The APPR Insanity Continues – From All Directions

Last month, this column described the political discourse about teacher evaluation and the Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR) as insanity, citing the definition of insanity as doing something over and over again and expecting a different result. During the last month, the battle between Governor Cuomo and the teacher’s association, New York State United Teachers (NYSUT), has escalated with both sides taking shots at each other. As previously observed, the insanity shows no signs of abating.

The Governor is arguing that inflated teacher evaluation results means change to the APPR system is necessary. He has been suggesting that a shift from the 20% + 20% + 60% is necessary, proposing a combination of 50% student achievement based on test scores and 50% of other measures that will magically solve things. After NYSUT went on the offensive with a media campaign against the Governor, Cuomo fired back by zeroing in on the generous conversion scale that many districts adopted to convert from the rubric scores to the 60%. Specifically, the Governor’s office has identified the NYSUT-developed conversion scale as problematic and has called for a review of all of the APPR plans of school districts located in Long Island (Newsday conducted an analysis that led to the attention). NYSUT responded with the observation that all of those APPR plans were approved by the State Education Department. Now the media is reporting the polling numbers of the two sides in the battle, including whose “side” the public is on. And so, the battle goes on…

The problem with this fight is that it drains the system of energy – energy that should be spent on the teaching and learning process. This very visible fight, often fought through the media, is a significant distraction from the work that needs to occur in schools. What’s worse, however, is that the battle is over the wrong things.

The problem is that the battle lines are all over a misplaced emphasis on human capital over social capital. Rooted in what Michael Fullan categorized as “wrong drivers of change,” systems that emphasize individual human capital over social capital and that emphasize the use of accountability data in a punitive way are simply doomed to failure. Here’s how Fullan compares the drivers (and you can easily recognize our present path):

  1. Accountability: using test results, and teacher appraisal, to reward or punish teachers and schools vs capacity building;
  2. Individual teacher and leadership quality: promoting individual vs group solutions;
  3. Technology: investing in and assuming that the wonders of the digital world will carry the day vs instruction;
  4. Fragmented strategies vs integrated or systemic strategies.

The basic assumption in the present APPR paradigm, with its emphasis on human capital, is that increases in student achievement will come either with better individual teachers or by changing the individual behavior of teachers. Carrots are being employed through offers of merit pay or other reward compensation. Sticks are used, too, via labels such as “ineffective” or “developing” and through threats of expedited dismissal with repeated “ineffective” ratings. Deming taught us long ago that such systems simply do not work. More recently, Daniel Pink clarified what motivates people. All of this is being ignored in the present [impolite] conversation. This doesn’t mean that systems of feedback, accountability, and evaluation aren’t important. They are. If we want continuously improving professional practice, however, the emphasis should be on different things.

Instead, what we need to do is to include the power of social capital in the effort to improve systems of teacher evaluation. We should be held accountable for the instructional decisions we make and on the extent to which we work collaboratively on the right work. We should expect all teachers to professionally work with each other, in a relentless goal of student learning. We should expect all teachers to work collaboratively, all the time, in pursuit of these four questions (the guiding questions in a Professional Learning Community):

  • What is it we expect our students to learn?
  • How will we know when they have learned it?
  • How will we respond when some students do not learn?
  • How will we respond when some students already know it?

Strangely, none of this is heard in the battle over teacher evaluation and APPR. Thus, the insanity continues. The situation is exacerbated by the toll the battle takes on teachers, administrators, parents, and ultimately, students. Instead of collaboratively focusing on student learning, our attention is being diverted in the wrong direction, thus decreasing the amount of time and energy that can be spent on teaching and learning. It might be naïve, but isn’t that exactly the opposite of what teacher evaluation and APPR is supposed to do?

Craig,-Jeff_WEBJeff Craig
Assistant Superintendent for Instructional Support Services

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