N.Y. Governor Andrew Cuomo  (AP Photo/Gary Wiepert)

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s school reform proposals have infuriated educators across the state. Award-winning Principal Carol Burris of South Side High School is one of them and in this post, she  explains why. Burris, who has written frequently for this blog,  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, was tapped as the 2010 New York State Outstanding Educator by the School Administrators Association of New York State. Burris has been exposing the botched school reform program in New York for years on this blog. Her most recent post was “Principal: ‘There comes a time when rules must be broken…That time is now.’

(In this post, Burris refers to “value-added” scores, which refer to value-added measurement (VAM), which purports to be able to determine the “value” a teacher brings to student learning by plopping test scores into complicated formulas that can supposedly strip out all other factors, including the conditions in which a student lives.)

 

By Carol Burris

“Blaming teachers for the poor performance of their students on standardized tests makes as much sense as saying Rex Ryan is to blame for all the Jets’ failures.”

That was the astute observation of the Albany Times Union’s editor, Rex Smith. Smith’s column came on the heels of N.Y. Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s State of the State address, which contained a reform agenda filled with hyperbole, logical fallacies and flat-out misinformation. For Smith, Cuomo’s transparent campaign to “demonize teachers” makes little sense. The New York public agrees. The latest Siena College poll shows that New Yorkers do not see teachers as villains, and a majority side with the teachers union over the governor in the recent “war of words.”

And yet, Cuomo remains obsessed with teacher measurement and firing. Unhappy with the outcome of evaluations, he called them “baloney.”  He forgets that when the Boars Head delivery arrived in Albany, he was driving the truck. The evaluation system he now mocks is the very one he insisted be put in place.

In 2012, Cuomo called the new evaluation system, APPR, “one of the toughest in the country.” He referred to it as “groundbreaking” and “exactly what is needed” to transform schools. New York Students First, gave Cuomo credit for the teacher evaluation system—it was “because of the governor’s leadership” that this “groundbreaking agreement” came to be. So what happened?

Cuomo never noticed (or never cared) that the system he rammed through the legislature had a point scheme that did not add up. Cuomo insisted on scoring bands that would find a teacher “ineffective” overall, if they were found “ineffective” in student scores. That created a lopsided system. Teachers who had enough points to be “effective” in student scores could still be found “ineffective” overall if they got fewer than 56/60 points in observations. A teacher could be “developing” according to test scores, but unless she received 59/60 points in what Cuomo refers to as “the subjective part” (which is what anyone who really understands teaching refers to as the “important part”), she would be rated “ineffective” overall. A teacher can even be “developing,” “developing” and “effective” in the three categories, and yet be rated “ineffective” overall. You can read more about these flaws here and here.

Luckily, most superintendents had better math skills than the designers of APPR, so they worked with teachers and principals to create systems that would not land every superintendent in court looking like a clown. Superintendents, principals and teachers also realized that value-added scores, especially based on Common Core tests, were a horrible measure of teacher performance, as they watched one-third of New York teachers inexplicably change growth score rating categories during each of the past two years.

But don’t tell Andrew Cuomo that APPR is a bad idea. He is determined to now turn his baloney into one nasty liverwurst. He wants to fix the system by increasing the weight of VAM “growth scores” to 50 percent. It does not matter that a brief jointly prepared by the American Educational Research Association and the National Academy of Education warned against the use of VAM scores. Nor does it matter that a statement by the American Statistical Association reported that using scores in evaluations can reduce quality. Cuomo and New York state Chancellor Merryl Tisch believe they should defy common sense, research and reason and up the ante, even as the tide turns against the use of test scores in evaluations.

Tennessee, which was at the forefront of VAM, once used these scores as 50 percent of teacher evaluations. It was then reduced to 35 percent, and the present push by the governor of that state is to reduce it further still to 10 percent. Indiana is reconsidering adding test scores to its evaluation model and the New Jersey Assembly  just passed a bill to exclude PARCC test scores from teacher evaluations. Even the New York State School Boards Association, which had supported scores in evaluations, passed a resolution at its annual convention objecting to their inclusion.

Part of the Cuomo strategy of reform is the shaming of districts and counties where teacher evaluations indicate a high-quality teaching force. The governor’s latest target is my region, Long Island. Cuomo’s aide, Jim Malatras, has called for an investigation of Long Island teacher scores, which he implies were deliberately skewed for success. There is no acknowledgement that the flaws in the system his boss rammed through left Long Island with an unworkable system. Malatras also ignores how comparatively successful Long Island schools are. Good teacher evaluations make sense.

Long Island’s 2014 four-year graduation rate is 89 percent. The New York State rate is 77 percent.

If Long Island numbers were not included, New York’s rate would drop to 73 percent, placing New York fifth from the bottom in national ratings.

Not only are Long Island schools doing an overall good job in getting all students to the finish line—they do a better job than the state as a whole achieving equitable outcomes. Long Island is composed of two counties, Nassau and Suffolk. Unfortunately, the state Report Card website does not provide enough data to combine the counties on these measures, so I report them separately below. Here are three examples:

Four-year graduation rate for students who are economically disadvantaged:

Nassau County: 80  percent

Suffolk County: 77 percent

New York State: 67 percent

Four-year graduation rates for black students:

Nassau County: 81 percent

Suffolk County: 75 percent

New York State: 62 percent

Four-year graduation rates for students with disabilities:

Nassau County: 70 percent

Suffolk County 67 percent

New York State: 50 percent

The black/white graduation rate gap for the state is 25 points. For Nassau County, the gap is 14 points. Keep in mind that the New York State percentages include Long Island. Every one of the above state rates would drop without Long Island schools.

All schools, including those on Long Island, should improve, but if state graduation rates were where Long Island rates are, the governor would take (and deserve) a bow. The answers to better outcomes are under his nose. Why students on Long Island, including those who are economically disadvantaged, do so much better is not a mystery.

Most Long Island schools are well-funded. Per pupil spending is high, but so is the overall cost of living in the region. Long Island schools have reasonable class sizes, and their elected school boards are responsive to their community. They have cherished programs in the arts. They have social workers, psychologists and school nurses in their buildings. Long Island parents and school leaders are supportive of their teachers, who in turn feel a connection with the community they serve. In those Long Island districts where students are doing poorly, the above conditions usually do not exist, or are inadequate given their student populations.

The idea that we can make our schools better with teacher score-based evaluations, more difficult tests, and harder standards is a strategy that is not working. Rather than investigating Long Island teacher evaluations, the governor should investigate what Long Island schools do right. Let’s dump the baloney, bologna and liverwurst, and give our schools a healthy lunch. There are too many real solutions left ignored.

You may also be interested in:

Statisticians slam popular teacher evaluation method known as VAM

Principal: ‘There comes a time when rules must be broken…That time is now.’

High-achieving teacher sues state over evaluation