the scarlet letter

Number of teachers rated unsatisfactory rose again last year

u-ratings-super-for-real-this-timeMore teachers than ever received unsatisfactory ratings last year, suggesting that the city’s push to rid the school system of more struggling teachers is working.

Principals gave unsatisfactory ratings to 1,813 teachers, 17 percent more than in 2009, according to data the city released today. They also denied tenure to 234 teachers this year, 80 percent more than last year. And principals nearly doubled the number of teachers given an extra year before their final tenure decision is made.

In total, 11 percent of the 6,386 teachers up for tenure this year were denied or delayed, compared to 6.6 percent last year. It’s an even more dramatic jump from 2006, when tenure was denied or delayed less than 1 percent of the time.

By far, the leading cause principals cited for giving a U-rating was quality of instruction and student care. Attendance problems were the second-leading cause of low ratings, followed closely by the nebulous “personal and professional qualities.”

Still, the vast majority of teachers were rated satisfactory and received tenure after three years in the classroom. Just 3.66 percent of teachers up for tenure did not receive it, and about 2.2 percent of tenured teachers received a “U-rating,” which can put teachers on the path to dismissal.

“What we see in the numbers today is that principals are making proactive decisions to retain teachers as well as to evaluate and deny some of them tenure,” said Deputy Chancellor John White. “Principals are basing these decisions on years’ worth of information.”

Most of the teachers who received U-ratings had received one in the past, White said, showing that principals are not assigning the damaging rating capriciously.

The new numbers come after nearly three years of a sustained push to usher more weak teachers out of the system. Principals are encouraged to give weak teachers low ratings before they earn tenure, and a team of lawyers helps principals assemble the evidence needed to enable the city to fire low-performing tenured teachers, although their efforts have netted only a handful of dismissals.

This past year, the city also started using student test scores to advise principals about how to make certain tenure decisions. Of the 6,386 teachers up for tenure this year, about 700 taught for two years in subjects where students take state tests. The city ranked those teachers according to how much their students advanced, then advised principals to give tenure to top teachers and to deny tenure to those on the bottom. In the end, only one of the 96 teachers in the top tier was denied tenure, compared to 14 of the 81 teachers in the bottom tier. Half of teachers in the bottom tier had their probation extended.

Using state test scores to drive teacher evaluations is a problem, considering that state officials now say the scores have been hugely inflated, said Michael Mendel, a teachers union vice president.

“The DOE should immediately review and reconsider the cases of those teachers denied tenure on the basis of the now-discredited state test results,” he said.

White said test scores were only one factor principals considered when making tenure decisions. Still, he said, the city remains committed to using test scores in teacher evaluations, especially because state law now requires it.

As the state’s and city’s data collection becomes more sophisticated, principals will have even more information about how successfully teachers are helping students learn.

“I think we will see more thoughtful decision-making because there will be greater evidence of growth,” White said. “If that level of rigor results in fewer teachers granted tenure, then good. But it will also result in better teachers retained and better quality of instruction in our classrooms.”

Of the 200 principals eligible for tenure last year, seven did not receive it. Nearly a quarter more had their probation extended.

Nearly a third of probationary teachers in the Absent Teacher Reserve, the pool of teachers who have been working as substitutes after their permanent positions were eliminated, were denied tenure. The city has said teachers should be fired after four months in the ATR pool.

Team Memphis

How do you get teacher candidates to fall in love with Memphis? Shelby County Schools is taking them to a Grizzlies game.

PHOTO: Nikki Boertman/The Commercial Appeal
Memphis Grizzlies fans raise their growl towels during an NBA game at the FedEx Forum on April 25, 2013.

Home to one of the nation’s 25 largest school districts, Memphis has stepped up efforts in recent years to attract talented new teachers to a fast-changing education landscape, and now is including the city’s popular NBA basketball team as part of its playbook.

Shelby County Schools will kick off its hiring season this weekend by treating teacher candidates to dinner and a free game between the Memphis Grizzlies and Dallas Mavericks on Friday night at FedEx Forum.

A networking event will follow on Saturday at the Halloran Centre for Performing Arts & Education, a new downtown venue operated by the Orpheum Theatre to put arts and education center stage.

The activities are part of a first-ever “preview weekend” to fill openings for next school year in Tennessee’s largest district. Shelby County Schools typically hires between 600 to 800 teachers each year and is especially in need of special education and math teachers, said district spokeswoman Kristin Tallent.

Historically, the district has simply held recruitment fairs,” Tallent said Monday. “Through the weekend events, the district is hoping to expose potential teachers to our school district and some of the best that Memphis has to offer, which includes the Memphis Grizzlies.”

