The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why an award-winning principal feels she must retire early

Principal Carol Burris (Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara)

Carol Burris is the award-winning principal of South Side High School in the Rockville Centre School District in New York. Before she took that position in 2000, she taught at  the middle and high school levels and earned a doctorate from Teachers College, Columbia University. Her dissertation, which studied her district’s detracking reform in math, received the 2003 National Association of Secondary Schools’ Principals Middle Level Dissertation of the Year Award. She 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 was tapped as the 2010 New York State Outstanding Educator by the School Administrators Association of New York State.

She has also written several books, numerous articles and many posts on this blog about the seriously botched implementation of school reform in her state — including the Common Core standards and the implementation of high-stakes Core-aligned exams — and about the misuse and abuse of high-stakes standardized tests. One of her most recent Answer Sheet posts, titled “What the ‘thoughtless’ N.Y. government just did to teachers,” critiqued the new teacher evaluation system pushed by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and passes by the state legislature that makes standardized test scores all-important even though assessment experts have warned against using student test scores to assess educators. She wrote:

The New York State legislature celebrated the Eve of April Fools by making a bad teacher evaluation system even worse.   With the exception of a few principled members, the rest of the Senate and Assembly fell in line, without care or concern for the consequences their “reform” would bring. More remarkably, by the time debate was done, it was obvious that many legislators had no understanding of what they were voting into law.
The bill was bundled with the budget. There was no opportunity for the profession, including those who actually evaluate teachers or principals, to weigh in. In the end, the legislature caved to Cuomo’s demand that student test scores be 50 percent of a teacher and principal’s evaluation.

And now, she is leaving her job. After advocating for public education and against corporate education reform for years, Burris has decided to retire early. Here is the speech that she gave to a group of music teachers on Tuesday in which she announced her departure and her reasons for doing so:

I am honored to be your guest today.  The struggle against the domination of standardized testing as the measure of children, teachers and schools has deepened my appreciation of the importance of the arts in children’s lives. Music teachers instinctually understand what is at stake. Since the beginning of no Child Left Behind, you have watched time for art and music shrink, and time for tested subjects and test prep expand.
I spent the last four days of spring vacation with my 4-year old granddaughter. No matter where we went, we sang. We perfected a duo of Zippity Doo Daa, mastered a dramatic performance of Hard Knock Life, and engaged in rousing choruses of Who Threw the Overalls in Mrs. Murphy’s Chowder.  During those four days, we sang and read for the joy and beauty of sound and language.   That is what the education of the young child should be.
I grew up in a low-income home where dinner often varied between scrambled eggs and scrambled eggs with ketchup. My father was a dropout. When I was young, he laid subway tracks by day and worked stacking shelves in the local A&P at night. Each week, the A&P where he worked sold a record in a series of musicals called Ed Sullivan Presents.  I would sit by our record player for hours, until I memorized the words of every song.  I learned about a state called Oklahoma and a mythical place in Scotland called Brigadoon. Siam came to life in King and I, and I mastered a 5-year-old cockney accent singing “just you wait Henry Higgins.”
More than half a century later, I can recall exactly where I sat while I listened, and I still remember the words to those songs. I was not singing the lyrics of informational texts. I was singing the language of heroes and heartbreak, of love and despair. I was singing literature and learning was joy.
We are now turning our backs on the very experiences that build on our children’s natural strengths in order to pursue higher test scores in this era of corporate reform. We have become blind to indicators of quality that can’t be demonstrated on a scan sheet.
The opinions of billionaires and millionaires who send their own children to private schools awash in the arts hold more sway than those of us who have dedicated our lives to teaching children. In the words of our chancellor [Merryl Tisch], we who object are “noise.”
Much to the dismay of Albany, the noise level is on the rise since the passage of a new teacher evaluation system that elevates the role of testing. I am not sure why I was shocked when the legislature actually adopted the nonsensical evaluation plan designed by a governor who is determined to break the spirit of teachers, but I was. What is even more shocking is the legislature’s refusal to admit what they did, which was to create a system in which 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation is based on test scores. Whether that denial comes from ignorance or willful deceit doesn’t matter. It is inexcusable.
What will happen to our profession is not hard to predict. Since the state has generated student “growth” scores, the scores of 7 percent of all elementary and middle school principals are labeled ineffective. Likewise, 6-7 percent of Grades 4-8 teachers of English Language Arts and math received ineffective growth scores. That is because the metrics of the system produce a curve.
Based on the law, we know before even one test is given that at least 7 percent of teachers and principals, regardless of their supervisors’ opinion, will need to be on an improvement plan. They will be labeled either developing or ineffective. We have no idea what growth scores for high school teachers and teachers of the arts will look like —  that has been, in the words of Assemblywoman Pat Fahy, “punted” to a State Education Department. Yes, they [state lawmakers] have turned the football over to the folks whom they publicly berate for the botched rollout of the Common Core.
Well, the legislature has woken a sleeping giant. Around the state today parents are saying “no more.” The robust opt-out movement, which began on Long Island, has now spread across rural and suburban areas in upstate New York as well. Over 75 percent of the students in Allendale Elementary School in West Seneca refused the Common Core tests today. In the Dolgeville district, the number is 88 percent. Over 70 percent of the students in the Icabod Crane Elementary and Middle School refused. On Long Island, 82 percent of Comsewogue students, 68 percent of Patchogue Medford students and 61 percent of Rockville Centre students opted out of the tests. And that is but a sample.
This is happening because the bond between students and teachers is understood and valued by the parents we serve. They have no stomach for the inevitable increased pressures of testing. Through opt out, they are speaking loud and clear.
But there is more work to be done. Yesterday I announced that I will retire early and dedicate all of my energies to fighting the assault on our public schools and our teachers. I will not participate in an evaluation system such as the one designed by the governor  or legislature. It is morally and ethically wrong.
It will take all of our collective efforts to win this battle, but we will. We have the trust and confidence of parents. What is needed now is the courage to speak the truth—not just at testing times, but every day. Together we will work for the day when music replaces the cacophony of testing and the child-centered school returns.

You may also be interested in some of Burris’s recent posts:

What the ‘thoughtless’ N.Y. government just did to teachers

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

‘Why do you believe you need the Common Core?’