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.”

Training time

Common Core is out. Tennessee Academic Standards are in. Here’s how teachers are prepping for the change.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Karyn Bailey (left), a facilitator from Williamson County Schools, coaches elementary school teachers during an exercise on Tennessee's revised standards for English language arts as part of a two-day training at La Vergne High School, one of 11 training sites across the state.

Teachers poring over Tennessee’s revised academic standards are mostly breathing a sigh of relief as the state prepares for its third change in eight years of what students are expected to learn in each grade.

The Tennessee Academic Standards for math and English language arts, which will reach K-12 classrooms this fall, aren’t dramatically different from Common Core standards used in Tennessee since 2012. But numerous tweaks are sprinkled across the standards — mostly word adjustments for clarity and changes in presentation to make the standards more user-friendly. Some standards also have been moved to different grades and courses for the sake of progression and manageability.

About 6,000 teachers got a two-day crash course on the changes during trainings last week at 11 sites across the state. The Tennessee Department of Education organized the sessions, attended by educators from more than 90 percent of Tennessee’s 146 districts.

“This is the third time I’ve gone through this, and it’s the best one from my perspective,” said John Lasater, a Sumner County math teacher who attended sessions at La Vergne High School near Nashville.

Lasater, who teaches at Westmoreland High School, was thrilled that some standards have been moved out of standards-heavy algebra classes into higher-level math courses. “It was just too much, especially Algebra II,” he said. “Our teachers just never seemed to be able to cover everything.”

Diving into her manual for English language arts, Rutherford County teacher Leila Hinkle liked seeing a greater emphasis on early writing skills, as well as the embedding of language standards in foundational literacy standards.

“I think the new standards are clearer; they’re clarifying,” said Hinkle, who will teach fourth grade this fall. “You can see better where students were supposed to be and where they’re going.”

Standards are foundational because they set learning goals that dictate other education decisions around curriculum and testing. In Tennessee, they are usually reviewed every six years.

The trainings are part of the last major step in a transition that began in 2014 when Gov. Bill Haslam ordered a review after Common Core became embroiled in political controversy over charges of federal overreach, in part because of incentives the Obama administration offered to states that adopted them. Eighteen months of review and revisions followed, with the State Board of Education approving the newly minted Tennessee Academic Standards last year.

The changes aren’t as drastic as in 2011 when Tennessee switched to Common Core. That’s because the committee of educators charged with the overhaul used the Common Core as a foundation rather than starting from scratch. Both sets of standards emphasize critical thinking and analysis and de-emphasize memorization of facts.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said many of the changes, while seemingly subtle, are no less substantive.

“A word change can be significant in terms of standards. If you change the word know to explain as far as what students must be able to do, that’s significant. That’s two different levels of understanding,” she said.

The trainings and training resources are costing the state about $3 million over the course of a year, far less than the $23.5 million in federal Race to the Top funds spent on Common Core trainings across three years.

To keep costs down, the state is changing its approach away from dependence on department-led trainings.

Erin McGill, a facilitator for trainings organized by the Tennessee Department of Education, dives into the revised standards with high school math teachers. (Photo by Marta W. Aldrich)

“We’re encouraging districts to identify teams to train with us and then to re-deliver the trainings in their own districts,” said Robbie Mitchell, the department’s executive director of academic strategy and operations. “It’s more about empowering and equipping districts to make their own decisions about what’s best for their district.”

The state plans to use the same training model for the rollout of new science standards in 2018 and social studies standards the following year.

Lasater said he found this year’s trainings productive and worthwhile.

“Before, the trainings were ‘here’s a standard, now let’s work a problem.’ This time, we were challenged to take a standard and develop a question that would fully assess a student’s mastery of it. We weren’t just working a problem; we were creating a problem. That’s a huge shift.”

You can find Tennessee’s new standards for math and English language arts on the Education Department’s website.

An education U-turn

Carmen Fariña wants to help New York City teachers get better at teaching. But some of her own reforms are getting in the way

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
The math team at P.S. 294 in the Bronx discuss a recent lesson during the 80 minutes of professional development time carved out by the city's most recent contract with the teachers union.

It was a Monday afternoon and school was out at P.S. 294. But there was plenty of learning happening inside the blue-and-yellow building in the Bronx.

Teams of teachers were gathered in classrooms on almost every floor. One group discussed a recent math lesson on how to identify patterns; another analyzed which questions had stumped students during recent statewide tests. A third was thinking about new ways to encourage discussion in the classroom.

In each huddle, they were learning a valuable lesson from each other: how to become better teachers.

What’s happening at P.S. 294 is what Carmen Fariña envisioned when she became chancellor of the country’s largest school system. Among the veteran educator’s most deeply held beliefs is that school improvement starts in the classroom — by helping teachers get better at teaching.

“To me, everything that happens in the classroom is the most crucial thing in the building,” Fariña told Chalkbeat.

Many of Fariña’s reforms reflect that vision, including the city’s contract with the teachers union, which carves out time for professional development each week. But another set of changes Fariña made — overhauling the education department bureaucracy — has sometimes worked at cross purposes, taking power away from those who know schools best.

