Principals gather at Wheatley School in Old Westbury, NY. L-R...

Principals gather at Wheatley School in Old Westbury, NY. L-R are Dr. Carol Burris, principal, South Side High School; Dr. Sean Feeney, principal, The Wheatley School; Sharon Fougner, principal, E.M. Baker Elementary; Dr. LaQuita Outlaw, principal, Bay Shore Middle School and Andrew Greene, principal, Candlewood Middle School. (Nov. 2, 2011) Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

More than 300 Long Island public school principals, from about two-thirds of the districts in Nassau and Suffolk counties have united against the state's evaluation system that links teacher ratings to student test scores, saying it is being rushed into place and is "seriously flawed."

On a new Long Island Principals website, the group Wednesday released an Open Letter of Concern signed by principals of elementary, middle and high schools in more than 80 of the Island's 124 districts. The letter challenges the way student test scores would be used in teacher evaluations, recommends more study about the substance of the evaluations, and says a pilot program should be put in place before a system is implemented statewide.

"We welcome accountability and continually strive to meet high standards," the letter says. "We believe, however, that an unproven, expensive and potentially harmful evaluation system is not the path to lasting school improvement."

The State Department of Education had no immediate comment Wednesday afternoon on the letter, which was signed by some 310 of 660 principals in Nassau and Suffolk counties.

New York pledged to implement a new system of teacher and principals' evaluations to help win nearly $700 million in federal Race to the Top school-improvement money. The initial ratings, to begin this school year, are to be of teachers of English Language Arts and math in grades 4-8 and their principals -- about 52,000 educators statewide, including 7,000 on Long Island.

As the new evaluations are phased in, they eventually are expected to cover about 250,000 teachers and other professional school workers statewide, with about 35,000 of those on the Island.

It is unclear if it is possible to step away from the new regulations -- formally called Annual Professional Performance Review or APPR -- and if doing so would mean the loss of the federal funds.

The principals' letter urges the state Board of Regents and lawmakers to reconsider the evaluation system as currently devised. It notes the system could create situations in which poorly performing students are steered away from the teachers most able to help them, and that implementing it is an extra expense for budget-strapped districts, hurting this year from huge cuts in state financial aid and looking warily toward a 2 percent property tax cap next year.

The principals' letter recommends development of an index that takes schoolwide achievement results into account in the evaluations. Tying an individual teacher's evaluations to his or her students' scores, it says, doesn't recognize that many others in a school -- reading teachers and resource room teachers, among others -- frequently have a hand in student performance.

It endorses the "performance bands" defined in state law for evaluating educators, which are "ineffective," "developing," "effective" and "highly effective." But an additional 100-point numerical rating system should be ditched, it asserts, saying, "a number between one and 100 simply cannot describe the complex work of an educator."

Sean Feeney, principal of The Wheatley School in Old Westbury, and Carol Burris, principal of South Side High School in Rockville Centre, spearheaded the letter. Feeney also is president of the Nassau County High School Principals' Association. Burris recently was named 2010 Educator of the Year by the School Administrators Association of New York State, and blog posts she has written have caught the attention of U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who called her this summer to discuss her grievances about his school reform agenda.

Feeney said the letter will be sent to Education Commissioner John B. King Jr.; Merryl Tisch, chancellor of the Board of Regents, and other members of the board; and area legislators.

The School Administrators Association issued a statement Wednesday supporting what it called the principals' "grass-root efforts." The association, which has 7,000 members across the state, earlier lobbied the Board of Regents to reconsider the evaluation plan, drafting its own letters asking that the state seek a one-year extension from the U.S. Education Department before starting it.

New York State United Teachers, the state teachers union, has said more time is needed before implementing the process. Representatives of teacher unions in Buffalo and Rochester said Wednesday they have appealed to the Education Department, saying the evaluation system, as proposed, is unfair.

The system also is hamstrung by pending legal action. After the state Legislature approved the evaluation system in May, the state teachers union filed a lawsuit challenging portions of it. A Supreme Court judge in Albany sided with the union regarding the percentage of student tests that should be linked to evaluations, and the Education Department appealed. The Appellate Division has not issued an opinion.

Another factor affecting the rollout of the evaluation process is the law's provision that the evaluation process be established in individual school districts as employee unions negotiate collective bargaining agreements. As of late September, more than 30 of the Island's 124 districts had expired teacher contracts and must renegotiate; the remaining districts would address the issue of setting up an evaluation system after their current contracts expire.

Because of the pending court case and unresolved labor contracts, teacher union representatives have said many school districts probably will insert language in their contracts that allows for devising an evaluation process at a later time.

The school administrators' association, in its statement Wednesday, also pointed to the litigation and said if unions agree to regulations that later are struck down in the courts, educators may be stuck with "more restrictive, burdensome and costly" procedures.

The principals' letter strongly challenged the validity of tying student tests, as currently devised, to teacher performance.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is among those who have pushed for more meaningful evaluations of educators, as part of a fairer way of determining which teachers are laid-off in times of economic stress. And some education experts say student test scores are essential to rating educators.

William L. Sanders, senior research fellow with the University of North Carolina system, has studied the issue for 30 years and has concluded there are fair -- though complex -- ways of using student test scores to determine teacher effectiveness.

Sanders, senior manager of value-added assessment and research for SAS Institute Inc. in Cary, N.C., said Wednesday that teachers can't be held responsible for the academic standing of students who arrive in their classrooms in the fall, but can be fairly judged in part on a child's academic achievement at the end of the school year.

"To ignore this, we are basically saying that the educational attainment of parents, household income and the neighborhood kids come from is their destiny," he said.

The Race to The Top program was authorized under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. Its purpose is to provide funding to various states "to develop assessments that are valid, support and inform instruction, provide accurate information about what students know and can do, and measure student achievement against standards designed to ensure that all students gain the knowledge and skills needed to succeed in college and the workplace," according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Richard C. Iannuzzi, a former Central Islip teacher who is president of the 600,000-member New York State United Teachers, has said the new evaluation system was key to winning the federal money.

Feeney said Race to the Top required the inclusion of student test scores in teacher evaluations but did not set specific guidelines for how that should be done. The method and time frame were left up to the state, he said.

"We are proposing a trial of this before rolling it out statewide," he said. "We are also proposing using student scores in a different manner. We do not anticipate this causing a rescinding of the funds."

He said schools won't see much of the money anyway because much of the funding will be diverted to training and support for the evaluations system. On the Island, he said, a growing number of districts are backing out of initiatives tied to the Race to the Top program "because of the onerous demands for meager funds." His own district, he said, is set to receive $7,400 from the federal program over two to three years.

Feeney was behind an earlier, separate push to reinstate the January Regents exam so that students would have another chance to pass certain tests before submitting their college applications. That round of Regents exams -- canceled by the Regents because of funding troubles -- was reinstated thanks to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg; some of his deep-pocketed friends came up with the cash to restore the tests.

With staff reports

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