Teacher recruitment, development and retention has been a centerpiece of school reform efforts in Memphis since 2009 when the district won a seven-year, $90 million Gates Foundation grant that came to a close this school year. That grant, in partnership with the local nonprofit SchoolSeed, is helping to fund this weekend’s recruitment event. (To learn more about the influence of the Gates Foundation on Memphis public schools, read our special report).

The preview weekend comes as Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has proposed a budget without a shortfall or layoffs for the first time in years. The spending plan also includes $10.7 million for teacher raises to address inequities in the pay structure and shift to performance-based pay.

The district is asking teacher candidates to RSVP by Friday.

Parent-to-Para

How the Adams 14 school district is empowering parents to join the classroom

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles
A parent volunteer works with two kindergarteners on reading as part of a pilot program at Dupont Elementary School that is training parents to become paraprofessionals.

Raeann Javier would like to know what she can do to help her second-grader read better. Sometimes, sitting with her daughter, the best she could offer was, “You know how to do this.”

Javier, a single mother, also would love to land another job to earn more for her family.

A pilot program launched by Adams 14 School District in Commerce City may help her with both.

The school district is trying to build more knowledgeable, active parents through classes and volunteer time working with young students struggling to read. For those who are interested, the program also provides parents a path to become paraprofessionals, or teacher’s aides.

The initiative is one way the nearly 8,000-student suburban district — facing state intervention this year after years of poor academic performance — is trying to turn things around.

District surveys found parents were looking for ways to become more supportive.

Javier, one of 17 mothers in the program, said she already feels like she has become a more patient parent less than a month in. She also is interested in becoming a paraprofessional to supplement the income she earns as an at-home nurse.

“It’s a little bit tough. I make it work,” Javier said. “But this would really, really help.”

Other parents taking part in the pilot program already were volunteers at their kids’ schools.

“They usually just did the normal things like helping with copying or sorting papers,” said Jesse Martinez, Adams 14’s director for family and community engagement. “But we really wanted to change that dynamic. We wanted to pull in our parents to tap their potential and bring them in to support their children.”

One of the parent volunteers, Susana Torres, was an elementary school teacher for 10 years before coming to the United States. Now with three children in district schools, Torres jumped at the opportunity to get back into a classroom.

“This is my thing,” Torres said. “I love the program.”

Torres also helps other Spanish-speaking moms who are part of the program. She said that even though they don’t have the teaching background she does, the program has made it easy for all of them to learn to help kids. “All you need is a passion to make change,” she said.

Pat Almeida, the principal of Dupont Elementary, where the program is being piloted, said the goal is also to help more students become proficient in reading before third grade — especially those who are not far behind but just need a boost to get to grade level.

“We’re able to give them more repetition so they can apply that to their reading,” Almeida said. “If they’re able to have more repetition, their progress is going to be accelerated.”

Dupont Elementary is among the Adams 14 schools that is struggling, though the school isn’t yet facing sanctions like the district as a whole is this year.

District officials have been working on setting up reforms all year to present to the state as a suggestion for their corrective action, including getting help from an outside company for developing curriculum and testing. Increasing parental engagement through this and other new efforts, like having teachers visit families at home, are part of the work to improve the district.

The parent-to-para program is being funded with money from the Denver-based Rose Community Foundation (Rose also supports Chalkbeat) and Climb Higher Colorado, a coalition of advocacy groups that support strong academic standards and tests.

At Dupont, while the parent volunteers work with almost 75 students that they pull out of class for about an hour, teachers can spend the time in class working with students who need the most help.

An instructional coach supervises the moms to work with groups of two to six students and helps them plan lessons each day for kids.

During one lesson this week, parents were helping kindergarteners learn how to differentiate between capital and lowercase letters and how to sound out words. Some students were still having trouble identifying letters, while one boy was writing words so quickly he was standing up, moving around and at one point fell.

The volunteers said it’s rewarding to see the kids catching on.

“Knowing that just a little bit of our time can help them is a good feeling,” said volunteer Adelaida Guerrero. “It’s an excellent opportunity for them and for us.”

For Maria Rodriguez, the program has unexpectedly given her another benefit — bringing her closer to her teenage daughters. She said she joined the program because when a bilingual program for her two oldest daughters was removed seven years ago, she had stopped being able to help them on their school work.

When Rodriguez heard about the program, she thought she could prepare to help her younger children, a second and third grader, before they too required more help than she could offer.

“It’s brilliant,”Rodriguez said. “I’ve been helping them work on their vowels.”

Within the last week, the two older girls came to Rodriguez complaining that she hadn’t ever worked to help them in the same way, and asking to join in during the at-home lessons. Over time, the girls had kept their ability to speak Spanish, but never learned how to write it. Now they were asking to learn alongside their younger siblings.

“They have that apathy of adolescence that makes them not always want to get close to us as parents,” Rodriguez said, tearing up as she recalled the moment. “I honestly felt really good.”