A Principal Speaks Her Mind - And Gets Some Action | Teachers College Columbia University

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A Principal Speaks Her Mind - And Gets Some Action

TC Alumna Carol Burris wrote an open letter in the Washington Post complaining about federal education policy. Now she's advising the U.S. Department of Education
When TC alumna Carol Burris, Principal of South Side High School on Long Island, published an open letter to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in the Washington Post in early July,  her frustration was evident – and she wasn’t venting just at federal policies aimed at encouraging the evaluation of teachers based on students’ standardized test scores, though certainly that was her main focus.

“I took the time last month to write a detailed, four-page letter to President Obama, but I did not get even a boiler plate email in response,” wrote Burris, whose school has been featured in the TC Annual Report and elsewhere for an approach that successfully combines setting high expectations with a de-emphasis on “tracking” students. “Funny thing: during the campaign when I regularly sent contributions, I always got a thank you.  Now when I get a solicitation from his re-election campaign, I make a contribution to Save Our Schools instead.”

Burris went on to describe, in eloquent detail, how “punitive” evaluation policies in New York State compel teachers who act as test raters to print their names and bubble in a code for each question they grade on each student test. “While the days when students had to write ‘I must not cheat’ 300 times on the blackboard are gone, their teachers now have to do the equivalent so that the New York State Education Department can monitor how they score student answers,” she wrote, adding, “We now have testing systems based on the mistrust of schools and the professionals who work in them.” She closed with a quote from John Dewey: “I believe that all reforms which rest simply upon the enactment of law, or the threatening of certain penalties, or upon changes in mechanical or outward arrangements, are transitory and futile.”

A week and half after publishing that letter, Burris got a phone call from none other than Secretary Duncan himself, inviting her to send him a letter outlining principles for the effective evaluation of educators and suggestions for how to put those ideas into use. The result – a policy memo set forth by Burris and her friend Kevin Welner, Professor of Education  Policy and Evaluation at the University of Colorado at Boulder and Director of the National Education Policy Center (NEPC)--  can now be viewed on the NEPC Website.  In it Burris and Welner argue that any teacher evaluation system should itself be evaluated by its overall effect on student learning. That impact should be summative – that is, result in the highlighting of excellent educators and the dismissal of ineffective ones; formative – that is, improve teaching and help educators become better at their profession; enhance working conditions – that is, improve school leadership and school culture, which research has shown are the primary reasons why teachers remain at a school and stay in the profession; and provide incentives that have been vetted to ensure that they are not creating perverse, unanticipated effects.

Published Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2011


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