Ever the excellent teacher, Rochester's Rich Ognibene offered news reporters a compelling analogy to explain why he and seven current and former New York State Teachers of the Year are saddened and frustrated over the Board of Regents' decision to allow up to 40 percent of a teacher's evaluation to be based on their students' state standardized test scores.
"Our nation has an obesity epidemic. Imagine a law that required all doctors in New York to report the weight of their patients every year. Any doctor with a large number of overweight patients would be deemed 'ineffective' and given lower reimbursements. Most people would say this was unfair. Doctors can't control who comes into their office. And weight is related to very complex factors like income, culture and access to healthy food. Even the best doctor might not be able to change that particular number on a patient's chart. So the law would punish doctors who work with the neediest patients ..."
While it sounds like a far-fetched scenario, that's essentially what the State Board of Regents recent action would lead to, under regulations that offer districts and local unions the option of negotiating the use of student results on standardized state tests to account for 40 percent of a teacher's annual evaluation.
Ognibene stood on the steps of the State Education Department on Monday with current Teacher of the Year Jeff Peneston of Liverpool and former Teacher of the Year Patricia Jordan of Long Island. They delivered a letter to Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch and State Education Department Commissioner-designate John King, urging them to reconsider last week's approval. The Teachers of the Year thanked NYSUT and, in particular, Vice President Maria Neira for continuing to advocate for a fair, comprehensive and transparent evaluation process with input from practitioners.
"There's no question this will force teachers to teach to the test," said Peneston, surrounded by many news reporters and television cameras. "It's really a tremendous misunderstanding that, if we test kids more, they'll learn more."
Peneston said the increased emphasis on test prep would take teachers away from much more engaging and meaningful activities that will teach students important skills like problem-solving and how to work as a team.
The Regents regulations, which implement the law approved last year with support from NYSUT, does a great disservice to students and teachers, said Patricia Jordan, who was Teacher of the Year in 1993 and has since retired. "We certainly don't want to demoralize teachers or scare away perspective teachers," she said. "While pieces of the law are good, this idea that 40 percent of an evaluation could be tied to a standardized test would be destructive and demoralizing."
The letter below was signed by eight Teachers of the Year, who are named annually by the State Education Department.
Dear Chancellor Tisch and Board of Regents,
It is with sadness, pain and frustration that we write this letter. We are deeply concerned about recent changes to the State Education Department's Annual Professional Performance Review system. These changes, while politically popular, will neither improve schools nor increase student learning; rather, they will cause tangible harm to students and teachers alike.
The changes to APPR will kill the spirit of collaboration that developed from NYSED and NYSUT working together. Evaluating teachers based on test scores is a huge paradigm shift. The fact that NYSUT was willing to work with NYSED to develop a fair evaluation process shows good will on the part of teachers across the state. To unilaterally change the terms of a jointly crafted law at the eleventh hour poisons the atmosphere. Without buy-in from practitioners in the field, this reform effort is unlikely to succeed.
We believe in appropriate use of data to improve student achievement.
Likewise, we believe that schools should develop rigorous systems to evaluate teachers and support professional growth; however, to allow 40 percent of a teacher's evaluation to hinge on a single standardized test score risks great harm to our schools and the people therein.
We could quote the research of educational experts like Diane Ravitch, Richard Rothstein and Jonathon Kozol as to why poverty and parental support affect test scores significantly more than any curricular changes a school can provide. We could refer to myriad child psychologists who have documented the deleterious effects of high-stakes testing on our nation's youth. We could call upon assessment experts who insist that standardized tests were not developed to evaluate teacher effectiveness. And we could examine the last decade of educational results that followed No Child Left Behind: rampant gaming of the system to provide the appearance of growth, narrowing of the curriculum, excessive teaching to the test and virtually no change in the achievement gap.
All of the above would lead the reasonable person to be skeptical about using standardized tests as the engine for school reform. Worse yet, we fear that the competition generated by this approach will reduce the collaboration necessary for true school improvement.
To illustrate the challenges of the new APPR system, we offer these stories from our schools:
1) Andrew has a severe learning disability. He is a hands-on learner who struggles on written exams. His resource teacher, counselor and mother thought he would be best-served taking a challenging science course, even though everyone knew he would fail the Regents exam. When 40 percent of a teacher's evaluation depends on that test score, will schools still make this sort of humane, pedagogically sound decision?
2) Jason missed two days of school this week for golf sectionals. He is a weak student and will struggle to pass the Regents exam. He will miss yet another day next week and perhaps more days if he advances to the state tournament. These golf matches were scheduled during school hours by officials representing New York State. Does the coach or sectional committee bear any responsibility for Jason's performance on the Regents exam?
3) Tranh moved to America in January to live with his uncle. He speaks very little English and missed half a year of instruction. Who is accountable for his standardized test scores?
4) Simone will miss school all next week because her parents are taking the family on vacation. She will miss five days of instruction for this illegal absence. Will her teachers get an asterisk placed next to Simone's test scores?
5) Emily finally told her doctor and her parents that she is struggling with depression. She is starting counseling and medication. Needless to say, her grades are suffering. As Emily's life hangs in the balance, how do we find the strength to show her compassion when we know her poor grades will negatively affect our evaluation?
6) Trudy is a veteran teacher. She volunteered to teach a class of at-risk learners because she has the skills to do so. Her passing rate on the Regents exam will be significantly lower than her peers teaching the stronger students. Under the new APPR, what motivation will teachers have to take on the most challenging students?
7) Marcia teaches art, Beth teaches special education and Craig is a guidance counselor. There are no standardized assessments attached to their jobs. They are gifted educators, but they - like many others in our profession - will not feel the same pressure as those teachers who have a high-stakes exam attached to their course. How do we deal with the divisiveness caused by this inequality?
8) Diane teaches fourth grade. She worked diligently to prepare her students for the ELA. She went to workshops to learn about standards and her passing rate suggests great skill as a teacher. Last spring, the cut scores were changed without warning. Suddenly both Diane and her students seem less-skilled. How do we ensure that the vagaries of testing don't harm people like Diane and her students?
All of the above issues are real and will take time to work out. That's why the new APPR system must be implemented slowly and thoughtfully. Increased time would allow schools to grapple with these thorny issues. Forcing schools to implement a plan without proper preparation will produce anger, stress and confusion, none of which will help kids.
We fully understand the desire to improve accountability. Using external assessments for a small part of a teacher's evaluation, as agreed to by NYSUT, seems fair and reasonable. Changing the law without warning seems less so.
On behalf of our colleagues across the state, we ask you to please reconsider the original plan that was agreed upon by all stakeholders.
This collaborative approach would ultimately provide the most benefit to our students.
Jeff Peneston, 2011 New York State Teacher of the Year
Debra Calvino, 2010 New York State Teacher of the Year
Vickie Mike, 2009 New York State Teacher of the Year
Rich Ognibene, 2008 New York State Teacher of the Year
Marguerite Izzo, 2007 New York State Teacher of the Year
Stephen Bongiovi, 2006 New York State Teacher of the Year
Elizabeth Day, 2005 New York State Teacher of the Year
Dr. Patricia Jordan, 1993 New York State Teacher of the Year