Pondering problems with principal’s letter

This post was written by Viri Pettersen, president of the Rockville Centre Teachers Association:

The First Amendment to the US Constitution addresses our right to freedom of speech. As such, I was happy last summer to see a letter generated by a colleague, South Side High School Principal Carol Burris, on the topic of Principal and Teacher Evaluation (APPR). Carol and Sean Feeney’s (of Wheatley School and co-author) letter outlined reasons against the APPR guidelines, and I, as a child of the sixties, found myself swept up in their fervor.

Eventually, I committed my hands to the keyboard and signed the letter. I made sure to include a comment specific to our profession, adding that teachers would not comport themselves unethically in order to acquire a favorable evaluation. A moment later, my name and comment flew into cyberspace, and was listed in the Principals’ Letter database.

In the fall of 2011, discussions on the letter increased in frequency, in school, in meetings, and with friends and colleagues. I never returned to glance at the signatories because I wasn’t particularly interested. I read about Principal Burris and her strong opposition to the newly termed “Teacher Evaluation,” periodically eyeing her posts in The Washington Post and on other forms of media. Emails came sporadically under Sean Feeney’s name, with content frequently urging readers to push others to sign while simultaneously providing numbers of participants. My concern grew on where this particular “train” was headed and where it would ultimately stop.

Slowly, the APPR was rebranded into “Teacher Evaluations.” In our district, Principal Burris told her staff of the mistakes made by NYSUT with regard to the evaluation system. In reality, it was NYSUT who took the State Education Department to court to hold them accountable when the agency and Gov. Cuomo tried to undermine APPR protections and to require teacher evaluations to be based on multiple, objective and valid measures of effectiveness. Principals in other buildings within our district simultaneously spread her word in order to garner support of the letter. Newsday got into the act. Washington Post’s The Answer Sheet became the primary forum for vocalization.
Our unit had no need to address APPR when this swirling tornado loomed overhead; rather, our principle goal was to determine the impact of the New York state 2% tax cap on our members. But, like an annoying hangnail, the Principal’s Letter continued to crop up. During an executive council meeting, a middle school building representative announced that her principal told her that her union president had signed the letter, so why didn’t she? Annoyed, I responded that I had indeed signed the letter, with a comment. Had my added comment been mentioned in their conversation? No, it had not.

I then wrote to Sean Feeney, inquiring about the status of the comments posted with the signatures. On January 25, he replied, “That is a good point, Viri. Before we went to Albany last month, we prepared a document containing many of the comments. We should expand on this document and post it to the web site. Given that we told folks that only their name, title and location would be made public, we need to make sure that the comments are not readily identifiable. They are worth sharing, however.

A sufficient response? Admittedly yes, since it was their letter, but not one that made me pleased. A visit to their website yielded a handful of responses, all adamant in their support for the letter. My comment was absent.
The push to attend the principals’ February 15 forum at LIU’s Tilles Center was inspiring, particularly when members were offered the opportunity to use the event as part of their professional development hour requirements. The PD decision was certainly an administrative call, but I do wish that a similar offer were proffered when a rally to save public education was hosted at nearby Hofstra University last spring.
When the APPR agreement was reached on February 16, Carol Burris twice emailed to South Side High School teachers and the LIU panelists her displeasure at the agreement and again criticized NYSUT.

As a proud NYSUT member, I knew that we would be hearing from our leadership shortly with the facts that made the settlement a good one. Sure enough, NYSUT promptly posted a Frequently Asked Questions section on its website and NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi wrote about why this agreement was good to students and fair to teachers.

Even through the next week of vacation, more emails poured out of Principal Burris, that were not just highly critical of NYSUT, but also inaccurate.

The spin grew steadily, through a well-implemented approach. But, where was the tone of the original letter, to rally support through educators … calm, rational, generally non-confrontational educators? What had become of the group’s initial intent? Was it to show voice on a common concern or had it morphed into a new battle cry, with teachers’ lives at stake? And where, oh where was mention of the principals’ evaluative component?

Leo Casey, a UFT vice president, cited data and provided sound explanations on the topic in his February 22, 2012 blog, “Setting the Record Straight on Teacher Evaluations: Scoring and the Role of Standardized Exams,” found on EdWize. Principal Burris tried to hijack questions of blog posters and respond with her spin. Casey, more than once, responded appropriately, accurately and professionally on APPR.

NYSUT also posted a “Setting the record straight on teacher evaluations” on its blog Feb. 24. The first person to comment was Principal Burris, continuing her “spin” which is corrected throughout the comments by not just NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi, but also Research and Educational Services.

In hindsight, the principal’s relentless responses and passion made a point, but simultaneously created a frightened and anxious atmosphere within our educational community. What had been a point of reference in the summer now became a vehicle for ego and anti-union sentiment. Ultimately, I admitted my mistake in originally registering with the Principals’ Letter database. I wrote to Sean Feeney, requesting removal from the signature roster. What could have been an attempt to cooperatively work with educators of all levels had evolved into a mess that could well hurt our teachers.
Consider my story. If you find that you, too, have fallen victim and question the purpose of this misleading and potentially damaging product, request removal as a signer, too.

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  1. C May 14, 2012 at 10:13 am #

    I am a big supporter of NYSUT; however, no person or group is infallible. This “blog” post seems like damage control. Numerous teachers around the state are disappointed in NYSUT’s handling of APPR.

