Carol Burris: Why ‘school reform’ is a misnomer

Posted by Valerie Strauss on February 3, 2013 –  The Answer Sheet

carol burris

Carol Burris is the award-winning principal of South Side High School in New York who has been at the forefront of opposition to New York State’s new teacher evaluation system. Named the 2010 New York State Outstanding Educator by the School Administrators Association of New York State, Burris is one of the co-authors of the principals’ letter against evaluating teachers by student test scores, which has been signed by 1,535 New York principals. Here are excerpts from the keynote address that Burris delivered last week to the New York Performance Standards Consortium:

We are living through a time of unrelenting change driven by political and economic agendas. It is inappropriately referred to as education reform.  The label reform is not appropriate because there are three possible outcomes that can follow from externally mandated school change — our schools can become worse, they can stay the same, or they can improve.  Improvement would qualify as reform.

However, I do not think improvement is the most likely outcome when the culture and values of the corporate world are forced upon public education.

And for those who seek to profit from the turmoil caused by chaotic change, public education is the new real estate bubble.  It is the way of capitalism to always seek new markets.  In the words of Mr. Murdoch: Public education is a $500 billion market waiting desperately to be transformed.

And so each of us has a choice to make for our students and for our profession. We can stand up and speak out against ill-conceived change, or we can cower, hunker down and allow our profession and our public schools to slowly be dismantled.

I guess that brings us to the principals’ letter against APPR and how it came to be.  When my Long Island colleagues and I first heard that the New York State Education Department was seriously considering evaluating teachers by test scores, we did not really believe that it would happen.  We thought the idea was ludicrous — we thought it was political pandering — and that somehow reason would prevail.  We were wrong.  When we saw the final plan, and realized that we were to rate teachers with numbers in order to sort them into four categories, we were both indignant and outraged. Not only was this an assault on the professionalism of teaching, we knew that the negative consequences for our students and our schools would be enormous.   Although we understood that the intent of policymakers was school improvement, we knew that the opposite –school decline, was a far more likely outcome of the evaluation system called APPR.

We were naïve enough, however, to believe that the opinion of the principals of some of the most successful schools in New York State – principals who led schools on every national list of success — would matter. We thought that someone in Albany might respect what we had to say. Silly us.   We didn’t know that we were waiting desperately to be transformed.

Sean Feeney, the principal of The Wheatley School and the president of the Nassau County Principals Association and I decided that collective action was needed. We called a meeting of Nassau’s high school principals for the next morning. To our surprise, the room was packed.  I will tell you that in the past if you put 25 Nassau County principals in a room, you would hear at least 35 different arguments on the same topic.  Not this time.  We were united. Our collective concerns about APPR united us and everyone was onboard about writing a letter expressing our concerns.

Sean and I began drafting the letter, which turned into a short paper grounded in research.   Linda Darling Hammond, Diane Ravitch and Kevin Welner of the National Education Policy Center reviewed and critiqued it. We incorporated suggestions from our colleagues and we revised the paper.  In late October of 2011, our letter was sent to every Regent, the Commissioner and the Long Island legislative delegation. It had the signature of more than 600 Long Island principals. Today that letter has the signature of 1529 NY State principals and over 6000 teachers, other administrators and parents.

So what does that letter say…?

Our first concern centers on the use of test scores in a teacher evaluation model.  The research is clear-VAM scores do not produce stable ratings of teachers—different models yield different scores. How a teacher is rated changes, often dramatically, from class to class, from year to year and even from test to test.

The volatility of the scores is only one problem.  This year’s New York State growth scores had considerable bias as well.  Although the state’s methodology is supposed to give every teacher a fair shot regardless of the students they teach, that was not the case. Teachers and principals whose students had higher initial test scores were  advantaged by the model.  High numbers of free or reduced priced lunch students– disadvantaged teachers and produced lower teacher scores.  When confronted with the evidence of bias, Commissioner John King speculated that perhaps this  “is telling you something descriptive about where talent is placed…or the classroom effect or school effect…”.  Yet the scores along with their bias, are, as Bruce Baker notes, the measure by which the Commissioner will correlate the rest of the evaluation.

 The bias couldn’t reflect a flaw in the model…it must be the talent of the principals and the teachers.

It couldn’t be the effects of underfunded or overcrowded schools….it must be the talent of the principals and the teachers.

