After earning enthusiastic reviews for 17 years as a fourth-grade teacher on Long Island, Sheri G. Lederman Ed D., was shocked to learn in September 2014 that the state’s new evaluation system gave her only 1 out of 20 points for her students’ progress on state tests. Thus deeming her ineffective — in the Office of Assessment’s Growth Score and Rating system.
Lederman’s students, however, met or exceeded test standards at more than twice the state’s average scores since the new testing standards were implemented two years ago, according to State Education Department data.
Her employers consider her to be an “extraordinary teacher” and her students’ parents refer to her as “one of the most influential educators” their children have ever had. Her students, years after they sat in her fourth-grade classroom, cite her as an integral part in their strong academic careers.
So how did this happen? The state uses a computer program to compare student growth based on standardized tests that are said to reflect the impact teachers have on their students over the course of a year. Lederman’s students, although high achieving, were evaluated at a growth rating “well below average for similar students” with prior academic achievement and similar demographics, according to state teacher growth score definitions. Her own school district awarded her a perfect score in its evaluation.
“It’s dehumanized us,” she said of the teaching scores. “It really takes away my significance in terms of my human interaction with the kids and their parents and it’s turned every one of us into nothing more than a number.”
Lederman was told by the State Education Department that she can’t appeal her growth rating score, because it is a subcomponent of her composite score of “effective” for the 2013-2014 school year. Lederman was told her only option was to sue, so that’s what she has done, with the aid of her husband who is serving as her attorney.
“To put my heart and soul into every child, every year, and then have some absurd statistical analysis determine I’m not effective…to me this is just ridiculous,” said Dr. Lederman, who has a doctorate in educational psychology from Hofstra University.
Dr. Lederman is now suing the state Education Department to toss out her score. She wants the state Supreme Court in Albany to bar New York from using this rating method for her fellow teachers statewide.
Now, the state is attempting to dismiss Lederman’s suit, which claims the evaluation system and Lederman’s rating is “arbitrary, capricious and an abuse of discretion,” according to documents filed with the state Supreme Court in Albany. The state argues that Lederman’s concern about parents finding out her low score is unfounded, as the information can’t be accessed through a Freedom of Information Act Request.
Additionally, the state argues her other evaluation scores are high enough that her low growth rating does not bring her overall composite score to the level requiring disciplinary action, according to court documents.
The growth test uses a computer software program created by the American Institutes for Research that compares student test scores of one teacher to those of similar students across the state. The program — which has cost the state more than $3.4 million, according to State Education Department invoices — classifies and compares students based on similar demographics, prior academic history and learning classifications.
By comparing student performance in this way, the state test system “ensures that all educators have a chance to do well regardless of the composition of their schools or classrooms,” according to the education department.
But the American Statistical Association in an April 2014 statement advised “wise use” of these “value-added models” like the growth rating system for teachers, especially when it comes to making high-stakes decisions like hiring and firing educators.
Bruce Lederman said his wife is publicly acknowledging that the state awarded her an “F” for her ability to help students grow when compared to those across the state.
And though Lederman typically deals with real estate and commercial litigation, he said it has been alarming to see how unwilling the State Education Department has been to even discuss the effect these ratings have on teachers. The Ledermans are currently setting up meetings with state legislators to get their story heard. They have had no response from the governor or the governor’s office.
“We come at this from a very small piece of the puzzle, but since the governor has made (teacher evaluations) the centerpiece of the puzzle… it needs to be made known how inaccurate the tests are,” Bruce Lederman said.
Sheri Lederman isn’t the only teacher affected by low ratings. Her husband said he has received numerous calls from teachers across the state fighting the same battle but lacking the financial means — typically upward of six figures when entering into a lawsuit.
Educational organizations across the state want to throw out teacher evaluations based on standardized test scores, none more so than the New York State United Teachers union. NYSUT argues the governor’s proposal places increased pressure on students and teachers whose achievement is dictated by a numerical test score. Others have said it relies on a flaky evaluation system that will turn teachers away from the profession.
But Lederman isn’t giving up. She intends to have the scoring system removed from New York completely in an effort to keep teachers judged on qualities like confidence and critical thinking.
“You get to a point where if you’re seeing something that’s just wrong, I feel like, as Americans, we have an obligation to stand up and say something. It’s a battle that I think has to be fought — not just for the teachers, but for the kids,” Lederman said.
But the state could move in the other direction if Gov. Andrew Cuomo has his way. In his State of the State speech in 2015, he called for tougher teacher evaluations, and using them to make it easier to reward top teachers and remove weak ones.
Mr. Cuomo, a Democrat, said state exams should count for 50% of evaluations for teachers of language arts and math in grades four through eight, up from 20% now. Current evaluations are “baloney,” he said, because nearly all teachers get high marks while most students lack proficiency in English and math.
The governor’s proposals infuriated teachers unions. Among many complaints, unions cite flaws in the complex computer models that aim to isolate a teacher’s contribution to children’s growth on exams.
Researchers have long disagreed on the validity of these models and their value for personnel decisions. Some, including the American Statistical Association, caution that many factors affect test scores, such as class size, extracurricular tutoring, poverty and parental involvement.
But other studies back this approach, including one highlighted by President Barack Obama in his 2012 State of the Union speech. Three economists from Harvard and Columbia universities examined test scores for 2.5 million children and tracked them into adulthood. The study found that students with high-quality teachers—identified by test-score gains—were more likely to attend college, earn higher salaries and avoid having babies as teenagers.
Many teachers don’t buy these ratings. Dr. Lederman, a 53-year-old mother who grew up in affluent, high-performing Great Neck, is among the first teachers to publicly reveal her own growth score in an attempt to discredit it. Dr. Lederman earned all 80 possible points on district elements, mostly from observers judging her classroom techniques. Her total of 81 points out of 100 deemed her effective overall, but her low mark for her students’ growth on state tests stunned her, her supervisors and effusive parents.
Thomas Dolan, superintendent in Great Neck, said: “No one who knows Sheri would accept the label ‘failing’ placed by her name for any reason.”
Officials at the Education Department declined to comment on Dr. Lederman’s case, citing the ongoing litigation. However, in an October court hearing in the Lederman suit, Colleen Galligan, a state assistant attorney general, defended growth scores, saying the model was developed with “a lot of input” from teachers unions.
To derive growth scores, a computer model compares each teacher’s students to children with similar academic histories and demographic backgrounds and tracks how much they advance in a year.
“While Petitioner’s students are still high achieving when compared with the state overall, their growth was significantly below average when compared with other similar students.”
Ms. Galligan filed court papers seeking to dismiss the case, on grounds that Dr. Lederman’s overall “effective” rating meant she hadn’t suffered any harm or disciplinary action.
In Dr. Lederman’s view, policy makers in Albany have no feel for her fourth-graders. “Children don’t learn in a linear fashion, they grow in fits and starts,” she said. “To take a single moment in time and judge the children, and then add insult to injury by using that to evaluate teachers, is utterly illogical.”
On Aug. 12, 2015, New York Supreme Court Justice Roger McDonough presided over a hearing in the case — and he was not amused with the state’s case.
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The Following is a report on the hearing by Carol Burris, the executive director of the nonprofit Network for Public Education Fund. Burris retired in June as an award-winning principal at a New York high school, and she is the author of numerous articles, books and blog posts (including on The Answer Sheet) about the botched school reform efforts in her state.
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By Carol Burris
The exasperated New York Supreme Court judge, Roger McDonough, tried to get Assistant Attorney General Galligan to answer his questions. He was looking for clarity and instead got circuitous responses about bell curves, “outliers” and adjustments. Fourth-grade teacher Sheri Lederman’s VAM score of “ineffective” was on trial.
The more Ms. Galligan tried to defend the bell curve of growth scores as science, the more the judge pushed back with common sense. It was clear that he did his homework. He understood that the New York State Education Department’s VAM system artificially set the percentage of “ineffective” teachers at 7 percent. That arbitrary decision clearly troubled him. “Doesn’t the bell curve make it subjective? There has to be failures,” he asked.
The defender of the curve said that she did not like the “failure” word.
The judge quipped, “Ineffectives, how about that?” Those in attendance laughed.
Ms. Galligan preferred the term “outlier.” Those who got ineffective growth scores were “the outliers who are not doing a good job,” the attorney said. She seemed oblivious to the fourth-grade teacher who was sitting not 10 feet away from where she stood.
“Did her students learn nothing?” Justice McDonough asked. “How could it be that she went from 14 out of 20 points to 1 out of 20 points in one year?” He noted that the students’ scores were quite good and not that different from the year before.
Back behind the bell curve Ms. Galligan ran. As she tried to explain once again, the judge said, “Therein lies the imprecise nature of this measure.”
