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.”

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.”