By CARA MATTHEWS
Gannett Albany Bureau
ALBANY - In a progress report Tuesday on New York's Race to the Top grant, the U.S. Education Department said it has concerns about the state's lack of recent progress on new data and teacher-evaluation systems.
The Education Department released reports on the first year of Race to the Top grants in 11 states and Washington D.C. New York obtained roughly $700 million to implement education reforms, including the evaluation and data systems.
The state could lose hundreds of millions of dollars if it doesn't move forward, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a statement.
"New York made significant progress through Race to the Top over the last year but has recently hit a roadblock that not only impedes Race to the Top but could threaten other key reform initiatives as well," he said in a statement.
"New York has a chance to be a national leader or a laggard and we are only interested in supporting real courage and bold leadership. Backtracking on reform commitments could cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars for improving New York schools."
At the same time the federal government was expressing concern about New York State's lack of progress on implementing reforms need to capitalize on Race To The Top funding, Buffalo Mayor Byron was saluting students at an east side school for their acceptance into the National Junior Honor Society.
"I'm already talking to people about this issue. We don't want to lose millions of dollars that could come to this community," Brown told WGRZ-TV, noting that Buffalo schools were slated to receive up to $9 million under the program.
"I have not called Albany... (but) I certainly could if there was some higher, larger barrier at the state level. I would certainly be willing to talk to state officials as I have for a variety of other matters in the past," Brown said.
New York's progress report said the state made major strides in improving teacher quality and instruction and turning around low-performing schools. The state Education Department provided training and materials on the reform agenda, recruited 1,819 additional teachers through alternative certification and set up a $40 million support fund for struggling schools, the federal report said.
However, the state faced some major issues, including:
- Challenges in providing school districts with information on the status of Race to the Top reforms.
- A delay in hiring a vendor to upgrade its data systems. Full implementation is scheduled for fall 2013 instead of fall 2012.
The major challenge education officials face heading into year two of the four-year program is working with the state's 715 school districts "to move conversations forward on new labor contracts that enable the state to fully implement the new evaluations," the report said.
The evaluation system takes effect this year for math and English teachers in grades 4-8 and their building principals, and the 2012-13 school year for all teachers and principals. The terms are subject to collective bargaining.
Some aspects of the new system have been ruled invalid by a state Supreme Court judge. New York State United Teachers sued the Education Department, which has appealed the decision.
In a joint statement, Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch and Education Commissioner John King said New York is making progress, such as by adopting national Common Core standards.
"Of course, in several important areas, we've hit significant bumps in the road. The development of data systems and agreements between school districts and teachers on meaningful performance evaluations are not on track," they said.
"The non-approval of the data portal contract and the ongoing evaluation system litigation have slowed progress."
Tisch and King said the Race to the Top progress report is "disappointing but not discouraging."
"The RTTT report is a reminder that the federal government will hold us to the commitments we made in our RTTT application, just as we will hold districts and educators to the commitments they made," they said.
King last week suspended federal School Improvement Grants totaling $105 million for 10 districts that hadn't reached agreements on the new evaluation system, or they have systems that he believes are flawed. They can appeal.
Those districts are implementing the evaluation system for teachers in grades 4-8 in targeted schools and their building principals. Other teachers and principals in those schools have to be evaluated as highly effective, effective, developing or ineffective.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo (statement below) has said he would not intervene in districts' collective-bargaining negotiations on the terms of the evaluation system.
The following is a statement released by Regents Chancellor Merryl H. Tisch and Education Commissioner John B. King, Jr.:
"New York is making progress in our Race to the Top, but there are significant challenges.
"We are successfully implementing several key aspects of our Race to the Top plan. We've adopted the Common Core standards and are developing curricula, professional development resources and assessments aligned to those standards.
"We are working closely with SUNY, CUNY and private colleges and universities to connect K-12 and higher education data. Network teams are providing professional development focused on the Common Core, data-driven instruction and evidence- based observation. We developed a website, EngageNY.org, devoted to providing information and resources to help educators implement the Common Core.
"Of course, in several important areas we've hit significant bumps in the road. The development of data systems and agreements between school districts and teachers on meaningful performance evaluations are not on track. The non-approval of the data portal contract and the ongoing evaluation system litigation have slowed progress. And tragically, many of our lowest performing schools have not yet seen significant improvement.
"It's disappointing but not discouraging. We have to get this done, and we will. The RTTT report is a reminder that the federal government will hold us to the commitments we made in our RTTT application, just as we will hold districts and educators to the commitments they made.
"We're making progress, but there's still a long way to go. We knew the Race to the Top wouldn't be easy. But our students are counting on us. They need us to get this right."
Governor Andrew Cuomo also issued a statement, in response to the criticism of New York State's efforts by the U.S. Department of Education.
"As I said in my State of the State Address, this state is facing a crisis in our education system and how we hold our schools accountable for their performance in educating our children. We cannot allow a system to continue where we spend the most of any state on education, but rank only 38th in results. It does a disservice to both the student and the taxpayer.
We have a system that protects the massive education bureaucracy rather than focusing on investing in our classrooms. The forces that protect this bureaucracy have stymied reform at every turn, and as a result, hundreds of millions of dollars in education funding are now at risk.
One of the tasks set forth by the original Race to the Top competition was simple - design a teacher evaluation system that holds teachers accountable for their performance. Without a doubt, the system the state designed to accomplish this goal has been a failure.
Secretary Duncan's report saying New York is on the watch-list for failure is yet another warning that the inability of school districts across the state and their unions to come together has jeopardized the quality of our kids' education. New York State's students are now in danger of losing hundreds of millions of dollars because of the failure to devise a teacher evaluation system that works.
We need to achieve both short term and long term reform of this failed system. I will pursue such reform aggressively.
In the short term, I call on the State Department of Education, local school districts and the union leadership to expedite their negotiations on a teacher evaluation system to prevent the loss of hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding.
Over the long term, we need to overhaul the system and change the law on the books. The Assembly-led legislation in 2010 protected the teachers union at the expense of the students and instituted a system that was destined to fail.
Despite the powerful interests working to protect the status quo at the expense of our students' success, this state must become a national leader in student performance."