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Accountability and “Racing to the Top” in New York State: A Report from the Front Lines

by Harry Leonardatos & Katie Zahedi - 2014

Background & Purpose: This article focuses on the current educational reform movement in New York State resulting from the state’s receipt of $700 million in Race to the Top (RTTT) money. Specifically, the article will focus on one aspect of the RTTT requirement, which requires that school districts develop teacher accountability systems that are based in part on test data, i.e. the Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR). We will provide an account of how the New York State Education Department’s implementation of RTTT has changed the role of educators, eroded autonomy in publicly controlled schools, promoted a culture of mistrust, diverted funds from the classroom to meet governmental directives, and paved the way for corporate vendors to profit from taxpayer money. Finally, we will examine whether the APPR policy developed to hold teachers accountable using an objective metric is a reliable and valid one.

Research Design: We examine the APPR legislation passed by both the legislative and executive bodies of New York State by focusing on field guidance documents and legislation released by the State Education Department (SED) as well as memos we received from SED. We also review how school districts have decided to implement APPR in their local environment. Finally, articles appearing in the press about the APPR have also been surveyed to ascertain key themes about the question whether teacher effectiveness can be objectively measured by those standards set forth by the SED.

Conclusions: The APPR policy as it is currently implemented is an unreliable tool in measuring teacher performance. Its subjectivity and inconsistent implementation calls into question the core purpose of this reform, i.e. to rid schools of poor performing teachers, while identifying those that are excellent. The implementation of RTTT and APPR has deteriorated the quality of public education in New York State by creating confusion through untested policies, creating a culture of distrust, diverting money from the classroom to for profit vendors, and developing a pedagogic methodology of teaching to the test.


Principals in New York State are accustomed to a wide range of memos and directives from the New York State Department of Education (NYSED). But the letter that reached us in the spring of 2011 opened a new phase in education policy. That letter came under an unprecedented new letterhead, which carried, side by side, the logo of the NYSED and of the Pearson Corporation.

Since that letter, which instructed school principals on the ELA Assessment and Mathematics field test protocols, joint NYSED and Pearson memos have been sent to instruct school districts on testing protocols, field tests, and audits. Principals have received materials touting data systems that track individual student progress and calculate student growth, preparation materials that are “scientifically proven” to increase students’ scores, and teacher evaluation tracking systems. Data systems, examinations, and preparatory materials used by schools are no longer at the school’s discretion, as they must be purchased from “approved vendors,” including Pearson, McGraw Hill, ACT, and others. These vendors have access to policy makers and can design their materials to market before schools know what the next policy issuance will be. The coupling of NYSED directives with corporate and political advantage is eclipsing the professional judgment of school leaders by mandating compliance. The meaning of the NYSED/Pearson marriage was underscored by the fact that anyone who called the phone number given on the letter during the scoring of assessments was routed straight through to a Pearson employee.

As New York State principals, we owe allegiance to the people of New York and its democratically elected government. Obviously, governments can and often do employ private companies to carry out some of the work that the latter can procure more effectively or efficiently. However, this is not what happened in New York State. Rather, the state has surrendered its duty of policy making and policy oversight to a for-profit company that is solely beholden to its own profit-making agenda.

Nor is the NYSED/Pearson venture the only example for the degree to which private interests have been allowed to invade public policy during the reign of the Cuomo government. Another example is Chancellor Tisch’s use of her own private wealth to hire a dozen professionals to implement Race to the Top (RTTT) policies. By using money from her considerable private treasure chest, Tisch bypassed the democratic process, which would have required that she publically justify the need for hiring these high-level employees. The intention to bypass the democratic process through classical methods of oligarchs became clear when Tisch was called out on it. In a New York Times article she explained that the “fellows” were needed because the responsible career officials whose job they were taking over proved too slow and reluctant to promote the new policy (Winerip, 2011a).

Since New York State signed on to RTTT, school administrators in New York have been subject to an avalanche of missives and training seminars that constitute what may well be the most extensive and intensive interference in the affairs of nominally sovereign school districts and schools in U.S. history. In the process, principals who were once touted as the most important link in effective school reform (Cotton, 2003; Hallinger & Heck, 1998; Marzano, Waters, & McNulty, 2005) are given no choice but to adopt the dictates of the state education department and its corporate sponsors. The NYSED pointed out that lack of compliance would result in the loss of districts portion of $750 million of RTTT money—an outcome that was so coercive as to obstruct districts’ ability to examine directives before implementation in the face of New York’s cash-strapped public coffers. As we will detail below, very little of those $750 million actually ended up under the professional discretion of school administrators or districts (Mitchell, 2012). Nor is it likely that RTTT and Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR) that are swamping schools and classrooms with a flood of new tests, observations, and hours of teacher and principal training at the hands of hastily hired fellows or corporate “consultants” will lead to a net improvement of teaching and learning (Barnes, 2011).

