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Posted at 05:00 AM ET, 12/07/2011

Are half of New York’s teachers really ‘not effective?’

This was written by Carol Corbett Burris, 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.

By Carol Corbett Burris

You have to love New York City’s mayor. Michael Bloomberg speaks his mind, never holding back. While most self-proclaimed school reformers do the Dance of the Seven Veils, slowly revealing their agenda, the mayor jumps up on stage and gives you the ‘full monty.’ He’s sure he has the solution for all that ails New York’s schools, and he is not shy about sharing.

Last Thursday, he told an MIT conference audience how to quickly improve public schools. “I would, if I had the ability – which nobody does really – to just design a system and say, ‘ex cathedra, this is what we’re going to do,’ you would cut the number of teachers in half, but you would double the compensation of them and you would weed out all the bad ones and just have good teachers. And double the class size with a better teacher is a good deal for the students.”

Now that’s an interesting proposal to promote college readiness: lecture halls for third graders.

The mayor never cites any research to support his claims about what’s a good deal for students. Nor does he explain a sensible way to determine the bottom half of teachers — the ones who would be sent packing. But he should be forgiven on this point since there is, in fact, no such research and no such sensible way.

Yet as astounding as his statement might be, the mayor’s solution is not pulled from thin air. In fact, his assumption is the foundational belief on which the State of New York has designed its teacher and principal evaluation system.

The evaluation system, APPR, actually assumes that half of all teachers are not effective (ineffective or developing), although there is no evidence that that is the case. In fact, the State Education Department has created a bell curve evaluative system on which to place teachers to make it so. Now that, Mayor Mike, is ex cathedra.

Below is a table that appears on page 31 of Guidance on New York State’s Annual Professional Performance Review Law and Regulations which can be found here:


Table 2, p. 31 of Guidance on New York State’s Annual Professional Performance Review Law and Regulations. ( http://usny.nysed.gov/ - NEW YORK STATE EDUCATION DEPARTMENT )

The first two columns are clearly designed to produce a bell curve — 10 percent on the bottom in ineffective and 10% at the top.

In category 1, Student Growth on State Assessments, the state will give schools the points after it compares student growth on tests comparing teacher to teacher. The rest of the points are divided among ‘developing’ and ‘effective,’ with the majority in the category ‘developing’. Before a teacher can be considered effective, her students’ score growth must exceed the average for all teachers — that means based on scores, more than 50% of all teachers will not be effective.

For the second column, the learning assessment is chosen by the district, but teachers are sorted into the same four categories by points. The commissioner is in court on appeal to allow state test scores to be doubled, ostensibly for districts that do not have the money to buy tests for the local measure.

Although ranges for the ‘other 60 points’ (observations, professional obligations) are not provided by the state, Page 34 provides guidance which indicates that the four ranges should be created in a manner similar to the first two.

If there is any doubt that New York wants to put teachers on a bell curve, read Pages 38 and 39 from the revised Race to the Top application, which clearly explains that the intent is to create a system that resembles a ‘normal distribution’; the bell curve which compares educator to educator should continue even if performance goes up, and, that the target is set for 1 in 10 teachers to be rated ineffective and fewer than 15% to be rated highly effective.

The state Education Department actually shows their targets for schools based on student population on page 40. That is like a teacher insisting that 10% of her students must fail her test, regardless of what they know.

Bell curve evaluation, which requires that my success depends on your failure, harkens back to the time when the prevailing view of human potential was that it belonged on a curve.

In the early 20th century, this belief prompted psychologist G. Stanley Hall to denounce a sound curricula for all of our nation’s children because he thought that most high-school students were part of a “great army of incapables.” How different is that from Bloomberg’s assertion that teachers come from the bottom 20% of their class and not from the best schools? In the world of these self-proclaimed reformers, teachers are the new great army of incapables.

Let’s return once more to Table 2 to see how the evaluation system is further stacked against the teacher. Look at the point range in the final column on the right. To escape being rated ineffective, the teacher must have 65 of the possible 100 points. That means a teacher could be rated ‘effective’ in the first and second category with 24 points, be in what proportionally should be the effective range in the third category (40 out of 60 points), and yet still be rated ineffective overall with a total of 64 points.

Why are so many points needed? Because student scores must trump all. See page 32 #14 of the APPR guide for SED’s rationale, which says that the cut score for ‘developing’ was set at 65 points so that teachers who are ineffective on measures of student achievement must be rated ineffective overall. In other words, low student achievement measures (categories 1 and 2) will doom a teacher with even perfect teacher achievement (60/60) in category 3. And, by the way, perfect points on student achievement measures do not guarantee that a teacher or principal cannot be rated ineffective.

Because of the above as well as the awful implications APPR will have on students, over 75% of Long Island principals have signed a letter outlining our concerns. Overall, we now number nearly 4,000 principals, teachers, professors and citizens who have signed on to that letter at www.newyorkprincipals.org. One of our signatories, Dr. Thomas Sobol, is a former Educational Commissioner of New York State. Principals from all over New York are now signing on — nearly 800 and growing.

In a recent article in The New York Times, the commissioner chalked our thoughtful concerns up to ‘anxiety’. Read the letter and the Times article. See if you think this is something a Xanax will cure. Although we sent our letter over one month ago, we have yet to receive a response or inquiry from either Commissioner John B. King Jr. or Chancellor Merryl H. Tisch.

I have learned a lot of things in my life. I have learned to lead a wonderful school full of caring educators where all students are growing without genuflecting to the curve of a bell. I have learned that a child’s worth is far greater than any test could possibly measure. I have learned to hold my tongue even when it is difficult, and to speak up when I must.

But I have not learned how to stick a number on the back of a veteran teacher after 25 years of work with teenagers and call him ‘developing’ based on a bell-shaped curve. No principal should be required to learn that.

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