Gov. Cuomo’s reform agenda for the schools is dangerously wrong. It will harm students, teachers and public education. It will waste taxpayer dollars on failed policies.
The governor says that our public schools are in crisis. In fact, they rank the same on national tests as 20 years ago — in the middle of the pack. Only 30% of our students passed the new Common Core tests, but 80% passed the state tests they replaced.
Scores fell not because students or teachers got worse, but because the new tests were designed to fail 70% of students. Then-Education Commissioner John King predicted the failure rate before the tests were given.
Cuomo said in his State of the State speech that “everyone will tell you nationwide, the key to education reform is a teacher evaluation system.”
New York’s new teacher evaluation system rated 98.7% of teachers “effective.” The governor says this must be inaccurate because so many students failed.
He wants a system that will base 50% of every teacher’s evaluation on state tests (which currently count for only 20%). The other 50% will be based on observations, one by the principal (counting for 15 points) and the other by independent observers (counting for 35 points).
The governor is wrong about what “everyone will tell you.” Experts would tell the governor that basing teachers’ evaluations on test scores doesn’t work. Many superb teachers are teaching children who learn slowly — such as students with severe disabilities and English-language learners. These students received the lowest scores on the state tests (more than 90% “failed”).
Experts would also tell the governor that excellent teachers will be rated ineffective because they teach slow learners, and mediocre teachers may get high ratings because they teach in wealthy districts. Many teachers who are rated ineffective one year may be rated effective the next.
The American Statistical Association warned last year that the kind of evaluation system proposed by the governor should not be used to rate individual teachers. There are many factors that affect student test scores, including the home, poverty and students’ motivation. The teacher’s influence, said the association, accounts for only 1% to 14% of the variation in scores.
The National Academy of Education and the American Educational Research Association issued a joint statement pointing out the flaws of the measures the governor wants.
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Cuomo’s plan will also change tenure rules — so that a teacher can qualify for job protections only if he or she gets five consecutive years of effective ratings.
The consequences of these plans are predictable. Teachers will devote even more time to test preparation. Schools will narrow their curriculum, taking away time from the arts, physical education, science and whatever is not tested. This will harm students.
New York State will lose many good teachers who teach students who are learning English, students with disabilities, students struggling with poverty — even teachers of the gifted, whose students have hit the ceiling and can’t get higher scores.
And as good teachers are fired, who will want to teach in New York?
Meantime, the state will need to pay independent evaluators to rate its 200,000 teachers every year. How many millions will that cost? Why should the opinion of a drop-in evaluator be given more weight than the judgment of the principal who sees teachers daily? If a principal doesn’t have primary responsibility to evaluate his or her staff, what’s the point of calling him or her a manager?
Of course, teachers should be evaluated. The best evaluation model is called Peer Assistance and Review, which is successful in districts like Montgomery County, Md. There, new teachers and faltering senior teachers are assigned a mentor and given a chance to improve. A committee of teachers and principals eventually decides whether they have improved enough to be retained. If not, they are fired.
The governor also wants to raise the state cap on privately managed charter schools. This will not improve education. On the last round of state tests, the state’s charters scored only 3.6 points higher than district schools in math, but 7 points lower than district schools in reading.
Parents across the state are already outraged about the amount of time that students spend on testing. The typical student in grades 3 to 8 spends at least seven hours each spring being tested in reading and math, but weeks preparing to take the tests. Candidates for college, law school and medical school don’t spend as much time taking tests as little children in New York do.
When parents discover that there is no time for chorus or band or sports or history or science or foreign languages, they are likely to redouble their efforts to stop the testing. If Cuomo wanted to add more fuel to anti-testing fires, he has just done so very successfully.