Principal: Why our new educator evaluation system is unethical

Here’s a new post from award-winning Principal Carol Burris of South Side High School in New York about the state’s controversial new educator evaluation system. Burris has for more than a year chronicled on this blog (she calls it Star Wars here, and other things here and here and here, for example) the implementation of the system, which ignores research by using student standardized test scores to assess teachers and which has already started to negatively impact young people.

Burris was named New York’s 2013 High School Principal of the Year by the School Administrators Association of New York and the National Association of Secondary School Principals, and in 2010,  tapped as the 2010 New York State Outstanding Educator by the School Administrators Association of New York State. She is the co-author of the New York Principals letter of concern regarding the evaluation of teachers by student test scores. It has been signed by more than 1,535 New York principals and more than 6,500 teachers, parents, professors, administrators and citizens. You can read the letter by clicking here. 

By Carol Burris

A few years ago, a student at my high school was having a terrible time passing one of the exams needed to earn a Regents Diploma.  She took the test several times, but despite her very best efforts and the best efforts of her teachers, her score barely budged.

Mary has a learning disability that truly impacts her retention and analytical thinking.  Because she was a special education student, at the time there was an easier exam available, the RCT, which she could take and then use to earn a local high school diploma instead of the Regents Diploma.

We take great pride in our Regents Diploma rate. That is not a bad thing.  It is important that schools have reasonable outside measures of learning, and the Regents Diploma serves as a motivator for our students while providing an objective (though imperfect) measure of accomplishment. For our higher achieving students, the Regents Diploma is a second thought. For others, it is their goal.  If they do not pass a test the first time, it is not awful if they take it again—we use it as a diagnostic, help them fill the learning gaps, and only the passing score goes on the transcript.

But in Mary’s case, to ask her to take that test yet once again would have been tantamount to child abuse. She cried and hugged me when I said to her, “I will talk to your parents…enough, enough—let’s prepare you for the RCT and get you your diploma!”

Why is that story important to tell at this moment in time? I believe it gets to the heart of what makes a good school—a place where academic concerns are balanced with the socio-emotional health of students. In good schools each student is viewed as an individual, and the school works through the tension between high standards and individual student needs.

Mary’s story, therefore, points to a key reason why evaluating teachers and principals by test scores is wrong.  It illustrates how the problems with value-added measures of performance go well beyond the technicalities of validity and reliability. The ethical concerns far outweigh the technical questions.

The basic rule is this: No measure of performance used for high-stakes purposes should put the best interests of students in conflict with the best interests of the adults who serve them.  That, in my opinion, is the ethical standard by which each evaluation component should be judged.

Certainly the new high school principals’ VAM will not ‘pass the test’.  A few days ago, I sent a letter to the New York State Regents, setting forth a detailed critique of the VAM-based evaluation of principals, and I won’t repeat those points in detail here.  Instead, I will just point out that under that system I may be penalized if future students like Mary do not achieve a 65 on the Regents exam. Under the new rules, the State Education Department has phased out the RCT, but it would allow Mary to graduate with a lower Regents score. Mary and I can still make the choice to say “enough”, but it may cost me a “point”, if a majority of students who had the same middle school scores on math and English tests that she did years before, pass the test.  Yes, it is that absurd.

To be clear, I would still make the same decision.  I do not give a rat’s tail about a principal VAM system that is more aligned to a random number generator than a measure of principal effectiveness. And I will not allow a system to trample on the best interests of a student.

But I can also be less concerned about the VAM-based evaluation system because it’s very likely to be biased in favor of those like me who lead schools that have only one or two students like Mary every year. What about my colleagues who have many students like her?

Consider another example of how such measures put student needs in conflict with school ratings. When we have an ELL (English language learner) student with interrupted education arrive at our school, we often consider a plan that includes an extra year of high school. We want to make sure that the student has a real chance at success after he leaves us.  Because for the last few years “four year graduation rates” are of high importance, each time we do that, we know we will be adversely affecting that measure.  For our school with few ELL’s, it hardly matters. But how does the four-year rate play out in urban schools with larger numbers?

The use of the four-year graduation rate as a high-stakes measure has resulted in the proliferation of “credit recovery” programs of dubious quality, along with teacher complaints of being pressured to pass students with poor attendance and grades, especially in schools under threat of closure. This is certainly what has occurred in the high schools of New York City.

Again, no measure of performance used for high-stakes purposes should put the best interests of students in conflict with the best interests of the adults who serve them. 

 This argument holds true for teachers as well. Many New York teachers of grades 3-8 were deeply conflicted this spring.  On the one hand, they had a clear incentive to “test prep” for the recent Common Core exams, but they also knew that test prep was not the instruction that their students needed and deserved. These are the real-life consequences of the policies that are thoughtlessly being put into place because of the new evaluation systems.

My letter to the Regents includes many more flaws and consequences of the high school principal VAM. It is apparent that whoever created this evaluation system had limited knowledge of New York State high schools. Or perhaps this is merely the result of a blind pursuit of ideology over the obvious real-world effects. As Kevin Casey, the Executive Director of the School Administrators Association of New York State recently noted, it is a practice of favoring “form over substance”.

We can, in New York and in many other Race to the Top states, continue to favor “form over substance” and allow the unintended consequences of a rushed models to be put in place. We can raise every bar and continue to add high-stakes measures. Or we can acknowledge and respond to the reality that school improvement takes time, capacity building, professional development, and financial support at the district, state and national levels. Creating bell curves of relative educator performance may look like progress and science, but these are measures without meaning, and they do not help schools improve.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss | May 19, 2013