I met Sheri Lederman a year before she became an “outlier.” In April of 2013, a group of principals organized a forum at Hofstra University, called More than a Score. Sheri’s principal, Sharon Fougner, recommended her as a panelist. “She is not only a remarkable teacher, she is a scholar in childhood education,” Fougner said.
At that forum, Sheri spoke eloquently about her students. She explained what good elementary education should be. Her thoughtful presentation full of authentic concern for the effects of Pearson testing on her fourth-graders was the most moving presentation of the evening.
The following year, in 2014, Sheri received her ineffective score from the state. Principal Fougner called her into her office to tell her, so she would not have to suffer the indignity of reading it on a computer screen.
The master teacher, known for her high expectations for students and her belief that every single student can succeed with her help, was in shock. Just the year before her score was rated “effective.”
After being told the bad news, Lederman recalls sitting at her desk thinking that there must be some mistake. She thought about quitting — and then she got angry.
What started out as a personal affront became a cause. As she recently told me:
“I spend a lot of time teaching my students about the injustices that have historically plagued populations across the world. It is often the case that one single person must step up and take a stand against an unjust law or governing body, becoming the tipping point for so many others. I could not stand by and accept what SED [State Education Department] and the Legislature were doing to me and every other educator out there. I have made the choice to take a public stand. Win or lose, I won’t stand by and be ineffective in this fight.”
She and her husband, attorney Bruce Lederman, filed for a review. She received a dismissive letter from the State Education Department saying there was no review and if she didn’t like it, the only recourse was an article 78 action.
And that is just what she and her husband began.
Lederman was not the only teacher in the school to get a poor score. In 2014, 21 percent of the staff at E.M. Baker School received a score of “ineffective,” 21 percent “developing” and 57 percent were “effective.” Just the year before, not one teacher received an “ineffective” score.
The irrationality was not limited to the teachers of Sheri Lederman’s school, one of the highest performing elementary schools in the state. In 2014, 44 percent of the teachers of the Fox Meadow School in Scarsdale received growth scores that said they were not “effective” teachers with 22 percent rated “ineffective.” Yet 61 percent of the school’s students were proficient in English Language Arts, and 75 percent were proficient in math—more that double the state’s proficiency rate. Similar results were found at the high-achieving Harbour Hill School in Roslyn, where 36 percent of its teachers received growth scores that labeled them “ineffective.”
The Lincoln School in Rochester, is a school designated as a priority/failing school by the state. Its proficiency rate was less than 3 percent. In 2014, 100 percent of its teachers received “effective” state scores, with 7 percent being rated “highly effective.” At another school facing receivership, The Martin Luther King Jr School in Utica, New York, 60 percent of the teachers received “effective” VAM scores and 40 percent were given VAM scores of “highly effective .”
I point out these dramatic differences not to disparage or embarrass the teachers of any school, but rather to shine a light on the irrational state-produced teacher scores based on the New York Common Core tests. For more information on the unreliable manner in which these scores functioned in 2013 and 2014, read here.
Bruce Lederman argued the irrationality of that rating system before the court. He laid out a careful, systematic argument. He was not opposed to evaluation. He was not even opposed to evaluation based on a measurement of student learning growth. He objected to a rating created in a black box that spit out predictions that compared his wife’s students to “avatar students.” He was disturbed that when questioned, that system responds with “because we say so.” He noted that “the magic of numbers brings a suspension of common sense.”
“There is nothing in the law that requires a bell curve,” he argued. He explained that a bell curve with its forced failures violates that law that requires that every teacher must be able to get all scores. Not only did he want the court to set aside his wife’s score, he wanted the court to “declare the measure an abuse of discretion” because “the State Education Department does not get a pass on unreasonable and irrational actions.”
After 90 minutes of argument, the court adjourned.
At its core, this story is a love story. It is the story of a teacher who loves her students, her profession and justice so much that she is willing to stand up and let the world know that she was “an outlier” with an “ineffective” score.
It was love that compelled teachers, retired and active, driving from all corners of the state to be in that courtroom to listen on a hot summer’s day. It was love that compelled her principal to drive to Albany to be there. It was the deep and abiding love of a husband for his wife that compelled Bruce Lederman to spend countless hours preparing an extraordinary defense. And it is love that nourishes and sustains the good school, not avatar score predictions for performance on Common Core tests.
Supreme Court Justice McDonough’s decision is expected in two to three months.