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The War on Error: NY State’s Misguided Attempt To Publicize Teacher Evaluations

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In a convoluted effort to showcase NY State’s emphasis on teacher accountability, legislation had been advanced to release teacher performance evaluations to the general public. This drive to “accountability” was indubitably tied to $700 million in federal funds from President Obama’s Race to the Top program originally designed to improve instruction. Unfortunately, this became a political nightmare that pitted the state’s powerful teacher’s unions against legislators, making a situation that was supposed to enhance education something less than a teachable moment.

Complicating matters was the involvement of media organizations that championed the release to the public. Their point of view was that parents and students had a right to this information, especially in light of some abysmal numbers on state assessments. The goal here is painfully obvious; reveal poorly performing teachers in hopes of eventually improving their outcomes or removing them from the classroom at some point if students’ scores do not improve.

There are many problems inherent with this kind of thinking. While there is no question that we need to improve instruction, public humiliation of teachers should not be part of the equation. The thinking is that they are public employees and this previously confidential information should be made public; however, we do not see the same call for revealing reviews of police, firefighters, or even state legislators for that matter. This has more to do with the federal funds than anything else, and this will indirectly affect students in ways that have nothing to do with enhancing the classroom experience.

Fortunately, Governor Andrew Cuomo got involved in the process, and he crafted an alternate plan in which the evaluations would be revealed only to the parents and guardians of students currently in the teacher’s class. This bill passed the Assembly and then the Senate, and it is a tremendous (if temporary) victory for the governor and the unions. United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew said, “Finding the balance between students’ needs, parents’ rights, and teachers’ rights is what this bill does.”

Still, the most worrisome aspect of these evaluations is that test scores will be used (along with formal observations) to gauge teacher performance. The state assessments are dubious instruments and are insufficient means to a frustrating end for educators. Only this spring a ridiculous reading selection on the state’s 8th grade English exam regarding a talking pineapple caused students, teachers, and parents to question the validity of the entire test. Students had no idea how to answer the questions, and the state eventually said that the questions would not count towards students’ grades; however, the test is still inextricably linked to those teacher’s evaluations. If you are wondering why you are not alone.

The answer is fairly obvious; besides the Race to the Top money, New York State is heavily invested in these state assessments. It has a five-year $32 million contract with Pearson, which means these tests are going nowhere. Apparently, the teachers and students are headed in the same direction as well. This is New York State’s War of Error, and it sadly is going to be as long a slog as the war that still drags on in Afghanistan, with a conclusion that will be way short of satisfying for all involved.

If you are wondering where all of this started, it began with George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind and has been exacerbated by Mr. Obama’s Race to the Top. If every child is expected to learn, every child is expected to pass the tests. Unfortunately, for a teacher with a low performing class the likelihood of that happening is almost impossible. Therefore, his or her evaluation (and thus level of “success”) will be directly affected by the questionable assessments. How many “talking pineapples” do we need to make it apparent that this is an ineffective way to evaluate teachers?

Teacher accountability is essential, and I am all in favor of clear, precise, and equitable ways to assess teacher performance that involve a combination of informal and formal observations, professional development, and instructional planning. As a school administrator for many years, I can walk into a classroom and know within five minutes whether or not a teacher is effective. I do not need to see standardized test scores and, in fact, in my experience, low tests scores have never reflected the quality of the teaching in a particular classroom. When I witness a dynamic classroom environment where the teacher is guiding the students who are actively involved and engaged, I know everything I need to know.

Conversely, teachers have to face the reality that these tests are not going away, nor is the public clamor to see their performance evaluations. They need to realize these truths, but I fear that this will sway many teachers to do the thing we educators (at least those who truly care) fear most: teach to the test. Make no mistake, this is already happening in schools all across the state. With the pressure of accountability tied to these abdominal test scores, districts everywhere are doing the unthinkable.

A very good friend who is a New York City teacher revealed so much in confidence. She said she spent most of the year getting her fourth graders ready for the state math and English tests in April, and then every day after that getting ready for the state science exams at the end of May and beginning of June. This revelation, while not surprising, confirmed my worst fears and should send shivers down the spine of anyone who cares about education in this state.

So later this year, parents will be able to see their children’s teachers’ evaluations. They do not get a copy but will be allowed to make notes. Will this lead to parents comparing teachers on the same grade level? Will it complicate matters for principals if everyone wants Ms. Smith because they know her scores are better than Mrs. Jones? You do not need a crystal ball to see where this is going. Teachers, we are indeed moving to a place where the future of education is more than uncertain.

For now, Governor Cuomo is seen as the savior of teachers in this state. Sadly, I see him more as the a guy who did the right thing but only for the moment. I picture him as the Little Dutch Boy with his finger in the dyke. Yes, he stopped the flood for now, but what will happen later is not promising, especially once Cuomo is gone. He may as well borrow the famous line from King Louis XIV of France who said, “Apres moi le deluge.” Teachers had better get out the life vests and prepare the boats and paddles for the inevitable.

Photo Credits: Cuomo – nysgov.org; pineapple – nydailynews.com

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About Victor Lana

Victor Lana has published numerous stories, articles, and poems in literary magazines and online. His books In a Dark Time (1994), A Death in Prague (2002), Move (2003), The Savage Quiet September Sun: A Collection of 9/11 Stories (2005) and Like a Passing Shadow (2009) are available online and as e-books. He has won the National Arts Club Award for Poetry, but has concentrated mostly on fiction and non-fiction prose in recent years. He has worked as faculty advisor to school literary magazines and enjoys the creative process as a writer, editor, and collaborator. He has been with Blogcritics since July 2005, has edited many articles, was co-head sports editor with Charley Doherty, and now is a Culture and Society editor. He views Blogcritics as one of most exciting, fresh, and meaningful opportunities in his writing life.