Building Better Teachers

Teacher evaluation law under scrutiny

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

(This is one of six stories on the release of teacher evaluation data. For links to all the stories go here.)

To some in Indiana, the high concentration of top educator ratings in the first year of a new evaluation system is perfectly reasonable.

“The data seems to be accurate to what I’ve always thought,” said Teresa Meredith, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association. “If anything, I thought there would be more highly effective teachers.”

But to others, including those who helped overhaul the state’s evaluation rules, the high scores are implausible given the performance of the state’s schools. Those leaders are scratching their heads — and weighing changes to the law.

“I find it hard to believe we wouldn’t see a different distribution of effectiveness ratings,” said Indiana State Board of Education member Brad Oliver.

Nearly all rated educators — 97 percent — were classified in the top two categories as effective or highly effective, which isn’t exactly what state education officials had in mind when they overhauled the state’s evaluation rules last year, with the expectation that it would be harder for teachers to win top ratings.

The overhaul made Indiana one of a growing number of states, now more than 35, to institute laws requiring more stringent reviews of educator performance that consider student test scores.

Now, the first round of ratings under the new system has some leaders already weighing changes to the law.

Unlike other states, Indiana gives local school districts tremendous flexibility to develop their own systems to judge performance. While districts must ultimately assign each educator a 1 to 4 rating, how they get there varies widely. For example, while state law says student test core gains should be a “significant” factor in an educator’s rating, districts get to decide just how much test scores count.

After the first round of ratings, one legislator who helped craft the law already is reconsidering some of that latitude.

Rep. Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis, who helped write the law as chair of the House Education Committee, said the overwhelmingly high scores prove that it’s not working as intended.

“We may have let there be too much local control,” he said. “There’s obviously too much subjectivity.”

Behning is already thinking about legislative fixes, including going back to an idea that was discarded when the law was written — requiring a specific percentage of an educator’s evaluation to be based on student test score gains.

While other states require as much as 50 percent of an educator’s rating to be based on student test score growth, most Indiana districts appeared to factor in test scores more in a range of 15 to 20 percent, Behning said.

But Meredith said the data needs a closer look before anyone begins talking about requiring more testing as part of the ratings. The law just might be having the desired effect of removing poor performing teachers, she said.

Meredith noted the large percentage of educators who were listed as not rated statewide: 10 percent. She wondered if an explanation for the low numbers of ineffective educators was hidden in that number.

There are a variety of reasons why an educator was not rated, such as not completing the year due to maternity leave or retirement. But one possibility Meredith noted was that some teachers retired early or left the profession because they feared an ineffective rating.

“I think that says the ones who should be weeded out are perhaps weeding themselves out,” she said. “Those are hard conversations. If they are not doing their job and serving our students we need to be moving them out.”

Behning also wanted to know more about those who weren’t rated before contemplating too many changes to the system.

“We may want to drill down into the data more first,” he said.

Separate from the issue of those in each district who were not rated was another group of educators missing from the data. Almost a quarter of Indiana school districts, 67 of them, did not report any evaluation scores.

The 2011 law allowed districts to work with their local unions to change their evaluation systems as their contracts expired. Those districts’ last contracts signed before the law changed are still in effect, so they have not yet finished creating new systems.

Charter schools were not required to report teacher evaluation scores under the 2011 law, but House Bill 1388, just signed into law last month, will require them to do so in the future.

The 249 districts that reported data had a wide variety of evaluation systems. Most (71 percent) used the RISE system, created by the Indiana Department of Education under former state Superintendent Tony Bennett, or a modified version of it. About 62 districts created their own evaluation systems. A handful of others used nationally recognized models from outside the state.

As those districts come on, and districts get more experience with the system, the state should get a better sense of how it can help them make the most of it.

I believe we made a good step forward,” Oliver said. “It might be good to look at how we provide good guidance.”

What's your education story?

This educator sees ‘the power in being bilingual’ — and she wants her students to see it, too

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Liset Gonzalez-Acosta is a the director of dual language at Global Prep Academy.

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Chalkbeat journalists ask the people we come across in our work to tell us about their education stories and how learning shaped who they are today. Learn more about this series, and read other installments, here.

Liset Gonzalez-Acosta is a the director of dual language at Global Prep Academy, an innovation school housed at IPS Riverside School 44. She is part of the first round of local fellows selected to participate in a principal training program run by Relay Graduate School of Education.

I’ve been an educator now for 20 years. I was born in Cuba, and that’s where I got my bachelor’s degree. After that, I moved to Africa. My mom is a doctor, she’s a psychiatrist, and she was sent there for two years. I saw the opportunity to teach in a different place. I met my husband there, and we were married in Cape Verde, and I taught there for six years.

In a poor country like Cape Verde it was really hard for me to continue my studies because there wasn’t a university. So I started looking outside the country, and I was really fortunate to find a university in Vermont where part of their goal is to find international students who wanted to study there and were able to bring that cultural awareness to the rest of of the school.

It was an incredible experience because it was so diverse and you were able to work with people from all over the world. After that, I started looking for a (job). A school in Oregon was looking forof bilingual teachers … and that’s how I got involved in dual language, and it’s been my passion forever.

I see the power in being bilingual, and I want students to recognize you are very powerful when you can speak, write and read correctly in two languages — it’s an advantage for you.

That led me to find Mariama (Carson) by accident. We went to a conference, and I met her. She talked about this project (Global Prep Academy), and it was very interesting. Well, you know how it happens at a conference, you meet people, you say goodbye to people.

I went back to Oregon and forgot about it, and it was kind of … meant to be. I came back to a second conference, and the first person I saw was her. The last day of the conference, I called her, we sat down and talked.

