Saturday, April 21, 2012

A peek behind the reality curtain.

In the early 1970's, I was president of the Fredonia Teachers' Association. We had negotiated a pay increase, but then the Nixon administration said that almost nobody in the country would get raises because of wage and price controls designed to fight inflation. Meeting with our faculty to explain that we had negotiated raises but they would not be receiving them was not a fun experience.

The current president of the FTA is Darrin Paschke. Darrin is a former student whom I had the pleasure of watching as he turned into a wonderful math teacher. He has been FTA president for several years.

Darrin posted a comment on the latest blog post (The reality of publishing teacher evaluation scores.) It's information worth sharing with all of you. Here's what Darrin had to say:

"As my twentieth year of teaching draws to a close, I live with the sad reality that education (brought to us by our state education department, governor, and unbelievably NYSUT to some extent) is no longer about learning or students. As the principal in this article clearly makes her point about the inaccuracies of the data reports, it is the tip of the iceberg.

According to NYSUT, nearly 80% of our members do not have state exams to generate this data. School by school and teacher by teacher, Student Learning Objectives (SLO's) must be created and approved between each teacher and their principal. For smaller schools who have only one principal per building, this is an amazing time commitment for both the teachers and especially the principal. The possibility exists for some teachers to have up to five different SLO's that need to be developed or purchased from a list of state-approved choices. Once an SLO is created or purchased, the teacher and the district will need to set goals for the SLO. There are no consistent guidelines from the state for the goals of the SLO other than the goals need to be "sufficiently rigorous". Ultimately, all of the SLO’s in a district must certified as rigorous by its superintendent. Thank goodness our superintendents across the state are specialists in every discipline! The goals will need to be adjusted and customized for each teacher because what is an appropriate goal in a classroom of high-achieving students may not be appropriate for a class consisting of lower-achieving or remedial students. 

At least the teachers who do not have state exams have this flexibility in their goals. Teachers who give state exams will have their scores reported to the state and have a number assigned to them based on a formula generated by the state. What is this formula? It will not be shared - but we should be comforted knowing that the state will be comparing our students to similar students across the state to make their judgment. Whether the teacher gives state exams or uses and SLO, this data will produce what we call the "first 20%" of our composite score. 

Never mind that some students have already figured out how to "beat" the system on some of the state-approved computer-based programs to measure student growth. The savvy students in grades 3-8 realize that if they continue to choose wrong answers, the questions don't get more difficult. Students who may have a dislike of a particular teacher can sabotage their growth to make the teacher appear ineffective. Since these tests and measures do not affect the students' grades, the only deterrent is that student who perform below certain levels will receive additional academic intervention services (AIS) the following year. If the students show sufficient growth in the AIS class after a few weeks, they no longer have to take this class.

As if this were not pleasant enough, the "2nd 20%" can use either the same SLO used for the first 20% (with the caveat that it is used to measure something different than was measured in the first 20%) or the teacher can create a completely different SLO for the second 20%. of course this will need to be approved by the principal as well - with the requisite goal setting and progress monitoring at different times throughout the year.

Finally we get to the bulk of the APPR... "the 60%" evaluation. Apparently 31 out of 60 of these points need to come from observations. Each tenured teacher must be observed a minimum of two times per year with at least one of those observations unannounced. Each observation now comes with a handy pre-observation conference and a post-observation conference between the teacher and the observer (hopefully your principal and not someone the district is allowed to hire to perform the observation). The observation process alone will require the principal at our high school to conduct 300 meetings with teachers per year. Throw in the SLO’s and this number of meetings exceeds 450. We have 184 teaching days per year at our school.

The other 29 of the 60 points will be based on a comprehensive evaluation rubric that will be completed by the principals with teacher collaboration. Some of the items on the evaluation rubric are not directly observable and require the teachers to provide "artifacts" to demonstrate that they are meeting the expectation. More meetings.

Obviously, in Fredonia, we do not have the administrative staff to accomplish all of what is being asked. At a time when the state has decimated what our district receives in state aid and capped the taxes (our two sources of income)our union agreed (last year) to a two-year concessions package in exchange for a guarantee that no teachers would be cut for two years. We agreed to keep the same salary schedule for two years, essentially freezing the top step. Those below the top step were not frozen at their step and were allowed to move up each year. We took a 20% cut in all extra-curricular, co-curricular, and coaching salaries, and gave up the 5 paid summer in-service days. It is crucial to understand that NONE of these concessions were permanent givebacks and that after the end of the two-year agreement, all is returned to the way it was before, and we begin negotiating a new contract.

At recent Board of Education meetings, our Board has projected that our fund balance will be gone in 2 to 3 years. After that, we will be forced to make devastating cuts to our programs and hence lose many fine teachers. Our district is also forced to hire additional administration to cover the gigantically unfunded mandates of the APPR - further eroding our fund balance. Ultimately, the APPR - even if it self-destructs in the next few years - will do irreparable damage to our students and to the protection our union has fought to provide our teachers. After a teacher receives two-ineffective ratings in a row, the district can initiate an expedited 3020-a dismissal for that teacher. Most districts will be unable to afford the legal fees associated with the 3020-a and will not remove the ineffective teacher. Governor Cuomo will quickly point out that something needs to be done to get rid of these “ineffective” teachers. This is the data our governor is looking for to pass legislation eliminating tenure and seniority in New York State. "

And that's your peek behind the reality curtain. Imagine you're a college student, and a member of the group who are called "the best and the brightest." Are you going to give up looking at better-paying careers to get caught up in this mess? I didn't think so.

Monday, April 16, 2012

The reality of publishing teacher evaluation scores.

I remember when--early in my teaching career--our local paper published the salary of every teacher in our district. After all, they argued, it was "public information."

It quickly backfired on the paper's editors. The general public reaction was, "You're kidding. You do that job for that little money?"

Fast forward 35 years. How times--and public support for teachers-- have changed. Instead of publishing salaries, the NY Times is publishing teacher evaluations based on the results of standardized tests. Don't worry small-town teachers, it won't be long until your local paper does the same thing.

I have mentioned before that I am an engineer who went into teaching. Part of my engineering training was in the area of quality control. Steel, for example, is supposed to be strong. Testing the strength of steel is a straightforward procedure. The results of these tests are an accurate measure of what steel is supposed to do.

Then there are the "value-added" results of standardized tests which are being used to evaluate teachers. The experts in the field of testing agree that these methods are not a valid measure of a teacher's ability. But politicians and school "reformers" have convinced the public that these numbers are as accurate a measurement of a teacher's ability to teach as tensile strength is of steel's ability not to fail under load.

Have a friend or neighbor who believes this about evaluating teachers? Send them this link to an email from a principal in a NYC school who has seen first-hand how wrong and devastating these numbers can be. Here's the link:

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Note to candidates: Classrooms are more important than condoms!

"It's Super Tuesday, and Ohio kindergarten teacher Nicole Kessler is frustrated. Budget cuts turned her life upside down this year: To save money on bus routes, her district turned half-day kindergarten into two full days a week and every other Monday. Her school can't afford field trips or professional development, and her classroom supplies were cut in half."

According to a recent article, Kessler is frustrated because none of the Republican candidates looking for votes in Ohio is saying anything about the nation's education problems. "I've not heard anyone say anything in Ohio about education," Kessler said. "Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum have been here a lot this week -- and it's been a lot about social issues. And factories."

When the candidates have discussed education during the debates, the major issue has seemed to be who will be the quickest to eliminate the Dept. of Education at the federal level. 

"While [Kessler's] district was able to pass a tax levy to prevent widespread teacher layoffs, if similar levies don't pass in other districts, many Ohio teachers stand to be fired. To add to that, Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) has "significantly" cut school funding, Kessler says, and plans to implement a content test for every teacher in the bottom 10 percent of schools, but "he's not sure how he's going to fund it."

Joel Klein is the former head of the NYC school system, and currently heads the education division of News Corp. (Rupert Murdoch's umbrella organization which includes Fox News).  According to Klein: "Unless voters insist that candidates give education the attention it deserves, this will be another political season in which both sides offer pablum without seeking a mandate for the ambitious reforms our schools require."

Klein notes that "the "pablum" comes from "this notion that education is a state issue, which is a traditional Republican notion. ... To simply say, 'Let the states take care of it' -- that's not going to get us anywhere."

One wonders if there were to be an outbreak of bubonic plague in several of the states, would the nation be content to view this as a matter to be handled at the state level?

According to John Barge, who heads the education system in Georgia: "There aren’t candidates that appeal to me on education right now, since I just haven't heard them discuss it.... But in my opinion, education is the number one economic development tool a state or a city can have."

Look around the world. The countries now "eating our lunch" in the education arena all realized that education was the most important factor in economic development and attacked--and solved--their education problems at a national level. Many, like Finland, still give much autonomy to provincial authorities, but the standards are set at the national level. 

Let's tell the candidates (both Republican and Democratic) that while the hot-button issues of abortion, gay marriage, birth control, gas prices, etc. are important to many, the issue of making the American educational system once again the best in the world is a critical issue when it comes to the economic well-being of our children and grandchildren.

And finally, let's not let them get away with the fiction that our educational problems will magically disappear once we weed out the bad teachers and destroy teachers' unions. We need to be smarter than that!