educator effectiveness

Jeffco Public Schools diverging from state law on timeline for evaluating teachers

PHOTO: Denver Post file

Jeffco Public Schools is not following a timeline laid out in state law to gauge teacher performance, calling it a flawed process for taking action against ineffective teachers.

Colorado’s second-largest school district, however, says it believes its practice of waiting longer to finalize teacher evaluations so it can consider the latest state test results is in line with the intent of the state’s educator effectiveness law, known as Senate Bill 191.

The law, which was passed in 2010, changed the way teachers earn job protections. Instead of earning non-probationary status, often referred to as tenure, after three years of employment, the law says teachers must have three consecutive years of effective ratings. Teachers who earn two consecutive ineffective ratings can be stripped of that status.

Jeffco Public Schools leaders said the district “has not, and likely will not, revoke non-probationary status due solely to” Senate Bill 191. No Jeffco teachers lost non-probationary status in 2015-16, the first year that consequence went into effect under the law.

District officials say the law relies on a “cumbersome” multi-year teacher rating system. Spokeswoman Diana Wilson said Jeffco aims to quickly help its struggling teachers improve; 94 of its nearly 5,000 teachers were on a performance improvement plan in 2016-17.

Senate Bill 191 requires that at least 50 percent of a teacher’s yearly evaluation be based on student academic growth. Results from state standardized English and math tests must be part of the measurement of that growth for teachers who teach tested subjects and grades.

But for the past several years, those results haven’t been available until the late summer. The law says teacher evaluations must be completed two weeks before the end of the school year.

“This is one of the more ridiculous elements of” Senate Bill 191, Wilson said.

In an effort to use the most timely and relevant data in evaluating teachers, Wilson said Jeffco adjusted its evaluation cycle. The district delays finalizing its evaluations until the fall so it can use the most up-to-date state test results available, she said.

“We think that’s a more accurate measure,” Wilson said.

Other districts, such as Denver Public Schools, use scores from previous years’ tests as one measure of student growth. Most districts also use other measures, as well, which could include school ratings, results from different tests and individual teacher goals.

Although Jeffco is not following the timeline of the law, Wilson said it’s following the intent.

“We felt the spirit of the law is to fairly evaluate our teachers and have quality teaching for our kids,” Wilson said. She said the district understands what the law requires, “but doing the right thing seemed more important than worrying about the possible consequences.”

Another state law passed in 2013 directs the Colorado Department of Education to monitor compliance. If a district’s teacher evaluation system falls short of expectations, it says the department can, “as a last resort,” require the district adopt the state’s system.

After Chalkbeat spoke to the state department about the requirements of the law and whether Jeffco was complying, Wilson said Jeffco officials got a call from state officials wanting to discuss the district’s approach to the law.

Mary Bivens, director of educator development at the state education department, told Chalkbeat that if a district isn’t complying, state officials “would first ensure district understanding of what they may need to adjust to be in full compliance with legislation and support districts as appropriate” before taking further action. Bivens did not directly address whether Jeffco is out of compliance with the law.

teachers with borders

Schools near state lines perform worse — and rules discouraging teachers from moving may be to blame

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Want a leg up in school? Don’t attend one near a state border.

That’s the surprising finding of a new study published in the Economics of Education Review. The likely culprit: certification and pension rules that discourage teachers from moving between states, limiting the labor pool on each side of the border.

The peer-reviewed paper focuses on test scores at public middle schools near a state boundary. Eighth-graders attending those schools, the researchers find, perform consistently worse in math than students at non-boundary schools. (The results are negative in reading, too, but smaller and not always statistically significant.)

One reason the findings ought to catch the attention of policymakers across the country: the data comes from 33 states, including big ones like Florida, New York, and Texas.

“We estimate that roughly 670,000 students are enrolled in middle schools nationally that are [considered] ‘intensely affected’ by a state boundary in our study,” the researchers write.

Of course, schools and students are not randomly assigned to be near state boundaries, so the study can’t definitively conclude that boundaries are the cause of lower performance. But the researchers — Dongwoo Kim, Cory Koedel, Shawn Ni, and Michael Podgursky, all of the University of Missouri — control for a number of student characteristics that might affect performance.

And while the study can’t pinpoint why a boundary seems to hurt test scores, the researchers have a theory: “state-specific pension and licensing policies” that discourage teachers from moving between states, likely forcing border schools to draw from a more limited pool of potential teachers.

In some places, those pension rules mean a substantial loss of retirement wealth if teachers move states mid-career. Complicated licensure rules that in some cases require experienced teachers to take certification exams or obtain additional degrees can also make that kind of switch practically difficult. Other research has found that teachers rarely move across state lines, even if they live near a boundary.

Why might that harm performance of schools near state lines?

Say a school in New York City has two science teachers and no math teachers, while a school right across the river in New Jersey has two math teachers and no science teachers. If each school needs exactly one teacher per subject, the solution is easy in theory: the New York City school gets a math teacher and loses a science one, and vice versa for the New Jersey school. But if certification or pension rules prevent that from happening, both schools lose out — and student achievement might suffer.

States aren’t typically eager to change those policies, though, for several reasons.

For one, states that require prospective teachers to clear a high bar to become certified may worry that making it too easy for an out-of-state teacher to receive a license could reduce teacher quality. A study from North Carolina provides some evidence for this argument, showing that teachers trained elsewhere were less effective than teachers trained in-state, though the difference was very small.

Another argument is that limiting teachers’ ability to bring pension money along with them when they move helps states hold on to their educators — even if they are in turn harmed when they can’t recruit teachers from elsewhere.

The latest study suggests that the net impact of those restrictions are negative. Still, the effects on students are quite small, implying that changes to pension and certification policies are unlikely to lead to large improvements in student performance.

But, the study points out, policies that eliminate the harm from attending school near a state line could help hundreds of thousands of students.

“Although the boundary effects are small on a per-student basis, they are spread across a very large population,” the researchers write.

race in the classroom

‘Do you see me?’ Success Academy theater teacher gives fourth-graders a voice on police violence

Success Academy student Gregory Hannah, one of the performers

In the days and weeks after last July’s police shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, teachers across New York grappled with how to talk about race and police violence. But for Sentell Harper, a theater teacher at Success Academy Bronx 2, those conversations had started long before.

CNN recently interviewed Harper about a spoken-word piece he created for his fourth-grade students to perform about what it means to be black and male in America. Harper, who just finished his fourth year teaching at Success, said that after the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and the Black Lives Matter protests that followed, he wanted to check in with his students.

“I got my group of boys together, and I said, ‘Today, we’re going to talk about race,'” Harper told CNN. “And they had so much to say. They started telling me stories about their fathers and their brothers, and about dealing with racism — things that I never knew that these young boys went through.”

Inspired by their stories, he created a performance called “Alternative Names for Black Boys,” drawing on poems by Danez Smith, Tupac Shakur and Langston Hughes.

Wearing gray hoodies in honor of Trayvon Martin, who was killed while wearing one, the boys take turns naming black men and boys who have been killed: Freddie, Michael, Philando, Tamir. The list goes on.

Despite the sensitive nature of the subject matter, Harper says honesty is essential for him as a teacher. “Our kids are aware of race and want to talk about it,” he wrote in a post on Success Academy’s website. “As a black male myself, I knew I wanted to foster conversation between my students and within the school community.”

Click below to watch the performance.