the blog of Carol Burris

An outstanding music teacher tells Governor Cuomo why his reform plan is a bad idea

Doreen Fryling is a remarkable teacher of music, as well as a public school mom.  She does not support Cuomo’s efforts to make test scores 50% of a teacher evaluation.  Although Cuomo now mocks the present APPR system, he helped create it. He said it was “one of the toughest in the country”.  And now he says it is baloney, so he wants to put some crushed glass in the sandwich.

Here is what Doreen wrote.  I am so proud to be her principal.

Dear Governor Cuomo,

I am compelled to write to you regarding your proposed changes to the New York State Teacher Evaluations. This letter is an attempt to offer you a teacher’s perspective of your new evaluation proposal.  I have been impressed by your willingness to explore multiple perspectives on other issues facing the people in the great State of New York.  I write with the hope that you are indeed a reasonable leader who really does have good intentions.  I offer this letter publicly because I believe it is an opportunity to inspire others to generate ideas that can help students.

Governor, there are those who say that you have fabricated a crisis in education because you have been bought or that you are settling a political score with the teacher’s union for not endorsing you in the last election.  I will leave the speculation to others and merely address your current proposal and how it affects my children, my colleagues, my students, and me.

I teach in a school district on Long Island, one that consistently excels in all it does for all of its students.  We are not a failing school district, nor are we in crisis.  Unfortunately, changes made by your administration in the past, and certainly your new proposal, threaten the very stability and excellence that we currently provide to our students.  I see this threat in the school district in which I teach and also in my children’s schools.

There are negative consequences to your teacher evaluation program.  Curriculum is being narrowed to focus more on test prep in math and English.  Students have less access to a broad exposure to the arts, social studies, sciences, and languages.  Teachers are becoming demoralized, as the profession they entered out of a love for learning is slowly eroded into become a singular effort to raise standardized test scores.  When you propose to make 50% of a teacher’s effectiveness score based on these tests, you shift the priority of teaching for the sake of growing students as learners into teaching for the sake of preserving one’s job.

I commend your desire to help ailing schools.  Poverty, however, is the variable that most highly correlates with educational crisis.  A one-size-fits-all approach to “solving” the problems of failing schools, while ignoring the real problem, hurts all schools.  The same way that I support learning in my classroom by differentiating instruction, you should consider an approach that identifies schools in need and identify ways in which to support them.  Breaking all schools in effort to fix a few is nonsensical.

It is my understanding that your proposal to once again reform the teacher evaluation system is spurred by your belief that if only 31% of the students in New York State are proficient in math and English (which, I may remind you, is an arbitrary cut score) and 94% of the teachers are effective, then it must follow that administrators are blind to the ineffectiveness of their teachers and are inflating teacher scores.  However, I look at the same data and see it as a clear indicator that teacher effectiveness is therefore not related, linked, or correlated to student performance on standardized test scores.  Using high-stakes testing to give a teacher an effectiveness score would then also be illogical.

There are three big problems with the current proposed model for teacher scores.  First, basing teacher scores on standardized tests and a couple of observations only takes snapshots of a teacher’s year (and blurry ones at that); they do not fully reflect the entirety of a teacher’s interactions with students.  Second, if teachers and administrators believe these numerical teacher scores to be unfair assessments, then the scores do not inform teachers or administrators of anything.  Third, the measurements simply are neither valid nor reliable.

Your new proposal is to evaluate teachers with standardized test scores (50%), outside evaluators (35%), and internal observation (15%).  For something to be valid, it must measure what it’s supposed to measure.  Researchers have provided evidence that standardized testing is not a valid measure of student learning.  Observations, however, can be valid measures as long as they are administered correctly, consistently, and backed with evidence.

In addition, research has shown that reliability measures in standardized testing are weak.  As far as observations are concerned, they are not entirely reliable because teaching is a dynamic profession and constantly in flux.  Sometimes my lessons are successful with one class and not with another.  Am I overall an ineffective or effective teacher?  How will you know if you’re not observing every one of my classes?

Using non-valid and unreliable standardized test scores to represent teacher effectiveness erodes the teaching profession and causes inaccurate sorting of teaching ability.  Weighting these scores as 50% of a teacher’s score makes it impossible for good teachers with poor test takers in math and English to keep their jobs.  And as a side note, what about teachers who don’t teach grades 3-8 math or English?  Should standardized tests be administered in every subject area and every grade for every student, or should only math and English be taught in schools?

