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Back-to-School Special Section Archives The Altamont Enterprise, August 26, 2010

New York’s Race to the Top funds come with caveats

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

New York learned Tuesday that it will get a $700 million in federal Race to the Top funds for public education, leaving local school administrators with mixed reactions.

After missing out in the first round of funds, New York came in second this time after the State Education Department worked with teachers’ unions to develop a system to evaluate educators, in part, based on student test scores. Also, the State Legislature raised the cap on charter schools from 200 to 460.

The Guilderland School District, which has an $87.4 million budget this year, has estimated it could receive $53,000 from the Race to the Top funds.

“We’re waiting to see, like with the other money, what strings are attached,” said Guilderland’s interim superintendent, Michael Marcelle. He was referring to the $607 million in federal funds slated for New York State to prevent teacher layoffs, which the State Legislature hasn’t yet decided how to distribute.

“Fifty-three thousand dollars will be helpful,” said Marcelle. “Once we find out the guidelines, we’ll use it to benefit children.”

Voorheesville isn’t counting on any Race to the Top funds.

“It’s going to high-needs districts,” said Assistant Superintendent for Business Sarita Winchell, “which is not Voorheesville.”

The Race to the Top funds are part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 and were designed to inspire states to compete by making progress with four goals outlined in the act: Spending funds quickly to save and create jobs; improving student achievement through school improvement and reform; ensuring transparency, reporting and accountability; and investing thoughtfully to minimize the “funding cliff.”

As New York competed for the funds, the state changed the way teachers and principals will be evaluated next year. Across the state, they will be rated as highly effective, effective, developing, or ineffective. The ratings will be determined in part by student growth — that is, by the change in student achievement between at least two points in time.

So, teachers, in preparing students for exams, will be sealing their own fates.

Guilderland’s assistant superintendent for instruction, Demian Singleton, told The Enterprise earlier this year, “The tricky part is the state has created a system whereby student achievement will be factored in.”

The state’s current testing system is not based on grade levels so that, for example, a fourth-grade math test evaluates learning students have done since kindergarten.

“The fairness issue is something teachers are very cognizant of,” said Singleton, adding it’s likely more tests will be developed “to measure growth over time as influenced by individual teachers.” There are no tests to evaluate student progress in subjects like music and art, although teachers of those subjects will have to be evaluated, too.

“This is real,” Singleton stressed, noting the New York State United Teachers had signed off on it. “It’s coming. We’re still awaiting details.”

Asked if he believed it is a good idea to evaluate teachers based on student performance, Singleton said, “Plenty of research indicates it’s not. You have so many variables that influence learning besides just the teacher,” he said, naming home life and socio-economic status.

Voorheesville’s superintendent, Teresa Thayer Snyder, had similar thoughts.

The last she had heard, Snyder said, student achievement will count for 20 percent in evaluations. “Everybody’s a little bit concerned,” Snyder said yesterday. But Voorheesville teachers are not overly worried. “Our students do pretty well,” she said of state test results.

She went on, “There are so many variables that affect student achievement, to evaluate a teacher based on [student] tests can be risky.”

She pointed out there is a big difference in scores between struggling students and students taking Advanced Placement classes for college credit. “People are concerned about unevenness,” she said.

Snyder is concerned, too, that, because of the new evaluation system, “Fewer teachers may want to teach at-risk kids.”

Snyder supports having the funds go to poor rural and city schools although it means that Voorheesville, a well-off suburban district, won’t receive much. “I’m hoping it will go to the schools that are serving needy populations,” she said.

Her biggest criticism of the program is “it’s a one-shot deal.”

“It doesn’t serve a purpose to create a program one year and then have no funding the next,” she said.

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