St. Lawrence County students finishing last in ‘Race to the Top’?
Sunday, February 3, 2013 - 8:15 am

By CRAIG FREILICH

North Country educators have been spending a lot of time preparing for standardized tests, “common core standards” and new evaluation systems – and the time it has all taken may actually be hurting students.

The federal “Race to the Top” legislation is driving the higher standards, which will challenge students with more complex learning tasks for each grade level, and with tougher tests to assure the goals are achieved.

But some question whether all the time spent trying to meet the standards is leaving less time for teachers to actually teach.

“The time spent by principals and teachers in devising those guidelines, and training of teachers in the student evaluations, and the time they will take to teach to the tests, administer the tests, and monitoring of progress in relation to the requirements of Race to the Top and the annual teacher reviews, is taking an inordinate amount of time away from the broad goals of education,” said Potsdam Central School Superintendent Pat Brady. His sentiments echoed comments by other local superintendents.

The time spent on preparing for testing and teacher evaluations is “reducing the likelihood that students will get what they need from classroom time and undermining the goals of successfully teaching higher standards, raising scores, and improving teacher performance,” he said.

“It all puts a heavy burden on teachers – adopting common core standards, incorporating elements of it in teacher evaluations to be certain teachers can deliver,” Norwood-Norfolk Central School Superintendent Elizabeth Kirnie said.

“We’re raising standards while we’re having to cut staff and increase the number of students per classroom,” Kirnie said. In addition, in the current economic climate, there is an extra burden on teachers of not knowing if they will still have a job in a year or two, she noted.

Since the before the school year started, Canton school board Pres. Barbara Beekman has been skeptical of all that teachers and principals are being asked to do.

“And some changes, like teacher evaluations – what’s happening is not helping a single kid,” she said earlier in the school year.

The new demands “are not improving education for any kids at this point. They’re taking a lot of time and not producing results. A lot of time and effort are being put into things like this that, at the end of the day, won’t move any kids forward. With all the paperwork and follow-up, class time will suffer.”

More With Less

While North Country school officials plead for more money from the state, teachers and principals are working with a new system of professional evaluations. Teachers and students are also dealing with higher “common core standards” of learning and testing to confirm the standards are being met.

There is concern the new demands will result in “instruction designed not to teach critical thinking skills, but to help students learn how to fill in more multiple-choice bubbles accurately on tests that don't adequately measure critical thinking,” said a statement from the New York State United Teachers, the 600,000-member teachers’ union.

While some educators might express doubts about whether students can reach the new more difficult learning targets, and might complain about the time and money – largely unreimbursed by the state – that the preparation is taking, the teaching and testing proceed.

According to Brady, students’ scores on standardized tests will be used for 20 percent of a teacher’s evaluation.

Other measures of student achievement negotiated in each district and approved by the state Education Department will account for another 20 percent.

Based on guidelines negotiated with local teachers’ unions, a principal’s classroom observations will amount to 60 percent of a teacher’s score. They will be evaluating things like “preparation, standards, instructional delivery, classroom management, and other skills we expect teachers to possess,” Brady said.

The local plans were submitted to the Education Department for approval, and all the districts in St. Lawrence County met the January deadline, avoiding the loss of increases in state aid if they had failed to get it done in time.

But aside from any other deadline, Brady said they really had to have a plan in place back in the fall.

“We needed to have it implemented here in the fall regardless of the government deadline.” That was because “40 percent of teacher evaluation is based on student achievement, so teachers had to design some pre-assessments to gauge where student skills were at the beginning of the year.” Brady said it is aimed at measuring “not just raw achievement, but growth.”

Like other districts, Potsdam “did submit to the state Education Department, after a considerable amount of work by teachers, administrators and regional BOCES officials, a process for evaluation, setting specific goals,” Brady said.

“For the last two years we have worked with BOCES on developing a template that school districts in the region could use so we didn’t all have to figure it out individually.”

Using the suggested template, Brady said, “we were required to negotiate with the Teachers’ Association and administrators, mainly instructional staff and building principals. That was a considerable effort.”

Full Implementation Near

In spite of that burden, NNCS Superintendent Kirnie believes educators are bearing up surprisingly well.

“I’m so impressed with the energy teachers have shown in addressing these issues. We know teachers are under a strain, but walking past classrooms, you see the excellence of our instructors. I can’t tell you how impressed I am with the resilience of teachers.”

Canton Central Teacher’s Association (CCTA) Co-President Tim Savage says the teachers there also seem to be meeting the challenges with “professionalism,” particularly since the state Education Department and the school have agreed on things such as what the teacher evaluations will consist of.

“It’s a lot coming all at once,” said Savage. “We are advising teachers here to keep student achievement the focus, and let the details take care of themselves, as best as they can.”

“It’s brand new for everybody,” said CCTA Co-President Kristen Ames. “We’re open to the new evaluation system, but we have needed some time to implement a system that is so different from what we have used for so long. But everybody has risen to the occasion. We’re very proud of our members.”

So while there has been much grumbling that these new requirements have taken away classroom time as schools prepare for the new standards and evaluations, as full implementation gets underway, schools appear to be facing the obligations with equanimity.