Your proposal also includes the clause that 35% of a score be assigned by an outside adjudicator (e.g. a SUNY or CUNY professor).  I’d like to point out that college professors are experts in their fields, and may be very good professors, but are not necessarily qualified educational evaluators.  To ask them to observe public school teachers seems to be a stretch.  Building administrators have a clearer picture of the effectiveness of a teacher.  They have daily interactions with teachers, get informal feedback from parents and students, and use comprehensive observation rubrics to deeply analyze strengths and weaknesses in a teacher.

Most teachers and administrators view the current teacher evaluations as a nuisance.   I don’t know a single teacher or parent that thinks that standardized testing tied to teacher evaluations is a good idea.  Your new proposal, however, takes the nuisance to a new level of panic, because a lot of good teachers will unfairly lose their jobs.  A lot of potential teachers (the savvy ones) won’t even consider pursuing a teaching degree, at least not in New York State.

Which brings me to my score.  I am embarrassed that I work in a profession that assigns me a score.  I am not a number.  My students are not numbers.  We don’t work in a factory where we make a quantifiable number of things, nor do I work in a business whose primary goal is to make a measurable amount of money.  Teachers work with children: dynamic, complicated, and growing children.  The same way it would be ridiculous to measure a marriage with a single number for the year in order to decide if you are going to get divorced, or ridiculous to only base college admission on G.P.A., it is ridiculous to measure teachers with a single score in order to decide if they get to keep their jobs.

What is useful is doing assessments continually in order to identify areas of strength and weakness, so that weaknesses can be addressed.  I do not “fire” my students who have weaknesses, rather I use information collected formally and informally to make decisions about how I can help them grow.  Teacher evaluations should work in the same manner.   And yes, children have the right to their education regardless of their academic success while teachers don’t have a right to keep their jobs if they are ineffective.  However, being that we are in the education field, it seems logical and doable to use the same philosophical ideas to improve teachers as we use to improve students.  And of course, teachers who do not improve should be mentored out of the classroom.  But in those cases, you have to implement an evaluation system that identifies weaknesses, sets reasonable goals, allows time for growth, documents, and reassesses.

My school district is very selective about the teachers that are rehired each year.  We have a high teacher effectiveness rate because the administration has built a teaching force that they stand behind and support.  It is not unreasonable to find a staff with all highly effective teachers if a school has put in the effort to create a strong teaching team.  In fact, you should hope that an administration has done so and that there is not a bell curve in a teaching staff.  Penalizing schools for truly assembling and nurturing a highly effective cadre of teachers, by reinventing the evaluation system so that more teachers are removed, is foolish.

I see the appeal in using standardized test scores and graded observation rubrics to give teachers scores.  Numbers are neat.  They can be organized.  They can help you sort.  But teaching is an art, not a numerical equation.  There are no set steps or singular prescribed ways to deliver instruction.  I don’t believe that the quality of teaching is a quantifiable entity.

I do believe that strong schools can exist without teachers being numerically scored.  I believe that schools can have all effective teachers.  I believe that using standardized test scores is a dangerous and ineffective means for evaluating teachers.  I believe that teachers are capable of improving, if needed.  I believe that teachers are greatly affected by many factors outside of their control, like the issues associated with poverty.  I believe that the teachers do an amazing job despite the uphill battles they face on a daily basis.  I believe that it is important to mentor out teachers who are not fit for the rigors of teaching.  I believe that teachers should be evaluated comprehensively and offered feedback and opportunities to grow.  I believe that teachers should be treated as professionals and respected for the invaluable contribution they provide to all of society.

Your current teacher evaluation proposal and withholding of funding for education undermine real solutions for improving education.  I would encourage you to explore ways in which teacher evaluations can be done so that they perpetuate a system where teachers can grow and excel, rather than unjustly unravel careers based on scoring models that are not valid or reliable.  I would encourage you to investigate ways in which to provide more social supports for impoverished communities.  I would encourage you to find ways to encourage talented and skilled teachers to teach in struggling communities.

Using teacher effectiveness scores based largely on standardized testing is not the answer to overhauling schools in New York, nor do a majority of the schools in the state need to be overhauled.

I would be happy to discuss this further with you.  I am invested in maintaining the excellence provided by the majority of schools in New York and in supporting struggling schools in their quest to improve.


Doreen Fryling

2 Responses to “An outstanding music teacher tells Governor Cuomo why his reform plan is a bad idea”

  1. biochemlife

    Reblogged this on biochemlife and commented:
    This says many of the points which I have come to understand about teacher evaluations most clearly. Using students standardized test scores to evaluate teachers is not logical.


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