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Finally, the state takes a position -- and so does Dixon

For weeks, one of the elephants in the room with teacher evaluations has been the issue of whether students with excessive absences should be counted.

The undercurrent from Albany had been that State Ed wanted all students -- regardless of attendance -- to count toward the local 20 percent measure of a teacher's evaluation. But pinning State Ed down on the issue was close to impossible.

That changed at the end of last week, when SED finally made clear that it would not approve a plan unless all students were counted in it.

That, in turn, led Interim Superintendent Amber Dixon to take a public position on the matter -- after declining for weeks to talk publicly about any aspect of the teacher evaluations.

Dixon sent an open letter this weekend to district staff, state legislators, school board members, and others.

It's still not clear what she thinks of the student attendance provision, as a matter of principle. But it is crystal clear that as a pragmatic issue, the provision needs to be eliminated so that the district can get its federal grant funding restored.

Here is the full text of her letter (the portion in bold was in bold in her original letter):

This is a volatile time for public education across the nation. The Race to the Top initiative, the core of the Federal education plan, reflects a new direction in expectations of student preparation and teacher/principal evaluation. The debate over this new direction, both locally and on the national level, is at times enlightening and at times contentious. The result we hope for from this debate is a strengthening of the U.S. public education system, so vital to our children's future and the future of this country.

Here in Buffalo, teacher and principal evaluations are the most current topic of concern. Funds directed to our lowest performing schools have been held up since January pending a submission of a revised agreement with our unions on evaluation of teachers and principals. During the eight weeks this occurred Governor Cuomo has stepped in directing changes to the evaluation system that will reflect student achievement data in determining principal/teacher quality.

Buffalo has worked with the NYS Education Department to renegotiate our original agreement with the unions to meet State expectations of rigor and accuracy, while respecting concerns on behalf of teachers for fairness and equity. The latest clarification we have received from the State is that a document which includes student attendance as a provision in the teacher evaluation process lacks sufficient rigor to adequately reflect classroom efficacy and will not receive NYSED approval. The last agreed upon Memorandum of Understanding between the Buffalo Public Schools and the Buffalo Teachers Federation had such a provision. It must be removed before the document is finally submitted for approval to the New York State Education Department if we expect approval and the restoration of School Improvement Grant funds. The Buffalo Public Schools will not agree to a final submission of a document with student attendance included, having been advised that such an agreement will be rejected.

That said, the District realizes the significant problem of low student attendance and has embarked on an aggressive plan to decrease chronic attendance. Initiatives in place include increased numbers of attendance teachers in our schools and working collaboratively with local and national partners on our attendance improvement pilot. Early data indicates we are moving in the right direction. Increasing student attendance is a problem to be solved, not an issue for negotiations.

Every day almost 40,000 Buffalo children attend our public schools. Every minute in school is a minute critical in building their futures. This is time that can't be wasted. Our children deserve an education that reflects our belief in their future. In a time of diminished resources and rising costs, we need to be focused clearly on the needs of our children. The students in our Persistently Low Achieving (PLA) schools, those schools where the School Improvement Grant funds are directed, are particularly affected by the loss, even temporarily of these funds. The SIG funds are used for staff to reduce class size, provide after school programs, and otherwise support the schools in their focused efforts on raising student achievement. Without restoration of SIG funds, there will be layoffs of personnel in these schools, and programs will end. Failure to reach agreement on this evaluation process will also put in jeopardy the funds which may have flowed to the 7 new PLA schools for which plans were submitted in December. As a community we cannot allow this to occur.

The children of this district must always be the primary concern of the adults in this city. We may disagree over whether a teacher and principal evaluation system should or should not be able to exclude some student scores, but we must not allow this disagreement to adversely impact our children. This is not the forum in which to engage in debate over education policy issues. This is instead the time to accept the language of rigor, as directed by the State, and to trust one another that we will resolve remaining challenges in time to come.

Our children do not have the luxury of waiting for court cases to be resolved. They need the resources that this lack of agreement is putting at risk. They need an agreement between the District and the Buffalo Teachers Federation that stands the State's test of rigor, leads to a strengthening of our schools, and allows the much needed Federal and State resources to keep flowing. They need us now.

- Mary Pasciak

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About School Zone

Denise Jewell Gee

Denise Jewell Gee

Denise Jewell Gee joined The Buffalo News in 2007 and currently covers education and suburban schools. She also writes a column for the City & Region section and previously covered government in Erie County and Niagara Falls. Gee graduated from Boston University with degrees in journalism and political science.

@denisejewellgee |

Tiffany Lankes

Tiffany Lankes

Tiffany Lankes joined The Buffalo News in 2013 and primarily covers the Buffalo Public Schools. She has written about education since 2003 at newspapers in Florida and New York. In 2008, she was a nominated finalist for The Pulitzer Prize. Lankes is an Amherst native and graduate of Sacred Heart Academy and Syracuse University. She started her journalism career writing for the News’ NeXt section.

@TiffanyLankes |

Sandra Tan

Sandra Tan

Sandra Tan has been a cityside reporter for The Buffalo News since 2000 and currently covers the Buffalo Public Schools beat. She previously covered the Williamsville school district and was a full-time education reporter for five years prior to joining The News. She graduated from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.

@BNschoolzone |

Deidre Williams

Deidre Williams

Deidre Williams began working for The Buffalo News in 1999 and currently covers Buffalo Public Schools. She formerly was a suburban reporter on the Northtowns beat and has been a cityside reporter covering communities since 2004. Williams has a mass communications degree from Towson University.

@DeidreWilliamsB |