By Gary Stern
So, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s shiny, new Common Core implementation panel had its first meeting Wednesday and there was hardly any mention of perhaps the most divisive issue in our Common Core stew: teacher evaluations.
This was no surprise because the panel is weighted with folks who generally share Cuomo’s thinking—Core good, implementation bad—and the governor has made clear that protecting New York’s new teacher (and principal) evaluation system is at the top of his education agenda.
The problem is that many teachers and administrators loathe the system, which became state law in 2010 and was updated in 2012. In fact, it was the teacher-evaluation system—known as the APPR for “annual professional performance review”—that began to turn local school district’s against the state’s reforms before most people were aware of the Common Core, new standardized tests or inBloom.
Educators across the Lower Hudson Valley insist: A) the system is too time-consuming and expensive to justify predictable results; B) the portion of the system that grades teachers based on student test results is flawed and unfair; and C) the system does not accomplish its main goal of making it easier to fire bad teachers.
In a series of Tweets last week, Bedford Superintendent Jere Hochman, a reasonable guy who doesn’t bash the state on everything, pointed out that legislators who are now attacking the Common Core rollout at every turn were the ones who adopted the evaluation system. He wrote that if it wasn’t for the link between student test results and teacher grades, the Common Core and other reforms “would not be issues.”
Agree or not, it’s hard to see school districts warming up to Albany’s directives while the evaluation system remains unchanged. South Orangetown Superintendent Ken Mitchell, who heads the regional superintendents group, said that the testing-evaluation connection is contaminating the schools. “Until that is rectified, the state will continue down a very destructive path,” he said.
Very simply, teachers are judged 20 percent on how students progress on state tests or other measures, 20 percent on district-chosen assessments and 60 percent on classroom observations. When it comes to measuring student progress, fewer than a quarter of all teachers have students who take state tests. So districts must devise other ways to measure the progress of most teachers’ students.
Educators insist that every district’s system is different, so that teachers’ grades on a 100-point scale can’t really be compared. For one thing, they say teachers whose students take state tests get lower scores than their colleagues.
Then we get to the tumult of recent weeks. Legislative leaders called for a minimum two-year freeze in using Common Core-based tests to judge teachers or students. The Board of Regents rejected a freeze, instead considering an out for teachers who get two bad ratings and are at risk of being fired. But the Regents quickly backed down when Cuomo attacked the idea as “another excuse” to ruin tough evaluations. Now his panel is just getting started.
Will the Legislature re-write the evaluation law? Will Cuomo veto any change?
Karen Magee, the Harrison teachers union president who is running for president of NYSUT, told me last week that while Cuomo is adamant about evaluations, he is not necessarily “married” to this system. She wants a shot to convince him that this system is “flawed, broken, not something we can repair.”
This past fall, state education officials released statewide results for the first major round of evaluations. More than 90 percent of teachers were rated “effective” or “highly effective,” while only 1 percent were deemed “ineffective.”
Grumbling is sure to continue when general district results (without teachers’ names) are released, possibly in March.
Local administrators have repeatedly told me that the system does not make it easier to get rid of incompetent teachers. They say it’s actually tougher to fire pre-tenure, “probationary” teachers than in the past. Some say that the real answer to teacher accountability would be locally controlled renewable tenure. But that’s a subject for another day.