JoLLE Forum-My Struggle to Be Heard: A Principal’s Perspective on Education Reform

Harry Leonardatos
Principal, Clarkstown High School North
New City, NY


On Thursday, July 26, 2012, I attended an open meeting held by the New NY State Public Education Reform Commission. Having followed the Commission’s published procedures, including arriving 75 minutes early on a rainy, hot morning, and waiting in a cramped section of the Hostos Community College cafeteria, I intended to publicly comment on the recent “hot topic” of teacher quality. When it became clear that I would be denied an opportunity to do so, I asked a Commission representative why the rules were not followed; she referred me Mr. James Malatras, the New York Governor’s Director of Executive Policy. Offering neither an explanation for why the Commission did not adhere to its own procedures, nor of how panelists (many without any professional ties to the teaching profession) were selected, Mr. Malatras instead promised an opportunity to comment at a similar meeting to be held in the Hudson Valley (Newburgh, New York) on September 10. My proposed testimony for that meeting was substantially as follows.

Based on public testimony offered at the Commission’s July 26 forum held in New York City on July 26, I would like to address some of the panelists’ erroneous claims on the subject of teacher quality. While on the subject of quality, I would also like to formally register my disappointment and astonishment at the lack of most panelists’ connection to, let alone expertise in, the teaching profession.


At the July 26 forum, Ms. Campbell Brown was the first person to speak on the topic of teacher quality. Ms. Brown, former CNN and NBC anchorwoman, spoke about the difficulty of removing tenured teachers who are sexual predators. Part of her statement was subsequently printed as part of an editorial in The Wall Street Journal (Brown, 2012). Ms. Brown specifically cites 97 cases of teacher sexual misconduct over five years. The implication was that criminally sexual behavior is rampant and that tenure policies are in part to blame. The conclusion reached by the panel on which she sat was to eliminate teacher tenure. Both the inflammatory nature of the hypothesis and the conclusion were misguided and shocking.

Imagine using the example of the three thousand priests of the Catholic Church over the past 50 years reported to have committed criminal acts of sexual abuse as a reason to vilify priests (Lewis, 2010). In many cases the Church hierarchy remained silent, protected these priests by transferring them to other parishes, or assigned them to different roles. This inaction and protection of priests who committed sexual abuses on the part of the Catholic Church has made national and international news. Similarly, in the Hasidic community, many instances of sexual abuse have been reported. Ultra-Conservative Jews who are accused of committing sexual acts have their cases referred to leaders of the Hasidic community to be handled internally. Critics state that the rabbinical leaders cover up these cases. Brooklyn’s District Attorney, Charles Hynes, has been accused of being soft on sexual predators in the Hasidic community to appease a large voting bloc that helps him get re-elected (Cooper, 2012).

No one person in the mass media has suggested reforming the Church and Rabbinical hierarchy by firing publicly elected leaders who remained silent and blind for decades over these acts of sexual abuse, or taking their livelihood away from priests and rabbis. That is because we understand that criminal sexual behavior is dealt with by criminal professionals through the legal system. These crimes are outside the scope of any given church, temple, school, company, or organization. I sincerely believe these unfortunate children, who were victimized, were used to provoke the audience and in turn, the general public, into forgetting the substance and to redirecting them to accept the elimination of tenure and other extremist “reforms” as the only solutions.

For the record, the other three experts chosen to testify on teacher quality were Lesley Guggenheim (Partner, Policy and Research at The New Teacher Project), Jemina Bernard (Executive Director, Teach for America), and Evan Stone (Co-Founder, Educators for Excellence). Not one of these “experts” on teacher quality had any teaching experience except for Evan Stone, who was a sixth grade teacher in the Bronx for 18 months. Despite his brief experience, Mr. Stone made the impossible claim that he witnessed teachers implementing the same strategies today that they had for 30 years. All three represented private-interest groups that are expressly antithetical to public education and whose organizations have taken polemic stances against teachers’ unions. Some of these groups (such as Educators for Excellence) are associated with former School Chancellor, Michelle Rhee, who is under investigation for allegedly fixing test scores in the Washington D.C. school system (Evans & Kane, 2012). Sitting in the audience were principals and teachers with over 100 years of teaching and school administrative experience combined, but not one of us was asked to testify, even though we indicated our interest and availability in advance. Instead, the Reform Commission heard from experts who favored the abolition of tenure, characterized teachers as sexual predators, and lauded the achievements of charter schools while berating public school educators (Burris & Leonardatos, 2012).

