Building Better Teachers

Nearly all Indiana educators rated effective again

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

In the second year of what was intended to be a tough new system of evaluating educators, the results were the same: hardly any were rated ineffective and nearly all were certified as doing their jobs effectively.

Less than 0.5 percent of educators were rated “ineffective” during the 2013-14 school year, which could place them at risk of being fired, according to data posted on the Indiana Department of Education website in advance of a presentation at Wednesday’s Indiana State Board of Education meeting.

That’s about the same percentage as the prior year.

A slightly greater share of educators — about 2 percent— were rated in the second lowest of four categories, called “improvement necessary.” The percentage of educators in the top category rated “highly effective,” dropped to 26 percent from 35 percent, but nearly all of those who fell were rated in the next highest category, or “effective.”

The ratings are based on an evaluation system put in place during the past three years that was expected to make it harder for teachers to earn top scores.

It hasn’t, and that could lead the Indiana State Board of Education to ask districts to count student test scores as a bigger factor in the evaluation system in the future.

The overhaul was intended to formalize a process that was hit-and-miss in the past: some teachers were evaluated as infrequently as every three years, sometimes based on a single classroom visit from the principal. In most cases, those evaluations did not affect educator raises, and teachers were rarely fired for poor performance.

In most districts, the new system includes several observations and specially trained evaluators reporting strengths and weaknesses on a variety of skills. The 2013-14 data includes more school districts than last year and, for the first time, charter schools. The law’s implementation schedule left out charters and districts still under old labor contracts in the first year.

State Superintendent Glenda Ritz has advocated for improved teacher evaluation systems, but differed with Republican leaders and some of her fellow state board members about the details. In particular, Ritz favors more flexibility for local school districts to devise their own systems, including allowing local decisions about how much to factor in student test scores.

But so far the new system has produced little change.

An Indiana Department of Education study of a sample of school districts conducted under Ritz’s predecessor, Tony Bennett, prior to the 2011 change in state law, showed very similar results were produced by the old system: 99 percent of educators were rated effective.

Indiana’s law applies to anyone who carries a state certificate, which includes counselors, principals, superintendents and others besides teachers.

Changes are in the works, however. Claire Fiddian-Green, co-director of Gov. Mike Pence’s Center for Education and Career Innovation, said the state board wants to clarify the rules. The board soon will share best practices and new guidelines that Fiddian-Green hopes will make the system work better.

She cited the number of F schools — about 4 percent of schools in Indiana last year — as out of step with less than 1 percent of teachers rated ineffective.

“I do think that calls into mind whether the models, especially the local models, are being implemented with fidelity when it comes to the law,” she said

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. Because of those variations, it can be hard to determine how well school districts follow the state evaluation law.

For example, state law says student gains should be a “significant” factor in an educator’s rating, but it leaves it to schools to figure out how much weight that translates to. Fiddian-Green said the clarifications, set to come before the state board in February, could set a range of percentages for just how much student test scores should factor in.

“It would be too far for me to say that there was a question of the validity of the data,” Fiddian-Green said. “I think it’s more that this is a new system and we’re working out the kinks.”

But Teresa Meredith, president of the Indiana State Teacher Association, said the results are encouraging.

“I think statewide, by and large most of our teachers in the profession are doing a really good job,” she said.

For the first time, the state released separate totals for teachers, superintendents and principals. Democratic House leader Rep. Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City, said looking at the performance of administrators as well as teachers is a good idea.

“One thing we’re starting to hear is that we shouldn’t be blaming our teachers for everything we perceive as wrong with education,” Pelath said. “And I’m starting  to hear that come from my friends across the aisle.”

Those results showed superintendents got the best ratings of all, with 41 percent rated highly effective and just 0.22 ineffective. Two-thirds of all superintendents were rated in the top two categories.

Teachers had fewer in the top category (35 percent) but more rated in the top two categories (89 percent) and 0.34 rated ineffective.

Principals had the most rated ineffective, but the percentage was still tiny, 0.58 percent, and 86 percent of principals were rated in the top two categories.

Under Indiana’s law, effectiveness is rated on a 1 to 4 scale. Factors that go into the ratings of teachers include observations by administrators or other trained evaluators, student test score gains and other factors that vary by school or depend on the subject taught.

Sanctions for those rated in the lowest categories are serious. An ineffective rating, a 1 on the scale, can be cause to fire an educator immediately. Those who are rated in the next lowest category, a 2 or in need of improvement, can be dismissed if they fail to raise their ratings to effective (3) or highly effective (4) after two years.

Included with the latest results are two additional sets of data: one looking at the connection between educator quality and school A to F ratings and another looking at the possible effects of educator quality on teacher retention.

There appears to be a strong connection between educator effectiveness and school grades. Schools with A grades have far more highly effective teachers on average (more than 40 percent) than schools rated F (about 15 percent).

The reverse is also true. Although the numbers are small, the percentage of educators rated in the two lowest categories was more than five times high at F schools (more than 5 percent) than at A schools (1 percent).

A-rated schools were far more likely to keep their teachers employed in the same school or school district (85 percent retained) than F rated schools (64 percent).

Meredith pointed out that in charter schools rated D or F, more teachers were rated ineffective than in traditional school districts rated D or F. In traditional schools rated D or F, ineffective teachers made up less than 1 percent of all teachers. But in charter schools rated D or F more than 10 percent of teachers were rated ineffective.

“Why would you keep someone who’s doing that poorly of a job?” Meredith said. “As a parent, if there was an ineffective person in a school system and they are listed on that chart, I would be upset … to see charter schools be so high is a little frightening to me.”

Meredith said she was also concerned that evaluations could be increasingly based more on student test scores. Those scores, she said, are a snapshot of a student’s performance at one point in time, whereas teacher evaluation data now is mostly based on an entire year of observation in addition to more objective measures.

Tosha Salyers, spokesperson with the Institute for Quality Education, said it’s more fair that teachers are being evaluated with objective data. The Institute advocates for changes in education policy, favoring ideas like greater scrutiny on educator performance and wider school choice offerings.

Salyers said when she was a teacher, performance evaluations were too subjective and did little to help her improve.

“We think there’s still work to be done,” Salyers said. “The legislation is fairly new, and we think that the more schools become comfortable with it that the results will do what they should do: inform teachers’ practice. What we hope is that it’s a tool being used as not a punitive thing, but as a way to help teachers grow.”

 

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.”