    NYSUT assumed that the state exams (which in essence, is worth 100% of a teachers grade) would not be riddled with errors. Had NYSUT talked to more members they would know that state testing is a disaster and to base teacher evaluations soley on this (I don’t want to hear the spin on this – “ineffective” on tests trumps the rest of your score)

    I have heard it over and over…”NYSUT dropped the ball on this one.” Admit the mistake, move on and fight harder than ever. People are not happy.

    I expect that this will make it to the “Comment” section, if not it will be a clear indication that NYSUT can not accept some criticism.

    The “principals’ letter” did not create hysteria…it was always there.

    • NYSUT Research and Educational Services May 14, 2012 at 2:49 pm #

      There are a number of misconceptions about APPR, one of which is that state exams are worth 100% of a teacher’s grade. State tests are only 20% of the total. Local assessments determined by collective bargaining make up 20% and are the other half of the student achievement measures and 60 is based on teacher practice which must be collectively bargained.

      As to your other points, long-standing concerns over the state tests was the main reason NYSUT limited the use of state tests in evaluations. (Remember, that formula was decided long before anyone saw any questions about pineapples.) Members have long told NYSUT that local decision-making is the best decision-making. That is why NYSUT made sure that authentic assessments for the local 20 % are allowed and collective bargaining is central to the process.

      At the recent convention, the NYSUT Board of Directors, (which is made up of NYSUT members,) spent four days listening to concerns and frustrations about the tests. Delegates unanimously agreed on a lengthy testing policy that not only recognizes what is wrong with standardized tests, but also limits their use in evaluations.

      That clear direction was given to NYSUT and the union has vowed to continue that fight for members.

      • C May 15, 2012 at 10:14 am #

        The following is from the APPR Field Guidance Document:

        Sections 3012-c(2)(e)(ii) and (f)(ii) require that 20% of an APPR be based on other locally-selected measures of student achievement that are determined to be rigorous and comparable across classrooms in accordance with the Commissioner’s regulations. Does this mean that a school district or BOCES is required to negotiate what assessments or locally-selected measures the school district or BOCES uses for the evaluation of its classroom teachers and building principals?

        Education Law §3012-c provides that the selection of the local measure or measure to be used by a school district or BOCES shall be determined through collective bargaining.

        It seems to me that the 40% that can trump the rest of the score is made up of 20% “State Assesments” and 20% that is locally determined. BUT that 20%, while locally negotiatied, must be in accordance with the Commissioner’s regulations. That’s the wiggle room for the state right there. From the APPR Field Guidance document statement, it seems that the state still has a say in that other 20% that is “locally negotiated.”

        Who is making the decision at the state level about whether the locally negotiated assessment meets the state standards? Commissioner King himself? Or will those decision be made by a state vendor (aka Pearson) since the State Ed department does not have that kind of manpower.

        Any clarification on this will be appreciated.

        • NYSUT Research and Educational Services May 15, 2012 at 10:59 pm #

          Yes, Section 3012-c requires local districts to negotiate with the union over what assessments will be used for the local 20%. The options for locals to choose from include BOCES, regional or district developed assessments, commercial assessments from the SED approved list, student learning objectives or the state assessments used in a different way than for the first 20%.

          NYSUT recommends the use of the local assessment option to ensure the evaluation does not rely on standardized tests for the second 20%

          If you choose the option to create a local assessment, it does not have to be approved by SED. Your superintendent simply has to certify that the assessment is rigorous and comparable across classrooms.

      • tmg May 20, 2012 at 9:55 am #

        A concerning trend in districts is that the local 20% is going to be another 3rd party assessment that doesn’t connect to the carefully created curriculum that districts already have in place. Teachers are going to be forced to teach isolated skills in order to get their score up and to preserve the integrity of the programs they teach because their careers are on the line.

        The rumor mill that is swirling like the Death Eaters in Harry Potter is saying that Superintendents won’t sign off on teacher created local assessments because the state won’t approve them and it will reflect negatively on the Superintendent. Could someone please help us come together? We all want to measure student growth but our programs can’t be compromised. We need help with this. Children are going to go to school to turn into test takers. I don’t want teaching to turn into to that for my students or my own children.

        • NYSUT Research and Educational Services May 21, 2012 at 5:47 pm #

          The response to superintendents when they say SED will turn them down is SED is not reviewing the locally created tests so they can’t turn them down.

  2. Betsy Marshall May 16, 2012 at 6:38 am #

    I am glad that NYSUT is speaking out on this matter in a more forth right manner and that they are listening to what teachers’ concerns are regarding testing. The President of my local did his job and gave his speech regarding the ‘Long Island Principal Petition’ at our Executive Council meeting yesterday.
    It is great that teachers who seemed unaware of the larger political world outside their classroom door a few years ago are now more involved and are even willing to take some action. Unfortunately many teachers still believe that NYSUT did not represent the best interest of students and teachers in their negotiations with the state over RTTT and APPR.
    I paid close attention to the back and forth between Dick Iannuzzi and Principal Burris in regards to the ‘Principals Petition’ and the APPR evaluation process. The discussion became somewhat personal several months back but the points being made on both sides had both merit and bias. I will not at this point request that my name be taken off of the petition. I respect and appreciate the organizing that is taking place and the coalitions that are being built at the grassroots level within our state and across the country. I hope that our union continues to show more of a willingness to organize and build coalitions that can push back against the serious threat that top down, corporate money driven organizing has had on public education in general and children and teachers in particular.
    “Which Side Are You On?” is traditionally a great union call to action. I do not believe that Principal Burris, Sean Feeny and the thousands of others who signed onto the ‘Principals Petition’ are on the other side. They started a necessary and important conversation. it is time to organize and build cooperative coalitions not engage in turf battles.

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