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The Answer Sheet: What the ‘Thoughtless’ N.Y. Government Just Did to Teachers

Budget bills sit on legislators’ desks in the New York Assembly Chamber at the state Capitol on Monday, March 30, 2015, in Albany, N.Y. On Tuesday the legislature approved a budget along with education reforms fiercely opposed by teachers unions because they created a highly controversial new evaluation system.  (AP Photo/Mike Groll)


The New York legislature this week approved a budget along with some education reforms proposed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo that have been strongly opposed by teachers in part because they make the state’s awful teacher evaluation system even worse. In this post, award-winning principal Carol Burris explains exactly why what the legislature did is so harmful to public schools.

Burris of South Side High School, who has been exposing the botched school reform program in New York on 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. In 2010, she was selected as the 2010 New York State Outstanding Educator by the School Administrators Association of New York State.


By Carol Burris

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.

This is the plan they approved: Teachers will receive two, component scores–one based on “student performance” and a second based on observations. State standardized tests must be used for the first score, if such tests are part of the course or grade level taught by the teacher. Schools may add an additional test, but it must be created by the New York State Education Department (NYSED), or be on a NYSED approved list. In both cases, NYSED must create the means to generate a standardized “growth score” for that test. Clearly, when the legislature politely called this measure “student performance,” they were talking about tests, not talent shows.

Using a matrix, the two scores (performance and observation) will be blended to produce the final evaluation score, according to the line by line instructions in the bill, which you can find here.

The outcomes of the various combinations of the two subcomponent scores are given in the chart below.


There is one exception. If a district decides to use an optional second test in the test component and the teacher is ineffective, the teacher must be rated ineffective overall no matter how they are rated in observations. Incredibly, both Chancellor  Merryl Tisch and United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew as well as many who voted for the bill, claim tests do not comprise 50 percent of the new APPR evaluation. As Stuyvesant High School math teacher, Gary Rubenstein, explained, if the tests were not worth 50 percent, the chart would not have symmetry. It’s a simple concept apparently not being grasped by policy makers.

Educators who teach English and math in Grades 3-8 will have their test-score growth component based on the ELA and math Common Core tests. High school teachers, whose classes end in Regents exams, will be evaluated based on Regents “growth scores” determined by the NYSED. All other teachers will be evaluated based on “SLOs,” which will be developed by the NYSED. All of the above is specifically outlined in the bill.

Of one thing you can be certain. The NYSED created growth-score and measures will produce a bell-curve. This will produce the “differentiation” that the chancellor and governor crave. You can also bet these scores will not be a valid or reliable measure of teacher performance. After all, that is the hallmark of APPR.

The other half of the evaluation will be the result of two required and one optional observation. One required observation must be done by a teacher’s administrator or principal, and the other by an “independent” evaluator from outside the building. When school officials complained that using outside observers was an unfunded mandate, the glib reply was just swap administrators among schools.

Let’s think about that plan. For districts like mine with one high school, swapping administrators might mean that the elementary principal would observe our IB Physics teacher and I would watch a kindergarten class. Without any knowledge of the curriculum, students, and the teacher, we would do a high-stakes observation.

As we principals go on the road to observe teachers in other schools, we would leave our students and teachers without leadership if a crisis were to occur. This would be especially difficult in some areas of rural New York, where schools are far apart. With observations an hour in length, pre- and post-observation conferences and travel time, schools would be without their principals for days given the number of observations we are now required to do.   Apparently the governor is not worried. When parents call and I am observing a teacher across town, I will tell my assistant to forward the call to him.

And exactly how would this improve instruction? It won’t. Outsiders, who have no vested interest in helping the teacher improve, would see the observation as a checklist and chore.

But the governor and legislature did not stop there in their quest to micromanage the evaluation of teachers. They also put into to law what can’t be included in the evaluation. Lesson plans and student or parent feedback surveys are forbidden. There is no place in this evaluation to include the quality of the relationship that a teacher has with her students or the families she serves. Two teaching snapshots and student “performance” are all that counts.

And what will be the likely effects on students when their performance on tests determines half of their teacher’s evaluation?   With state-created growth scores on Regents exams, every high-school teacher will be incentivized to push weaker students out of challenging classes like Advanced Algebra, Physics and Chemistry. Low track classes with their softer SLOs will be a more attractive option for increasing teacher “growth.”   AP and IB courses will again be for the elite who will score well. Narrow teaching to the 3-8 Common Core tests and test prep will be further incentivized now that teachers will no longer be protected by the gentler local measures that wise superintendents created and used to shield teachers from capricious value-added model scores.

As equally horrifying as the plan itself was the televised debate.

Here are just two of many memorable quotes. You can watch the debate here[1]:

“Those teachers that are responsible and are doing their job, those teachers that sacrifice their families and themselves for the children they serve are going to be protected.  Those that are not good, better get a job at McDonalds.” — Carmen E. Arroyo, 84th District

  “I have struggled with the Regents the past two years. I feel good we have made some progress we have sent a message that we are looking for change. I think many of us would agree that the debacle, that the implementation of the common core standards was at their feet and I hope we have been able to send word that we want a change…I hope they will do the right thing, we’ve punted this to them. If they don’t do the right thing I will help lead the charge on opting out of high stakes testing.” -– Patricia Fahy, District 109

The day after the vote, still not understanding what she voted on, Assemblywoman Jo Anne Simon wrote in an e-mail to a constituent:

The budget adopted by the Senate and Assembly and signed by the Governor no longer links teacher performance evaluations to standardized test scores and outside evaluators.  That is a step in the right direction because these have no connection to schools or the dynamics that make for good teaching and good schools.  Instead teacher evaluations – which are already a matter of law – will be done according to a mix of factors.  These include local assessments and multiple measures of learning, albeit not the universe of those I would have preferred.”

Ms. Simon, please read the bill.

The other day, Pope Francis talked about the importance of teachers in the lives of students.   He spoke about the great responsibility that teachers have and the need for schools to be anchors for children in an unsettled world. According to Pope Francis, this can only happen if the school “has teachers capable of giving meaning to the school, to study and culture, without reducing everything to the mere transmission of technical knowledge.”

He continued, “You must not teach just content, but the values and customs of life. A computer can teach content. “ And he concluded by saying, how important it is that teachers “aim to build an educational relationship with each student, who must feel welcomed and loved for what he or she is, with all of their limitations and potential.”

Not one of those qualities of outstanding teachers made it into the bill. Such things are of no consequence to those fixated on test performance and the metrics of ratings. We are losing an entire generation of students to bell curves, sorting and measurement. And a thoughtless New York government just hastened that destruction without care.

[1] You can watch the debate by choosing 3-31-15 Session 2

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Valerie Strauss

Valerie Strauss is the Washington Post education writer.

Carol C. Burris

Carol Corbett Burris became Executive Director of the Network for Public Education Foundation in August 2015, after serving as principal of South Side High School...