Monday, October 15, 2012

Carol Burris Writes President Obama

Forwarded by Diane Ravitch

Carol Burris, who was recently named to the honor roll as a hero of public education, wrote a letter to President Obama. Carol understands how excessive testing is harming students and demoralizing teachers. She warns the President how this policy--at the heart of Race to the Top--will do increasing damage as it is institutionalized.

Dear Mr. President:
First, thank you for all you do.
I am writing because as the principal of South Side High School, an integrated high school in New York, I am deeply concerned about the inclusion of test scores to rate teachers that is a mandated part of Race to the Top and in the waivers. Because of this mandate, my state New York, has implemented an evaluation plan which is not respected by the majority of principals and teachers, and excessive testing against which parents are rebelling

Our high school’s philosophy has been “kids, it’s you and your teacher against the test.” If students fail an exam, we prepare them to try again. The goal is for students to take the most challenging courses they can, even if their scores are not the best. Our results have been great, with the school selected consistently as one of the top 100 high schools in the United States by Newsweek, and last year by US News and World Report.

But this student-centered, healthy approach to testing is changing now that we are forced to use student scores to evaluate teachers. In classrooms all over New York State, it is no longer “teacher and student against the test” but rather “teacher and test against the student.” How students do on the test will play a key role in deciding whether or not teachers and principals keep their jobs. Not only that, because parents are allowed by law to see the teacher’s score, it will shortly result in the public embarrassment of some teachers, based on measures of dubious value.

This approach is trumpeted as judging educators by their performance, which may resonate with some people who are not immersed in the daily labor of reaching a wide variety of students in a wide variety of ways. Although the New York model technically allows educators to earn up to 60 points for measures other than student achievement, the system is rigged so that it is nearly impossible to be rated effective or even “developing” if the test-score components are low. In short, test scores trump all.

The biggest losers of these new evaluation policies, in my school and beyond, will be students. A teacher will look at each student as potential “value added” or “value decreased” – that is as a potential increase or decrease on the score the teacher is ultimately assigned. With his or her job dependent on those students’ test scores, this teacher will now have a set of incentives and disincentives very different than in the past.

For teachers with young families and college debt to pay, the student who comes late to class, or who does not do his homework will become a threat to her job security. The troubled child who transfers in will be nervously welcomed. The student with disruptive behavior will be a threat to the scores of the rest of the class instead of a person to be understood and whose needs should be met. The score, not the well-educated child, will become the focus. The pressures will build to engage in exclusionary and non-educative practices designed to improve numbers at the cost of learning. Instead of pushing students to take physics and advanced algebra, schools will discourage weaker students so that the aggregate score for the teacher and principal does not go down.

This isn’t an argument against holding teachers accountable; it’s an argument against holding them accountable for the wrong things and in a way that will result in very negative unintended consequences. I wouldn’t want to teach in that environment, and I wouldn’t want my children or the students at my school to try to learn in that environment; but the incentives for teachers to teach to the test and teach to the best will be unavoidable.

And to what end, Mr. President? For over a decade we have engaged in increased testing with punitive consequences under No Child Left Behind. There is no evidence that the massive outlay in tax dollars and learning time has produced increased learning. SAT scores have not gone up. NAEP scores have remained flat. Remediation rates at community colleges have not gone down. Our students have not improved on international assessments. Rather than acknowledging that testing is not the lever for increased learning, the plan is now to increase the pressure. There will be consequences, but better learning outcomes will not be one of them.

There will also likely be endless lawsuits brought by principals and teachers questioning the fairness and legality of the use of test scores and these unproven evaluation systems for termination of employment. Yes, the New York State Board of Regents and others will certainly attempt to include all important factors that impact learning in their test-score-based “growth models.” But these models have serious weaknesses. The recent score that was issued was characterized as a “first attempt” at being fair by the research firm that generated them. Not a “good attempt”, not even our “best attempt”, but a first attempt. Nevertheless, the scores were disseminated by the New York State Education Department and teachers were labeled “ineffective”.

Models are intended to be simplified versions of reality, but they can be manipulated – and they will invariably leave out important unmeasured (and immeasurable) elements. Some factors beyond a teacher’s control depress students’ test scores (think here of behavioral issues, traumatic life experiences, drug involvement, or lack of home supervision). Other factors beyond a teacher’s control increase students’ test scores (think here of summer enrichment activities, private tutors, and simple parental help with schoolwork and other learning). These are nonrandom student characteristics, and the growth model’s assignment of students to teachers can be complex and problematic. Similarly, the practical decisions about these assignments are troubling. Should I continue to assign my best teachers the most challenging students, knowing that those students might pull down those teacher’s scores?
If teachers have a choice between working in a district with high wealth and college-educated parents or a struggling district with high numbers of students of poverty, and they know that their employment is dependent upon test scores, which should they choose? Which are most of them likely to choose? While growth models do minimize the effects of poverty on outcomes, those effects remain substantial. Accordingly, one of the many unintended consequences of the new evaluation system will be even less incentive for good teachers and principals to work with the students that need them the most.

I had hoped that your administration’s educational leader, Mr. Duncan, and you might rethink this policy. But it appears that you are going “full steam ahead”. That makes me feel sad. Last election, my husband and I gave you considerable support. This year, we are unsure who we will vote for or if we will vote for president at all.

I hope that you will rethink this misguided policy and recommend an evaluation system not based on test scores but on the encouragement of approaches to teaching that are associated with increased learning. We need policies that work to reduce racial isolation in schools and in classrooms and that encourage schools to include all students in excellent curriculum, regardless of test scores.

Great leaders have the courage to change course when they realize that their policies are misguided.
I thank you for reading. I cannot tell you how discouraged teachers and principals are across this nation. I am a 59 year old grandmother who will retire in 3 years. This policy will not negatively impact me personally. However, for the sake of our public schools and our public school children, especially our students of color and poverty, I ask that you rethink the Race to the Top requirements before horrible damage is done.
Carol Burris, Ed. D.

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