Ms. Brown’s focus on “misconduct” confounds the real central issue of “quality,” since the two concepts are mutually exclusive. Misconduct implies a violation of the social and legal norms of a society and is a character deficiency, whereas “quality” suggests something of the very best kind and a character asset. Moving away from Ms. Brown’s confusion over these two distinct concepts, a problem that follows from avoiding testimony from real experts, I would like to address the issue of teacher quality.


The theme of this public forum was an all-too-familiar one these days: public schools are failing because teachers are incompetent. The accepted premise was that a single teacher could make or break a student’s performance. Get rid of bad and ineffective teachers and our public schools will improve. This premise that teachers make the largest difference in student outcomes was left unchallenged. According to research, teachers account for 10 to 20 percent of student achievement (Nye, Konstantopoulos, & Hedges, 2004; Rockoff, 2004). Although quality teachers do matter, the largest contributing factor to student performance can be found outside the classroom. The overall conclusion, which can be drawn on the basis of an analysis of results on various international assessments, is that there is a rather strong relationship in all countries between students’ socio-economic backgrounds and their achievement on these exams (Haahr, Nielsen, Hansen, & Jakobsen, 2005). More specifically, 60 percent of student performance is explained by external factors, such as family background. The correlation between poverty and student performance, which all researchers uniformly agree affects test scores, was never mentioned (Hassard, 2011; Noguera, 2011; Riddile, 2010)

To illustrate this direct correlation between income inequality and student performance, please keep in mind the following numbers: 500 and 536 (Riddile, 2010). These two numbers represent the national averages for the U.S. and Finland, respectively, on the reading portion of the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) exam. Finland is lauded as having the best educational system in the developed world. Public figures, such as Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, all make reference to Finland’s performance on PISA as the sine qua non for improving public education in the U.S. Yet, the New NY State Reform Education Commission either did not consider, or deemed irrelevant, an examination of this statistically significant correlation between income and student performance. The omission was especially glaring given that the meeting was held at a forum in the poorest Congressional District in the U.S., the South Bronx.

Since 60 percent of student performance on tests can be explained by external factors, such as poverty and low-income (Noguera, 2011), it is important to understand why students in the U.S. scored an average of 500 while students in Finland earned an average score of 536 on the same assessment. When the data are disaggregated, in those schools in the U.S. where fewer than 10 percent of students receive free and reduced lunch (a commonly used criteria in assessing poverty rate in schools), the average score climbs from 500 to 551 (Riddile, 2010). Considering that Finland has a national poverty rate of 3.4 percent, our students in similar economic conditions rank first in the world (Riddile, 2010). Statistics bear out the “common-sensical”: the more student poverty, the worse the performance on assessments. Schools that have fewer than 50 percent of students receiving free and reduced lunch are some of the best-performing schools in the world (Hassard, 2011; Riddile, 2010). Those schools with poorer student populations do not fare as well and are among the worst-performing schools. The central factor for U.S. students scoring an average of 500 on the PISA is their socioeconomic status.

The impact of socio-economic factors on student achievement went unexamined. Yet, in the neighborhood surrounding Hostos Community College, the interplay of these factors was definitely visible. It is no wonder, then, that those students who attend schools with a free and reduced lunch rate of less than 10 percent score the highest in the world on the PISA exam, while those attending the poorest schools score last in the world (Hassard, 2011). Instead of examining factors out of teachers’ control (such as poverty), the focus at the public forum was on poor teacher quality, how to get rid of teachers, and the importance of using test scores to assign values to teachers.