In this paper we will provide an account of how the NYSED’s implementation of RTTT and APPR has changed the daily work of educators, administrators, and students. After more than 2 years of being subjected to a barrage of almost daily new directives, our experience suggests that RTTT is an instrument that:

curtails the autonomy of schools and the influence of school boards;

creates a state bordering on chaos through directives, many of which turned out to be hastily conceived or plain wrong;

replaces professional leadership by an army of hired consultants;

creates a culture of distrust and suspicion;

opens up the state’s public education to the influence of private, for-profit organizations;

is very unlikely to achieve the policy’s goal to improve the quality of teaching by making it easier to identify and fire underperforming teachers; and

most importantly, reduces accountability rather than strengthening it by hiding educational processes behind numbers and statistics that are as easily tweaked from the top as they are obscure to school administrators.

As we will document in this paper, not only do RTTT and APPR not help improving public schools, they actively contribute to a calamitous worsening of the situation. As thousands of NYS principals have stated, this is an ill-conceived and coercive school-reform intervention that demoralizes our best teachers and stuns our students with a blinding blitz of tests, leaving our parents worried for the health of their children (Winerip, 2011b).

Before analyzing the effect and implications of APPR/RTTT in New York State, we will briefly review what it is and how it works.


In attempting to secure federal funds through Obama’s Race to the Top (RTTT), New York State enacted a series of reforms profoundly changing the state’s public education. A key piece of the RTTT in New York consists of an overhauled teacher and principal evaluation with procedures known as the APPR. During the 2011–2012 and 2012−2013 school years, district meeting time in schools across the state has been heavily dominated by the need to adjust or replace procedures with new systems that are in compliance with APPR. According to New York State’s APPR Field Document “the purpose of the evaluation system is to ensure that there is an effective teacher in every classroom and an effective leader in every school” (NYSED, 2011a).

Accordingly, a teacher is rated on a scale from 1 to 100. The score is then converted into one of four ratings: highly effective (H), effective (E), developing (D), and ineffective (I), “HEDI” for short. The emphasis of the new APPR legislation is to quantify a teacher’s performance using student test scores as a baseline. APPR legislation states that, “student achievement will comprise 40% of teacher and principal evaluations” and “the remaining 60% of teacher and principal evaluations shall be based on multiple measures” (NYSED, 2011a). These multiple measures may include a performance rubric, student and parent questionnaires, and a portfolio of teacher artifacts.

This paper will focus on how the new reforms affect these educators by addressing the following themes: forced implementation leading to a culture of distrust, overreliance on psychometric measures, diversion of public funds from schools to implement RTTT, and the dismantling of public education in favor of for-profit market models.


The NYSED’s imposed teacher evaluation is being enacted with mandated implementation dates that do not coincide with sufficient preparation. Neither of the authors has encountered a single school leader who is not concerned about fundamental questions regarding the capacity of the APPR, as presently formulated, to evaluate teacher or principal quality. Even representatives of the Board of Regents disparage and doubt the effectiveness and validity of the new APPR. In an email to the author, Board of Regent Harry Phillips III, referred to the APPR as “a disaster, as presently formulated.”

In implementing this new teacher evaluation system in a hurry and without any pilot period, the entire validity and reliability of the system is called into question. For example, in one November training to implement the teacher APPR, a presenter mentioned that New York City schools “are in a hurry to assign numbers to teachers” and making many errors as a result of the pace of compliance. When asked why they are moving at a pace that leads to evaluative mistakes, this presenter noted the need to comply by deadlines in order to release needed RTTT funds. The tracking sheets included no key for understanding the arbitrary numbers. This scenario was replayed over and over at trainings across the state while veteran principals and superintendents sat in the audience of sessions led by young “turn-key trainers.”

Although the approved teacher performance rubrics appear to be objective, the practical application of these rubrics varies from district to district, and any score ultimately derived cannot be comparable. For example, during a conference, a logistical question was raised about putting more emphasis on one of the four domains of the rubric. The presenter, who was unconcerned about the mathematical reasoning that went into the assignment of numbers, said that if a district's culture favors a particular indicator within the rubric, that they may want to “double the score” on that item.

