This was written by Carol Corbett Burris, the principal of South Side High School in New York. She was named the 2010 New York State Outstanding Educator by the School Administrators Association of New York State.
Dear Mr. Duncan:
You have never been to my high school, but if you visited, you would be impressed. It is an integrated suburban public high school that meets AYP each year for all groups of children. We are on all of the top 100 lists — U.S. News & World Report, Newsweek and The Washington Post. Over 80% of our students graduate having passed the state exam in Algebra 2/Trigonometry and over 60% graduate with AP Calculus under their belt. We do a good job by the students we serve, some of whom have difficult life circumstances. I doubt that you will ever visit — we are not a KIPP or other charter school likely to attract your attention. I think you should know, though, something about the teachers who work with me.
As I walked into my high school the last week of school, I met Thom, arriving early to give one last extra-help session to his physics students. On the previous Saturday, Matt made the trip in to prepare his students for their math exam. He used Saturday because his colleague, Kaitlyn, was coaching some of the same kids for the Global Regents exam after school on Friday. Such generosity on the part of teachers has been part of the school culture for years.
As principal, I am so grateful for the commitment our teachers make to their students. I have seen faculty reach deep into their pockets to help out kids in need, take kids to community college to register, or sit for hours in a hospital emergency room until a parent arrives.
I am certain that you know that there are many educators across this nation who quietly and generously go above and beyond each day for their students. Some work in very difficult circumstances in schools that are overwhelmed by poverty and truly do not have the resources to serve their students well. Others, like me, are lucky enough to work in well-resourced districts with more limited numbers of students who have great need. I know that you would not want to deliberately harm the work that we do.
However, the punitive evaluation policies that New York State has adopted (and that many other states have adopted) due to the Race to the Top competition are doing just that. It is a dangerous gamble that might score political points but it will hinder what you and I and so many others want—better schools for our kids. We already know from research that reforms based on high stakes testing do not improve long-term learning.
This June, New York’s teachers and students felt the first effects of rating teachers by student test scores. Across the state we received a clear message along with our Regents exam packets — Albany does not trust the people who educate New York’s students. We will now be ‘scored’ based on our students’ Regents exam scores, and because of these new high stakes the state education department is ‘teacher proofing’ students’ answer sheets.
Both students and teachers feel the brunt of this distrust. Here are some examples. Students can no longer use pencils on the new scantrons that must be scanned and then sent to a remote location for scoring. Only ink is allowed. If a student’s pen bleeds through the scan sheet, additional complications arise. Because they cannot erase, students need to follow elaborate procedures of circles and Xs to correct their answers if they decide to change them. The rules for corrections nearly brought one nervous student at my school to tears.
On the back of every student scantron, a teacher must now print her name if she is a rater, and then bubble in a code for each question she grades. Imagine writing your name on 300, 400, or even 500 scantrons (depending upon the number of students taking the exam). While the days when students had to write “I must not cheat” 300 times on the blackboard are gone, their teachers now have to do the equivalent so that the New York State Education Department can monitor how they score student answers. It wasted literally hours of our teachers’ time, and they felt angry and humiliated.
During the early days of No Child Left Behind, the New York State Education Department turned the Regents into high-stakes graduation tests. On exams in math and science, we were required to double grade every student paper in the range slightly above or below a 65. When a student failed the exam, I could tell a parent that many eyes had looked at it. If any doubt remained, another teacher would review the exam. The score rarely changed, but at least I could reassure a distraught parent that we were fair and accurate.
As of this spring, I can no longer give that reassurance. Principals are now forbidden to re-score a paper once a computer assigns the score. An elaborate process involving the district superintendent and the state Education Department is triggered to change a student’s score.
Apparently principals, who will also be evaluated by scores, are assumed to be ‘cheaters’ as well. Angry parents are now insisting that I send their child’s exam to Albany for review. The state Education Department says that the review will take two to three months. Can you imagine being a hopeful graduate waiting that long for a test that you failed by one point to be reviewed?
This is the legacy of the policies that were rushed into place by states to get the federal Race to the Top money. We now have testing systems based on the mistrust of schools and the professionals who work in them. It will severely damage the relationship between students and teachers even as it is destroying the relationship between the state Education Department and educators across New York state. Perhaps all these mistrustful new rules and procedures are necessary if we accept the premise that student tests should also be high stakes for educators.
We’ve started down the slippery slope and we’ll necessarily gather up these unintended consequences along the way – unless policymakers restore some sanity to the system.
I am in my final years of a career that I have loved and in which, I believe, I have made a difference. I certainly do not fear for my job security. I do worry for my young teachers and my students. I worry for my grandchildren. I worry, also, for our nation. As John Dewey said so long ago in his Pedagogic Creed:
I believe that all reforms which rest simply upon the enactment of law, or the threatening of certain penalties, or upon changes in mechanical or outward arrangements, are transitory and futile.
I hope you are not annoyed that this is an open letter, but it seemed to be the best way to get someone to read it. I took the time last month to write a detailed, four-page letter to President Obama, but I did not get even a boilerplate email in response. Funny thing: during the campaign when I regularly sent contributions I always got a thank you. Now when I get a solicitation from his re-election campaign, I make a contribution to Save our Schools (SOS) instead.
Perhaps I will see you when I march with others in Washington D.C. on July 30. My husband and I will be there, rain or shine. Because we will likely not have an opportunity to speak with you that day, let me leave you with this final thought. After a heartbreaking loss, my friend who coaches was furious with his team. After he had vented, I offered my advice. “You can’t win the game if there is anger and mistrust between you and the kids. You have to work together to build something big.” That coach got it. Right now the ball is in your court, Mr. Duncan.
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