In August, New York State learned that they won a federal Race to the Top grant for $700 million dollars for education. And while this may be a victory for some districts in the state, for others, like Scarsdale, the grant will mean more requirements and little additional funding. Though the Scarsdale School Board supported the state’s application, they have serious reservations about some of the provisions and have submitted a letter to the State Department of Education expressing their concerns.
At an October 25, 2010 meeting of the Scarsdale Board of Education, Superintendent Michael McGill explained that Scarsdale was entitled to $18,000 in Race to the Top funds, $4,500 per year, over the next four years. The district was allocated these funds as a few students in the zip code are entitled to Title 1 funds. Ironically, those students do not attend our schools and the District has determined that the administrative costs of accepting the funds outweigh the benefits.
Of more concern is the new assessment program mandated by the grant, which will require the district to rate all teachers and administrators on a 100-point scale based on student test performance in their classrooms and schools. The 100-point evaluation will be based on student performance on state tests, performance on local assessments or tests and additional criteria now being determined by a state education committee.
In McGill’s opinion the new rating system will do little to improve teacher performance. In fact he says, “according to education expert Richard Rothstein this methodology is likely to misidentify teachers and categorize some who are good as underperforming, and some who are underperforming as good.” In McGill’s view, “it is possible to require compliance and raise performance to a low average, but impossible to regulate for excellence which requires initiative, individuality and creativity. The concern is that this new model of rating teachers is fundamentally questionable because it will not allow evaluators room for judgment, nor will it allow teachers to exercise creativity.” Student performance on state tests can clearly be affected by more than one teacher’s activities during the school year. According to McGill, “Imagine if a teacher has a set of kids with difficulties to begin with and is not able to meet a target due to the skills of the kids when they came into the class.”
Furthermore the new requirements may mandate the District to publish teacher’s scores.
McGill is not the only one objecting to Race to the Top requirements. In a plea published on the Found for Education website, the Brighter Choice Foundation urges charter schools not to participate in the Race to the Top grant program. Tom Carroll, the organization’s founder says, “After reviewing the administrative, regulatory, and reporting burdens required of schools that participate, and understanding how seriously the program jeopardizes the administrative and operational independence of charter schools especially in the area of teacher and principal evaluations and accountability, each charter school in the Brighter Choice Foundation network has been advised not to participate in Race to the Top.”
The Scarsdale administration believes that they already have a good teacher assessment process in place and Scarsdale10583 asked McGill for the details of the current system for evaluating teachers.
On the hiring and firing of new teachers, McGill offered the following information:
“The District has built the faculty by hiring new teachers only after careful credential checks, interviews and demonstration teaching. New teachers get support from veteran mentors. They’re evaluated through evidence-based protocols recently enhanced in collaboration with Charlotte Danielson, formerly of Princeton’s Educational Testing Service, who’s also known internationally for her work with entire states and countries.”
“Best efforts notwithstanding, some teachers ultimately can’t meet a Scarsdale standard. And in the end, neither principals nor department leaders or other teachers support sub-standard performance. Furthermore, while the Teachers Association assures legal rights are protected, it doesn’t defend incompetence. Difficult situations like these aren’t publicized, and when a dismissal is necessary, all parties try to make it as humane as possible.”
However, what about tenured teachers who are no longer performing up to standards? According to McGill, “If a tenured teacher is experiencing serious difficulties, he or she will be evaluated more rigorously. If performance doesn't improve after supportive intervention, Scarsdale is one of few school districts that can freeze the individual's pay until supervisors are satisfied he or she has rectified the relevant problems.”
Though our current evaluation system provides much scrutiny before tenure is granted, once a teacher has tenure, the school cannot fire them. The teacher can be denied a raise, but their position is ensured. But even the new Race to the Top 100-point state rating system will not change the fundamentals of tenure, leaving us little to gain from the new assessments.
We asked McGill if high-performing districts that will not receive any of the grant monies could opt-out of these new requirements. For now the answer is “no.” McGill commented:
“At this point, there's no indication that there will be any opt out. The state has been adamant since the late 1990's that as far as its reform plan is concerned, one size fits all and there are no exceptions. The District has repeatedly attempted to show Education Department officials why state reforms are generally unhelpful here and how they actually get in the way of our efforts to improve learning. These attempts, and indeed, any meaningful dialogue, have been rebuffed. The parent test boycott of 2001 was a direct outgrowth of public frustration with the program damage wreaked by state testing, despite multiple attempts on the part of the board and professional staff to reason with State education officials about the problems their plans were creating here."
So, for now it appears that we have no choice. Next year will bring more state mandated student testing as well as new state-defined criteria for teacher assessments, further diminishing local control of our schools, without providing the benefit of additional funding.