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 New York State Commissioner John King is about to get tough with 10 school districts that have not finalized negotiations on their teacher evaluation plans. He threatened to take away their schools’ improvement grants if they do not comply. With little or no consideration of countervailing concerns, the commissioner’s approach illustrates the 'My way or the highway' mantra of Race to the Top reformers. The plan, of course, is to blame the unions that are wisely looking at evaluation mandates with a critical eye.
Race to the Top (RTTT) and its requirements have caused serious problems for states, such as New York, that are forging ahead with implementation. My own district wisely pulled out of this particular part of the ongoing insanity last month, saying ‘thanks but no thanks’ to the RTTT money. (As noted below, we can’t similarly opt out of the equally awful state’s APPR law.) Our superintendent realized that the RTTT mandates would cost more to implement than the money received. Not one pencil could be responsibly purchased nor local tax dollar responsibly offset by quickly implementing mandates that are neither effective nor wise.
The most cumbersome and controversial part of RTTT has been the insistence that districts abandon the teacher and principal evaluation systems that they use and replace them with complex, state-mandated systems in which student achievement counts in some states for as much as 50% of a teacher's and principal's score.
I have written about the NY system, known as APPR, on more than one occasion in The Answer Sheet. Under the system here, student achievement counts for as much as 40% of a teacher's and principal's score.
In this latest conflict between King and the 10 districts, APPR is the elephant in the room – or, more accurately, an elephant sitting awkwardly and without a parachute on a plane being built in the air. Even now the plane continues to be assembled, which is one of the reasons why unions do not want to sign on.
Here is an example:
APPR mandates that there be a way to evaluate teachers by student performance, even those teachers whose students do not take state achievement tests. To skirt this problem, the commissioner pushed the work onto schools. School districts must create Student Learning Objectives (SLOs) which count toward 20% of a teacher's evaluation. (This is in addition to 20% based on some form of similar student data to be determined by schools). The district must create assessments for each course (including courses like physical education and second grade art) and must implement as well a sorting of teachers along the bell curve using what the state calls a HEDI (highly effective, effective, developing and ineffective) scale.
Here is an example, from Page 31 of the SLO Guidance Manual, illustrating what the state suggests for music teachers. The manual briefly describes a teacher who engages in several different types of music instruction and then offers this guidance:
"This teacher will have an SLO for their Introductory Band sections as this covers the majority of their students (75 students out of 135 total is approximately 56% of students). Their targets are set based on what the District defines as the expectation for student growth within this teacher's course for students that begin at a performance level of 1, 2, 3 or 4."
If the above is clear to you, I am impressed. Part of the comprehensibility problem is simply that it is poorly written with the plural pronoun, "their" referring to the singular "this teacher" (an error made throughout the document). To what does "as this" refer? (Maybe it should be “these,” referring to the Introductory Band sections?) Are "their targets" student targets or teacher targets? Does anyone know what a performance level between 1 and 4 in introductory band is?
I discovered, as I continued reading the SLO Guidance Manual, that these levels are to be created by 'the district.' There is to be an assessment at the beginning of the year in introductory band and one at the end of the year, so that we can measure growth. Now let's apply this to the real world. I have a band teacher with 100 students. He and the rest of the music department will create his SLO – a baseline assessment and an end-of-year assessment of the students in his band. He will give the assessment in September and then rate each student on the 1 to 4 scale. Whoops! Stop there. He cannot. According to the law, no one who has a vested interested in an assessment may score it. Who then, gives the assessment? Perhaps the choral teacher? She can give the band assessment and the band teacher can give the choral assessment to the 125 members of the chorus. It’s imperfect and will introduce some unknown level of error, but at least they’re both music professionals. For rural schools with one music teacher, maybe the gym teacher can do it, assuming he regularly listens to music the radio while on the way to work.
Problem solved. Let's continue, and let’s assume that the two music teachers decide that each assessment should be a performance of at least ten minutes to accurately rate each student. The teachers agree to assess students every forty minute period except for lunch and a prep to record all the SLO data. They can see three students a period because students will need to settle in, tune their instrument and to leave a few moments at the end of the period for the teacher to score.
You can see where this is going. It will take five days for all band students (who must be pulled out of their academic classes) to be assessed, and six days for all chorus students to be assessed. And for that entire instructional week, music students will sit in classes with substitute teachers watching videos while their teachers assess another teacher's students.
In June, the entire process will need to be repeated again. Between the two teachers, music students will lose a total of 22 days of instruction and the school will pay thousands of dollars in substitute teacher costs.
Not only must this process occur in music, it must happen in gym, art, home economics and shop. But for schools that want to avoid this craziness, there is an escape clause of sorts. The district can simply assign a score from another discipline. For example the school-wide growth score for English might be assigned to the school art teacher, as suggested on Page 12 of the Guidance Manual, "since growth in the arts is hard to measure." Instead of doing art, students can read and write about art. And a gym teacher can be assigned (that is, have her job performance evaluated based on) a school-wide writing score. Believe it or not, this is exactly what has occurred in Tennessee, as described recently in a New York Times article which describes evaluation by playing the odds.
The SLO Guidance Manual has plenty more poorly written and confounding SLO guidance, but the large point is that rating teachers by scores was a political decision made by corporate reformers and policymakers who never took the time to make sure that what they mandated made any sense at all.
Further, the real scandal of RTTT is not the hesitation of districts and their employees about signing on, but the billions of taxpayers’ dollars being wasted to build planes in the air by mechanics (the ones with the parachutes) making it up as they go. School reform has become the feeding ground for profiteers, consultants and those who have built careers and celebrity out of disparaging teachers and deriding public schools.
Lawmakers and members of the media would do well to ask more and tougher questions about Race to the Top. What percentage of the billions has gone directly to benefit students or to offset local tax dollars? How much has been diverted to create tests and assessments by companies like Pearson whose profits are exploding while their foundation is under investigation in New York?
How much is being paid to consultants with little or no teaching experience to make instructional infomercials on the New York State website? One smug suggestion made by consultant David Coleman was that teachers should decrease student time spent on the writing of personal narrative because "as you grow up in this world people don't really give a s--- about what you feel or what you think." Finally, what percentage of RTTT dollars goes to schools, and what percentage stays in state education departments building bureaucratic systems to replace local school control?
There is a reason that 1,130 New York State principals have signed on in opposition to APPR, and there’s a reason that the number grows every day. Educators on the ground know the harm being done. The real question is not whether schools should give back the money, but whether tax dollar should be continued to be spent on Race to the Top at all.
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