Dear PS 321 Families,
It is hard to believe that it is already April and time for our spring vacation! The year really is flying by.
It’s been wonderful to see all the great work going on in classrooms—and certainly the 5th grade Immigration Musical Theater performance this week was a real highlight. We have such a remarkable collaboration with Together in Dance, and the work that every 5th grader has done through this integrated curriculum is so impressive. Our 4th graders will start their musical theater residency (focused on the American Revolution) the week we return from vacation. Third graders are learning so much through their integrated curriculum work in social studies (China, Egypt, the desert, the Artic) and are looking forward to their upcoming Rainforest unit. In the lower grades, our students are engaged in wonderful social studies units as well—the school, the neighborhood, Prospect Park, New York City and more. And our specialty teachers continue to provide such a rich experience for our students in science, technology, art, music, dance, library and physical education. It’s an exciting time of year as we see how much progress students are making as readers, writers, and mathematicians.
As those of you with students in the upper grades know, on Tuesday, April 14, 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders will take the New York State English Language Arts (ELA) exam. The State Math Exam will be the week after that. I know that there has been a lot of talk about the state exams, and that some people have very strong feelings about them. I do appreciate that mostly we have been able to keep a respectful tone in the school, which is a top priority of mine. We have a much larger group of students whose parents are opting them out of taking the test than in past years: approximately 25% of our students in testing grades will not be taking the exams. We are committed to supporting all students, the 75% who are taking the test and the 25% who are not. We continue to believe that great teaching every day is the best preparation for doing well in life and on the test. We do a limited amount of test prep, just enough to familiarize the students with the format of the test and give them some practice. During the three days of the ELA exam, our 4th and 5th graders not taking the exam will be assistants in K-2 classrooms. Our third graders will spend time reading, writing, drawing, and participating in a gym class. We will come up with a similar structure for the Math exam.
I want to thank all of the family members who supported our “Protect our Schools” rally outside of PS 321 in mid-March, as well as all those who traveled to Manhattan this past Saturday. And thanks to the many of you who wrote letters or made phone calls to our state legislators. It is very satisfying to see teachers and parents working together to support public education. I so appreciate that our community is committed not only to great education in our school, but in all schools. Many of you have asked me to comment on the teacher evaluation proposals voted on by the New York State Legislature this week. In my opinion and the opinion of the large majority of teachers and administrators at PS 321, the teacher evaluation agreement passed on Tuesday night is deeply flawed. There are still several unknowns, and details will be left to the State Education Department and the Board of Regents to figure out. We do know that test scores will play a significant role in a teacher’s evaluation; for teachers in testing grades, most likely more than they currently do. They will be based on a growth model that has been shown to be particularly inaccurate for both the highest and lowest performing students. It is somewhat unclear what percentage the state tests will count for, and this will be decided by the State Education Department and the Board of Regents. The new legislation does continue to allow for a local measure of student growth, which is better than what was originally proposed. The original proposal called for 50% based on state tests and no local measure option. Local measures must be approved by the State Education Department, so it is difficult to know how much leeway New York City will have. Currently, for example, we are able to use Running Records based on a one-on-one reading assessment for our local measure. There will be some additional measures for teachers in non-testing grades, and these too must be approved by the state.
The second part of the teacher evaluation plan that I find extremely problematic is the idea that principals will no longer have control over the “Teacher Performance” part of the evaluation, as we do now. Currently, principals and assistant principals do 3-6 observations of each teacher, meeting with teachers after each observation to give feedback. This is an invaluable way of providing meaningful feedback to improve teaching and learning in individual classrooms and across the school. Based on the new law, starting next year each teacher will have one observation done by an “outside” evaluator—someone who does not work within the school. The number of evaluations to be done by the principal will be negotiated locally. The weight of the evaluation by the outside evaluator has yet to be determined. In Governor Cuomo’s original proposal it was to be 35%, with the principal’s observations counting for only 15%. The idea that principals’ ratings of a teacher would not count for at least 50% of the evaluation is shocking to me. Currently, our ratings count for 60% of the evaluation.
The legislature passed a 6% increase in state aid, which is certainly positive. However, that is dependent on districts putting in place an approved teacher evaluation plan. Any district that does not have an approved plan in place by November will forfeit that money. By June 30, the State Education Department and the Board of Regents will finalize the teacher evaluation plan. They will decide how heavily weighted state exams will be. They will also decide on the weight of the observation by an outside evaluator. Once this plan is finalized in Albany, each district will work with the local unions to determine the exact plan for its district. That plan must fit within the parameters outlined by the State Education Department and the Board of Regents in June.
After vacation, our Testing Task Force will meet to consider ways that we can attempt to have some influence on the decisions to be made by the State Education Department and the Board of Regents. We will be in touch about that.
I hope you all have a wonderful vacation. Here’s hoping that by the time we get back to school we’ll actually have some spring-like weather!