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Where is our Flexibility?

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Recently, John King, the New York State Education Commissioner, testified before a US Senate Committee about the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind law (you can view his testimony through this link: http://www.scribd.com/doc/124387499/Esea-Testimony). In his testimony, Commissioner King urged the Senate panel to include a federal requirement for teacher and principal evaluation. “It would be helpful in the potential reauthorization to set a few clear, bright-line parameters, and then to give states flexibility to adapt those parameters to their context,” King testified.

What might those “parameters” be? Well…those of us who have followed the recent “education reform” efforts know these parameters to be veritable pillars of faith. Namely: 1) the inclusion of student performance in the evaluations of teachers and principals, and 2) the use of these performance evaluations when making employment or salary decisions. This is exactly what Commissioner King requested in his testimony, adding that states must be afforded flexibility to adapt these parameters to the specific needs of the state.

John King wants to make sure that the federal government provides him with the flexibility necessary to apply its mandates to the unique needs of New York State. As State Education Commissioner, John King’s fixed views of what works best in schools has prevented local districts any real flexibility in demonstrating high levels of student achievement and teacher competencies.

What’s good for the goose is not good for the gander, it seems.

Last month, local news reports were filled with descriptions of the failure of New York City teachers union (UFT) and the Bloomberg administration to reach an agreement regarding New York State’s APPR legislation. Lost in the battle of blame was the fact that no matter what local agreement was reached regarding the implementation of APPR, the State Education Department could ultimately order a “corrective action plan” if it did not like the results of a local district’s APPR plan. As described in the second paragraph of the cover letter of every district’s approved APPR plan (see http://usny.nysed.gov/rttt/teachers-leaders/plans/home.html), NYSED assures the district superintendent that such a corrective action plan will be required if an analysis of data led it to believe that there was:

“unacceptably low correlation results between the student growth subcomponent and any other measures of teacher and principal effectiveness and/or if the teacher or principal scores or ratings show little differentiation across educators and/or the lack of differentiation is not justified by equivalently consistent student achievement results”

Ah yes…those student growth scores! Despite the numerous studies and explanations showing their unreliability (see, for example, http://schoolfinance101.wordpress.com/2012/11/17/air-pollution-in-ny-state-comments-on-the-ny-state-teacherprincipal-rating-modelsreport/) these student scores trump the judgment of the professionals in the school. If a district’s evaluation of teachers do not correlate with the teacher score that NYS gives through the unreliable and erratic value added or student growth model, the problem must be with the district, which in turn must be forced to change its methods for evaluating teachers. No flexibility there!

My colleague, Carol Burris, described the first part of a training series she attended recently in order to prepare her for Calibration Day. Ostensibly, the purpose of the training was to remove all biases from the observation process in order to achieve the holy grail of a fully objectified observation process. Despite her years of experience supervising teachers and leading one of the country’s highest achieving schools, Carol had to spend the day being told how to conduct a proper observation free of any bias. Of course, the biases being removed were the ones identified by the Master Coder, who is an unidentified individual somewhere in Albany. There was no discussion at this training, no dialogue about the flexibility needed to teach and supervise different classes based on the numerous variables related to a class (e.g., student composition, time of day).

Gone are the days of dialogue in New York State; instead, we are repeatedly reminded that SED has the keys to what works in schools. We are told to simply follow along so that our students will find success. Are you wondering how to evaluate teachers and principals? Forget what years of practice and research tell us about what works. Instead, you must follow SED’s APPR guidelines. Forget what research tells us about developing a positive and collaborative culture  (http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/oct09/vol67/num02/Creating-Collaborative-Cultures.aspx). Instead, expect to be told each year that a specific percentage of your faculty are ineffective and must be removed. The collective voices and experience of some of this country’s most effective educators are being ignored. Don’t think; follow.

Recently, New York State announced an exciting grant opportunity “to provide funds to support the dissemination of effective practices and programs that have been developed, tested, and proven successful” in schools (http://www.p12.nysed.gov/funding/currentapps.html#nycs_dissemination). With eighteen of the top hundred high schools in the country (as ranked by Newsweek http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2012/05/20/america-s-best-high-schools.html), it would seem that such a grant opportunity would be a wonderful opportunity for some of our high achieving schools to share their best practices. But wait! These grants are not for public schools to share their practices. Rather, the grant funds “are made available to assist charter schools in disseminating their successful innovations to any district school(s) in New York through designated partnerships.” Once again, in John King’s rigid view of what works in schools, Charter Schools are the answer; public schools have little to share regarding best practices. This is not what some of the most recent research related to Charter Schools tells us: http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/inside-school-research/2013/02/charters_struggle_with_staffing_like_traditional_schools_study_finds.html. What message is being sent to the very people that our Commissioner is supposed to be leading?

Why does the Commissioner of Education refuse to engage in any real dialogue about successful practices in New York State schools? Why are the deep concerns of nearly 1600 New York State principals (see www.newyorkprincipals.org) dismissed as simply the anxieties of individuals faced with change (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/28/education/principals-protest-increased-use-of-test-scores-to-evaluate-educators.html?pagewanted=all)? Why is he asking for the very type of flexibility from the federal government that he refuses to accord districts in New York?


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