Richard Iannuzzi on How New York Won the Race to the Top

For my article, “Assessing New York’s Commissioner of Education,” which appears in the Summer 2011 issue of Education Next, I interviewed many key players in New York’s effort to win Race to the Top funds.  Below are highlights from my interview with Richard Iannuzzi, the head of the New York State United Teachers (NYSUT), the state’s powerful 600,000-member union. The interview took place at NYSUT headquarters on December 13, 2010.  You can also read my interviews with David Steiner and Joe Williams about New York’s Race to the Top bid, as well as an exit interview I conducted with David Steiner just after he announced his resignation as state education commissioner.

– Peter Meyer

Education Next [EN]: What was your role in the RTTT?

Richard Iannuzzi [RI]: Round 1, we didn’t have much of a role. Round 2, the New York State Education Department (SED) appreciated the fact that collaboration with the teachers union in an active bargaining state was going to be critical in terms of making their application work. So we were heavily involved.

Including helping structure the teacher evaluation law that went into effect in New York.

EN: What was NYSUT’s contribution to that law? How did you do it?

RI: By supporting it. The ability of the legislation to pass was the ability to walk across the street with the Commissioner [David Steiner] and let the leaders of both houses and the governor know that not only was SED looking for the bill to pass but so was the New York State United Teachers.

What was critical to us was having a place for student assessments that was reasonable, that also understood a place for other multiple measures and that still preserved a place for what I call – though I didn’t christen the line – the art of teaching. In New York State, the art of teaching, plus multiple measures, plus student assessment, makes up the total package.

EN: To what extent do you see student performance as part of the metric? Given the “firewall,” you had to come around quite a bit on that, no?

RI: I don’t think it’s a matter of “coming around” to seeing that it has a place.  It’s a matter of supporting a total look at teacher evaluation that puts an appropriate weight on student assessment and looks at teacher evaluation from the perspective of improving teacher quality as opposed to a, using the phrase, a gotcha process. Evaluation should be about performance and constantly attempting to improve performance until you have no choice but to say, ‘in the case of this individual we’re not going to succeed.’

But generally speaking, an evaluation process should be about improving performance.  The elements in that process should get weight that really reflect their value. For us, in New York State, talking about 20 percent made sense.

EN: What will the principal do with the teacher who is not doing a good job?  The 5% percent who don’t belong?

RI: What you will see – without agreeing to those percentages – you’ll see an evaluation process that is designed around continually attempting to improve the performance of teachers. And as that process moves on, you’re going to discover that there are – the full 100% needs continual growth and continual improvement – so as you strive to improve the performance of all teachers you are going to find some that simply are not going to cut it no matter what kind of support you get. And that will be easier to recognize than under the current system, which is haphazard evaluation, or under a system which gives an inordinate amount of emphasis to the standardized tests, which is clearly an inaccurate measure.

EN: How important were so-called Sunday Breakfast meetings you had with NYSED?

RI: Well, they began with SED reaching out and looking for help, making the statement that there’s this realization that there’s a greater chance of success for Race to the Top with the support of the union than there is in simply unilaterally outnumbering some other state. That realization probably came sometime after the Commissioner was debriefed about why we lost [Round 1] and the question was, would we like to sit down and help make that happen? And the answer has always been yes. We’ve worked with SED, the Commissioner, and the Chancellor before, so we sat down.

EN: What was your role once you and SED had worked out an agreement?

RI: I didn’t have any direct conversations with Speaker of the Assembly [Sheldon] Silver [Democrat] or [Democratic leader of the Senate John] Sampson. When you walk into the Speaker’s office with the Commissioner and you say this is a piece of legislation we’re both behind, you probably don’t have to have a conversation after that.

We had a press conference at SED, then the Commissioner, myself, Chancellor Tisch, and Mike Mulgrew and, with cameras rolling, as they say, walked it across the street and left copies with the majority leader of the Senate, with Speaker Silver’s office, and with the Governor’s office.

EN: What about charters? Was that part of the NYSED discussions?

RI: We actually agreed that we would disagree on charter schools. So we did not make that part of the conversation.  Our interest was only in the teacher evaluation piece with respect to Race to the Top…  It seemed that the charter piece was not a critical part of the Race to the Top application itself. It may have made sense to the administration in Washington or others. But for purpose of the law and the Race to the Top application we both went in with it saying whatever the law in place at the time is the law and so be it.  So the charter conversations were really separate from the Race to the Top conversations….  We never had discussions with SED about charter schools; it was strictly with the legislature.

EN: But wasn’t a big part of Round 2 the buy-in and didn’t that include buy-in on charters?

RI: Our buy-in was built around the [teacher] evaluation language, not around the charter school piece. We kept the charter school piece totally separate because we knew the charter school piece was going to be more of a legislative debate having more to do with who was pushing buttons in the legislature rather than having to do with Race to the Top. The connection between the charter school piece and Race to the Top was just smoke as far as I was concerned.

EN: You didn’t support it. Did you actively oppose it?

RI: Yes, we actively opposed it. It was pretty obvious that a charter bill was going to pass. We actively lobbied for things we wanted to see in it.  We did not oppose the cap number. We were looking at issues that dealt with transparency and accountability.  We were successful in both of those areas. We wanted Comptroller’s audits of charters, conflict of interest legislation, and requirements to serve more special education students. There must be public hearings [before charter applications are approved] and they must take into consideration parental support or disagreement. We’ll see if they do all of that or not.  So there were pieces that we wanted that we got and there were pieces we wanted that we did not get. One [we did not get] was the issue of saturation. We were negotiating up from five percent [no more than five percent of schools in a neighborhood, town or city could be chartered], but we weren’t successful….  We obviously were looking for a way to control the number in a particular community and were looking for a way to fund charter schools that didn’t pull dollars away from the regular school system….

There were things we got. The two big ones, saturation and separate funding stream we did not get and that is one of the reasons we opposed it in the end.

EN: How did you lose that one? In a legislature that generally is more friendly to NYSUT than not so?

RI: The answer is hedge fund operators among others who could write out a check for a million dollars a shot. And in an election year, that had greater influence than we did… It’s a reality.


EN: So, you started out as a teacher. Do you ever miss that?

RI: I always get in trouble for this line, but I’ll say it: spending 34 years dealing with ten-year-olds has prepared me to deal with many people in Albany.

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