In another example of the capricious application of the teacher performance rubric, the following variations can be seen among seven school districts in one county (see Table 1 below). Some districts utilize the clinical observation method with a pre- and post-observation. Other districts employ an array of variations to this model. In each instance, the points assigned to the various components of the rubric also fluctuate from one district to the next. Hastily implemented, variations in observation practices leave many important elements of the teacher observation process undefined and make comparability of data impossible, thus rendering the entire process invalid and unreliable in the evaluation of teachers (Shulman, Sullivan, & Glanz, 2008). A consultant at a 2012 training on the Multi-Dimensional Principal Performance Rubric stated to the author: “I can’t control the way SED uses my system, but I also can’t pretend that I didn’t know how it would be used.”

Table 1: Variations in Observation Practices: Actual County’s School Districts


Announced Obs.

Unannounced Obs.

Pre-Obs Form

Post-Obs Form

Summary Form


1 (administrator's discretion)













1 (15 minutes)






1 (20 minutes)






1 (20 minutes)






1 (15 minutes)






1 (20 minutes)




Meanwhile, prolific guidelines and formulas attempt to pack all evaluative phenomena into measurable schemes that have been cranked out at the NYSED and sent in hurried memo format. Mandatory trainings for both the principal and teacher evaluation systems were routinely scheduled, canceled, and rescheduled in order to give “turn-key” trainers time to learn scripts and be retrained by the fellows at NYSED. Often times, they would show up to trainings using materials with “draft” stamped across documents in order to teach veteran principals how to implement the new law. Veteran principals, who have been evaluating teachers for years, had to earn certification as “lead evaluators” by taking a test that involved observing a video of a lesson, collecting evidence from this lesson, coding the evidence into categories defined by the established rubric, and rating a teacher according to an approved rubric.

Teacher and principal compliance with routines that involve unexamined application of directives from the NYSED, often against their professional judgment, is enforced in our public schools. During the 2012 administration of the 3−8 Mathematics assessments, teachers who had scored assessments for decades were faced with tests rife with mistakes and incorrect or missing tables needed for students to make calculations. When it came time to score the tests, scoring teams found that the anchor sheets, used to create interrater reliability, were incorrect. In previous years calls for clarification have been made to the NYSED. However, during the 2012 Grades 3−8 Mathematics assessments, queries were routed to Pearson Corporation. Raters were directed to score the test according to the incorrect directions, assuaged with assurances that the corporation has heard of multiple problems and that NYSED directions stand to score it according to the acknowledged incorrect directions. This required principals to interrupt scoring in rooms all across the state to replace scorers and call in additional substitutes to replace teachers who had ethical reservations, rendering it unbearable to continue scoring incorrectly under Pearson’s directions.


As APPR moved along with a succession of mandated procedures, teachers faced rapidly changing processes in relation to new directives from state and federal levels. For example, a middle school mathematics teacher, Mr. Armstrong, encountered new directives presented during faculty and professional development meetings. Administrators, who were charged with collecting classroom evidence that matched a state approved rubric, observed him. Mr. Armstrong was trained to collect evidence of his own professional duties that correspond to rubric indicators in order to earn a consequent number of points according to a numeric scheme that was still being clarified. A percentage of his numeric grade would be based on how his students perform on tests that cover curriculum not planned for within his district. He then met with colleagues to set targets that students were to meet by the end of the school year.

In regional scoring of the Mathematics assessment, Mr. Armstrong was told to score the students’ tests according to NYSED and Pearson directives, even though the directions were incorrect. He mentioned that the regional scoring was “insulting” as teachers were hurried along as if on an assembly line. At the end of the school year, our interminably optimistic Mr. Armstrong wandered into the main office, dropped into a chair, and stared in silence until ultimately asking: “What is happening to our school?”

Throughout the year, we witnessed the professional confidence of teachers, who up to this point in their careers had been rated as highly effective, erode under the conditions created by the premises upon which the APPR is established. Teachers expressed concerns about students with poor school attendance, emotional problems, or undocumented learning difficulties, as the NYSED scurried to create more provisions and explanations to continue to tie teacher evaluation to student performance. Recently, a high school principal, Eric Hartz, resigned from his position because of the punitive teacher evaluation system: “It’s a very sad moment for me, but I just can’t do it any more. . . . Whoever decided that teachers should be ranked/graded on student performance has never been in the classroom” (Veaner, 2013). It is no surprise that early resignations are on the rise, as seen in the resignation letter of a teacher, Gerald Conti, in Syracuse:

Teacher planning time has also now been so greatly eroded by a constant need to “prove up” our worth to the tyranny of APPR (through the submission of plans, materials and ‘artifacts’ from our teaching). . . . We have become increasingly evaluation and not knowledge driven. . . . After writing all of this I realize that I am not leaving my profession, in truth, it has left me. It no longer exists. (Kingkade, 2013)


In racing to the top, Governor Andrew Cuomo, Commissioner King, and the NYSED shifted their approach toward public school educators from one of collaboration to animosity and distrust. A growing culture of distrust is permeating our schools, trickling down from a state department of education in New York that does not trust principals to accurately report outcomes of mandated testing and spends millions of dollars on detecting cheating through “erasure analysis”—a truly Orwellian coinage—turning the school house into a system of suspicion and policing.

In one of the many cases of usurpation of the authority of local school leadership, high school principals received a memo from the former assistant commissioner, David Abrams, regarding a revision to the scoring policy for Regents Examinations. In the memo, Mr. Abrams instructs that: “Beginning in June 2011, schools are no longer permitted to rescore any of the open-ended questions on any Regents Exam after each question has been rated the required number of times as specified in the rating guide, regardless of the final exam score” (Abrams, 2011). This minor change envisaged the more significant changes that were about to engulf practitioners all over the state, which similarly involve the eclipsing of the professional judgment of principals with scripted and explicit directions from the NYSED.

Teachers are no longer allowed to score their own students’ exams: “The regulations require that . . . scoring processes utilized by a school district . . . must ensure that teachers and principals do not have a vested interest in the outcome of the assessments they score” (NYSED, 2011a). NYSED’s policing of tests emanates from a fear that some teachers and principals will cheat.

Although no systemic widespread cheating has been alleged, let alone verified and proven in New York State, the NYSED is anticipating that teachers and principals will cheat. In order to prepare for possible widespread cheating, New York State included a Test Security Unit in its budget. The cost of this unit is projected to be $1 million per year (Waldman, 2012). Meryl Tisch, Regents Chancellor, admits that this measure is preventative: “This was not done in response to a widespread epidemic. This is about preventing rare and unfortunate cases and ensuring system-wide we have a testing system that works” (quoted in Waldman, 2012).

In advance of implementation of the APPR system, Commissioner King and the NYSED assume that teachers and principals in New York will resort to cheating to protect their jobs. The Administrator’s Manual warns: “Teachers and administrators who violate Department policy with respect to scoring State examinations may be subject to disciplinary action ” (NYS Testing Program, 2012, p. 31). Job security is a concern for teachers and morale is low. According to a recent survey of teachers, the teaching profession is experiencing the lowest level of morale since 1989, and one of three teachers indicated that they would likely leave the profession, citing concerns over job security (Santos, 2012). If the purpose of the new APPR is to keep the good teachers and weed out the bad teachers, then it may have failed before being implemented, as teachers are reevaluating their commitment to the profession.

An example of distrust is the 93-page APPR document (http://www.saanys.org/uploads/content/APPR-Field-Guidance.pdf) itself. Never before in the state’s history has an education law been so specific and detailed as is this. Districts are directed to strive for interrater reliability, the new word for groupthink. The NYSED provides a stern warning to principals who judge teachers to be effective according to classroom observations and other qualitative data when their test scores report the contrary: “NYSED will conduct ongoing monitoring and reporting to analyze trends and patterns in evaluation results to identify districts whose evaluation results appear to have low correlation results with other evidence of student learning” (NYSED, 2011a, emphasis added). A principal’s evaluation of a teacher must be correlated to test results; otherwise, the principal may face “corrective action” (NYSED, 2011a). As Carol Burris, an award-winning principal in Long Island, points out in The Washington Post online, “[The new APPR] is a ludicrous system where teachers who are effective across the board can be rated ineffective overall” (Burris, 2012b).


One of the most troubling assumptions within the APPR is that numbers on discrete events, such as a collection of individual students’ performances on a single assessment, provide most of the data relevant to judge a teacher's professional performance. There is an expectation that numeric information is somehow more true than the professional judgment of school leaders (Casey, 2013; Turner & Coburn, 2012). For example, the NYSED claims to have a formula to account for differences between students, but educators know that such a buoyant claim should be evaluated and tested. Along with the mysterious NYSED formula, there are too many untested claims laced within APPR directives for such a system to be responsibly applied to the public schools of New York. For instance, the formula used to determine individual teacher ranking was not disclosed to schools for review. An email sent to all of New York’s superintendents from Deputy Commissioner Ken Slentz on August 16, 2012, read:

Please be advised that there are inconsistencies between the district-level summaries and the school-level reports posted on pdf documents for the State-Provided Growth Subcomponent Scores. . . . The growth reports that were on the portal have been removed until the vendor produces reconciled reports.


 Scores will be used as a baseline to measure student growth over a period of time. The new APPR, thus, contains a value-added model (VAM) to measure at what rate a teacher increases her/his students’ performance on exams. To determine a teacher’s or principal’s value-added score:

[T]he State will assign students to their teacher of record according to rules in effect at that time. . . . The value-added score provider will then take into account any of a wide range of student, classroom, and/or school characteristics that the provider . . . determines are necessary, for empirical and policy reasons, to compare the growth performance of classes and schools to those with similar characteristics. (NYSED, 2011a).


The NYSED is acting on the premise that VAMs are statistically sound. As evidence for the effectiveness of VAMs, the Field Document directs the reader to the Web site for the National Comprehensive Center for Teacher Quality (NYSED, 2011a). The Promise and Peril of Using Value-Added Modeling to Measure Teacher Effectiveness published by the Rand Corporation concludes: “The current research base is insufficient to support the use of VAM for high-stakes decisions” (McCaffrey, Koretz, Lockwood, & Hamilton, 2004, p. 3). As such, the NYSED’s own research does not support the policy of using VAMs to make high-stakes decisions on evaluating teachers and principals. Yet, the stakes are high because, “Tenured teachers and principals with a pattern of ineffective teaching or performance-defined by law as two consecutive annual ‘Ineffective’ ratings-may be charged with incompetence and considered for termination through an expedited hearing process” (NYSED, 2011a).

As teachers returned to school in September of 2012, they were faced with a stepped up version of the already intensive treatment of APPR. Teachers of ELA and Mathematics in Grades 3−8 received the VAM scores from the NYSED based on their students' test performance, which had been disseminated to superintendents in August of 2012. The scores appeared arbitrary and no school leader known to us could understand why one teacher was awarded a 4 and another 18 out of 20 points. In the Frequently Asked Questions portion of a NYSED memo (dated August 16, 2012) to superintendents, those requesting help understanding data were advised: “The growth model vendor (American Institutes for Research) recorded a webinar and a supplemental webinar gives specifics about how the Growth Rating and Growth Scores are determined.”


The overreliance on measurement can be found in the APPR Field Document itself. In defining a Student Learning Objective (SLO), the NYSED states, “It must be specific and measurable, based on available prior student learning data” (NYSED, 2011a). At the beginning of second year of APPR in 2012−2013, principals were charged with implementing the APPR for all teachers in kindergarten through 12th grade. Teachers and principals were preoccupied by the SLO routine for weeks while it was clear at inception that the procedure will prove even less helpful to improving teaching and learning. Teachers created unique SLOs, pretests, and posttests that require no standardization. Other districts chose to administer exams designed by third-party vendors. An unusual choice for the local VAM score is seen in the Clarkstown Central School District’s approved APPR plan (http://usny.nysed.gov/rttt/teachers-leaders/plans/docs/clarkstown-appr-plan.pdf), under which all teachers in K−12 will receive up to 20 possible points setting targets using the Living Environment (Biology) Regents as their local measure. Thus, kindergarten teachers will be assigned scores based on the student performance of ninth graders on the Living Environment Regents. Although less than 1% of teachers are involved in teaching this course, 100% of teachers will be receiving scores based on district determined targets of student performance on the Living Environment Regents. Even the quantitative component of the APPR is rendered meaningless when there is no real standardization or comparability.

When data is viewed as more precise or factual than professional judgment, conversations about student performance are reduced to the most simple and obvious indicators. The conversation has changed, and the cultures in our schools are moving in relationship to the new language and a quantifiable view of learning. This year both of us found that the translation of qualitative and quantitative information into numbers was irregular and obtuse, leading to less evaluative accuracy. With neat precise numbers on the lines next to names of students, teachers, and principals, an appearance of scientific tracking is presented that obfuscates the substandard scheme that served as a basis in the equation.


The role of public educators as stewards of democracy is being eroded by privatization and market-driven models encouraged by state and federal governments (Hursh, 2013). In the pursuit of accountability, testing is paramount as the means to produce the facts relative to student achievement (Meyer & Banavot, 2013; Ravitch, 2013). Even if testing provided the most important information on student learning, the misuse of data in the new testing regime is problematic. Instead of descriptively discussing areas of relative strength and weakness, principals are forced to give a number to rate individual teachers. Is it reasonable to expect that a number will be more precise than the professional judgment of professionals in education whose job it is to understand the strengths, areas of need, and comparative performance of students and their teachers?

Ongoing professional development for teachers and administrators has traditionally been sought through coursework and professional conferences in teaching and learning. This system has been replaced with “trainings” to inculcate a culture of testing. What transpired in schools during the initial year of APPR undermined the democratic practice of robust and, at times conflicting, discourse between educators and their political representatives. This dialogue has been replaced with a forced implementation of the new testing culture and an imposition of an unpiloted system of evaluation with little input from the professionals and experts.

Ultimately, the new APPR, although objective and quantifiable upon cursory glance, perverts its ultimate goal of getting rid of bad teachers (Ravitch, 2013; Welner, 2013). The evaluation system could possibly protect truly ineffective teachers while bringing up charges of “incompetence” against effective teachers, leading to their eventual termination. In one of the most humanistic of fields, policy makers are imposing systems that eclipse professional judgment with strict adherence to technocratic models of management. This state of affairs also begs the following question: When did politicians and corporate giants become more virtuous caretakers of students than their teachers and principals?


The new teacher and principal evaluation system is creating a new revenue stream for private industry at taxpayer expense. In 2012, school districts in New York received approximately $20 billion in state aid representing an average increase of almost 4% from the previous year (Thompson, 2012). However, this increase was directly tied to a district’s adoption of the new APPR. If school districts did not have a SED-approved APPR plan in place by January 17, 2013, then “they will jeopardize receipt of any State aid increases” (NYSED, 2011a).

Funds will not be necessarily used to purchase textbooks or hire new teachers. Instead, districts will likely need to spend money on implementing this new APPR, which will cost more than their allotted state aid increase. A school district has no choice but to pay for these new costs associated with the APPR. In a recent study by the Lower Hudson Council of Superintendents, school districts received an aggregate total of $500,000 from RTTT funds while expending $6 million on implementing these measures (Mitchell, 2012). Even though superintendents recognize that the costs of implementing the new APPR will almost certainly outweigh their districts’ actual increase in state aid, almost all believe they have no choice (Mitchell, 2012). They are stuck between a rock and a hard place, and school boards feel compelled to accept the state aid increase to appease and pacify taxpayers who clamor for more reductions. Pushing school districts to adopt a teacher and principal evaluation system in return for additional aid is a trade-off the public is willing to accept, even if the APPR costs classrooms more resources than it purports to secure. The $750 million was presented as a gain to schools when in fact these funds are almost wholly consumed to finance the implementation of RTTT and APPR.

In order to comply with the new APPR, districts must steer resources away from the public school classroom and towards the administration of testing. With the newly implemented limitations on property tax levy increases, 93% of school districts in New York asked voters to pass a school budget within the tax levy cap (Albert, 2012). The average school tax increase in New York State for the 2012−2013 school year is 1.5% (Heiser, 2012). The effects of limiting property tax increases, which are the major source of funding for public education in the United States, are devastating. Nearly two thirds of districts plan to cut teaching positions, according to a survey conducted by the New York State School Boards Association. In terms of actual numbers, districts are planning to cut 4,450 positions, three fourths of them being teachers (O’Brien & Pasciak, 2012).

The consequence of a combination of a variety of forces are defunding and bankrupting public schools (Ravitch, 2013). School boards’ reluctance to request a budget increase of more than 2% and the costs associated with implementing the new APPR are all contributing to an eventual economic crisis in public schools. Coupled with teacher and staff layoffs, the New York State School Boards Association (NYSSBA) reports that more than half of all school districts in the state have also increased class size and a third will reduce extracurricular activities (Heiser, 2012). Some districts have limited high school seniors to only enrolling in core classes (social studies and English), while others are also considered reducing kindergarten from a full to a half-day program.

These circumstances have not derailed the NYSED from continuing with its RTTT. According to a report released by the NYSED, out of the $450 million budget proposal for RTTT, over $6 million will be spent on the “RTTT Performance Management Office,” almost $45 million will be used to develop P–12 curriculum models, $50 million is scheduled for an “education data portal,” and $20 million is planned for the development of 6–8 grade assessments (NYSED, 2011b, 59). Pearson Education, whose exams have been both criticized and lampooned in the media and in school communities, and which is currently under investigation for improper lobbying practices (Hu, 2011), was awarded a $33 million contract to develop and implement state assessments (Burris, 2012a). Coincidentally, Pearson sells textbooks, teacher materials, workbooks, and software analysis tools to prepare students and teachers for its exams.


In spring of 2011 the first joint directive from the New York State Education Department and Pearson Publishing Company crossed the desks of the state’s principals. Since then, numerous memos with tersely written directives have been sent directly to superintendents and principals on the hybrid letterhead from the NYSED and a corporate partner.


Corporations view the public education sector as an investment opportunity for profitable gains. An article, “Private Firms Eyeing Profits from U.S. Public Schools,” lists companies (e.g., Parthenon, McGraw-Hill, Pearson, Rocketship, Princeton Review, Educational Services of America, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and GSV Partners) that believe there is great profitability in investing in public education (Simon, 2012). Education consultant and partner with the Parthenon Group stated, “You start to see entire ecosystems of investment opportunity lining up. It could get really, really big” (quoted in ). The founder of Princeton Review Test Prep, John Katzman, asked, “How do we use technology so that we require fewer highly qualified teachers?” (quoted in Simon 2012).

The effects of privatizing education are steadily infiltrating and shifting the institutional culture of schools. New York and 44 other states have adopted the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and have committed themselves to introducing and administering the PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) exam. This decision has resulted in the proliferation of private vendors that offer products associated with the CCSS and the PARCC exam. Not a day goes by that principals do not receive at least one email and one phone call from salespeople. For example, an email from a salesperson at Academic Innovations about a product called “Career Choices” promises to “facilitat[e] the in-depth career exploration and guidance needed to help students successfully develop meaningful Individual Graduation Plans.” Plato Learning’s email advertises “assessments that do much more than assess.” With limited funds, most public schools do not have the ability to pay for these private services.

If public schools do not have the available funds, then how do the private vendors stay in business? The answer lies in federal policies developed in reaction to comparatively unfavorable performance of U.S. students with other nations that were adopted by the Bush and Obama Administrations, NCLB (2001) and RTTT (2009), respectively (Meyer, this issue; Ravitch, 2010). Under both programs, schools are rated based on student performance on standardized tests. In the NCLB universe, each school was held accountable using a measure called the Annual Measurable Objective (AMO) and judged according to how the school made Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) with the goal that 100% of the student body would be proficient in mathematics and English by 2014.

Schools were rated on their Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) and were issued report cards that ranked schools as follows: schools in good standing, schools in need of improvement, and schools under registration review. Using this stricter target of 100% of students meeting proficiency, almost 30% of all public schools in New York State were listed as “schools in need of improvement” (Associated Press, 2011). As a result, 1,325 schools had to take some type of corrective action to ensure that they meet the pre-set AMO and make the necessary AYP gains. Every school must file plans with NYSED as to how it plans to meet these objectives using proven research-based methodologies. These school improvement plans provide a market for private vendors to sell their “research based” products to school districts. The pressure to remain a “school in good standing” and to avoid the anathema “school in need of improvement” leads school districts to purchase products from NYSED approved private vendors that demonstrate their designs dovetail with research-based strategies to increase students’ “performance” levels.

The dismantling of public education is also occurring on the political front. Commissioner King has engaged the assistance of corporate decision makers (Karlin, 2013) in response to principals’ objection regarding the recent 3−8 Grade ELA and Mathematics exams that incorporated the CCSS CCSS (Foote, Federman, Goldstein, Getz, & Mitchell, 2013) and parental objections to increased emphasis on high-stakes testing (Wind, 2013), Dr. King appealed to businesses urging them to sign a petition and pledge their support for the CCSS and the corresponding testing. This unprecedented move to publicly implore business owners in support of a specific educational reform indicates the NYSED’s alignment with corporate interests.


There is not one educator we have met that does not believe there is an imperative to continually improve the craft of teaching to enrich students’ skills. Differences arise in how this goal of improving education is to be achieved. The most recent reform efforts rely on a one-dimensional focus on test standardization (NCLB) and the resulting quality control of teachers and principals based on student scores on these exams (RTTT). This commitment to enhance public education is at the heart of the U.S. compulsion to hold schools and teachers accountable. However, when teacher accountability for student performance is coupled with issues that extend beyond the purview of the schools questions about causality arise (Berliner, 2013; Meyer & Schiller, 2013). Important student variables, such as school attendance, physical and psychological well-being, or undocumented learning difficulties are being ignored in accountability schemes in the United States while they are addressed as social problems in countries with less poverty. Student socioeconomic status may make the most significant contribution to student outcomes while “wrongheaded educational policy” eliminates all variables except teacher quality from the equation (Berliner, 2013).

Identifying and dismissing under qualified teachers is an important duty of administrators. However, not only does RTTT and APPR not aid in teacher evaluation, these reform measures obscure evaluation of teachers by reducing the role of professional judgment and tethering evaluative decisions to a near obsession with statistics and data (Nichols & Berliner, 2007; Welner, 2013), while ignored experts and historians of education recommend professionalizing rather than rationalizing education, making educators less vulnerable to a technocratic reform logic that pursues accountability through “systems of standardized top-down control.” Michael Fullan states that one culprit to reforming the educational system is “accountability: using test results, and teacher appraisal, to reward or punish teachers and schools” (Fullan & Centre for Strategic Eduction (Vic.), 2011).

