On teacher evaluations, Quinn wants a ‘minimal’ role for test scores, and a sunset provision

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City Council Speaker Christine Quinn distanced herself from Mayor Michael Bloomberg's education agenda on Saturday morning, telling a crowd of city teachers that standardized tests should have a "minimal" role in evaluating their performance, and that any new evaluation plan should include a sunset provision.

Quinn made the remarks at a mayoral candidate forum that was part of the United Federation of Teachers' spring conference, moderated by the union's president, Michael Mulgrew, who has frequently clashed with the mayor over education policy.

Quinn was one of four Democratic candidates who attended, along with the Independence Party nominee, Adolfo Carrion, and she was the only one who said she would allow charter schools to "co-locate" inside public school buildings without approval of local residents.

She also was the only candidate to say she would consider a non-educator for the position of schools chancellor, saying she didn't want to rule out anyone for the position, and mentioning U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan as one example. The audience of several hundred teachers booed.

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The endorsement of the U.F.T. is a highly coveted prize this election season. The union declined to endorse a mayoral candidate in 2005 or 2009, which denied critical support to Bloomberg's opponents.

But the relationship between the union and the mayor has gone from tensely transactional in past years, to openly hostile in Bloomberg's third term.

The teachers union and City Hall have failed to agree on a plan for new teacher evaluations, despite the threat of losing hundreds of millions of dollars in state funding.

In response to a question from a teacher in the audience, Quinn said a new teacher evaluation plan must incorporate more than just test scores.

"The teacher evaluation that we put in place cannot have standardized test scores as its most significant factor. It cannot be based on standardized test scores, period," she said. "They'll play a role now, but they should play a minimal role. It needs to be about other input from peers.

"It needs to be about observations," she continued, with "parent input" and "principal input" contributing to a "multi-factored system."

Later, Quinn said the evaluation system "should have a sunset clause."

"Almost every significant law in the City Council has some type of look-back opportunity because whatever we get to, is not going to be perfect," she said.

Bloomberg has denounced such sunset clauses in other districts' teacher evaluation plans as a "sham," since deals sunset before failing teachers could be forced out.

All the candidates spoke in favor of increasing parent and local input on school policy, reflecting a common complaint against Bloomberg's education agenda.

Public Advocate Bill de Blasio repeatedly hit Quinn for helping Bloomberg extend term limits, and asked the audience to consider who vocally opposed the mayor's co-location plans. City Comptroller John Liu was cheered enthusiastically when he criticized the mayor's reliance on expensive outside consultants to work with the Department of Education. Bill Thompson, the former president of the Board of Education, also drew loud cheers from the crowd for his criticisms of the administration.

Former Councilman Sal Albanese, who taught for 11 years, criticized Bloomberg's stewardship of the public schools, saying at one point, "he can't add."

Carrion, the Independence Party nominee and a former teacher, called the leadership of the teachers union "out of touch," and told the audience that teaching "is the most important job in American society."

The criticism comes at a particularly dark moment for Bloomberg's education agenda.

Pearson, the company that has overseen testing for student placement in talented and gifted programs,  acknowledged a new round of testing errors on Friday, its fourth such mistake.
Earlier in the week, the city announced it would speed removal of school light fixtures containing polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, after a fixture in Harlem began emitting smoke, the latest in a string of problems with the fixtures, including an explosion at a Staten Island school in January. (One reporter sitting near me grimly joked that Bloomberg's education agenda was literally "crumbling.")

Randi Weingarten, who was president of the U.F.T. during Bloomberg's first two terms and now leads the union's national organization, said "there is no parent or community input in the current administration."

"People are actually more angry when the mayor is as duplicitous as he is with this," she said. "When you pretend to talk to people when you actually don't. [Rudy] Giuliani was actually more forthright because he would say he's not listening to people."

I asked Weingarten if, in her travels around the country, she hears anybody say they want to emulate what Bloomberg is doing with New York City public schools.

"No, I don't hear that at all anymore," she said. "And I think that is part of the reason why the mayor is so cranky."