Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Teacher Evaluation: APPR

What makes a good teacher a good teacher? Can the effectiveness of a teacher be accurately and fairly measured under the new mandated teacher (and principal) evaluation system? Have teachers and administrators been buried under an avalanche of bureaucratic red tape, all in exchange for a portion of the $700 million dollars (for NYS) in federal Race to the Top (RTTT) monies ($35,000/year for 3 years for the PCSD), or will the new evaluation system help identify teacher weaknesses, help remedy such, and lead to improvement of teachers, to the eventual removal of failing teachers, and to the improvement of education for students?

The RTTT monies ($3.5 billion in all) were intended to spur innovation and reform in K-12 education.

The RTTT deal included performance based standards (often called the Annual Professional Performance Review or APPR) for teachers and principals.  Just how will teachers be evaluated? It is mandated that...
  • (20%) The performance of students on NYS mandated tests will make up 20% of a teacher's score. 
  • (20%) An additional 20% must be from a list of three testing options that include 1. state tests 2. third-party assessments/tests approved by SED 3. locally developed tests that are subject to SED review and approval. 
  • (60%) Teacher performance makes up the remaining 60% of teachers' evaluation. 
According to an announcement (2/16/12) from Governor Cuomo, Education Commissioner John King, and NYSUT President Richard Iannuzzi, teacher performance is based on "rigorous and nationally-recognized measures of teacher performance. A majority of the teacher performance points are to be based on classroom observations by an administrator or principals, and at least one observation will be unannounced. The remaining points are to be based upon defined standards including observations by independent trained evaluators, peer classroom observations, student and parent feedback from evaluators, and evidence of performance through student portfolios." 

The rating system is as follows:
  1. Teachers will be rated as ineffective if they receive a score of 0-64.
  2. Teachers will be rated as developing if they receive a score of 65-74.
  3. Teachers will be rated as effective if they receive a score of 75-90.
  4. Teaches will be rated as highly effective if they receive a score of 91-100.
While the press release from the Governor's office might make  the reader believe that the classroom observations of teachers will have the biggest influence on the ratings teachers receive, this is not an accurate reading of it. A very significant caveat is that teachers (and principals) whose students score in the ineffective range in the 40-point student test performance portion of the evaluation, cannot be rated as a developing teacher/principal.  In other words, they must be labeled as ineffective (or failing). See

Therefore, student performance on mandated tests will drive the ratings of teachers and principals. Debate about that will be the focus of my next posting.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Contract Negotiations: It's all in the family

One of the myths mentioned in The Washington Post article "Five Myths About Teachers Unions" is that teachers unions are similar to private-sector unions.

    "Teachers unions are not like private-sector unions in some fundamental ways," note the authors. While private businesses can go bankrupt, public schools cannot. So, what happens to public schools when their fund balances run out? At that point, the schools become insolvent (unable to pay their debts). According to the Post article, the possibility of bankruptcy "generally creates a check on [private sector] unions' demands at the negotiating table because neither side wants an employer to downsize or go out of business." Since public schools cannot go bankrupt, no such check is put on teachers unions.

    Public schools have been forced to downsize. According to the NY Post, "Gov. Cuomo’s Budget Division update for the first quarter of the current fiscal year now pegs next year’s projected deficit at $982 million, which is significantly up from the original forecast of $950 million."  Representatives from the SED and the NY Department of State are predicting that recovery from the Great Recession might start to be seen in five years. However, a NYS fiscal recovery in that time period is by no means certain.

    While teacher union leaders generally do not want schools to downsize (i.e. eliminate jobs), at the PCSD, the  teachers union president told the superintendent several years ago that the district had too many teachers. (This was in response to the superintendent asking for contract concessions in order to save jobs.) Some wonder if self-interest drove Mr. Vaccaro's response. No shared sacrifice there.

    Additionally, the concept of having two sides at the  negotiating table has been affected by the fact that many teachers' unions endorse candidates for Boards of Education; put up candidates who are family members of union members; and then succeed in getting them elected because the unions often dominate the voting. Why? Because there is generally a poor showing by the general public at school budget votes and candidate elections. According to The Washington  Post article, "Autoworkers don't get to pick the board of directors of the car company; but teachers, in effect, can."

