A year to regroup

Major districts of two minds on temporary teacher evaluation reprieve

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier/ Chalkbeat TN
Kenneth Woods and his daughters Breanna Rosser (r) and Taylor Woods (r) reviewed 12 powerful words with sixth grade language arts teacher Patricia Hervey.

Colorado school districts got a temporary reprieve this year in using student academic growth to evaluate teachers, and major districts are split into two camps about how to use that flexibility.

Just over half of Colorado’s 20 largest districts will continue to use student academic growth data for 50 percent of teacher evaluations.

Another half-dozen large districts are taking advantage of Senate Bill 14-165 and won’t be applying student growth when evaluating their teachers.

Among the 50-percent districts who will use growth data are the Douglas County and Jefferson County schools. Major districts choosing to skip growth for a year include Adams 12-Five Star, Aurora, Boulder, Cherry Creek and Denver.

The first group of districts employs about 19,000 teachers, while about 17,000 teachers work in the districts that won’t be using growth.

The information comes from a Chalkbeat Colorado survey of the state’s 20 largest districts, conducted to find out how each is using evaluation flexibility. Those districts employ about 72 percent of the state’s roughly 54,000 teachers.

District decisions appeared to be driven by a combination of three factors – a district’s level of confidence in its evaluation system, a desire to refine its systems further, and concern about changing its evaluation system for only one year.

“We decided we were just going ahead to push forward, instead of taking a step back,” said Marne Milyard, a principal in the Pueblo City Schools, which is sticking with 50 percent.

On the other side, Tracy Dorland of Adams 12 said, “We’re grateful for the gift of time, and we plan to use it well.” Dorland is the district’s chief academic officer.

Sen. Mike Johnston, author of the flexibility law, isn’t surprised that different districts have taken different directions. “I think that reflects what our intent was,” the Denver Democrat said.

“A lot of folks we talked to had done the advance work and were prepared” to use growth measures for evaluation this year. But, “It makes a lot of sense that a lot of people [in other districts] would say, ‘Let’s test the system first.’”

“We hope it will lead to a good year of reflection and work,” said Johnston, who’s also the author of the 2010 law that created the new evaluation system.

Long timeline, stops and starts for evaluation rollout

Evaluation systemState law requires:
  • Annual evaluations of teachers, principals, and other licensed personnel
  • Basing half of evaluations on professional practice, half on student growth
  • Loss of even veteran teachers’ non-probationary status after two consecutive years of less-than-effective ratings

Teacher standards

Five standards comprise professional practice (50 percent)

  • Content knowledge
  • Creation of good learning environment for all students
  • Effective instruction and creation of environment that facilitates learning
  • Reflection on practice
  • Leadership

Student academic growth (50 percent)

Teacher ratings

  • Highly effective
  • Effective
  • Partially effective
  • Ineffective

The teacher and principal evaluation systems required by Johnston’s Senate Bill 10-191 were implemented in all districts during the 2013-14 school year. Educator evaluations were based 50 percent on classroom and professional practice and 50 percent on what are called “measures of student learning” – academic growth as measured by a variety of tests. Ratings of partially effective or ineffective didn’t count against future loss of non-probationary status.

This school year and this year only, thanks to SB 14-165, districts can choose to continue the 50-50 system, use a smaller percentage for student growth or base evaluations solely on professional practice. Districts do have to calculate and record student growth measures for teachers even if they’re not used in evaluations. And, low ratings do count against possible loss of non-probationary status. (The flexibility was granted by the legislature partly because of the “data gap” that will be created by moving to the new CMAS testing system next spring.)

The evaluation system is supposed to return to its original design in the 2015-16 school year, with evaluations based 50-50 on practice and student growth and with low ratings counted against teachers.

What the 50-percenters say

Some of the districts that decided to stick with the 50-50 evaluation system did so for continuity.

“We know it’s going back to having that [growth] requirement a year from now,” said David Peak, assistant superintendent for human resources in the Academy district near Colorado Springs.

Peak said his district started working on the issue three years ago and has student growth measurements “that we believe are valid and reliable, but we recognize there’s still work to be done in that area.”

Ruth DeCrescentis, chief human resources officer for the Brighton schools, said, “We’re going to go ahead with 50 percent because we’re ready. … I think people are pretty comfortable.”

“We had all components for Senate Bill 191 in place last year,” said Todd Engels, executive director of educator effectiveness for the Jeffco schools. But, he added, “There are pieces we’re continuing to refine.”

The district decided, “We need to have some consistency for evaluating our educators” and didn’t want to change the rules after having used student growth in 2013-14, Engels said.

Some 50-percent districts nevertheless are adding pieces of local flexibility to evaluation practices.

Colorado Springs District 11 is using only what are called “collective measures” – data such as school performance framework ratings – not individual classroom growth measures – to evaluate teachers.

And while the Douglas County Schools will use 50 percent growth for evaluation, that data won’t be used in the district’s performance pay system this year. (Use of performance pay is a local decision and isn’t part of state evaluation law.)

Thoughts from the 0 percent districts

“We believe there is still a great deal of work to do and learning to be accomplished before we introduce student achievement measures to the evaluation construct,” said Damon Smith, Aurora chief personnel officer.

Judy Skupa, Cherry Creek’s assistant superintendent of performance improvement, sounded a similar note, saying, “There are many unknowns right now due to the transition of state assessments, and this provides us with more time to determine how new state assessments will inform teacher and principal effectiveness. Also, we are beginning to develop a deeper understanding of quality assessments at the classroom level; the ‘14-15 school year provides a time for us to use this deeper understanding to pilot different assessments across the district and to use that information to make the best decision possible.”

Denver Public Schools has been a leader in developing evaluation systems but, under an agreement with the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, opted for 0 percent this year. The district is doing more work to develop usable “individually attributable student growth data” – student performance information that can be connected to individual teachers, not just to the performance of whole schools or the district.

“Because we don’t have other measures of individually attributable student growth for enough of our teachers, we decided to take advantage of the flexibility afforded by SB 165,” spokeswoman Nancy Mitchell said.

Theresa Myers, a spokeswoman for the Greeley schools, seemed to sum up the feelings of many districts by saying, “The reason was to give teachers one more year to learn about the system, to understand what supporting materials they will need to provide and to have one more year to feel comfortable with all the new evaluation entails.”

The outliers

The flexibility law allows districts to use any percentage between 0 and 50 for student growth this year. The Mesa 51 district in Grand Junction is the only top-20 district that isn’t doing all or nothing, and it is using 25 percent. “It’s the same rationale as those who are dropping it to zero percent; we want another year of experience with the process with the belief that we’re still honing our skills,” said spokesman Dan Dougherty.

Katy Anthes, director of educator effectiveness for the Colorado Department of Education, said she’s heard that several districts have chosen either 0 or 50 percent but doesn’t have a count because the flexibility law doesn’t require districts to tell CDE which route they’ve chosen.

Linda Barker, director of teaching and learning for the Colorado Education Association, said she’s heard that at least one smaller district, Meeker, is using 25 percent.

The flexibility law doesn’t set a deadline by which districts had to decide. Among top-20 districts, the Thompson schools still haven’t made a decision.

How student growth is measured

It’s a common misconception that Colorado’s evaluation system rates teachers based on student scores on statewide tests. That’s only half the story – remember that half of evaluations are based on classroom and professional practice.

And districts can measure the student growth half with a variety of data, including growth as measured by state tests, teacher-designed classroom tests, assessments provided by outside vendors and even growth in the ratings provided by the school and district performance frameworks that are used for accreditation and rating. Many districts are working on creation of student learning objectives that can be used to measure academic growth. From those different measures districts can choose their own mix for their evaluation systems.

The Colorado Education Initiative recently issued a report on districts practices, based on a study of what 53 districts did during the 2013-14 school year.

“In most cases, districts rely on teachers to develop their own assessments to measure student growth rather than relying solely on state or vendor assessments that test only a relatively narrow range of content,” the report concluded, although it did find a somewhat heavier reliance on collective growth measures by larger districts.

The graphic below summarizes the report’s findings. Get links to a summary and the full report here. (MSL stands for “measures of student learning.”)

Graphic

RANDA to the rescue?

The Education Initiative’s report noted that “The burden of data collection and scoring has been substantial, and many districts would welcome more streamlined and cost-effective data tracking systems.”

Officials at CDE are trying to provide some help with that in the form of a $2 million online data system that allows principals and administrators to enter and track evaluation data. For now the system is available only to districts signed up for the state’s model evaluation system, used by about 90 percent of districts (although not some of the larger ones).

The department says more than 80 districts already are using what’s nicknamed RANDA (after the name of the vendor) but which is formally called the Colorado State Model Performance Management System. Learn more about RANDA here.

Evaluation implementation a big challenge

The feelings of many administrators and teachers can be summed up by this sentence from the initiative’s report: “Developing, implementing, reviewing, and refining an MSL system takes an enormous amount of time and energy, both for administrators and educators.”

The CEA’s Barker said districts are “appreciating that they have this year of flexibility” but cautioned that “one year isn’t going to give us enough data.”

“This is a huge learning curve for all of us. … It’s going to take time to fully implement this.”

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.”