APPR Reform Bill is a Glass Half Full

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

By Joseph Romano, LUT Corresponding Secretary

On Wednesday, May 2, the New York State Assembly passed bill A. 10475, an act to amend the state education law.  The bill was approved by a resounding 131-1 margin.  The vote took place just 5 days after it was introduced on the assembly floor.

The same bill, labeled S.8301, is now under consideration by the New York State Senate.  Passage of the bill in the Senate would allow the legislation to be presented to Governor Andrew Cuomo for his approval.

While a vote on the measure has not yet been added to the calendar in the State Senate, over 75% of the members of that legislative body have signed on in support of the bill, indicating that passage of the bill is a strong possibility.  According to statements made by New York State United Teachers President (NYSUT), Andy Pallotta, Governor Cuomo had been in discussion with members of the State Assembly prior to the bill being introduced.  The Governor’s active participation in the construction of the bill would make it likely that he would sign it should he be asked to do so.

Some political experts have suggested that the incentive to bring A. 10475 to the Assembly floor came from an effort to politically outflank Governor Cuomo’s Democratic primary challenger, Cynthia Nixon.  Just hours prior to the announcement of the Assembly bill, Mrs. Nixon came out in support of changes to state education law that included a complete repeal of the state’s teacher evaluation law, known as APPR (Annual Professional Performance Review).

Regardless of the political impetus, news of the potential for education reform legislation should be good news for supporters of public education who have decried the injustices and inconsistencies with the state’s education laws, especially the updates to those laws made over the past decade as a response to the 2009 federal “Race to the Top” initiative. 

However, now that the buzz surrounding the prospect of education reform has worn off, the overall enthusiasm for the legislation has diminished amongst many of the stakeholders in public education. 

In a statement posted on her Facebook page, state test opt-out organizer, Jeanette Deutermann, was quick to offer her opinion that the proposed legislation, “does absolutely nothing for children.”

“Those involved in creating this bill are celebrating this as a huge win,” Deutermann said.  “A more appropriate response would be ‘very sad that this is all our elected officials could muster.’  Some have said ‘but it’s a step.’  I guess that all depends on what shoes you’re wearing.”

With the prospect for Assembly bill A. 10475 becoming signed into law, now a good time to examine the language of the bill, the possible impact the legislation will have on public education and, consider why some are not ready to sound the horn of victory in the battle to combat the negative consequences recent state education reforms have had on public schools.

So, what’s in this bill?

To start with, truth be told, the bill is a far cry from the complete repeal of APPR advocated by Mrs. Nixon in her public statements and through the group she has started called Educators for Cynthia.

For example, A. 10745 does not address any of the issues established in current education law involving the observation of teachers.  The number of observations, the weighting of those observations in a teacher’s APPR and the necessity for an observation both by a building principal or designee and an “independent observer,” remain the same as in the past few years.

The requirement for an independent observer in teacher observations has been described by many experts as an unfunded mandate from the state, forcing many districts to hire evaluators from outside the district at their district’s expense.   Several districts in our state, including Levittown Public Schools, have applied for a waiver from this requirement.  These districts have maintained that, amongst other concerns, paying for independent evaluators would make it impossible for them to keep their state budgets below the required tax cap.

So, what about APPR is changed in this bill?

The most significant change to education law in this bill is the removal of a mandate to use the state’s grade 3-8 ELA and Math exams, or any state exams for that matter, to evaluate teachers or building principals.

The language of the bill reads as follows:

16. a. Notwithstanding any other provision of law, rule or regulation to the contrary, the grades three through eight English language arts and mathematics state assessments and all other state-created or administered tests shall not be required to be utilized in any manner to determine a teacher or principal evaluation required by this section.

The law also makes permanent the moratorium established for the use of results of state ELA and Math exams on a student’s academic record.

In addition, the law eliminates the mandate that teachers whose courses ended in a state regents exam or the state 8th-grade science exam would be subject to an individual student learning objective (SLO) based on student performance in that class.

Under the current APPR plan and the moratorium now in place for the use of the state’s 3-8 ELA and Math tests, many districts have been forced to set up an SLO that applies to most of their teachers while those whose classes that ended in a regents or state science 8 exams are subjected to a different set of more stringent rules.  The passage of A. 10475 would put an end to this inequity.

Perhaps the most important component of the proposed reform legislation from a union perspective is the reclaiming of the rights of teachers and principals to decide issues concerning what and how assessments will be used in APPR.

Section 16c of the law is as follows:

c. The selection and use of an assessment in a teacher or principal's evaluation pursuant to paragraphs a and b of this subdivision and subdivision four of this section shall be subject to collective bargaining pursuant to article fourteen of the civil service law.

For unions and school districts, all options are once again on the table regarding the utilization of test results.  Some districts may decide to return to the use of the state ELA and Math exams in APPR.  Others may look to alternative assessments other than state exams.  Whatever the decision, choices for assessments will no longer be made in a top-down fashion.  Unions will have a direct say on what types of assessments are valid for use in their evaluations.

The freedom from state mandates in assessments used for teachers and principals should also be a welcome change for school district administrations and Boards of Education.  No longer will a “one size fits all” mindset dominate the public education landscape.

If the state tests don’t have to be used anymore, why don’t they just get rid of them altogether?

The federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), signed by President Obama in 2015, returned a great deal of control to the states in regards to education policy.  The Race to the Top initiative was ended as were the punitive measures imposed by the federal government to states for not meeting standards established in the 2001 No Child Left Behind education act (NCLB).  While many of the provisions of NCLB were eliminated, one provision that was kept in place was a federal requirement that annual testing must take place in each state, each year, for all students in grades 3 through 8, with one test in Math and one in English, taken during a student’s high school years.

The testing provision established in the ESSA makes it impossible for our state to eliminate completely the administration of the state ELA and Math tests without replacing those tests with another state assessment.  Nevertheless, removal of the requirement that local districts use state tests for teacher and principal evaluation or on a student’s permanent academic record might free up the state education department and Board of Regents to make more substantial changes to the exams in terms of length and the curriculum from which the tests are derived.

The first step, some experts believe, was to remove the high stakes component from the testing.  The next would be to reform the exams in such a way that ensures buy-in from students, teachers, administrators, and parents.

As things stand in the present, the majority of the stakeholders in public education have little more than a lukewarm response to this glass half full approach to education reform presented in legislation A. 10475.  It remains to be seen whether or not state lawmakers will be able to do anything to adequately assuage the concerns of the thousands of parents who opt-out their children from state tests each year, and the large group of educators who believe legislation A. 10475 falls woefully short of the full APPR repeal put forth by the Governor’s worthy competitor for the Democratic nomination for Governor.  On these issues, only time will tell.


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