     One need only look at the many family relationships between current PCS BOE members and union members. For instance, Board president Chris Cowen's wife, Heather Cowen Wilson*, is a PCS teacher and a member of the teachers' contract negotiating team. As soon as experienced Board members [with no conflicts of interest] were gotten off the BOE last year, a teachers' contract was hastily settled (without having an attorney review it and without the labor-relations specialist - hired by the District through BOCES- aware that a contract had even been ratified). This contract included provisions that legal experts have told BOE members never to include in labor contracts. This is certainly not good for arm's length negotiating** that is needed on behalf of fairly representing the public's interest. As someone said, it's like asking your husband for a raise & better benefits and then telling him he does not have to pay for it. A man cannot answer to two masters.

    All in the Family was a great television show but is anything but a great negotiations concept.

     * According to an analysis of the Salary & Benefit Reports (compiled by the PCSD), Mrs. Cowen is one of the highest paid teachers generally receiving over $100,000 per year in salary and benefits.  
     **The arm's length principle (ALP) is the condition or the fact that the parties to a transaction are independent and on an equal footing. Such a transaction is known as an "arm's-length transaction". It is used specifically in contract law to arrange an equitable agreement that will stand up to legal scrutiny, even though the parties may have shared interests (e.g., employer-employee) or are too closely related to be seen as completely independent (e.g., the parties have familial ties). (Wikipedia)

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Teacher Union Myths: Part I

    "Five Myths About Teachers Unions," an article in The Washington Post, included some interesting ideas.

The myths, according to the article, are:
  1. Teachers unions are to blame for low test scores and high dropout rates.
  2. Teachers unions are similar to private-sector unions.
  3. Teachers unions support only liberal Democrats.
  4. Teachers unions fight any kind of reform.
  5. What's good for teachers is good for students.
A number of insightful points are made by writers Rotherham and Hannaway.  Among them...

"There is abundant evidence that school districts don't do enough to retain the best teachers or weed out the low performers."
     Statistics back up the fact that most teachers (well over 90%) get tenure - the official stamp of approval, of competency if you will,  recommended by superintendents of schools and approved by Boards of Education.
    The public is expected to believe that all tenured teachers are competent or highly-competent. This, of course, is untrue. Like all professions, the teaching profession has its share of ineffective or failing professionals. Everyone (Board members, superintendents, principals, teachers, many parents, and most students) knows which teachers are great and which teachers are not. A highly-regarded retired principal once said that you could walk into a  high school and approach the first ten students you came upon and ask them to name the strong teachers and the weak teachers. The students, according to this principal, would be correct.
    Many administrators have probably avoided addressing the issue of teacher competence for a variety of reasons.

  • Some administrators believe that it is too expensive take legal action to remove a failing teacher. This is not true.
  • Others might believe they do not have a superintendent who will take on the unions in such matters so they ignore the elephant in the room. 
  • There are administrators who will defend and protect failing teachers. This is usually due to the age-old problem of cronyism and nepotism. 
  • Finally, some administrators may not be effective themselves so they may not be capable of weeding out ineffective teachers. 
And so, students' education suffers when those who are paid to or elected to put the education of students first, fail to do so.  According to an article in The New York Times, "...a poor teacher has the same effect as a pupil missing 40 percent of the school year." A principal told me he/she makes sure students who have an ineffective teacher are given one of the best teachers the next year. So...let's face it, the bosses know, without the new teacher evaluation system, which teachers are strong and which are weak.

    What is discussed much less often is the fact that "districts don't do enough to retain the best teachers." According to Nicholas Kristof, a New York Times writer, "a landmark new research paper [by economists at Harvard and Columbia] underscores the difference between a strong teacher and a weak teacher lasts a lifetime [for students]." 
    Most would agree with Kristof that "our faltering education system may be the most  important long-term threat to America's economy and national-well being." In NYS, the new teacher evaluation system [APPR] is supposed to weed out the failing teachers and principals and support developing, effective, and highly-effective teachers but many believe this new system is little more than time-consuming, maddening bureaucracy that will drive out even more talented teachers. 

