Dear Dr. John King,
As we head into the third month of this hectic and busy school year, I felt compelled to sit down and write you this letter on behalf of my son, my students, my colleagues, many parents and all of the dedicated and passionate educators throughout the great state of New York (and beyond). I know it has been almost a year and a half since you have taken over as Commissioner of Education in New York State and in that short time, you have brought about many changes and have pushed the world of education back into the spotlight. From implementing the Common Core Standards to revamping the Annual Professional Performance Review, you have brought about a lot of change. As all effective instructional leaders know, bringing about a lot of change also requires stepping back and assessing the affects of the changes being implemented. Are they working? Do we have buy in from all constituent groups? Do people understand what is happening and why? Do people feel supported in navigating these changes and new expectations? Is the best interest of the children at the core of the decisions and ensuing changes being made?
These are just some of the questions I ask myself on a daily basis as a building principal serving approximately 400 children, 100 staff members and the surrounding community. Although all of these questions, and the opportunity to reflect on them is critical, the most important one, in my humble opinion, is whether or not I am making a decision that is in the best interest of my children. That question always has to be at the forefront in my mind because I believe that I am charged with protecting my students; advocating for my students; and ensuring that their needs, on all levels, are being met. I know your job is a consuming one so I am not sure how much quality time you have had to reflect on these questions in relation to the changes you have spearheaded. Furthermore, I don't know how much time you have to spend in classrooms speaking with our children, teachers, building leaders and parents. Just in case you haven't had much of a chance to hear from the people you are so dedicated to serving, I thought you would like to know what is happening in our schools from my humble and limited perspective as a connected educator serving as the lead learner of a K-5 building on Long Island.
First of all, our children are feeling overwhelmed, stressed out and they are starting to doubt their own abilities and it is only October. Why? Maybe it is because they are being subjected to numerous difficult tests and tasks as a result of the expectations of the Student Learning Objectives (SLOs) that have recently been put in place. Don't get me wrong - I know pre and post assessments are critical and that various data points (when properly analyzed) can be a powerful tool for guiding future instruction and personalizing learning; but, when is enough, enough? Do they really need to take a paper and pencil test in the gym in first grade as part of a Physical Education SLO? Or do they need to take the TerraNova in kindergarten as part of a literacy SLO? Or does a second grader need to take an online assessment as part of reading and mathematics SLOs that can go on for hours? Are these types of assessments really developmentally appropriate (especially when considering some of our kindergarten students are still four years old)? Is the data we are gathering actually useful or even accurate? As I heard you recently mention, each district can negotiate their own SLOs so maybe not every first grader is taking a paper and pencil test in the gym but they are taking some type of assessment even though they have barely had a chance to get acclimated to their new teacher, classroom environment and school year. Is this really in the best interest of children? I am not sure but if it is, please let me know how so I can explain it my third grader who shut down during a mathematics SLO and said he was too stupid to finish and refused to take the test (by the way, his teacher wasn't sure whether she should intervene because all she wanted to do was swoop in and take care of this little boy's emotional well being but she worried that it might compromise the integrity of the test). Please understand that I am not questioning the importance of assessment nor the analysis of data to help us better instruct our students but in light of the new APPR and SLO requirements, my question is, are we actually doing what is in the best interest of our children?
Additionally, our teachers are feeling overwhelmed, stressed, discouraged and the morale is being affected in a negative way. Why? Well, I think many educators, from my humble perspective, are feeling that their job is not about teaching and learning but instead, it is focused on assessing and showing growth on various measures. Yes, testing and showing growth are critical but when did they become more important than the art of teaching and the opportunity to construct new understandings? In a interview last year you said your fourth grade teacher, Alan Osterweil, encouraged you through his dynamic and creative teaching techniques, which is so awesome - every child should have at least one Mr. Osterweil in their lifetime. Unfortunately, I am concerned that our children will not have these types of experiences because many educators today are feeling that they have lost the flexibility to be creative because they have to "cover" the Common Core and have to get the children ready for various state tests. I don't think your intention was to stifle the creativity of our teachers but that is happening throughout the state of New York.