It couldn’t be a lack of accounting for tracking or peer effects, that operate at both the classroom and the school level, effects that are well established in educational research ….it must be the talent of the principals and the teachers.

It certainly couldn’t be problems with the test itself.  Everyone knows that pineapples don’t have sleeves.

Which brings us to the second concern contained in the principals’ letter  — the consequences for students of using test scores to evaluate teachers.

If the purpose of evaluation is to improve the instruction that our most at-risk students receive, APPR may very well have the opposite effect. We know, that the bias in the model makes it difficult for teachers of such students to get a good score.  When we principals suggested that teachers might worry if they were assigned challenging students, some folks feigned outrage and shock. What were we suggesting?

I don’t know if you have been following the new outcomes based plan for doctors who work in public hospitals. The story was in the New York Times about a week ago. Essentially the proposed model is that doctors who serve the poor in public hospitals will have their compensation based on patient outcomes and their patients’ opinion of service.

Here is what one doctor, Dr. Himmelstein of Harvard University said about England’s implementation of a similar system in the article… “…when primary-care doctors in England were offered bonuses based on quality measures, they met virtually all of them in the first year, suggesting either that quality improved or — the more likely explanation, in his view — “they learned very quickly to teach to the test.”

“I think the most interesting finding is, things that were not measured, in a few studies, appeared to have gotten a bit worse,” Dr. Himmelstein said. “For instance, patients were not as likely to stick with the same doctor, possibly because they were encouraged to see whichever doctor was available — speed was one quality measure — rather than the doctor who might know them best.”

Dr. Himmelstein also said doctors might try to avoid the sickest and poorest patients, who tend to have the worst outcomes and to be the least satisfied.  Here is the bottom line. No matter how noble the profession, human behavior is affected by incentives. And as surely as incentives affect the behavior of doctors, incentives will affect teacher and principal behavior. That is the premise of the entire APPR system–what gets measured gets done.  Test scores are in it because our policymakers are obsessed with getting test scores up.

The curriculum will narrow to what is tested, and teachers will teach to the test. A friend of mine was furious last week when his son brought home a multiple choice vocabulary quiz from his 2nd grade music class, which asked students to identify the definition of the word ‘commissioned.’  Surely this unusual test in second-grade music is a result of the fear of Common Core testing to evaluate teachers.  If you want to kill the love of music in a seven year old, that is the way to do it.

The third concern we had was the waste of tax dollars at a time of great fiscal constraint and a tax cap in New York.  A recent article reported that for the Syracuse School district, one of the poorest in New York State, the cost of APPR implementation is between 10 and 12 million dollars—all out of the district budget.  And that does not include the cost of testing, which nationally costs taxpayers billions.  If all of that fortune were used to reduce class size, hire support personnel, hire instructional coaches, open high quality pre-schools, reduce racially isolated schooling, and help teachers develop thoughtful assessments that allowed students to demonstrate what they know, rather than to try to catch them in what they don’t know, how much better our schools would be.  It may be true that what gets measured gets done, but in the good school, the child-centered school, what is nurtured grows.

And so principals asked that APPR be piloted, that we have freedom in the way we incorporate student learning and that teachers not be ranked by numbers.  Massachusetts created a Race to the Top approved evaluation system with less test score impact, and which does not assign a number to any teacher.  It is being carefully phased in over the course of years.  The response by Governor [Andrew] Cuomo to our concerns, however, was to tie state aid increases to APPR  to speed its implementation.

The final chapter on APPR has not been written, and I assure you, we will live in interesting times.  We will not give up and we must fight on. Your group, which is committed to performance standards not tests, is way ahead of the curve.  But we are catching up.  Parents are becoming increasingly alarmed by all of the testing.  The Niagara Regional PTA has taken a courageous stand against testing and evaluating teachers by student scores. They will introduce a resolution at this year’s N.Y. State PTA convention and I predict that it will be endorsed by nearly every region and by the full convention.  We are circulating an online petition that asks for a moratorium on high-stakes testing and it has, in less than one month, garnered more than 9,000 signatures of New Yorkers.

Every day that is filled with the wrong change is a day our students lose. Every dollar that is wasted on misguided policies and multiple choice testing is a day our students lose. And when teachers live in fear, feel discouraged and are overwhelmed by change in which they do not believe, our students lose. These misguided policies, masquerading as reform, damage the relationship between the teacher and her students that is at the heart of good instruction. Take courageous stands.  Make a difference.  And thank you for your service to the students of New York City.