Sometimes it seems we are living in the worst of times for American education, given the daily news of budget cuts, attacks on teachers, and attacks on the very idea of public education. When good news comes along, we should shout it from the rooftops. So here's good news that I want to share and celebrate.
Last week, more than 400 principals on Long Island, N.Y., signed a letter of public protest against the state's new and untried teacher evaluation system. The signatories, drawn from elementary, middle, and high schools, represent two-thirds of all principals on Long Island, which includes Nassau and Suffolk counties.
Their letter is historic. It's the first time that a large number of administrators have spoken out in opposition to bad ideas. It represents hundreds of educators who are willing to stick their necks out, hundreds of educators willing to speak truth to power, hundreds of educators who put their name on a statement to the state's highest education officials, with this simple message: "Stop! What you are doing is wrong. What you are imposing on us is untested. We believe it will be harmful to our students. It will undermine education quality. It will hurt teachers and ruin morale. You are treating us like lab rats. Stop. Respect the lives that are in your keeping."
The principals think the state is moving too quickly to implement poorly thought out plans. They wisely call for a pilot project to determine the real-world effect of the state's plans, rather than subjecting every public school in the state to an approach that lacks any support in research or in practice. Evidence matters, especially when what you do affects the lives of children.
The current state system requires that every educator get a rating of 1 to 100, with part of that number (20 to 40 percent) based on test scores. This is what New York state proposed to the U.S. Department of Education to be eligible for Race to the Top funds. The state won $700 million, but no one bothered to clear the state's promises with the men and women who do the daily work of education. The state's promise was plucked out of thin air.
Now Long Island's brave principals have joined to say "No" to the New York state Board of Regents, to explain their concerns, and to offer a reasonable alternative. The principals recognize that New York's evaluation system was politically forged, that it will be a waste of precious taxpayer dollars, and that it will have negative effects on their staffs and students. They know that the state emphasis on test scores will narrow their curriculum, cause them to lose enrichment activities, and harm struggling students most.
For the past two years, we have heard that only self-interested unions oppose evaluating teachers by student test scores. Of course, the advocates of this approach never bother to explain why so many experts on testing and accountability are also opposed. Now we see a huge number of principals—not the teachers' union, but principals. These are men and women who understand that their schools function best as a community, as a collaborative effort, not as a competition or as a place where some teachers will be named and shamed by a dubious state program.
I have heard, off the record, that the Regents scoff at the principals' petition. I have heard that the state education department cares not a whit what working educators think of its plans for them. All the more reason to speak up and let them know what "the field" thinks. In a democracy, officials are not autocrats. They have a duty to listen, not to impose their own views no matter what anyone else thinks. The officials and appointed Regents have a duty to listen when the majority of principals in a major region of the state protest their actions.
The state education department created its own troubles. Carol Burris, one of the organizers of the protest, wrote an article in which she described a mandated training session for the new system. Officials showed principals and district leaders a video comparing the new evaluation system to "a plane to be built in the air." Burris was shocked. She noticed that the men constructing the plane wore parachutes but none of the innocent passengers—teachers and children—did. They were placed in harm's way.
This is reckless. It's wrong. It's cruel. Hundreds of other principals agreed, and hundreds more from other parts of the state and the nation are now signing the Long Island principals' letter. I signed. I hope you will sign also.