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Posted at 10:00 AM ET, 02/19/2012

‘You are so smart…why did you become a teacher?’

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. She is one of the co-authors of the principals’ letter against evaluating teachers by student test scores, which has been signed by nearly 1,400 New York principals.

By Carol Corbett Burris

The best part of my day is before the first bell rings. I get to spend time in the halls and cafeteria with our students. I have spent over two decades of my professional life among teenagers, and I must confess each year I enjoy them more. They have a perspective that is insightful and clear, and they are always on the watch for what is fair and what is not, especially when it comes to rules.

This past week, I read “the evaluation deal” between NYSUT (the New York teachers union) and the State Education Department. I was surprised, and I was angry. I was particularly struck by the lack of logic and fairness in the rules of the deal. And so to gain some perspective (and to lower my blood pressure) I went to the cafeteria at lunchtime and sat with some kids.

I bought some bags of chips and put them on the table and told them I wanted input on grading, a subject near and dear to their hearts. The first scenario I gave them was this….

“Suppose this marking period you had three tests. Each of the tests was on different topics, and you passed all three. Would it be fair for your teacher to fail you?”

The kids were outraged at the thought, with some choosing adjectives I will not repeat. One thoughtful student asked, “Well, how did I do compared to the rest of the class?”

“Average” was my reply. The adjectives got a little stronger. Everyone agreed that would be outrageous and that I should overturn the grades of such a teacher.

I gave them a second scenario:

“Suppose you have three tests, and you bomb the first one. But on the second, you do well. And by the time the third one comes around, you are pretty much at the top of the class—and that is the test that has the most points of all. But because you did so badly on the first test, the teacher fails you for the quarter. What do you think?”

I think the reader can guess how they responded. Eyes narrowed as the kids became increasingly worried that their principal had lost her mind and was designing a plot to fail them all. I decided it was a good time to take my chips and head back to the halls.

Now take a look at the chart below, which will be used in New York to evaluate teachers. It is similar to a chart I explained here.This is what was decided as part of last week’s grand bargain; it’s what NY lawmakers will be asked this spring to put into law to sort and select public school teachers, with those deemed ineffective for two years to be fired.

Regulation/Student Growth/Local Measures/Other 60/Composite

Ineffective/..........0-2........../.........0-2.........../.............../.......0-64

Developing/.........3-8........./..........3-8........../.locally..../.......65-74

Effective/.............9-17......./..........9-17......./developed/.......75-90

Highly Effective/.18-20...../..........18-20.... /................/.......91-100

Now let’s go back to my first cafeteria scenario, applying it to the chart.

Ms. Alvarez is a second-year teacher. Her diverse third-grade class, which includes English language learners, takes the state tests. In the first category, ‘student growth,’ the teacher’s students show average growth. She is rated effective and earns 9 points. In the second column, again she is rated effective based on student work and gets 9 points again. Her principal critiques her lessons and there is room to grow, so she assigns her 46 out of the possible 60 points in category three, ‘other 60’. Although the state does not provide ranges for the ‘other 60,’ we can see that a score of 46 based on the proportions in the first two columns, would be effective. Now let’s add the numbers up and look at the final column: 9+9+46=64. Overall, Ms. Alvarez is rated ineffective. She decides that maybe teaching is not for her.

Now to cafeteria scenario #2. Ms. Smith’s students have serious learning disabilities and before NCLB they would never have been required to take the state exam. Her students are frustrated by the test and show little growth. Her score in the first category is 1.

Nevertheless, because the district has chosen a more appropriate assessment for her students for the local measure, she gets 9 points, which is in the effective range. Ms. Smith has excellent teaching skills and so she nets 54 out of the possible 60 points, which is in the district’s highly effective range. In the three categories she garners ratings of ineffective, effective and highly effective, but when the district adds up her points it will arrive at a total of 64, ineffective overall. Ms. Smith asks to teach resource room instead next year — she is a single mom and cannot lose her job. Her students lose the best teacher they ever had.

Let me add one more. Mr. Reed is a 28-year veteran whom students adore. He is the basketball coach, and he has turned around the lives of more troubled teens than his principal can count. He is a fine teacher of English who welcomes struggling students. His scores are 9, 10 and 55 — effective, effective and highly effective. That’s a total of 74 points: this 28-year veteran is labeled ‘developing’ and given a mandatory Teacher Improvement Plan. He retires in disgust.

With the above scenarios I am not creating fiction, I am describing the future — one in which children lose great teachers. The reason the above “band” system is so flawed is because of the obsession of Albany with test scores.

Our state’s rule-makers wanted to design a system in which the teachers whose students’ scores are in the lowest ten percent could under no circumstances be anything other than ineffective. It created a ludicrous system where teachers who are effective across the board can be rated ineffective overall.

This was recognized by the August 2011 decision of Justice Michael Lynch, who wisely noted that the scoring ranges for the four categories were invalid, because the ranges did not allow the 60-point category to have meaningful impact in the final score. He noted also that these ranges would rate a teacher “ineffective” solely on the basis of student achievement. The judge understood what NYSUT and the State Education Department cannot — test scores should never trump all. Yet in the agreement, NYSUT caved, condemning our schools to become joyless, test-prep factories.

The legislature, which must now approve the agreement, can bring a modicum of sanity to this awful system. With amendments such as “a teacher who is rated effective in all three categories must be rated effective overall” and, “to be rated ineffective overall, a teacher must be rated ineffective in at least two of the three categories, and be rated less than highly effective in the third,” they can infuse the wisdom of a wise judge, thus mitigating a little bit of the damage that this bizarre system will cause.

Teachers and their spouses, family and friends will be watching the votes when this legislation is introduced in the budget process this spring. And a governor with an ambitious eye on his political future is wise to remember that the road to the White House is through the primary process. Teachers vote and they will remember.

One of my finest teachers was near tears the other day. Her student had asked her, “You are so smart…why did you become a teacher?” Within the context of this teacher-bashing climate, that remark was just too much to bear, and I hugged her as she cried. Less than a mile away, her Governor had thumped on a podium at Molloy College saying “if they want the money, perform” as though she and her colleagues were trained seals.

Words will soften as elections near. Fingers will wag as politicians admonish the public to “not bash teachers.” What educators and those who love them will remember, however, are not the words, but the actions. Those who doubt that should just ask the kids in my cafeteria. They will tell you that is so.

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