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Superintendent slams evaluation system in letter to principals, teachers

Patchogue-Medford Schools Superintendent Michael J. Hynes, shown at

Patchogue-Medford Schools Superintendent Michael J. Hynes, shown at his office in Patchogue on Sept. 1, 2015, holds a copy of a letter he sent out to teachers in his district saying he doesn't care about their state growth scores. Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

A Suffolk County school superintendent, in a letter to principals and teachers in his district, slams the state's controversial performance-evaluation methodology that links ratings to students' test performance as "meaningless, invalid and inhumane."

"The purpose of this letter is to let you know that I DO NOT CARE what your state growth score is," Patchogue-Medford Superintendent Michael J. Hynes wrote in the missive, dated Aug. 28. "Let me be clear . . . I DO NOT CARE. It does not define you. Please know that I understand nobody likes to be reduced to a number."

The superintendent exhorted his staff to "keep your head up and your eye on what is most important . . . your students and your teaching craft. The Patchogue-Medford School District fully supports you as an educator, regardless of what this meaningless, invalid and inhumane score states."

A growth score represents how well an educator's students have performed compared with the state average for similar students statewide. It makes up 20 percent of overall evaluations for teachers and principals under the job-rating system that became law in May 2010. That level, however, rises to as much as 50 percent of evaluations under an amendment to the law approved April 1 by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and state lawmakers. The remainder of educators' performance is based on classroom observations and other subjective criteria.

Hynes, a vocal opponent of the evaluation system titled Annual Professional Performance Review, or APPR, said Tuesday that he distributed the letter to 11 principals and about 600 teachers in the district. The letter gained currency this week on the Internet and had been shared on social media more than 22,000 times as of Tuesday, he said.

The president of the Patchogue-Medford school board and the head of the local teachers union both voiced strong support of Hynes' position.

"No teacher or staff member should be subjected to an appraisal system that inaccurately reflects their attributes and abilities," board president Thomas Donofrio said. "The state believes they will weed out bad teachers. In fact, this system will force school districts to remove good, maybe great teachers."

The state Education Department, asked to respond, sent a statement from Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, who cited her 45 years of experience as a teacher, administrator and superintendent.

"We should never make education decisions based solely on assessments," Elia's statement said. "But many superintendents across the state use the scores as one of multiple measures to help inform professional development priorities and individualized instruction choices. Growth scores are a tool; superintendents can use that tool any way they choose."

Hynes, 44, said his staff members received their growth scores last week in advance of the start of the school year, with scores "running the gamut.""It's like a 'Welcome back! Here's your growth score,' " he said.

Teachers are due to report for work Wednesday and Thursday in Patchogue-Medford, which had a 2014-15 enrollment of about 7,660 in prekindergarten through 12th grade, according to Education Department records. Classes begin Sept. 8.

The district -- like many in Suffolk County -- also has seen a high level of students in grades three through eight refusing to take state Common Core tests as part of a grassroots-driven boycott. About 67 percent of eligible students refused to take the tests in English language arts and math in April.

Hynes is among those who also say the performance evaluations' validity is made meaningless by high numbers of students opting out of exams.

The superintendent said the intent of his letter was to boost morale among his staff and make them feel valued at the start of the school year.

Beth Warnken, president of the Patchogue-Medford Congress of Teachers, said the union's members "are appreciative that he is once again out in the forefront. Colleagues in other districts have said they're jealous and wish their superintendent would do the same."

Susan Schnebel, president of the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association, said in a statement, "We have been outspoken in our opinions about the rocky rollout of the Common Core Learning Standards and APPR. We have also expressed our concerns regarding the use of students' standardized assessment scores as an effective measure to evaluate teacher performance, due to the significant percentage of opt-outs experienced in the past."

Schnebel said the group is hopeful the Education Department "will be open to greater collaboration and transparency on these and other issues as we begin another school year."

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