Strapped superintendents and staffers sidelined in support centers now oversee much of the training teachers encounter. Fariña herself acknowledges it has sometimes been a struggle to meet the diverse needs of schools under the new system.

One Bronx principal said he sees that struggle firsthand.

“What some people call ‘supporting instruction with professional development,’ other people would call ‘bloated bureaucracy,’” the principal told Chalkbeat. “I have no interest in their professional development, and they don’t know my school.”

***

Like much of what has happened at the education department under Mayor Bill de Blasio, the chancellor’s emphasis on teaching the teachers marks a radical shift from the preceding administration.

Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein wanted great teachers in every classroom, too. But their position was that it was easier to hire top talent than cultivate it. Instead of pouring resources into teacher improvement, they set about measuring teachers to weed out those who were ineffective.

“Joel didn’t believe in professional development at all,” said Eric Nadelstern, who served as deputy chancellor for school support and instruction under Klein. “His question was, ‘Is it easier to change the teacher — or to change the teacher?’” Klein himself did not agree to be interviewed for this story.

When Fariña took the helm, educators took heart that one of them was in charge again. With 50 years of experience in New York City classrooms, she was the first chancellor in more than a decade who didn’t need a waiver, which the state requires when a school leader does not have the experience set by law for the job.

“When de Blasio named Fariña chancellor, it was a message,” said Norm Fruchter, a researcher at New York University who previously served as a de Blasio appointee to the Panel for Educational Policy. “The pendulum was going to shift back towards valuing instruction.”

In one of her first moves as chancellor, Fariña helped hammer out a contract with the United Federation of Teachers, the union that had clashed for years with Bloomberg and Klein. Among its most significant changes: giving teachers 80 minutes after school every Monday to work on improving their craft. The contract also created new leadership positions that gave extra pay to skilled teachers who agreed to take on coaching roles in their schools.

Taken together, those moves helped create a structure for helping teachers improve within their own schools.

“The thing with the most value in schools is time,” said Phil Weinberg, deputy chancellor of the department’s Division of Teaching and Learning. “The biggest thing that we’ve done is to honor the fact that learning has to happen by creating time.”

Share your thoughts on the quality of New York’s professional development for educators in our short survey.  

***

In the education world, there is much debate around whether professional learning really works. Plenty of research suggests that typical models do not. Educators have their own disparaging vocabulary to describe those models: drop-and-go, spray-and-pray, even drive-by professional development. The idea is that one-off lectures and workshops are rarely effective in changing teacher practice, let alone improving how much students are learning.

However, recent research suggests there are ways to get it right. A review of 35 different studies, released in June by the Learning Policy Institute, found common themes in professional learning programs that actually improve student performance. Those programs provide coaching, are collaborative and typically happen on the job — much like what’s happening at P.S. 294.

P.S. 294 The Walton Avenue School serves students who are traditionally among the city’s lowest-performing — those who are homeless, learning English, or have disabilities. Yet it outperforms the city average on standardized tests.

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Daniel Russo (center) working with the math team at P.S. 294

The school has taken on Algebra for All, a de Blasio initiative that helps schools change the way they teach math. P.S. 294 also has teacher leaders paid to share their knowledge with teams of their colleagues. Those teams then work together in the 80 minutes each week reserved for professional development. All of that comes together under a principal, Daniel Russo, who makes sure teachers get the feedback they need to improve their practice.

“We come back every couple of months and say, ‘How are we doing on this? What fell by the wayside and what are ways that we can do better?’” Russo said. “Everyone is going to contribute to, and benefit from, the greater knowledge that there is in the room.”

For all its ambitions, the 80 minutes don’t always work as planned. In about a dozen interviews with teachers and principals, many school staff said they appreciate that the Monday sessions have provided time and space to think about their practice. But others said that time can feel wasted or forced.

“Everyone is very busy at our school, and that’s just another meeting that has to take place to plan more meetings,” a Bronx high school teacher told Chalkbeat. (The teacher, like many educators interviewed for this story, agreed to speak only on the condition of anonymity.)

“A lot of times we’re not really sure what we’re going to do on a given day,” the teacher said. ”It’s not very focused throughout the year.”

***

Why, then, are some schools making good use of the new training time and at others, teachers feel like it’s being frittered away?

One factor: changes to the way principals are supervised and how schools get support.

Under Bloomberg and Klein, principals who needed help turned to dozens of “networks” scattered throughout the city. Principals opted into networks based on their schools’ needs, regardless of where the school or network were located in the city. The network providers were expected to solve problems for schools, or principals could vote with their feet and join different networks.

"That’s the system-wide idea of support now: taking people away from kids."David Baiz, former principal of Global Technology Preparatory

As chancellor, Fariña took a different approach. She promptly rebuilt the department’s Division of Teaching and Learning, which had been dissolved after she left the DOE in 2007. Once again, there was an office at the Department of Education’s central headquarters dedicated to actively helping schools decide what and how to teach.

She also empowered superintendents, calling them the “instructional leaders” of their districts, and upped the years of experience required to land the job. They evaluate principals but are also responsible for making sure schools get the support they need.