One expert testifying at the public forum stated that the Commissioner and the New York State Education Department (NYSED) should have the ability to unilaterally impose a new teacher and principal evaluation system, based on test scores, if unions cannot reach agreement with school districts. This person was referring to the new Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR) for teachers and principals. According to the NYSED, the new evaluation system was enacted “to fundamentally change the way teachers and principals are evaluated. The purpose of the evaluation system is to ensure that there is an effective teacher in every classroom and an effective principal in every school” (New York State Education Department, 2012, p. 6). Never before in the State’s history has an education law been so specific and detailed as the legislation on APPR. The 93-page document reads like a technical manual outlining how teachers should be graded on a 100-point scale. By implication, APPR’s goal is to combat all of the ineffective teachers and principals who have somehow been moving along despite their incompetence.

Accordingly, a teacher’s worth is associated with a number that is converted into one of four ratings: highly effective, effective, developing, and ineffective (HEDI). The emphasis of the new APPR legislation is to quantify a teacher’s performance using test scores as a baseline. Additionally, these scores will be used as a baseline to measure student growth over a period of time. The new APPR also contains a value-added model (VAM) to measure at what rate a teacher increases student performance on exams (New York State Education Department, 2012).

Knowing the high-stakes of the new APPR system, teachers are jockeying to avoid certain classes and types of students, fearing that despite unquestionably solid teaching techniques, commitment, and classroom management, scores may still be low. As news spread that districts must implement the new evaluation system in order to receive an increase in state aid, teachers realized that APPR will become a reality and that they would receive numerical grades and HEDI ratings. Throughout the year, teachers came to me and expressed concern about teaching special education students, since these students have not historically performed well on State Regents exams. Some teachers did not want to have classified students in their classrooms, since the VAM would not show much increase in student performance and those test scores would affect their overall ratings.

Other teachers were concerned about another sub-group of students: English Language Learners (ELL). Students arriving to this State, often without basic literacy and numeracy skills, must take and pass five required Regents Exams, including English. English teachers were particularly concerned about ELL students in their classes. At the other extreme, some teachers were worried about teaching Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, and college-level classes, since there is not much room for growth for high-performing students. If these students score at a level of 100 percent mastery (85 and above) on a Regents Exam, which almost all of these high-performing students do, then how much more growth is there above 100 percent? Understandably, teachers assigned college-level and honors classes were concerned about the VAM as it applied to them. The new APPR system provides disincentives for teaching ELL students, students with disabilities, and high-performing students. Teachers are now apprehensive about teaching both the school’s neediest and most gifted students.

Since policymakers decided that teacher results would be made available to those parents whose students are enrolled in a teacher’s class (Kaplan, 2012), principals are concerned that parents will now shop for teachers. In high-performing, competitive high schools, this probably means that parents will want access to teachers’ scores and shop for the highest-rated teachers, demanding that their son or daughter be transferred from one class and placed in another. Assemblyman Steven McLaughlin pointed out, “It seems like we’ve got the torches and the pitchforks and we’re coming after the teaching profession” (qtd. in Kaplan, 2012).

While the legislation states that members of the public, who are not parents of students in a teacher’s class, will be allowed to see only non-identifying evaluation data (Kaplan, 2012), nowhere in the legislation does it prohibit parents who legitimately access such information from sharing it. Given the simplicity and accessibility of sharing information through social networking and other electronic means, it is a mistake for policymakers to believe that a teacher’s or principal’s evaluation will remain confidential. As a side note, it is widely recognized and codified that personnel evaluations of other public employees, charged with public safety and health, should remain private. Is the competence of our public safety officials less important than that of our teachers? No, but we realize that the analysis and interpretation of these results and subsequent action steps cannot be evaluated or executed by the general public. It undermines the entire process and discredits the professional experts to whom the analysis should be trusted. Again, criminal conduct for that miniscule percentage of teachers who engage in it falls outside the administrative process, and I am not suggesting otherwise.

