By Carol Burris
Sheri Lederman, is a gifted and beloved fourth-grade teacher in Great Neck, New York. Her principal adores her and relies on her to help mentor her colleagues. Over twice as many of her students have met the state standard than the average percentage for the rest of the state. Sheri is also a scholar. She received the 2012 H. Alan Robinson Outstanding Doctoral Dissertation award for her research on how 10-year-olds learn science. Yet her growth score based on the results of student Common Core standardized tests found her to be an “ineffective” teacher.
Under the present teacher evaluation system in New York, known as APPR (Annual Professional Performance Review), she is not in danger of losing her job. She was rated effective overall due to the points she received on the local measure of her students’ achievement, combined with those based on the observation of her teaching. But that will change if Chancellor Merryl Tisch has her way. Sheri would be rated ineffective overall, and one more such rating would get her fired.
New York Chancellor Merryl Tisch has announced her New Years resolution—revise the teacher evaluation system so that Common Core 3-8 test scores can trump all. In a letter to Andrew Cuomo’s aide, Jim Malatras, she explains how she (speaking for herself, not necessarily the Board of Regents) wants APPR to change.
The system she wants to change is one that she created several years ago with former education commissioner John King, which was put into law by the New York Legislature and that was rushed into place by Gov. Andrew Cuomo who denied districts state aid if they did not adopt it. It became mandatory for teachers and principals to be evaluated in part by student standardized test scores.
The short version of what she wants to do now is this—double down on test scores and strip away the power of local school boards to negotiate the majority of the evaluation plan. Tisch would get rid of the locally selected measures of achievement, which now comprise 20 percent of the evaluation, and double the state test score portion, to 40 percent. She also recommends that the score ranges for the observation process be taken out of the hands of local districts, and be determined by Albany instead. Dr. Lederman, start packing up. Merryl Tisch and Andrew Cuomo, whom you have never met, know your talents better than your local school board, your principal and the parents of the children you teach.
Why does Tisch want to change APPR?
To Tisch’s dismay, APPR which she helped design, has not produced the results that she and Cuomo wanted; only 1 percent of teachers in New York State were rated ineffective in the most recent evaluation. The plan, according to the state’s Race to the Top application, was for 10 percent of all teachers to be found ineffective, with small numbers designated as highly effective. The curve of the sorting bell was not achieved.
And then there are the Common Core test scores. Last year’s scores didn’t go up as Tisch predicted. Those pesky Toyota driving, chalk-dust covered, kid-loving teachers were just not scared enough. Thousands of them even opted out their own kids from the tests. So it is time to turn up the heat.
Although Tisch claims that this is about teacher improvement and mentoring, the letter discloses her true intent. She opines that if a teacher is ineffective in the growth score portion, as Sheri was, she should be rated ineffective overall. In addition, if a teacher has two ineffective ratings they “should not return to the classroom.” Whether those ratings, which are based on a highly discredited model, are accurate or not is moot. They produce a bell curve.
The latest exchange of letters between Tisch and Cuomo is a replay of 2010, when Cuomo wrote Tisch requesting that test scores play a bigger role in teacher evaluations. What Tisch and Cuomo did not count on at the time, was that most communities had no interest in using APPR to fire teachers. Likewise, sorting them onto a bell curve to achieve “differentiation,” as Tisch slyly puts it, seemed unprofessional and counterproductive.
Even parents have been disinterested in APPR scores. Although they can request their child’s teacher’s APPR score, not one parent in my district has asked for it during the two years that APPR has been in effect. Most principals report that parents simply do not care. Teachers like Sheri have a great reputation because of the years of loving care and great instruction they have given their students. Moms don’t need a score to know that.
And so the APPR plans created by locally elected boards of education through negotiations became something different from the Albany intent. Evaluation plans encouraged grade level goals and cooperative efforts among teachers to generate the locally determined score. Most boards and superintendents understood that collegiality, not competition, is what is needed for schools to improve. If APPR were implemented as a sorting system that focused on test scores, there would be negative effects on students. The APPR letter, signed by over one third of New York State principals, outlines the negative effects on kids if teachers were afraid of losing their jobs based on test score results. In the end, smart and savvy superintendents and teacher associations created evaluation plans to protect teachers like Sheri from an indefensible system that was nonsensical at best, and destructive at worst.
Meanwhile, the evidence has continued to accumulate that evaluating teachers by test scores simply does not work.
In April of 2014, the American Statistical Association, joined other research organizations, such as the American Education Research Association and the National Academy of Education, in cautioning against the use of student test scores, commonly referred to as VAM, in teacher evaluations. The ASA clearly outlined how unreliable this methodology is and noted that teachers’ impact on test scores is minimal–between 1 percent and 14 percent. Understand also that these VAM and “growth” ratings are all relative—pitting each teacher against all others. Even if every child scored in the mastery range on the test, there would still be a percentage of teachers rated Ineffective. It is a sorting mechanism based on an algorithm, which most researchers agree is flawed.
Opposition to the role of test scores in evaluations has expanded well beyond the research and teaching community. In an unexpected move at their fall annual convention, The New York State School Boards Association members voted against a resolution that supported the use of student performance data in teacher evaluations. Opposition to the evaluation of teachers by test scores is growing among parents as well. In a 2014 national poll, only 31 percent of parents thought teachers should be evaluated using student test scores. The public understands the negative consequences to students when their scores are used to evaluate their teachers.
New York students are already reeling under the rapid implementation of the Common Core and its tests. If the scores from those tests become 40 percent of a teacher’s evaluation and can unilaterally determine a teacher’s being rated ineffective, then the pressures on students will be enormous. A botched Common Core reform effort will become even worse. Although Tisch’s plan might result in a bump in scores, it will not be healthy or good for students, especially those with learning challenges already under tremendous stress from the Common Core and its excessively long and difficult tests.
The Tisch plan is a power grab designed to snatch away the right of elected Boards of Education to determine what is quality teaching, by shifting it to a formula produced in Albany based on flawed tests. Ironically, these are the same tests which the Governor and legislature say, in law, should have no consequential effects on students. But there is no problem using those tests to boot Sheri Lederman and teachers like her out the door.
Sheri is not accepting her unfair rating without a fight. She has gone to court. Judge Richard Platkin of the New York State Supreme Court directed the State Education Department to show cause on January 16, as to why the rating of Dr. Lederman should not be declared arbitrary and capricious — but the state requested a delay until March 20 because, apparently, officials were still assembling their data. In the meantime, I suggest that Ms. Tisch and Mr. Cuomo sit in the back of Sheri’s classroom and watch this brilliant woman teach. Then they should go out to parents and explain how she is ineffective and why she should not be allowed to teach their children anymore.
You may also be interested in these posts by Burris: