Cuomo & NYSUT Go Nuclear

Posted by & filed under CGR Staff, Rochester Business Journal.

Kent Gardner Nuclear OptionVladimir Putin’s most ominous bit of saber rattling over the Ukraine has involved allusions to the “nuclear option.” For him, that’s not a metaphor.

The problem with nuclear weapons is the collateral damage. Sure, you might win the battle. But everyone loses the war. I worry that both Governor Cuomo and the New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) are playing with “nuclear” weapons.

Let’s agree, first, that public education in NYS could be, should be, must be improved. We’ll not make an impact on urban poverty, particularly in Rochester, if we don’t raise the levels of literacy and numeracy among children in poverty. Eventually, young people have to make their own way in the world and the labor market has no mercy on people without the academic basics. Second, let’s agree that both Governor Cuomo and New York’s teachers want children to succeed. The governor isn’t an evil megalomaniac clawing his way to national prominence on the backs of children. And teachers care about far more than just their paychecks and prerogatives.

Changes in education law won by the governor in the budget were secured by his threat to fire off a tactical nuke—holding up the state budget. (Odd bit of power this. Over nearly two decades we’d become accustomed to budgets being days, weeks, even months, late. “Late budget again? So what?” After only four years, timeliness re-emerged as a virtue and the Legislature was unwilling to be blamed for breaking the streak.) Oh, and the governor also accepted the creation of a commission aimed at raising legislator’s salaries. A threatened veto of this provision is another tactical nuke.

The changes extorted from the Legislature are stunning:

  • The probationary period before teachers are granted tenure increases from 3 years to 4.
  • Teachers, once certified for life, must now be recertified every 5 years.
  • The State Education Department (SED) will establish statewide admission standards for teacher prep programs and have increased power to close ineffective programs.
  • Most galling to NYSUT, the Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR) will be dramatically strengthened and made even more reliant on state tests.
    • If a teacher is rated “ineffective” on the “state measures”—based on test scores—no local measures can reverse the finding.
    • After a teacher has been for scored “ineffective” for 3 consecutive years, districts are obligated to begin dismissal proceedings.

Wow. We know that good teaching matters. Stanford’s (formerly UR’s) Rick Hanushek estimates that the lifetime earnings impact of the best 15% of teachers on a single class of 20 students is about $400,000—the weakest 15% have the opposite effect. (

But here’s the rub: The Commissioner of Education (position currently vacant) is to have these changes in place by June 30. Districts are to put the new rules in place by November 15. SED and its then-Commissioner, John King, were widely criticized for too-hasty implementation of the Common Core standards and associated tests. And much work remains to be done. (Full disclosure: As asserted in prior columns, I support standards—don’t you? And I find much to applaud in the Common Core. But I agree that King rushed implementation, thus setting off a counterproductive CC backlash.)

SED doesn’t have enough time for a reliable roll-out. Despite its best efforts, the odds of SED making major mistakes, spurring yet-more backlash, are too high. Governor, please propose a modest delay in implementation: You’ve won the battle; don’t risk the war. The Legislature will gladly go along.

NYSUT’s response has been to invoke its own nuclear option: Urging parents to boycott the state tests. Oh, my. Do most of the state’s teachers believe that assessment is bad? Don’t most of them (and us) want a robust, challenging curriculum and fair, effective assessment? How will students and parents discern the difference between assessments? “Mr. Brown, I think that the pithagasaurus theorem is just stupid—why do I care how long the hippopotamus is? And my mom says that she never learned it and that she did just fine. So I’m not going to take the test on Friday. You said that the state tests are stupid and I think that this one is, too.”

This is a contract dispute between NYSUT and the Governor. Let’s not let our children become collateral damage.