Be Careful What You Ask For – Executive Viewpoint by Kevin Casey

I look forward to the day when I do not feel compelled to write about APPR. It’s a topic that is emotionally charged, and which produces strong feelings in many. In a way it has also come to be symbolic of larger issues – the role of charter schools in public education; the extent of collective bargaining in public education; local control v. state or even federal control of education; and thus, teacher and principal evaluations have attracted the attention of state and national figures. Remember the good old days when evaluations used to be simply a local matter?

I recognize that there is a school of thought that believes that evaluation systems are too important to be left to the local level, but what I find troubling is what I believe to be a common premise that local evaluation systems are necessarily ineffective, or worse, purposefully designed to protect educators regardless of competence. Even if true in some isolated instances, I believe such a premise is largely untrue, and strikes me as patronizing.
Nevertheless, despite the complexity of an ever-evolving APPR process, Secretary of Education Duncan is threatening to require New York State to return the RTTT money unless it lives up to the promises in its RTTT application, which includes the implementation of the new APPR system this school year (for 4-8 ELA and math teachers and their principals). Similarly, Commissioner King has held up funding for the SIG schools unless those schools submit APPR plans that are not merely compliant with statute and regulation, but also acceptable to SED. Moreover, Governor Cuomo stated that if NYSUT and SED do not settle their litigation he will impose his own system through his significant budgetary authority. Whether or not a settlement occurs, the governor has threatened to withhold state aid increases if an approved (by SED) evaluation plan is not implemented by January 2013. This is what it has come to – a series of threats. To each I would caution to be careful of what you ask for, as you just might get it.

I consistently hear and read comments of regret from superintendents and board of education members when discussing participation in the RTTT program. The burdens outweigh the benefits, which are uncertain, and the costs exceed the grant income. If Secretary Duncan were to get his money back he would lose his leverage over education policy in New York State, and few districts would be interested in pursuing RTTT again. Having the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, I also suspect the state legislature would not again jam through a secretly negotiated evaluation law without first exposing it to the typical legislative vetting process.

I take Commissioner King at his word when he says he will not release SIG money to those grant recipients who do not adhere to grant requirements, but let’s not be naïve. If the commissioner withholds money from some of our neediest districts because those districts did not timely implement an evaluation system, which details have been doled out in increments (e.g., approved rubrics; SLOs in November) and successfully (to date) challenged in court, he will likely be blamed for hurting children in those needy districts as they reduce staffing and programs to face their new fiscal reality. If however, the SIG schools satisfy SED with their evaluation plans, then SED, and by extension Commissioner King, will own a piece of those plans for better or for worse.

If Governor Cuomo chooses to impose an evaluation system, then he will own the results. Recent experience tells us that the subject matter is extraordinarily variable and complex, and seems especially ill-suited for those without years of classroom and building experience. Imposing an untested system seems more likely to fail than succeed, but it will take a few years before we can make informed judgments.

The January 12, 2012 edition of Education Week (Vol. 31; No. 16) reports in some detail the Quality Counts Report of K-12 education nationwide. In overall scoring, New York ranks third in the nation (see story on page one). That’s not a figure you hear too often in current public debate, but one which I believe will be looked upon as a point of comparison after implementation of a new evaluation procedure, regardless of who owns it.