performance of all 28 students in class -- or only the 14 who show up regularly? The answer to that question will likely have a significant impact on the outcome.
So far, King has approved teacher evaluation plans for only five districts. (A total of 10 were required to submit them this school year, because they are receiving federal school improvement grants.) None of those five teacher evaluation plans included a provision excluding students with excessive absences.
Rochester, in fact, had initially included such a provision in its plan -- which the state rejected. In the final plan, which the state approved last week, there was no exception for student absences. Many have interpreted that as a strong signal that the state will not sign off on such an exception -- although it's hard to know for sure, seeing as King has not clarified where he stands on this issue.
Whether or not the state approves Buffalo's plan, which includes such an exception for absences, is a big deal -- and not just for Buffalo. It's a big deal for every district in the state.
If the state does approve Buffalo's plan -- as district administrators and Rumore keep insisting they will -- that opens up the doors for the other 700 districts to follow suit if they choose to. It would be a clear indication that the state is, in fact, willing to approve plans with such exceptions.
If the state refuses to approve Buffalo's plan, it will continue to fuel speculation that the state will not sign off on an attendance exception -- and it will signal to other districts that they should stay away from such a thing.
Local districts complain that either way, the problem is that they're left to read the tea leaves.
Buffalo district officials have long complained that the state has failed to provide clear directives on what is or is not acceptable on the evaluation plan -- a complaint the state has consistently rejected.
When I asked a state Education Department spokesman directly whether the state would approve a teacher evaluation plan that excludes students with excessive absences, I was told that the state reviews each plan individually.
After asking the question once or twice more, here's the answer I got from Jonathan Burman: "We look at each application individually. There isn't a general prohibition or acceptance. Each plan has to be reviewed individually."
How's that for clarity?
The state law on teacher evaluations, which went on the books in 2010, says nothing about this issue. Likewise, the teacher evaluation bill proposed in February by Cuomo -- which would take effect in 2012-13 -- also says nothing about whether schools may or may not exclude chronically absent students.
I talked to Matt Wing, a spokesman for the governor.
Wing told me to talk to the state Education Department instead. "This is really more their issue," he told me.
I reminded him that it was the governor who just submitted a teacher evaluation bill on this very issue.
Well, Wing told me he would get back to me with an answer by the end of the day.
After several hours, here's the entirety of the response I got: “When districts submit their individual plans for implementing our new national model for teacher evaluations, we will evaluate specific issues.”
In other words, the governor hasn't decided what he thinks about this critical issue. Buffalo and nine other districts already had to submit evaluation plans to the state -- in December -- for their low-performing schools.
And every district in the state -- under Cuomo's bill -- is supposed to submit a teacher evaluation plan to King for approval by July 1.
But the governor, according to Wing, plans to wait until after those 700 plans are submitted to decide where he stands on this issue.
- Mary Pasciak