Pushing good educators out

Educators believe lawmakers’ insistence on high-stakes testing is harming schools.
Educators believe lawmakers’ insistence on high-stakes testing is harming schools. CHARLOTTEOBSERVER.COM

Carol Burris is a principal students and teachers love. A former middle school and high school teacher, she has been the principal of South Side High School in the Rockville Centre School District in New York for the past 15 years. She understands that teaching is, above all, a relationship – and as a school leader, she encourages innovation and creativity.

Burris was the School Administrators Association of New York State’s Outstanding Educator of the Year in 2010. In 2013 she was the New York State High School Principal of the Year. Her dissertation on de-tracking math students was recognized as an important piece of research and she’s written a series of articles and opinion pieces for the Washington Post and The Hechinger Report.

Yet on June 30, Carol Burris is quitting her job to protest education reforms she says “eat away at the moral fabric of our schools.”

Her criticisms include misusing high stakes tests to label students and schools and the negative impact of implementing Common Core standards, but the new Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR) recently passed by New York legislators was, for Burris, the last straw.

The APPR assigns 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation to student test scores, despite mounting evidence that such measures are invalid. In a Washington Post opinion piece in January, Burris wrote, “In April of 2014, the American Statistical Association joined other research organizations, such as the American Education Research Association and the National Academy of Education, in cautioning against the use of student test scores, commonly referred to as VAM, in teacher evaluations. The ASA clearly outlined how unreliable this methodology is and noted that teachers’ impact on test scores is minimal – between 1 percent and 14 percent. Understand also that these VAM and ‘growth’ ratings are all relative – pitting each teacher against all others. Even if every child scored in the mastery range on the test, there would still be a percentage of teachers rated ineffective. It is a sorting mechanism based on an algorithm, which most researchers agree is flawed.”

She cites examples of gifted teachers demoralized and driven out of education by this unfair system and schools and students diminished by their loss.

“I bristle when I hear that evaluating teachers by test scores is needed to ‘hold them accountable,’ as though teachers are outlaws or laggards,” she wrote. “If there are some who are not doing their job, it is our responsibility as principals to address the problem. We should not destroy our schools to create a bell curve of accountability performance, which is created when we compare teachers to each other using student test score growth.”

Burris also takes issue with the other 50 percent of the evaluation – which is based on the observations of principals and outside observers. This requirement is a particular burden in small or rural districts, where principals will have to observe teachers without knowing their curriculum or pedagogy. For example, Burris could be responsible for the evaluation of a kindergarten teacher, despite never having taught children that age nor having worked in an elementary school. She’s worried that such observations will serve no one well. Principals anxious about being away from their own campuses will turn the observations into hurried checklists, yet teachers’ careers are on the line.

Burris explained the reason for her early retirement this way: “I cannot be part of a system that puts test scores based on a set of flawed standards before the interests of the whole child. All of these simpleminded, corporate reforms pushed by profiteers, politicians and the business community are putting our children’s right to a developmentally appropriate and enriched education at risk. Worse, their incentives put our very goodness at risk.”

Burris’ concerns are not unique to New York. Both North and South Carolina have followed suit in crafting teacher evaluation instruments that use VAM and “growth measures” to sort and rank teachers.

As long as school reformers measure education on the false metrics of standardized test scores without regard to the socio-economic forces that drive those scores, teachers and administrators will be scapegoated and morale will plummet – and many, like Burris, will leave.

Already, serious teacher shortages loom in states where teacher pay is low, testing stakes are high, and public schools are underfunded. Furthermore, as teaching becomes less attractive as a profession, fewer college students are enrolling in teacher education programs.

Unless these trends are reversed, our students will continue to lose excellent teachers and principals like Carol Burris, and all of us will be the poorer for it.

Kay McSpadden teaches high school English in York, S.C. Reach her at