Tests Are the Measure

Thinkers have long been discussing the meaning of human beings.  One such thinker, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., described the essence of people in this manner. “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”  Others, such as author J.K. Rowling, adds that the true measure of a person is how he/she treats not his/her equals, but rather his/her inferiors.

Governor Cuomo recently added his own twist on measuring a teacher.  A teacher is not to be judged by how he/she encourages a struggling learner to work to his/her potential.  A teacher is not to be judged by how he/she tells a bully to stop undesired behavior.  A teacher is not to be judged by how well he/she conciliates conflicts between students.  With the impending rollout of a revised teacher evaluation system, the ultimate measure of a teacher is a number derived from student performance on a test.  The net effect is that even more emphasis will be placed on the acquisition of skills called “gaming the test” while the art of learning and a more humanistic enterprise of transmitting the norms and values of our society will fall by the wayside.  The Governor’s proposed system of evaluating teachers heavily depends on student performance, which is solely measured by how well students perform on state approved exams and Regents exams.  Since a teacher will now face disciplinary charges if his/her students do not demonstrate “growth” on these exams, teachers are faced with the unpopular and ill-conceived practice of “teaching to the test.”  Equating teacher effectiveness with test performance is the centerpiece of this State-imposed policy on every local school district.  If I am exaggerating or misreading the law, then just consider what cannot be considered when evaluating a teacher: evidence of student development/performance derived from lesson plans, artifacts of teacher practice, student portfolios (except for portfolios measured by a state-approved rubric), use of an instrument for parent or student feedback, use of professional goal setting as evidence of principal or teacher effectiveness, and any district or regionally-developed assessment that is not approved by the State Education Department.

In other words, the sum of a teacher’s worth is defined by how well his/her students perform on an exam. The other elements that go into teaching (e.g. planning and preparation, rapport with students, professionalism, other student produced work besides test scores, goals and action plans, working with struggling learners, teaching students other skills besides test-taking skills, and others) are removed from the evaluation process.

Supporters of this revised evaluation system will counter that teachers will also be evaluated using a State-approved teacher performance rubric.  In fact, 50 percent of a teacher’s rating will be compromised of classroom observations.  This makes sense until any thinking person realizes how bizarre the actual implementation of this piece of the teacher evaluation system will become.  Under the proposed policy, a principal’s observation of a teacher in his/her school only counts for 15 percent of the score.  An “independent” evaluator will determine the other 35 percent.  Placing the insulting insinuation aside that principals cannot be “independent” observers of their own teachers, who will be these “independent” evaluators?  When school superintendents, school board members, and school business officials objected to yet another unfunded state mandate, the Governor’s office stated that “independent” evaluators could be administrators within the school district, but not within the same school building.  At its most basic level, a policy passes initial muster if the rubber can actually meet the road.  Most school districts in the State are configured to have a few elementary schools, perhaps a middle school and a high school.  Other districts have elementary schools and one secondary school comprised of grades 7-12.  The Governor’s wacky proposal encourages observation of teachers by administrators within a district, but not within a school.  This means that in some school districts the high school principal will be evaluating a kindergarten teacher, and an elementary school principal will be evaluating a physics teacher.  The last time I officially observed a kindergarten teacher was in 2003.  Even though I am a certified evaluator of teachers, I do not think elementary school teachers would want me to evaluate them and provide feedback about literacy and numeracy at the most elementary level.  Similarly, it is highly improbable that a physics teacher would gain useful feedback from an elementary specialist.  The one element of the current teacher evaluation system that I did support is observing all of my teachers perform in the classroom every year.  Watching the complicated art of teaching and learning in action is such a rich and fruitful enterprise.  The discussions I have with teachers on how to improve and what else we could do to make learning experiences more meaningful are incredible.  Teachers and school administrators do a lot of brainstorming together, and I do believe that instruction has improved as a result.  However, this new policy places a halt on these discussions since my own observations of teachers in my schools are not even half as important as an outside “external” evaluator.

There are other troubling elements with this proposal.  Administrators will be taken out of their building to observe teachers in another building.  While I do appreciate the opportunity to observe other teaching professionals, if I am needed in my own school building, I will be unable to respond.  School districts are not configured like Albany where staffers from the Governor’s office can walk over to the legislative building.

Ultimately, teachers will be measured by different categories: Highly Effective (H), Effective (E), Developing (D), and Ineffective (I).  Final ratings will be based on a combination of scores as outlined below.HEDI

One would think that the scoring bands to determine HEDI ratings would be based on research or some sort of faux-scientific statistical formula.  At least the Governor is honest and tells us that these ratings are not determined through reason or logic, but rather will be determined in a capricious manner by the Education Commissioner and the State Education Department.  Then, after two consecutive ineffective ratings, a teacher will be brought up on disciplinary charges.  If the teacher wants to appeal his/her dismissal, the burden falls on the teacher to demonstrate fraud.  The ultimate irony here is the fraudulent premise that this teacher evaluation system accurately distinguishes effective and ineffective teachers.  Factors such as poverty and parental educational background (that are demonstrated to have a real impact on student performance) are not considered.  Other external impacts, such as the assistance of a private tutor are also not factored into this evaluation system.  If anyone would like to read the entire bill, please click here.  It is no wonder that the editorial board of The Journal News declared that SED and the Board of Regents need to pause and press the reset button on this proposal.  The editorial can be read here.

People, both in the past and present, tried to define the meaning of humans.  I remember that in an episode from the first season of Breaking Bad, the protagonist, Walt (a chemistry teacher), attempts to measure the chemical composition of the human body.  After much study, Walt concludes that elements account for 99.89 percent.  What is the remaining 0.11 percent?  Is the remainder the soul, as religious thinkers have suggested?  Is it a person’s consciousness as psychologists have written?  Is it the mind, as philosophers have pondered?

It does not really matter.  The new evaluation policy teachers reduces teachers to non-conscious, soulless, and mindless workers that must teach to tests and are measured by such.  I am lucky to know and work with principals all across this great State that have offered their help, expertise, and time to develop an evaluation system that makes sense and can be implemented without much cost to taxpayers.  Our calls have fallen on deaf ears.  If government officials are still listening, I know that we, as professionals and well-intentioned people, are willing to assist.

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