When state Education Commissioner John King was in town at the end of last week, he and Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch made no secret of the fact that they were trying to apply as much pressure as possible on the Buffalo Teachers Federation to sign Buffalo's teacher evaluation plan.
"The right thing for the Buffalo Teachers Federation to do is to reach an agreement," King said.
He and Tisch both said the teacher evaluation system is not intended to be a "gotcha," but a means of providing supports to teachers who need them.
"This is a fight between grownups that has very little to do with what's going on with those kids," Tisch said. "[BTF President Phil] Rumore has to sign the [evaluation] agreement. It just seems to me there is an urgency around this public policy which I think is very significant. Nothing is going to improve if teachers do not get the support they need."
During their meeting with the Buffalo News' editorial board, two things really struck me.
First: King kept calling on Rumore to detail exactly what changes he wants made to the eval agreement so that he would be willing to sign it. I think Rumore -- as well as plenty of teachers -- have made it clear this is no longer about one change on this page and another tweak on that page. Teachers seem just generally disgruntled with the entire situation.
The bottom line, I'd say, is that the union is just not interested in signing at this point.
King seems at least a few weeks too late to be talking specifics. There seems to be a disconnect between his perception of things and the way teachers are actually feeling. (Yes, I know not all teachers feel the same way about this. I'm basing that statement on the overwhelming majority of in-person conversations, emails, text messages and Facebook messages I've gotten from teachers over the past several weeks, along with the Council of Delegates' most recent decision.)
Second: King seemed desperate to emphasize the urgency of the situation. We already know that $5.6 million this year is riding on an eval agreement, and upward of $50 million next year.
But King connected plenty more dots back to the teacher eval system. Here's some of what he had to say, along with some context for you on each point:
When will the state finally appoint a distinguished educator to Buffalo?
"We were waiting for the completion of this process -- the completion of restoration of SIG funds for the original six schools. My goal in appointing the distinguished educator is for the distinguished educator to work with the district on implementation of its plans to improve performance in its persistently lowest achieving schools," King said. "
"That plan is contingent on the school improvement grants, which are currently suspended pending BTF signing the evaluation agreement. I remain hopeful the BTF will sign the evaluation agreement so that the distinguished educator can be part of implementing the school improvement grant applications."
Well, that's interesting.
For one thing, the district still has to implement improvement plans at the low-performing schools, with or without federal grant money. So waiting for the funding to be reinstated seems somewhat irrelevant.
For another, that's not what King said six months ago.
Regent Bob Bennett first talked about appointing a distinguished educator in September. King confirmed the plan in October. At that time, they said the distinguished educator would be coming to help Buffalo put together the school improvement plans that were due for seven schools at the end of December -- four months ago. In October, I wrote:
King plans to appoint a "distinguished educator" to Buffalo in the next few weeks, in part to help the district put together turnaround plans. Time, though, is running short. Less than 2 1/2 months remain for administrators to craft successful plans.
We've known for awhile who it is that the state plans to appoint as distinguished educator: Judy Elliott, former chief academic officer for the Los Angeles schools.
We've also known that for whatever reason, the state still hasn't appointed her.
Now, King is pinning that on the district's lack of a teacher evaluation plan.
When will the state make a decision on the next round of school improvement grants -- the seven schools that submitted plans back in December?
You might recall that the district lined up outside groups to run four of those schools. As today's story notes, Johns Hopkins University has pulled out of the plans for East and Lafayette high schools. The state is requiring a teacher evaluation plan in place before it will approve any plan that involves bringing in an outside group, King said.
"But the district could opt for the turnaround model, which involves replacing 50 percent or more of the staff in the building," he said.
That is the only federal school improvement model (other than school closure) that the state is not requiring a teacher evaluation plan for.
Tisch said that the requirement of screening teachers to determine which of them to keep is "a de facto evaluation system."
Looks like Buffalo likely is headed toward pulling together alternative plans that will involve major teacher shuffling at East and Lafayette. Stay tuned for more on that in the next few days.
What will happen to Lafayette High School?
(The district in December submitted an improvement plan for Lafayette that hinged on bringing in Johns Hopkins University to run the school. The university said that if the teacher eval situation wasn't resolved by Tuesday, it would pull out. That means Lafayette will have to submit an alternative plan -- which would be subject to state approval -- for improvement for 2012-13.)
"If we get to the end of the schol year and there's no plan, we have no choice but to recommend revoking the registration," King said. "The building would be closed and the students would be dispersed to other schools."
Well, that's not the first time King has threatened to close Lafayette.
For several months in 2011, the commissioner said over and over that he would close the school if it did not have an approved improvement plan in place for 2011-12.
Then guess what happened?
In August 2011, the state rejected Buffalo's plan for Lafayette -- and the school stayed open. Here's what I wrote at that time:
In previous interviews, King had said the state could revoke Lafayette's registration if it did not have changes in place by September. On Tuesday, he said doing so four weeks before the start of school would create too much chaos.
"It is clear the board still does not have the sense of urgency of changing the performance trajectory of the weakest schools in the district," he said.
Does he really mean it this time?
Time will tell.
What we do know for sure at this point is that the state has never pulled the registration of any school. And we know that King says if he does pull Lafayette's registration at the end of June, that would leave the district scrambling to find placements for more than 800 students -- most of them not native English-speakers -- in less than three months.
How realistic would that be?
- Mary Pasciak