When the Principal Really is Your Pal

By Jane Weinkrantz

 12/19/11

 

I haven’t spent a lot of space in this column on praise for administrators, so this month’s web article may seem a little unusual. However, the grassroots group New York State Principals has written a letter so important to our state’s education system and so eloquent in its message that I really want to thank them publicly. Long Island Principals Sean Feeney of The Wheatley School and Carol Burris of South Side High School have composed a powerful argument against New York State’s Race- to -the Top- motivated whirlwind romance and commitment to APPR, (Annual Professional Performance Review) the teacher evaluation system that lacks any basis in research or results and threatens to suck the creativity and enthusiasm out of our profession while simultaneously deadening the experience of learning for students. New York ’s entrance into APPR’s world of rubrics and matrixes is a little like waking up to find out you’ve married a creepy stranger after a wild night in Las Vegas . The decision may have looked good at the moment, but, in hindsight, it is a terrible mistake that could ruin everything.

            Feeney and Burris did their homework on APPR and refuted the system using facts and research rather than the sweeping generalizations and emotionally charged rhetoric we’ve become accustomed to hearing whenever education reform is the topic. They are not opposed to professional assessment in theory, but they are deeply critical of the state’s current plan. The letter cites studies which demonstrate that tying teacher evaluation to standardized test scores is not an accurate or consistent way to determine teacher efficacy, that the practice of using test scores to measure teacher quality doesn’t improve student learning anyway and that even if using standardized test scores would accurately evaluate teachers and did improve student achievement, the Regents exams and the tests New York has in place for grades 3-8 were never intended for these purposes. It’s kind of like sitting in front of your microwave to keep warm.

            Next, the principals address the negative impact APPR will have on students and student/teacher relationships. Plainview-Old Bethpage has a long history of encouraging students of all abilities to  “stretch themselves” by taking Advanced Placement and honors courses.  APPR would certainly put an end to this philosophy. With teacher evaluations tied to standardized test scores, there would be no incentive to ask students to go beyond the minimum Regents requirements since according to the letter,  “as suggested by Commissioner King schools might be more reluctant to challenge students upward for fear that poor test performance might result in teachers being unfairly penalized.” The primary focus of all schools would be on the core disciplines assessed with statewide tests. The enrichment students enjoy in second languages, art, music, technology and electives would diminish, if not disappear. Although Plainview-Old Bethpage’s mission statement guides us “to provide an academically challenging and stimulating environment for all students, and to enable them to realize their full potential to be happy, ethical and analytical citizens of the world,” if nothing changes, it is more likely that we will be providing our students with an academically limited environment and enabling them to receive a narrow and one-dimensional education driven by test data.

Likewise, with teacher retention dependent on student test scores, how long will it be before teachers regard their students not as minds to be challenged and nurtured, but as potential mines to be cleared in the path to job retention? How much of a bond can you form with someone whose lack of aptitude or interest could lead you to the unemployment line?  The letter cites multiple studies to support the contention that “teachers will be subtly but surely incentivized to avoid students with health issues, students with disabilities, English Language Learners or students suffering from emotional issues. Research has shown that no model yet developed can adequately account for all of these ongoing factors.” In other words, students with “pre-existing conditions” will have a harder time finding dedicated teachers willing to risk their jobs to work with them.

Finally, the authors ask a practical question: how can a state that has just passed a 2% tax cap afford all this? The cost of APPR training for administrators, when calculated at $120 per day per attendee, is in the millions. Likewise, the mandates for outside grading and rapid turn-around of scores on state assessments mean school districts will be spending additional resources to have student tests which used to be graded by teachers graded by outside contractors so that they can be used to evaluate teachers. Will someone be grading the outside contractors? The principals’ letter states “according to a recent report by the New York State Superintendents entitled At the Edge, 81% of all superintendents are worried that they will not have the funds to implement APPR in a way that would best serve their students’ needs.”

            Finally, the authors offer constructive ideas on how an effective evaluation process might work. Rather than grading individual teachers, they suggest that entire schools be evaluated because “student success is often predicated on the work of many adults in a school as well as out-of-school factors that are actually more responsible for student success.” Next is a call for piloting any evaluation program before making it a statewide mandate. Finally, they recommend the use of broad band terms such as ineffective, developing, effective and highly effective, rather than scoring teachers on a 1-100 scale.

            As of this writing, over 745 principals or more than 16% of New York ’s administrators have signed the letter. This figure includes Alison Clark at Stratford Road Elementary School ; Francine Leiboff of the POB Kindergarten Center ; Paulette Miller at Pasadena Elementary School ; Ms. Ronelle Hershkowitz of Parkway Elementary School ; Suzanne Gray at Old Bethpage Elementary School ; Dean Mittleman at Mattlin Middle School and my own boss, James Murray of Plainview-Old Bethpage JFK High School .  Over 4,000 teachers, parents and concerned citizens have signed on as supporters.  Real educators know how much the current model will hurt students and cheapen education; it is our responsibility to counter the gross generalizations and untruths Secretary of Education Duncan, Governor Cuomo, Mayor Bloomberg and other politicians have been so eager to spread. Thanks to New York ’s principals for initiating this protest. We owe it to our students and ourselves to keep it going.

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