So I came with my family (to Indianapolis). I really loved that the project was in the beginning because it was an opportunity to start something from the beginning. I never saw a new (dual language program) from the ground up.

One of the things that really caught my attention is how different urban education is. The real challenge started when I met the kids. They are so smart, all of them, but they come with so much baggage. It requires a lot of patience, a lot of commitment — believing that they can do it.

I would like to be more in an administrator role, with more administrator responsibilities in that sense because I see the need we have in the school. We have great teachers, but we have teachers who need to be switching their minds around to meet the needs of the kids.

I see education as the greatest equalizer for any student. It doesn’t matter where you are coming from, but if you have an education, you can achieve.

I don’t have all the answers. I have a lot of experience, but I still need to continue learning and growing as an educator. I see myself in 20 years continuing in this career path, but with more experience so that the people that I work with can reach whatever they want to reach — not just the students, but also the educators.

 

How I Teach

Live, from Music City, an elementary school teacher presents life lessons with a beat

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Christopher Blackmon leads second-grade students in a song he wrote and composed as a music teacher at Thomas Edison Elementary School in Nashville.

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

Sixteen miles from Music Row, a bustling nexus of Nashville’s recording industry, second-grade students are hard at work perfecting a single at Thomas A. Edison Elementary School.

“Winners, winners don’t quit. They don’t quit!” they sing, reading lyrics and music on a screen. “If I can believe it, then I can achieve it! I must leave my doubts behind.”

Then come the dance moves. Students shake and wiggle with exuberance.

The songwriting credit goes to Christopher Blackmon, a music teacher at Edison Elementary and one of 31 educators nationwide named 2017 Music Teachers of Excellence by the Country Music Association. The CMA Foundation is honoring the group Wednesday at a Nashville event hosted by Little Big Town, the CMA’s Vocal Group of the Year.

The acknowledgement draws attention to music education at a time when such programs are being slashed from public schools nationwide. But at Edison Elementary, the pace for teaching and learning music is picking up. In addition to providing instruction twice a week during school, Blackmon and a colleague lead after-school activities that include piano lessons and video production. More than 100 students, or about a sixth of the student body, participate in extra musical enrichment.

Here’s how Blackmon inspires students to love music, and to extend their enthusiasm to other academic subjects. This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?

I was most impacted by my high school music experience. We had a great program. I was in the band. I played tuba and baritone, but I also played jazz piano for a jazz combo. My band teacher was somebody you just look up to.

I’m always trying to push kids toward having a strong, principled life that means something and contributes something positive to the culture. With music education, I felt like I could teach both music and those positive character principles that I think kids need.

What does your classroom look like?

There’s a big open space in the middle and toward the front because it’s versatile. I do a lot of things with instruments and I set the instruments out and I have students rotating so they can see the screen, where I have the music up. I like to use less paper because students are just going to throw it away anyway.

They also dance a lot. In fact, they dance every day they come here. Probably, if I hadn’t been a music teacher, I would’ve been in P.E. Exercise helps brain development. The coordinated movement, especially symmetrical movements, where you cross the meridians of your body, is very important to cross-hemispheric development. Music as a whole is. That’s why I am such an advocate for music education, especially at the elementary level. I do a lot of stuff with audio production, (and) I could teach that in high school, but I think this is where people’s foundations are. I want to impact the beginning. I want to impact those foundations and help them establish their lives.

I have keyboards along the back of my room. I inherited 10 and then I have begged, borrowed and stole to get a class set so I can teach kids piano. I actually designed these. It allows four kids to sit at a table and hear only their keyboard through headphones. I can have some kids moving faster working together, some kids moving slower working together.

There’s so much research that shows that kids who get early piano instruction — piano or guitar — their brains develop more gray matter. The research shows over and over that they score higher on tests, that they do better with certain types of problem-solving skills, and so it’s better for everybody, whether or not they’re going to stick with it in real life.

What can’t you teach without?

(Click to listen to this track.)


Every time they walk into the classroom, they don’t get a chance to ask me questions and talk, because I told them I want to hear music first.

This little track is really effective because it reminds them what they’re going to do every single day, and then they know what to expect, but it gets harder and harder each time. It starts my class out the same way, but it doesn’t take a long time, and by five minutes into the class, they have already grown musically.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?

I try to catch the ones doing right and then comment on it because people will look at them and they’ll pull it together. I’ll say, “I love how so-and-so is being a STAR.” My little STAR thing is just: stand up straight, track the speaker, actively participate, respectfully celebrate. I say it all the time.

If a kid is just totally not getting it together, sometimes I’ll say, “Can you go write down and say how you would fix this?” That usually helps them.

How does parental communicate fit into your teaching approach?

When I see kids with musical talent, I write a personal note or call that parent and let them know that I really recommend that they get some kind of lesson or connect that child to music in some other kind of way. A lot of time, that will be a hook to get students through school when it’s hard.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

It sounds like common sense, but the best advice I ever received was about classroom management from Sue Hall, who was the last music teacher here. She said, “Whatever you say you’re going to do, do it.” If you don’t have the respect of the students, you cannot teach them. It doesn’t matter how much they like you — I mean, they can love you — but if they don’t respect you, they don’t behave. And if they don’t behave, they cannot learn.

What does it mean to be teaching music in Music City?

What I do wouldn’t be accepted by a lot of music programs. Sometimes they just want you to do stale old canned musicals they found somewhere, or they want you to teach in a traditional way. I teach in a very non-traditional way, because I’m exposing kids to the real music machine. These kids could make a living in a lot of different ways in music. Traditionally, it’s very classical-based instruction. But if they know how to produce music and they have a good idea, you can make a living. You don’t have to be a big label anymore.

Here’s a music video created and produced by Blackmon and students in an afterschool program: