Imagine two 4th grade teachers, John and Mary, who teach across the hall from each other. John and Mary have been collaborating on teaching methods for all 20 years of their careers, and they teach very similar to one another. But when their APPR results come back, John receives a rating of ‘ineffective’ while Mary receives a rating of ‘highly effective’. How can this be when they teach so similarly? As luck would have it, when the class rosters were randomly assigned at the beginning of the year, most of John’s students were very high scorers on the previous year’s tests, while most of Mary’s students were average performers on the previous year’s tests. As far as teacher evaluations are concerned, student test scores must show ‘growth’ from one year to the next in order for the teacher to receive a good evaluation. Since John’s students had all received such high scores the year before, there was very little room for growth. After all, most of John’s students got 4’s on the previous year’s tests, so there is no room for them to improve on this year’s test, thus it looks like John is an ‘ineffective’ teacher on paper, when in reality, he and Mary taught exactly the same way throughout the year. Mary’s students showed growth because they had room to grow, and so her evaluation appeared better on paper.
In addition, on the day of the tests, there was construction happening outside the school on John’s side of the building, while Mary’s side of the building was quiet. Mary also had an air conditioner in her room, while John did not, so John had the windows open. The open windows, coupled with the noise of construction, were a major distraction for the students, as well as the hot sun shining in on John’s room. Mary’s side was shaded. The result was that not only did John’s students not show any growth, but because of the adverse environmental conditions in the classroom, John’s students actually showed a decline in performance. To make matters worse, two of John’s students were feeling sick from a virus. Another half dozen students purposely scored poorly on the test to hurt John's evaluation because they were mad that John was not able to come through with the ice cream party he promised the day before when his car broke down in the hot sun on the way to school and the ice cream melted.
To add to the situation, each teacher must be observed by an administrator. As it turned out, John and Mary were assigned different administrators to perform their observations. The administrator that observed Mary happened to be a good friend of hers, while the administrator that observed John held a grudge against John and his family because John’s brother was in a car accident with this administrator last year. John and Mary taught the exact same lesson for their observation in the exact same way, but John received a much lower rating.
So John ends up getting an ‘ineffective’ rating while Mary gets a ‘highly effective’ rating, when all year long they did the same things in the classroom. John is now worried about losing his job. Under current laws, if a teacher gets two ‘ineffective’ ratings in a row they can be fired. In June of 2014, Governor Cuomo proposed a bill that would have given teachers a two year ‘safety net’ from being fired based on test scores resulting from the poor rollout of Common Core. But Cuomo never signed the bill. He was actually quoted in June 2014 as saying, “People’s lives are being judged by this instrument [tests], so you want the instrument in the evaluation to be correct.” Now, in December of 2014, Cuomo changes his mind and says, “I don’t know that those changes [the 'safety net'] would make a significant difference to this data.”
This comes directly after release of the teacher evaluation scores for the 2013-2014 school year showing that 95.6% of teachers in the state were either ‘effective’ or ‘highly effective’. Both Governor Cuomo and Board of Regents Chancellor, Merryl Tisch, indicated that there is no way that 95% of teachers could be effective when 70% of students failed the 2014 Common Core tests. I would like to say to both Cuomo and Tisch, YOU ARE WRONG, THERE IS NO STATISTICAL CORRELATION BETWEEN THE TWO.
Let’s give Cuomo and Tisch a basic example so they can understand. Think of it this way. If we try to teach Calculus to Kindergarteners, the teachers could do everything absolutely perfect as far as teaching methods, lesson planning, student engagement, classroom management, etc, but Kindergarten students are still going to perform terribly on the Calculus. In 2009, only 14% of NYS students were failing state tests. In 2012, 40% of students were failing state tests. And in 2013, 70% of students were failing state tests. Obviously the cut-scores were changed to purposely show that more students are failing. Even the best teacher in the world cannot get a Kindergartener to perform well on a Calculus test.
So, back to John. Since Cuomo changed his mind about legislation that he himself proposed, John can now lose his job. So, in order to improve his APPR score, John decides to cancel all creative projects in his class, get rid of recess, double the amount of homework that he would normally give students, and focuses his entire year on teaching to the test. What other choice does he have? Who ends up suffering the most? The students in John’s class end up suffering the most. Mary continues to teach in the wholesome way that she always taught, and her students receive the benefits of that wholesome approach. But John’s students now receive an education that boils down to nothing more than test prep. John is demoralized because he knows this is hurting his students and their education, but he pushes forward because he will lose his job otherwise.
On October 27, 2014, the NYS School Boards Association (NYSSBA) held their annual convention. They had 10 proposed resolutions slated for adoption. Number 10 was a resolution to Support the Continued Use of Student Performance Data in APPR. This resolution was voted down because school districts are recognizing that using test score to evaluate teachers is a flawed process. At the November 18, 2014 Ken-Ton school board meeting, board Trustee Todd Potter said that he was at the NYSSBA convention and witnessed resolution number 10 get voted down. The Ken-Ton School Board voted against this resolution. I would like to thank all those school boards that voted against this resolution. This is helping to fight The Firestorm Over Common Core, as the National School Boards Association calls it.
I have talked to hundreds of teachers across the state about APPR. All of them continue to indicate that the flawed APPR system consumes an incredible amount of time and money that could otherwise be used to help students. Teachers are already struggling to find enough time in the day to actually teach with all of the demands placed on them. In the November 2014 issue of the Kenmore Teachers Association newsletter, KTA Announcer, KTA president Peter Stuhlmiller says, with regard to time, “We are stretched to the limit, now more than ever.” He goes on to say, “If we juggle too much and are stretched too thin we will not be successful at anything.” This is exactly what is happening to our teachers with APPR. They are being stretched to the point where our Ken-Ton students are now suffering as a result. Our Ken-Ton teachers are excellent, but we have to let them do the job that they were hired to do. That job is to teach, and as Peter Stuhlmiller says on the KTA public website, “Our primary responsibility is to design effective and meaningful instruction.”
So what can we do about it? Actually, it is very simple. As parents we refuse to allow our children to participate in NYS Common Core assessments just like the parents of 60,000 NYS students did in April of 2014. Refusing Common Core assessments does not negatively impact our children or schools, but it will stop the flawed teacher evaluation system from moving forward and it will save our children from being used as political pawns in the privatization of public education. Teachers should be careful not to discuss test refusal while on school property or during the course of their work day. But as private citizens, there are thousands of teachers in NYS spreading the word about test refusal every day. Please consider advocating for our children by helping to spread the word about refusing Common Core tests in grades 3-8. Together we can regain what is being taken from us.
Eric Mihelbergel is an individual advocate. He is not officially affiliated with the Ken-Ton School District, Kenmore Teachers Association, or any other Ken-Ton entity, association or group.