Students have another idea to co-opt and undermine the new APPR system. Some high school students presented me with an ingenious, yet troubling idea. Students understand that teachers will be graded using achievement data and value-added scores. Thus, their solution is to intentionally fail the pre-test so that the teachers they “like” could demonstrate an overall gain in scores. Conversely, students could also ace the pre-test and perform well on the culminating Regents Exam in order to show low or no growth, which would place a teacher they do not “like” in peril. Anyone who doubts students’ ability to organize and disseminate information need only to read articles about how quickly 8th graders circulated secure test questions and answers about the “Pineapple and the Hare,” which appeared on the April 2012 English Language Arts assessment (Hartocollis, 2012). Students can organize efficiently and quickly to muster support for or against a teacher.

Another educator presented me with a disturbing scenario associated with quantifying a teacher’s worth. Under this new APPR system, a student’s total worth on an assessment counts less depending on his or her attendance rate. For instance, the test score of a student who attends school 100 percent of the time will weigh more in the formula than the test score of a student who attended school 50 percent of the time. In this case, what incentive does a teacher have in trying to get a poor performing student to attend school more often, since attendance will affect the teacher’s overall score? The weighting of scores associated with attendance is a disincentive for schools to collaborate with students and parents to offer as many support services as possible to try to get students to come to school. This system leaves our most vulnerable students behind.

Moreover, since the new APPR only accounts for individual teacher performance, nuanced situations that some schools face are not taken into account. For example, in wealthier schools and districts, parents often pay for tutors where their son or daughter has difficulty mastering a subject. In some cases, parents pay for tutors if they believe their son or daughter has been placed in a class with a “bad” teacher. With the help of capable tutors, these students almost always score better. In those cases, a truly ineffective teacher will have an effective rating thanks to the private tutoring.

Ultimately, the new APPR, although objective and quantifiable upon a rudimentary glance, perverts its ultimate goal of getting rid of bad teachers. Thanks to student ingenuity and parental involvement, the evaluation system could possibly protect ineffective teachers while fostering claims of “incompetence” against effective teachers.


If Governor Cuomo is truly the self-identified student advocate that he professes to be, then he and other policymakers must also take responsibility for student performance on exams. If using test scores as a gauge, and rating teachers along a continuum of effectiveness, are the policymaking tools used throughout the state to get rid of poor teachers, then I suggest we apply a similar solution for policymakers. There is nearly universal agreement among researchers that income levels substantially affect a student’s performance on an exam, yet teachers have nothing to do with the socio-economic conditions facing students. Accordingly, policymakers must also be held to account for student performance. Teachers and principals do not write bills, pass legislation, or control the state agencies that can ease the deleterious effects of child poverty. Educators cannot pass laws offering universal healthcare to all citizens, regulate the expensive cost of living in New York State and especially New York City, eradicate street crime from impoverished areas, provide good-paying jobs with decent benefits to the unemployed, implement tax codes that are progressive and not regressive, or integrate communities that have become more segregated by race and income. Each of these areas is inextricably related to student success. However, politicians are in a position to enact just such legislature and improve the general welfare of their constituents.

Thus, I suggest also creating a quantifiable method of determining how effective politicians are in meeting these social goals. Since 60 percent of a student’s performance on an exam is due to external, socio-economic factors, politicians should stand with educators and be accountable for our state’s children using a similar evaluation method. I hope the Governor will join us, public educators, in being accountable for our students’ performance and well-being, and that he will continue to seek out true expert insight, opinion, and recommendations in this area. Nothing could be more rewarding and lead to greater success than a unified effort to move our students forward. I share the fear of many educators that failure to do so will erode public education, a well-established and cherished American value, and one to which we have dedicated our professional lives.



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