In the place of networks, Fariña opened “field support centers,” which serve hundreds of schools but don’t hold supervisory power. Unlike networks, most centers only work with schools located in the same borough. Superintendents and support centers are expected to work together to help schools improve teaching.

Crucially, that doesn’t always happen. The result can work against the 80 minutes, by distancing decision-making about professional development from schools — and complicating it, too.

Our principal is “held with her hands behind her back,” said Corey Taylor, a music teacher at P.S. 33 in the Bronx. “She has to do what she’s being told by her higher-ups.”

Now, principals are expected to ask their superintendents for help, who then turn to field support centers. Some principals and support centers do work directly together, though Weinberg said that’s not the preferred system.

“The ideal thing is that you’re in constant conversation with your superintendent,” he said. “It would be hard for each borough field support center to hear 145 different requests every day, from each of their schools.”

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Teachers at a training for Computer Science for All, a citywide initiative

Relationships between superintendents and support centers don’t always run smoothly, and both are tasked with overseeing many schools. Superintendents have staffs of around six people, yet may be responsible for dozens of schools. Support centers work with up to 323 schools, with an average caseload just below 200.

With superintendents acting as a filter between schools and support centers, many principals report a divide between what they’re offered and what they want to learn.

“There’s a disconnect between the reality of what’s going on in classrooms, and the offerings,” one Manhattan principal told Chalkbeat. “It usually comes down to: Teachers need to learn, very specifically, techniques, tips, philosophies that affect their own practice.”

When they work well, support centers might send staff to a school to provide targeted help requested by its principal. But, faced with heavy caseloads, the centers often respond to schools’ needs by creating borough-wide professional development sessions that can vary in quality. In the city’s most recent survey of principals, only 73 percent said they were satisfied with the support they get from the centers.

One Manhattan teacher said she went to sessions offered by the support center last year and was disappointed with what she found. The presenters led a lesson on “guided reading,” a technique that includes introducing vocabulary and breaking students into groups, but they seemed fuzzy on how to execute the practice in the classroom.

“Teachers were actually correcting them,” the teacher said. “They’re removed and they forget what it’s like to be a teacher.”

***

Despite Fariña’s emphasis on classroom-based learning, many of the support centers’ professional development sessions are happening outside schools, while class is in session. At three separate support centers, almost all the trainings for teachers offered during the month of May were held during school hours.

"We’ve set aside the time. We’ve set up the space. Can we just manage it?"Michael Mulgrew, president of the teachers union

That wouldn’t have happened under Bloomberg, according to Nadelstern, the former Klein deputy. He said his policy was that teachers and principals should not be pulled away from schools while students are in the building.

“That’s the system-wide idea of support now: taking people away from kids,” said David Baiz, the former principal of Global Technology Preparatory in East Harlem. “That’s not really the best way that adults learn: to sit in a meeting away from the context of their work environment and then try to come back and incorporate it.”

In addition to out-of-office professional development, superintendents host monthly meetings, pulling principals out of their schools for the entire day. In some cases, they include meals paid for by vendors who present professional development sessions based on educational products they’re selling.

“There’s just this feeling among almost every principal that I know,” a Bronx principal told Chalkbeat. “Like meeting after meeting after meeting and requirement after requirement are being added, and really drowning out the time needed for real collaboration.”

In an interview with Chalkbeat, Fariña admitted that professional development run by outside vendors is “not that effective.” She also acknowledged there have been growing pains as the superintendents and field support centers try to meet the needs of all the schools they serve.

“It’s been more of a struggle in some places where there was a more diverse need,” she said.

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Schools chancellor Carmen Fariña looks over a card from students in her office.

To address that, Fariña said the centers have been working on “modules” based on different areas of need. A module may highlight effective strategies for teaching students who are learning English, for instance, and come with a series of professional development courses that can be run over a period of multiple weeks.

“Each principal can adapt it as they see fit,” Fariña said.

***

Weinberg said it is easy, in a system as large as New York City, to point to “random” weak points.

“What our real goal is, is continuous improvement,” he said. “I think that we make mistakes, oftentimes, by looking at one anecdotal example as a way of disproving a larger movement.”

Michael Mulgrew, president of the teachers union, said the department needs to pay closer attention to how schools are using the resources that are now available. While the the 80 minutes of professional development time is a game-changer, he said, it can also vary in usefulness depending on school culture, principal leadership and how well superintendents and the field support centers can provide help.

“We’ve set aside the time. We’ve set up the space. Can we just manage it?” Mulgrew said. “The fact that the chancellor made this a priority when she came in is the reason why you see the school system moving forward. My fear is, have we reached a plateau?”

It may be tricky, however, to balance the kind of oversight that Mulgrew envisions with the personalization that teachers and principals say is necessary for effective professional development. But the city is evaluating its own work to make sure it’s hitting the mark for teachers and schools.

“Teaching is really fascinating and difficult work,” Weinberg said. “We need to approach this hard job with the humility that says we have the ability to learn more — and we want to learn more.”

Chalkbeat reporters Monica Disare and Alex Zimmerman contributed to this report.