Part 2 - regarding Teacher Union Myths will be in an upcoming blog entry.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Class Size at Lawrence Ave. Elementary School

There has been quite a bit of publicity about class sizes at Banford Elementary school in Canton.  I was curious to find out what happened at Potsdam when school started.  Class size projections were from 22 students in each classroom at Kindergarten to as many as 27 students in grade 3, for a total of 533 students in Kindergarten to Grade 4.  This does not include the anticipation of 14 mainstreamed students.  These numbers were found on the enrollment projections posted on the 4/3/12 agenda of the Board of Education's Finance Committee, linked below:

PreK-8 Enrollment Projections with Proposed Add Backs

At the school board meeting on Tuesday, 9/11/12, the enrollment numbers for the beginning of the school year were presented to the Board of Education.  I was somewhat astonished to read that the actual number for the school year is 484 students from Kindergarten to Grade 4, a difference of 49 fewer students.  There are a few more mainstreamed students.  It appears to be 21, if my addition is correct.  There are no class sizes higher than 21 in Kindergarten through Grade 3.  Half of the classes have less than 20 students.  Grade 4 students have 22 or 24 students in each class.  This is a far cry from the numbers presented to the public and used to justify adding back elementary staff.  The document I am referring to with these numbers is from the Elementary principal.  It can be found here:

LA Opening Day Enrollment and Class Sizes

This was not the only enrollment document provided to school board members at the meeting Tuesday night.  A second handout provided enrollment data for Pre-K through Grade 12.  This document shows that across the district, there are 31 fewer students than in 2011-12.  I did notice that the numbers reported for Kindergarten through grade 4 don't match with the Elementary principal's handout.  The total on this handout for those grades is 517.  I wonder which one is correct?  Are the numbers for Grades 5-12 accurate?  To see the second handout, go to this link:

Opening Day Enrollment

 Maybe we didn't need the elementary teacher add backs recommended by administration during the budget development process.  The Board of Education can't make very good decisions when they don't get accurate information.

Friday, September 7, 2012

What Did Happen to the Potsdam School Tax Rate?

In late July, I wrote that I was waiting to find out what the Potsdam School District was planning to do with the extra funds left over from the 2011-12 school budget.  Specifically, I was wondering if the school board would discuss using the funds to lower the tax rate.  Apparently, it never came up. Why not?  They didn't have to because, even though the total levy increased 2.9%, for most residents the increase in the tax rate was only 1.5%.  What a pleasant surprise!  Did I mention I love surprises?

I have reviewed the school tax analysis and don't quite understand why the tax rate increased so little.  A link to the analysis document is below.  Perhaps the $5 million dollar increase in the assessed property values explains it all.  But wouldn't school district officials have been aware of that increase as the budget was being put together, at least tentatively?  Perhaps that was why there were attempts to have the tax levy increase be even greater than the final 2.9%.

Of course, the news wasn't good for everyone in the school district.  Town of Stockholm residents of the school district saw a tax rate increase of almost 5%.  The primary reason appears to be the decrease in the equalization rate for the town from 95% to 92%.

And what happens to the extra money left over from last year's budget?  It will either go into the undesignated fund balance or "hidden" in reserves.  We will have to wait for the public audit report before there is an answer to that question.

School Tax Analysis 2011-12 to 2012-13

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Public School Insolvency?

    Representatives from the NYS Departments of State and Education were in Canton on August 22nd to discuss education issues and to get input from attendees. Chuck Szuberla (Assistant Commissioner of School Operations for NYSED), Dede Scozzafava (Deputy Secretary of State for Local Governments), and Sean McGuire (Certified Planner and Land Use Training Specialist) were prepared to discuss school consolidations, mergers, transportation problems in rural areas, and other cost reduction ideas. Among the attendees were Board of Education members, PTA members, teachers, community members, and the BOCES Superintendent.

    Mr. Szuberla noted that from 2007-09 there were increases in NYS aid to schools, followed by a few years where aid was frozen. Then, he said, the Great Recession occurred. As a result, there were significant cuts in aid to schools, a property tax cap, and the loss of many teacher jobs and educational programs for students. He went on to mention the skyrocketing costs of health insurance and the ever-increasing contributions that must be made by school districts (i.e. taxpayers) to teacher and employees pension systems. Szuberla said that retiree health care costs are a serious concern because nobody is putting money aside for these future costs. Right now, schools handle these costs on a pay-as-you-go basis. This, Szuberla stated, will not continue to work.  He added that the retirements of the Baby Boomers will further stress the system.

     School consolidations generally result in significant savings and a net reduction of staff. Szuberla stated that NYS once had 7,000 school districts and it now has 685. Consolidation, he said, has been successful in NYS but it has become clear that extremely large schools have not, for the most part, benefited students. Rural schools, like those in Northern New York, usually find that consolidations are not feasible because of the vast geographic areas that are covered in sparsely populated regions. Students cannot be expected to be transported on buses for hours.

    Mr. Szuberla said that we (ostensibly NYSED, the Governor and state politicians) expect the economy to show signs of recovery over the next five years. “If the economy does not recover, we’ll have big problems,” stated Szuberla. When he was asked to explain what might occur if the economy does not recover in that time period, Szuberla sidestepped the question. However, participants later asked him what schools in this region were going to do when their fund balances were depleted.  “Could public schools go bankrupt?” asked several attendees including Mrs. Scozzafava. Schools can be taken over by NYS and all contracts would become null and void and would have to be renegotiated.Though this, according to Mr. Szuberla is something officials hope to avoid. The group was told that public schools cannot go bankrupt but they can become insolvent. Szuberla stated that once insolvency occurred, the Governor and the State legislature would have to step in and do something. Many present at the meeting felt officials should not wait for insolvency before making a plan to deal with the dire financial straits facing schools.

Further information about this meeting will be provided in future blog entries.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Teachers: Teach like a Steinway

 It has been said that the mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires. Inspirational master teachers, and teachers working toward that lofty goal, will never know just how much they are appreciated.

Below a poem by teacher Taylor Mali - an homage to teachers who wish to teach like a Steinway.

Undivided Attention
by Taylor Mali
A grand piano wrapped in quilted pads by movers,
tied up with canvas straps—like classical music’s
birthday gift to the criminally insane—
is gently nudged without its legs
out an eighth‐floor window on 62nd street.
It dangles in April air from the neck of the movers’ crane,
Chopin-­‐shiny black lacquer squares
and dirty white crisscross patterns hanging like the second‐to­‐last
note of a concerto played on the edge of the seat,
the edge of tears, the edge of eight stories up going over—
it’s a piano being pushed out of a window
and lowered down onto a flatbed truck!—and
I’m trying to teach math in the building across the street.
Who can teach when there are such lessons to be learned?
All the greatest common factors are delivered by
long‐necked cranes and flatbed trucks
or come through everything, even air.
Like snow.
See, snow falls for the first time every year, and every year
my students rush to the window
as if snow were more interesting than math,
which, of course, it is.
So please.
Let me teach like a Steinway,
spinning slowly in April air,
so almost-­‐falling, so hinderingly
dangling from the neck of the movers’ crane.
So on the edge of losing everything.
Let me teach like the first snow, falling.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

No more Latin at PCSD

Latin is suddenly no longer offered at the PCSD due to the resignation of the Latin teacher whose position was cut from full-time to half-time based on the recommendation of the superintendent and the support of the Board. This has left students in a lurch, especially those who were headed into Latin III, as they attempt to fulfill their foreign language requirement. So here, at the eleventh hour, Latin III students will have to take their Latin course at SUNY Potsdam. The students impacted by this sudden change will have to miss other classes at the HS since it is impossible to get students to the college campus and back in time to avoid impacting students' class schedules. Were all students notified at the same time of this change so they could begin college Latin last week? A parent complained that only a Board member's child knew to attend the Latin course at SUNY Potsdam last week.

It was very predictable that once long-time Board member Mary Ashley Carroll, a staunch advocate for Latin, was no longer on the BOE that there would be a large void in support of this important and popular program (29 students were signed up for Latin I for this school year). Exiting Latin teacher, Lynette Maxson, pleaded with the BOE and superintendent last spring to support Latin but her comments fell on deaf ears. Ms. Maxson, according to The Watertown Times, had stated that statistics showed that Latin students do better in math, science, English, and on average score better on the SAT's than students taking other foreign languages.

There were other places to cut the budget in order to save the Latin teacher position and, thus, the program. The athletic director (AD) half-time position could have been offered to a current teacher for a stipend and the money saved could have been used to retain the full-time Latin positon. Now the school district not only does not have a Latin teacher, it no longer has a Latin program.

When making such budgetary decisions, the superintendent and the BOE show their educational priorities. PCS students could have had both a Latin program and a teacher handling the AD job. Instead, a valuable educational program is gone and the decision-making of the superintendent and the members of the BOE are central to this predictable outcome. Nobody should believe for a minute that the Latin job cut (from full-time to part-time) had to occur.

When the full-time administrative position of Dean/AD was cut to half-time AD for this school year, this employee was protected by being handed an elementary physical education teacher job (half-time) in order to provide the employee with full-time employment. The district did not lose that employee. Ms. Maxson was not as lucky.

Many thanks to Linda Baisley, David O'Neil and Lynette Maxson for their work as PCSD Latin teachers. The absence of Latin as a foreign language offering is a great loss for students.