Teachers are feeling pressured to use test prep activities because they know they are being evaluated, at least partly, by how much growth their children show from one year to the next on the state and local measures. In recently hearing you speak, I know you mentioned that you are not in favor of a lot of test prep type of work but I don't think that part of your message has spread into the classrooms. I totally agree with you that test prep does not equate to higher test scores but instead sound instruction leads to improved student performance. Unfortunately, teachers are still feeling the pressure to prepare their children for the test - no matter what message is being sent by their principals. As a former classroom teacher who hated devoting any time to test prep workbooks or sheets, I felt compelled to do so just to level the playing field. If most other children were doing test prep then my kids had to do some too so that no one had an advantage over them (think of a catcher in baseball - if all the catchers use the special catcher's mitt, you are not sending your kid out there with an outfielder's glove). All this test prep (great business for various publishing companies) is solely for the purposes of showing growth and getting certain scores on the state tests. But, is this data even reliable? First off, the tests are different from one year to the next so how can we actually compare if a child has grown between 4th and 5th grade? Yes, their score can go up or down but does that mean we can assess their growth, or lack there of, if the current test is different than the one from the year before? Furthermore, when looking at the actual growth scores, one has to wonder if they are statistically significant and thus accurate and relevant. When the scores are analyzed by the qualified people in State Ed are the p-values found to be less .05 and thus statistically significant? I don't know but I hope so because then at least all these numbers being thrown around might have some validity.
Then again, statistical significance isn't the only problem with tying the evaluations of teachers and principals to the state test scores of our children. You recently mentioned that one of the driving forces behind the changes in APPR was to ensure that all teachers are being observed regularly and multiple times throughout the school year because one 40-minute observation would not be a fair and accurate way to evaluate the teachers for an end of the year evaluation (I totally agree). Well, to extend that train of thought, is it fair to evaluate kids and their teachers on a child's performance on one state test that may last about 40 minutes? How are these two ideas different? Is it fair to connect 20% of a teacher's evaluation to a test score based on one given day, in one moment in time? Again, I know assessments and tests are important and necessary components to any learning environment but isn't there a better type of assessment? How does answering between 35 and 70 multiple choice questions show us how much a child knows or understands? Furthermore, what types of careers do multiple choice tests prepare our children for? I know it is important to you, and every educator in NYS, to ensure that our children are college and career ready but are these types of assessments going to tell us if our children are ready for a certain job or four year degree? Please explain that to me because I want to enlighten our teachers and our parents, who have a lot of questions about all these tests. I have a hard time believing that there isn't a better way to assess our kids and what they know! We need a more meaningful, comprehensive and thorough types of assessments. Maybe our children should be creating portfolios so we can look at a collective body of work over the course of a year within a context, as opposed to these "out of context" state tests. Maybe we should give our children a test with only a few questions that forces them to synthesize and apply their knowledge in various contexts so we can assess their critical thinking skills -- wouldn't that be a better indicator of whether or not our children are college and career ready? Maybe I am totally off base with this take on state testing but I can assure you it is driving a lot of what is happening in our classrooms and I don't think that was your intention.
Finally, I need you to know that as a father of a young third grader, I am even more concerned (I am not the complaining educator right now - I am just a dad). From the day my son entered Pre-K he had a love for school and learning and my wife and I used to sit back and watch in awe. Unfortunately, that love for learning is being affected this year. Don't get me wrong - he still loves going to school because he is in an excellent NYC Public School and he has an amazing team of teachers but this goes beyond them as individuals. This is about showing growth, amassing data and making sure that all the children do well on the state tests. My son has to complete HW assignments that serve as test preparation but are not as engaging. I don't fault anyone for this type of assignment and I am sure there is some value to it but what concerns me more, is my son's reaction. This little boy who used to run up the stairs and couldn't wait to jump on the couch to complete his 30 minutes of independent reading HW (by the way, this type of work, in my eyes, is far more valuable than any packet, worksheet or workbook) is having some doubts this year. Yes, I want my son to do well in school and to do well on the state tests (for himself, his teachers and his school) but, I do not want his love for learning to be squashed in our efforts to get him college and career ready (as a result of the current system - even though his amazing teachers are doing their best to limit the affect on the children).
Please know that I am not questioning your efforts to help improve our schools. I am not even questioning your attempts to update an antiquated educational system. I am only hoping that you will take the time to step back, observe, reflect and potentially tweak the initiatives being pushed with one question guiding your process - are we doing what is in the best interest of children? We have an opportunity to change the landscape of public education but lets not do it at the expense of our successful educational institutions, our dedicated teachers and leaders and most importantly, at the expense of our children's love for learning.
Father and Educator