small size big problems

For rural districts, unexpected challenges in new evaluation system

Lauren Kelso, Mountain Valley's principal, and Corey Doss, the superintendent, in the district's main office.

As districts across Colorado roll out new state-mandated educator evaluations systems, rural districts are discovering challenges that few of their larger counterparts face.

Even in the small number of rural districts that piloted the program two years ago, administrators are still grappling with everything from how to rate teachers who teach multiple grade levels in one classroom to glitchy computer systems in districts with little tech support.

And in some rural districts with fewer than 200 students, administrative staff and teachers often play more than one role, which leads to obstacles that rural officials say weren’t accounted for when the evaluation law was written.

“When legislation comes down the pipe, schools like this don’t get thought about,” said Corey Doss, superintendent of the San Luis Valley’s Mountain Valley School District, which was one of 27 districts that began piloting the new evaluation system two years ago.

Doss wanted a head start on the program and to make sure that rural districts had a voice in providing feedback on the challenges. ”I wanted to make sure this district was on the right track,” he said.

Time burdens and technical glitches

Even in a district with two years’ practice under its belt, Doss found that the requirements of the law can overwhelm staff time.

“It’s great but it’s time-consuming,” said Doss, who oversees a staff that includes a single principal, a bookkeeper and a technology director in addition to teachers and facilities workers.

When the pilot first began, Doss split the work of evaluating teachers with his principal, Laura Kelso, but found that the load was too heavy with the rest of his responsibilities. So Kelso took on the task of evaluating the district’s teachers herself, a move that forced her last week to hire a substitute to oversee the school while she spent several days meeting with teachers.

In Mountain Valley, the evaluations have further sucked up staff time because of technical glitches in the system the district uses to manage all of the associated data and reports, BloomBoard.

Though the program has been praised by Bill Gates and other education advocates, Mountain Valley administrators say it is riddled with problems and the training they received was insufficient.

For example, teachers are supposed to score themselves using the same rubric as the evaluator. Those scores should then appear side by side in BloomBoard. But that’s not what’s happening.

“It is currently taking me two hours per teacher to do mid-term evaluation reviews because scores from me aren’t showing up,” said Kelso. The teacher should be able to look at both his or her own self-evaluation and Kelso’s side by side; instead, Kelso has to sit down with each teacher and go through the rubric score by score.

Additionally, the trainer who taught them how to use BloomBoard taught them incorrectly, so Kelso spent several hours fixing her inadvertent errors.

And Kelso says it’s not surprising that the trainer made mistakes. “It changes all the time,” she said, so new problems in the software keep arising.

Since Mountain Valley began using BloomBoard, the state has moved away from it. But that’s of little comfort to Mountain Valley officials, who already have their data loaded into it and can’t change systems.

Complexity pies

When the legislature passed the new educator effectiveness law in 2009, it laid out general requirements for what pieces must go into an evaluation, including classroom observations, proficiency and growth scores on both state and classroom tests.

Districts were then charged with working out exactly how much each element should factor in to a teacher’s evaluation. That process is happening for the first time this year, as the new system’s full rollout goes into effect.

The complex mandates of the new evaluation system are a particular challenge for small districts where the responsibility for designing and implementing the new system falls on a single person.

In Moffat Consolidated School District, like Mountain Valley, a single principal oversees a K-12 campus and doesn’t have any administrative support like she might in other districts. That means that many smaller tasks end up on her plate.

“There is no data person to pull the numbers,” said Kirk Banghart, Moffat’s superintendent.

Designing the breakdown of test scores–or “pies” as Kelso calls them — is especially difficult in places like Moffat or Mountain Valley, where a single teacher either teaches a single subject across as many six grade levels or a single grade level across a bunch of subject.

For example, Mountain Valley’s high school social studies teacher taught three grades but until this spring, none were tested. As a result, the test portion of that teacher’s evaluation came from math and literacy scores for those students.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, some teachers teach multiple grades, all of them tested. Balancing exactly how much of each category of testing should go into a teacher’s evaluation is a statistical challenge for principals like Kelso.

That means Kelso and Moffat’s principal, Michelle Hashbarger, must develop individual breakdowns for what goes into the testing portion of each teacher’s evaluation. Teachers have a say, as well, and Kelso plans to sit down with each teacher to discuss what their breakdown will look like, within the constraints of the law.

Banghart also said that with small classes, just a few students can skew the results for a teacher.

“It would take four or five years to get to enough students [for statistical power]”, he said.

For Kelso, the evaluation process is uncovering philosophical differences between her and her teaching staff about how they should be rated-questions that are being raised across the state.

“Teachers are feeling it’s really unfair,” Kelso said.

For example, her music teacher will see math and literacy scores from her students in her evaluations, despite the fact that she doesn’t teach those subjects. But Kelso believes the skills students learn in music do affect her students’ math scores.

“To me, the math in her content area could play an even bigger role for students,” Kelso said. “That’s a philosophical conversation we need to have.”

Kelso agrees with her teachers that elements of the law are unfair and she hopes to come up with breakdowns that remedy some of the problems. For her brand-new fourth grade math teacher, who will see state test scores from last year’s fourth graders in her evaluation, Kelso is planning to exclude internal growth scores from last year.

Instead, more emphasis will be put on how much the teacher is able to help her current students.

The evolution of the principal

For Kelso, the experience of overseeing the entire process, from designing the pies to observing the teachers, has made her wish for a rethinking of the role of the principal.

“Honestly I think there’s going to have to be some kind of change how administrations look,” Kelso said.

Other San Luis Valley districts with more staff have parceled out the responsibility to more people.

“In one [San Luis Valley] district with a lot more resources, one person designed all the pies,” said Kelso. But here, she’s the one person responsible for coming up with a solution.

Kelso says she fears that the burden on small districts may ultimately prove to be too great.

“The only ones who are going to be successful are [districts] with assistant principals and other admins,” Kelso said. But she’s trying to figure out work arounds for her small district. One good first step, she said, was banding together with two other San Luis Valley districts to hire a consultant to train administrators on the evaluation process.

Officials in both Moffat and Mountain Valley agree that the evaluations have changed the principal’s role.

In Moffat, the law raised questions of whether the person designing how teachers are evaluated should be the one hiring and firing them as well. As a result, Banghart and Hashbarger divided responsibilities — she designs and implements the evaluations and he makes the final call on hiring and firing.

The responsibilities have also limited the time both principals are able to spend providing instructional support to teachers.

For Kelso, who only has a single elementary literacy coach, she’s had to rethink about what kind of help she can provide.

“What’s my responsibility as an administrator to get them the help they need?” Kelso said.

Right now, all she’s had the time to do is get some of her new teachers books to read and talk about.

“I’m either evaluator or coach,” said Kelso. “It’s really hard to do both.”

Newcomers

This mom came to the newcomer school ready to stand up for son. She left with a job.

PHOTO: Provided by Javier Barrera Cervantes
Charlotte Uwimbabazi is a bilingual assistant at the Indianapolis Public Schools newcomer program.

When Charlotte Uwimbabazi showed up at Indianapolis Public Schools’ program for new immigrants, she was ready to fight for her son. When she left that day, she had a job.

A native of the Congo, Uwimbabazi fled the war-torn country and spent nearly a decade in Cape Town, South Africa waiting for a new home. Last spring, Uwimbabazi and her four children came to the U.S. as refugees.

(Read: Teaching when students are full of fear: Inside Indiana’s first school for new immigrants)

When the family arrived in Indianapolis, Uwimbabazi’s youngest son Dave enrolled at Northwest High School. But he wasn’t happy, and a volunteer helping to resettle the family suggested he transfer to Crispus Attucks High School. When the school year started, though, Crispus Attucks turned him away. Staff there said he had been assigned to the newcomer program, a school for students who are new to the country and still learning English.

There was just one problem: Dave was fluent in English after growing up in South Africa. Uwimbabazi said it’s the only language he knows. So Uwimbabazi and her son Dave headed to the newcomer school to convince them he should attend Crispus Attucks.

That’s when Jessica Feeser, who oversees the newcomer school and programing for IPS students learning English, stepped in — and found a new resource for the district’s growing population of newcomer students.

Feeser immediately realized that Dave was fluent in English and should enroll in Crispus Attucks. Then, Uwimbabazi started talking with Feeser about her own experience. With a gift for languages, Uwimbabazi speaks six fluently, including Swahili and Kinyarwanda, languages spoken by many African students at the school.

“Where are you working right now?” Feeser asked. “Would you like a job here?”

Uwimbabazi, who had been packing mail, took a job as a bilingual assistant at the school. Her interaction with the district went from “negativity to positivity,” she said.

The newcomer program has seen dramatic growth in enrollment since it opened last fall, and it serves about three dozen refugee students. Students at the school speak at least 14 different languages. As the only staff member at the school who speaks Swahili and Kinyarwanda, Uwimbabazi is a lifeline for many of the African refugees it serves, Feeser said.

She works alongside teachers, going over material in languages that students speak fluently and helping them grasp everything from simple instructions to complex concepts like graphing linear equations, Feeser said. She also helps bridge the divide between the district and the Congolese community on Indianapolis’ westside, going on home visits to meet parents and helping convince families to enroll their children in school.