If the goal of current U.S. educational reform is to improve education, then a study of successful systems is paramount in developing educational policies that will effectively drive this change. In our attempt to understand school success, we took part in a Study Tour of the Finnish educational system since Finland ranks at the top of PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) indicators. The Finnish system distinguishes itself by focusing on capacity building, standardization of teacher preparation and development, and group strategies and solutions. A focus on professional responsibility rather than accountability is understood as key to success in international school comparisons as well as starkly noted on our study tour to Finland (Mehta, 2013a; Meyer & Benavot, 2013; Sahlberg, 2011; Tucker & Schleicher, 2011). Sahlberg claims that if teachers from Indiana taught in Finland they would:

stand to flourish on account of the freedom to teach without the constraints of standardized curricula and the pressure of standardized testing; strong leadership from principals who know the classroom from years of experience as teachers; a professional culture of collaboration; and support from homes unchallenged by poverty. (Sahlberg, 2013)


RTTT and APPR fall short of the cardinal principal of any and all reform interventions: first, do no harm (Johnson, 2009; Nichols & Berliner, 2007). Federal reforms, NCLB, and RTTT, have yet to show any measurable gains in student achievement. Since NCLB was implemented over 10 years ago, student learning has declined in the United States (National Research Council (U.S.)., 2011). RTTT, which is NCLB on steroids, shows no promise of reversing the declining trend in U.S. education.

These reforms have, in fact, contributed to a worsening of the situation by:

creating chaos and confusion through hastily conceived, top-down directives;

replacing professional leadership and knowledge with hired consultants;

creating a culture of distrust and suspicion;

opening the state’s public education to the influence of private, for-profit organizations; and

sacrificing best education practices with a frenzied race to improve scores on tests.

As hundreds of our colleagues across the state have stated, RTTT and APPR are coercive interventions that upset any sense of normal educational processes in our schools. These reforms reduce teachers to agents of private curriculum designers and shift the goals of schools from educating children to meeting numeric achievement indicators on tests. The narrow focus on tests is noted as the source of parent and student complaints about psychological distress, anxiety, and illness (Niagara Region PTA, 2012).

After three years of New York schools struggling to comply with the NYSED's illogically designed APPR, the goals are not achieved. To the contrary, time and money has been wasted because the implicit requirements of APPR appropriated all discretionary meeting time and required schools to spend money on products unrelated to classroom use. Public education can only remain a mainstay of democracy if politicians are required to work in concert with professionals in the field of education (Mehta, 2013a; Ravitch, 2013).

The new testing culture was created in fear and dressed in political rhetoric in the wake of unfavorable international comparisons of U.S. performance on PISA (Meyer and Benavot 2103). Since the motivation for actionable policy eventually shows its face, and the fear of our international standing trumps a collective and intrinsic desire to improve, the culture of testing threatens a wholesome focus on authentic teaching and learning (Meyer, this issue; Sahlberg, 2011).

As the APPR proceeds, school districts are under pressure to comply with a cumbersome and expensive system of evaluation that does not provide reasonable expectations of improvement. To correct the miscalculation, NYSED is left with two choices: either return control of teacher and principal evaluation to local administration or require that centralized implementation be led by experienced and active professionals in the field.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 116 Number 9, 2014, p. 1-23
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17561, Date Accessed: 1/28/2022 12:09:35 PM

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  • Harry Leonardatos
    SUNY Albany
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    HARRY LEONARDATOS has experienced education in a variety of settings (parochial, private independent, and public schools) in New York City and its suburbs. Before becoming a full-time high school principal, Harry was a social studies teacher for 15 years. Harry is currently a PhD student (ABD) at the University of Albany in New York. He has earned a Master’s Degree in Political Science from the New School for Social Research, a Master’s Degree in Teaching from Fordham University, and a Professional Diploma in School Administration from the College of New Rochelle.
  • Katie Zahedi
    SUNY Albany
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    KATIE ZAHEDI, Ph.D has been a public school administrator in a high-performing, semi-rural public school for twelve years. She is interested in the influence of school culture on learning and comparative education. She completed her Ph.D in Educational Administration and Policy Studies at the State University of New York, Albany. Recently appointed assistant professor of educational leadership at the State University of New York, New Paltz, she is in transition from her current role as principal at Linden Avenue Middle School in Red Hook, New York.
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