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Peter DeWitt's

Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

When the Governor Sneezes the Whole State Catches a Cold

By Peter DeWitt — May 03, 2015 4 min read
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Instead of being a means of educational improvement, standardized testing has become an obsession in itself.” Sir Ken Robinson

It’s been a year since I have been out of the role of principal in a public school system. Although I work with public schools in a new capacity, it’s definitely been a challenge to let go of the role I held for many years. Maybe it was being in a great district, with an awesome staff and parents, or maybe it was the day-to-day interaction trying to engage students, but the role of the principal is one that never leaves you, even after you may leave it.

Unfortunately, that role is changing a great deal, especially in New York State where I spent 11 years as a teacher and the last 8 as a principal. A changing role is not a bad thing. After all, there is a lot of dialogue happening in articles, blogs and social media about whether principals should be called Lead Learner, Instructional Leader or some combination of both because there is an increased need for principals who will be heavily engaged in the learning happening in their schools.

Principals, teachers, students and parents working in partnership around the goal of learning.

However, the proposed changes in NY prevent principals from being instructional leaders, and has created a lot of noise which doesn’t allow for leaders, teachers, students and parents to focus on learning, because they are too busy being consumed by high stakes testing. John Hattie, who I work with, speaks a lot about the Politics of Distraction. School stakeholders can’t focus on learning because they are buried by the adult centered noise that surrounds them.

NY State is filled with politics and distractions...and parents are taking notice.

In fact, over 175,000 parents opted their children out from high stakes testing this year, which is up from 60,000 last year. There are numerous reasons why parents opted their children out, and I’m not going to get into it here, but we need to wake up and learn something from the opt out movement. 175,000 to 200,000 parents don’t opt out because they are happy with the present system of high stakes testing.

When the Governor Sneezes...

Todd Whitaker said, “When the principal sneezes the whole school catches a cold,” and unfortunately New York State education has gotten a cold because of the constant sneezes of Governor Andrew Cuomo. He wants the Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR) to tie 50% of a teacher’s evaluation to high stakes testing, among other changes, and the whole state has been consumed by the cold...to the point it has become a flu.

In January, Capital New York’s Jessica Bakeman wrote,

Governor Andrew Cuomo wants to amend his signature teacher-evaluation system by increasing the reliance on student test scores, decreasing the importance of classroom observations and diminishing local school districts' ability to design components of the ratings system.

Bakeman went on to write,

According to a book outlining Cuomo's policy and budget speech on Wednesday, the governor will propose a "simplified and standardized" evaluation system that rates teachers 50 percent on state test scores (or a comparable measure of student growth for teachers in subjects that are not tested) and 50 percent on observations."

In Creative Schools, Sir Ken Robinson writes, “When standardized tests are the primary factor in accountability, the temptation is to use the tests to define curriculum and focus instruction.” This, of course, is something NYSED has done through the use of the Common Core modules. Robinson goes on to write,

To be globally competitive, developed countries must offer something qualitatively different, that is, something that cannot be obtained at a lower cost in developing countries. And that something is certainly not great test scores in a few subjects of the so-called basic skills."

Where observations are concerned, we know they need work. They have not been outstanding in every school across the state, but there are many principals and teachers who have been working collaboratively on goals and better ways to engage students in learning over the past few years. Evidence based observations, which were part of proposed APPR changes a few years ago, have been taken seriously, and those should not be diminished for any reason.

The newly purposed changes also include having an outside evaluator to do at least one of the 2 or 3 observations done on teachers. It would be a better system if observations were done with teachers, but the outside evaluator option comes with many questions. How will this happen?

  • Does this mean someone from outside the building but inside the district will be included?
  • How does an outside evaluator begin the process?
  • Do they get to know the teacher and the class make-up?
  • Do they have teaching experience and understand the nuances of the teacher-student relationship?
  • Considering how important relationships are to maximizing growth in teacher observations, how will this person create ongoing relationships with teachers as opposed to being seen a compliance officer for the state education department?
  • Will this be an extra cost to districts that are already strapped because of a lack of funding and budget cuts?

A few months ago the governor called the present evaluation system baloney which seemed odd because he was the one who directed that it be in place. If you live in NY, you have no doubt seen the commercials where Governor Cuomo talks about two different school systems, one for the rich and one for the poor. Has his present system changed that? We are all for equity within the public school system, and would love to know if any of that has changed.

Another commercial purports that the governor has cut down on testing. If 50% of an evaluation is tied to testing, how does that cut down on testing? Test prep will continue to explode in NY, which will make one particular publishing company very happy. I understand that state leaders will say that they are not forcing schools to do test prep, but we understand that test prep will become even more commonplace.

In the End

For the last few years, education in New York State has been a mess due to the changes that have been put in place, but instead of stepping back to see what works and what doesn’t, it seems as though the Governor and others want to keep pushing forward although parents, teachers, students, leaders and researchers (like Robinson) argue that the changes are even more harmful, and opted out of high stakes testing in massive numbers.

We can’t keep pushing forward with more harmful changes. Education in NY state can be so much better, but the politics of distraction are constantly getting in the way, and we’re all a little tired of the sneezing from the top.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.