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.”

the write way

What’s missing from the conversation about the state’s ditched literacy test for teachers?

PHOTO: Monica Disare
The Board of Regents applauds James Tallon at his last meeting, moments after officially voting to eliminate a literacy test for prospective teachers.

In a major change to teacher certification, New York officials decided prospective teachers will no longer have to pass an “academic literacy” test in order to enter classrooms.

It didn’t take long for media outlets to jump on the news, raising concerns that teachers who struggle to read and write could now be able to enter New York’s classrooms.

State officials say that argument is misguided. Since aspiring teachers must earn a college degree, and pass three other certification exams, they argue, illiterate applicants will not make the cut in the first place. The exam also is inherently flawed, they say, and kept a disproportionate number of black and Hispanic teachers out of schools.

But experts say that narrow debate about literacy misses a broader conversation. They argue that the test was never meant to protect against a flood of teachers unable to read and write. It was, however, intended to help ensure high teacher quality, they say, and the question is whether the current certification process furthers that goal.

The Academic Literacy Skills Test, which the state implemented a few years ago, was part of a larger movement to elevate the quality of the teaching profession. Officials thought at the time that a more rigorous test of reading and writing should be part of that mix.

But literacy tests for teachers got their start in a different era, said Linda Darling-Hammond, a leading national education researcher who now runs an education policy think tank. They were originally implemented in the 1980s when there were fewer hurdles to entering the teaching profession, she said.

“That might have made sense at that time in those places,” Darling-Hammond said, but added there is little evidence today that literacy tests are a good way to screen for effective teachers. There’s also no widespread concern, she said, that illiterate teachers are entering the profession.

“I think at this point, there is not strong evidence about that,” she said.

Ken Lindblom, dean of the School of Professional Development at Stony Brook University, who has taught prospective teachers, agreed that the focus on literacy is misplaced.

“It’s simply not the case that we have all these teachers … and they’re illiterate and we need to stop,” Lindblom said. “This is a false conundrum that we have invented.”

Dylan Roth, who is studying to become a teacher in a graduate program at Queens College, said he felt “insulted” by news coverage suggesting an epidemic of teacher illiteracy. “They speak of the ALST as if it were the line in the sand keeping horridly illiterate and unqualified teachers out of the classroom,” he said. “Yet besides brief mentions of teachers unions [in the articles], there is no virtually no input from teachers themselves who have gone through the process of certification,” he said.

Roth pointed out that the test’s fee (more than $100) poses a burden for aspiring teachers already paying for seminars, textbooks, tuition and more. Meanwhile, he said, the test is unnecessary when similar questions could simply be added to one of the three other certification tests, a proposal the state has offered.

Still, some say this conversation is about more than just a test — it’s about how the state can build a superior teacher workforce. Ian Rosenblum, executive director of the Education Trust-NY pointed to a 2007 study that found recruiting teachers with stronger certification status or SAT scores could improve student achievement.

“Research shows that having teachers with stronger academic skills makes a meaningful difference in student outcomes, and that is why we believed that maintaining the ALST … is important for equity,” Rosenblum said.

Daniel Weisberg, CEO at TNTP, an organization focused on creating more effective teachers, says the best way to attract high-quality teachers isn’t a tough literacy test. He thinks the emphasis should be on more teacher observation instead.

But he said, over the years, he has seen some prospective educators who want to become teachers even though they lack basic reading and writing skills. In order to avoid certifying those teachers, state officials could create a more narrow test of basic skills, he said.

“What you need is a surgical tool, not a chainsaw,” Weisberg said. “With a lot of these certification exams right now … they end up being a chainsaw, not a surgical tool.”

State Education Department officials plan to add a long reading and writing requirement to the Educating All Students Test, a change that is still being reviewed. They could not yet say whether a student who failed a new literacy portion of another exam could still become a teacher. According to a state education official, the test is expected to include the new literacy portions by January 2018.

The other certification tests already involve reading and writing. The edTPA, a performance-based assessment that asks students to videotape a lesson, requires them to write about their teaching practice. The exams require writing, but the edTPA handbook says the rubrics “do not address the quality of your writing,” and does not penalize test-takers for grammar and spelling errors, though it suggests the ability to effectively communicate is critical.

The other exams include content questions and some questions that require written responses. Supporters of eliminating the literacy test argue that even though prospective teachers are not given a writing score, literacy is embedded in the exams.

The edTPA “requires teacher candidates to organize their arguments, to logically sequence claims,” said Jamie Dangler, vice president for academics at United University Professions, which represents SUNY employees and who co-chaired the state’s edTPA task force. “That’s how you assess literacy. It’s the ability to write, but it’s more then that.”

Stephen Sigmund, executive director of High Achievement New York, a coalition of groups that promote rigorous standards, isn’t convinced. Literacy is crucial to teaching and should be assessed separately, he said. And while the state may include more literacy questions in a different exam, it’s a mistake to eliminate the test without having a fully developed alternative, he said.

“I don’t know enough about the specifics of the test but I take the [State Education] Department and the Regents’ word for it that they think there was a flawed test,” Sigmund said. “So fine, if there are problems with the test, fix the test.”

Compromise

Teacher pay overhaul would establish merit pay, tackle salary inequities

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Trinette Small, chief of human resources for Shelby County Schools, explains the district's proposal for a new teacher pay structure.

Since 2014, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has tried to establish a merit pay plan for teachers in Shelby County Schools but, for one reason or another, it’s eluded the district.

Now, his team is trying again — and they’ve come up with a proposal that they hope will help Tennessee’s largest district retain its most talented teachers, while also appealing to teachers that previously have balked at shifting to performance-based pay.

The proposal unveiled Tuesday would address inequities in the pay structure that have given higher salaries to newly hired teachers than to existing teachers with the same experience for up to 10 years.

Any subsequent raises would be based on teacher evaluation scores of 3 to 5 on the state’s 1-to-5 model, which is based on classroom observations and student test scores.

The plan also would resurrect additional compensation for job-related advanced degrees — but only in the form of bonuses if the teachers rate 4 or 5. The same goes for hard-to-staff teaching positions such as in special education, math and science, as well as veteran teachers who have reached the district’s maximum salary, which would go from $72,000 to $73,000.

The overhaul would take effect next school year using $10.7 million earmarked in Hopson’s proposed $945 million spending plan for 2017-18. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget in April.

Recruiting and retaining effective teachers is a high priority as Shelby County Schools seeks to boost test scores in low-performing schools with many poor students. And research shows teachers have the most influence on student achievement.

Trinette Small, chief of human resources, said the district has to keep its pay structure competitive to retain its most effective teachers, especially with six municipal school systems nearby.

“This is trying to get base pay stabilized,” Small told school board members during a budget review session. “This is an investment in teachers but this is something we can afford.”

In exit surveys, a fourth of high-performing teachers cited noncompetitive pay as their reason for leaving the district, she said. And most who left had the second-highest evaluation score.

The plan pleased school board members, and parts of it appeared to appeal to teachers unions, although its leaders still had some concerns.

Chairman Chris Caldwell said the new structure positions the district for a more stable learning environment.

“The big point about the change was to have (pay) merit-based and not just longevity-based because at a certain point, they plateau,” Caldwell said. “The main thing we got to worry about is student draining and teacher draining.”

School board member Mike Kernell said the plan should boost teacher morale by addressing inequities in the system. “I think by resetting this, we’re going to start seeing more experienced teachers at the right level starting to help the younger teachers without the resentment that you’re making $2,000 less,” he said

Tikeila Rucker, president of the United Education Association of Shelby County, was mostly pleased with the proposal but took issue with tying pay for advanced degrees with evaluation scores. Teachers should be rewarded in their base pay for advanced degrees, not through bonuses, she said.

Rucker and Keith Williams, executive director of the Memphis-Shelby County Education Association, both said the initial leveling up should apply to all teachers on the former step schedule up to 17 years, instead of stopping at 10.

“If you’re going to abandon the schedule system, at least level everyone up,” Williams told Chalkbeat. “If it’s not going to benefit everybody, you might as well throw it in the trash.”

Small said the leveling up is meant to make teacher pay competitive with new hires. Since the district only incorporates up to 10 years of experience in pay for new teachers, the leveling up was limited to the same.

The New Teacher Project provided consultation on the district’s pay plan by gathering data, conducting focus groups and crafting the compensation model.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to show the district proposes to level up pay up to 10 years of experience.