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Teacher evaluation frustration in Saranac Lake

October 23, 2012
By CHRIS KNIGHT - Senior Staff Writer ( , Adirondack Daily Enterprise

SARANAC LAKE - Saranac Lake Central School District officials say the state's new teacher evaluation system has turned into a "fiasco" that's taking valuable time away from administrators and teachers, and ultimately hurting students.

The new Annual Professional Performance Review system, or APPR for short, was pushed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and took effect this school year. It requires student scores on state standardized tests to be used toward 20 percent of a teacher's evaluation. Another 20 percent is based on locally negotiated, state-approved measures of student achievement. The remaining 60 percent of a teacher's evaluation comes from classroom observations by the principal, using measures developed through districts' negotiations with teachers' unions.

Each of the state's roughly 700 school districts must have a state-approved teacher and principal evaluation plan in place by Jan. 17 or risk losing out on state aid increases.

Saranac Lake High School Principal Bruce Van Weelden told the Enterprise Monday that he attended 15 training sessions and conferences this summer on APPR.

"The amount of time this has taken up, I don't even know we could even sit down and give it an accurate calculation," he said. "The process of observations, pre-observation conferences, post-observation conferences and data collection throughout the course of the year has increased the duty of evaluation probably three or four times."

Asked about the impact on his teachers, Van Weelden said the formalized testing and monitoring of students to meet APPR guidelines is taking away "significant" time.

"They're now being required to do a pre-test, quarterly testing and monitoring of the students," he said. "There has to be a time frame and specific exam period to do all these things. That's in addition to the Regents testing time in January and in June. I find that my teachers are spending more and more time doing the testing and monitoring, and spending less time in front of the students actually teaching."

Saranac Lake Teachers Association Vice President Don Carlisto, a seventh-grade teacher, said teachers are working hard to meet the new standards but have been frustrated by the timetable the state has set for implementing APPR.

"We have a good process in place, but the state needs to give school districts the time and the resources to get it right," Carlisto said in a statement. "Another source of teacher frustration is New York state's obsession with testing. Our teachers are all for being held accountable, but not when it leads to over-testing which results in the loss of valuable learning time and increased levels of anxiety for students."

Speaking at last week's school board meeting, board member Miles Van Nortwick, whose wife is a teacher, said he's been getting a lot of feedback about APPR.

"I understand why it came about and why it's being done," he said, "but I see it as another unfunded state mandate, and I'd like to put a dollar amount on that and the amount of time that teachers and administrators are taken away from duties they should be doing and spending time on this."

Superintendent Gerald Goldman said the number is likely "astronomical."

"Do you want me to count time as money?" he asked. "Then I'd guarantee we'll spend over $100,000 this year."

Goldman noted that New York implemented a teacher evaluation system in an effort to get federal Race to the Top education funding. But the amount of that money Saranac Lake schools will see only amounts to about $54,000 over three years, according to Dan Bower, the district's assistant superintendent for business.

"That's a drop in the bucket," Bower said. "We're going to spend far more than that in three years."

"I'm afraid the taxpayers and the students are the ones who are going to pay for this fiasco," Van Nortwick said.

Board member Terry Tubridy agreed that new system has its problems, but he said he didn't want to "throw the baby out with the bathwater.

"APPR looks like a mess; I don't disagree with that," Tubridy said. "But the fact that it's 2012 and we're just now trying to come up with some standardized evaluation system is just beyond my imagination. I've never worked at a job where I didn't have at least an annual and sometimes semi-annual evaluation. Here, it seems like nobody wants to have an evaluation at all."

Van Weelden said that's not the case, as administrators previously evaluated teachers using a system the district developed. He said the idea that APPR is a standardized system of evaluating teachers is a myth, given that so much of the system is being created at the local level.

"In fact, within our district alone, our staff will probably be evaluated in no less than 20 different ways," Van Weelden said.

Part of the reason for that, Van Weelden told the Enterprise, is there aren't state exams, which make up 20 percent of a teacher's evaluation, for every grade level and every subject. Teachers in those non-tested subjects are instead being evaluated using what's called Student Learning Objectives, or specific student academic goals developed between teachers and principals.

Van Weelden also said the "locally selected" measures, which make up another 20 percent of a teacher's evaluation, are different building by building, district by district.

"That's why it's anything but standardized. It's randomized, and it's because there's so much individual choice left to the districts," he said. "The premise or the theory that we would have objective data that we're using to evaluate teachers, I think, was embraced by all segments of education. I think the process that's come out and the implementation of it has been ill-founded."

In September, Saranac Lake school officials and the Saranac Lake Teachers Association approved a 12-page agreement that spells out how the local provisions of APPR will be carried out. It says tenured teachers will receive a minimum of one formal classroom observation and one 15-minute walk-through evaluation once a year. Untenured teachers will get a minimum of two formal classroom observations and one walk-through evaluation during the year.



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