When students in the newcomer program don’t share a language with staff members, the school is still able to educate them, Feeser said. But it is hard to build community without that bridge. Uwimbabazi has played an essential role in helping the school build relationships with families.

“She believes that all of our families are important, and she’s working diligently to make sure that they feel that their voices are heard,” Feeser said. “It was a gift from God that she joined us.”

Trade offs

Indianapolis is experimenting with a new kind of teacher — and it’s transforming this school

PHOTO: Teachers and coaches meet at Indianapolis Public Schools Lew Wallace School 107.
Paige Sowders (left) is one of three multi-classroom leaders who are helping teachers at School 107.

Teachers at School 107 are up against a steep tower of challenges: test scores are chronically low, student turnover is high and more than a third of kids are still learning English.

All the school’s difficulties are compounded by the struggle to hire and retain experienced teachers, said principal Jeremy Baugh, who joined School 107 two years ago. At one of the most challenging schools in Indianapolis Public Schools, many of the educators are in their first year in the classroom.

“It’s a tough learning environment,” Baugh said. “We needed to find a way to support new teachers to be highly effective right away.”

This year, Baugh and the staff of School 107 are tackling those challenges with a new teacher leadership model designed to attract experienced educators and support those who are new to the classroom. School 107 is one of six district schools piloting the opportunity culture program, which allows principals to pay experienced teachers as much as $18,000 extra each year to support other classrooms. Next year, the program will expand to 10 more schools.

The push to create opportunities for teachers to take on leadership and earn more money without leaving the classroom is gaining momentum in Indiana — where the House budget includes $1.5 million for developing educator “career pathways” — and across the country in places from Denver to Washington. The IPS program is modeled on similar efforts in North Carolina led by the education consulting firm Public Impact.

At School 107, Baugh hired three new teachers, called multi-classroom leaders, who are responsible for the performance of several classes. Each class has a dedicated, full-time teacher. But the classroom leader is there to help them plan lessons, improve their teaching and look at data on where students are struggling. And unlike traditional coaches, they also spend time in the classroom, working directly with students.

As classroom leaders, they are directly responsible for the test scores of the students in their classes, said Jesse Pratt, who is overseeing opportunity culture for the district.

“They own that data,” Pratt said. “They are invested in those kids and making sure they are successful.”

At School 107, the program is part of a focus on using data to track student performance that Baugh began rolling out when he took over last school year. It’s already starting to bear fruit: Students still struggle on state tests, but they had so much individual improvement that the school’s letter grade from the state jumped from a D to a B last year.

Paige Sowders, who works with classes in grades 3 through 6, is one of the experienced teachers the program attracted to School 107. After 9 years in the classroom, she went back to school to earn an administrator’s license. But Sowders wasn’t quite ready to leave teaching for the principal’s office, she said. She was planning to continue teaching in Washington Township. Then, she learned about the classroom leader position at School 107, and it seemed like a perfect opportunity to move up the ladder without moving out of the classroom.

“I wanted something in the middle before becoming an administrator,” she said. “I get to be a leader and work with teachers and with children.”

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
The multi-classroom leaders meet regularly with teachers and district coaches to review data and plan lessons.

The new approaches to teacher leadership are part of a districtwide move to give principals more freedom to set priorities and choose how to spend funding. But those decisions aren’t always easy. Since schools don’t get extra funding to hire classroom leaders, Baugh had to find money in his existing budget. That meant cutting several vacant part-time positions, including a media specialist, a gym teacher and a music teacher.

It also meant slightly increasing class sizes. Initially, that seemed fine to Baugh, but then enrollment unexpectedly ballooned at the school — going from 368 students at the start of the year to 549 in February. With so many new students, class sizes started to go up, and the school had to hire several new teachers, Baugh said.

Some of those teachers were fresh out of college when they started in January, with little experience in such challenging schools. But because the school had classroom leaders, new teachers weren’t expected to lead classes without support. Instead, they are working with leaders like Sowders, who can take the time to mentor them throughout the year.

With teachers who are just out of school, Sowders spends a lot of time focusing on basics, she said. She went over what their days would be like and how to prepare. During the first week of the semester, she went into one of the new teacher’s classes to teach English every day so he could see the model lessons. And she is working with him on improving discipline in his class by setting expectations in the first hour of class.

Ultimately, Baugh thinks the tradeoffs the school made were worth it. The extra money helped them hold on to talented staff, and they have the bandwidth to train new teachers.

“If I’m a novice teacher just learning my craft, I can’t be expected to be a super star best teacher year one,” he said. “We learn our skill.”