the quiet city

Cautionary evaluation petition attracts principals, but not in NYC

Across the state, hundreds of principals have signed onto a petition urging the state to proceed cautiously with new teacher evaluations.

Only two of them currently run New York City schools.

The petition is attached to a position paper arguing that the state’s evaluation regulations — which require a portion of teachers’ ratings to be based on their students’ test scores —  are unsupported by research, prone to errors, and too expensive at a time of budget cuts. Nearly three quarters of principals on Long Island, where the paper originated, have signed on, as well as hundreds of principals from districts across the state and even the country.

Sean Feeney, a Long Island principal who helped write the position paper earlier this month in his capacity as president of the Nassau County High School Principals Association, said toughening teacher evaluations is a worthy goal, but the state’s requirements aren’t the best way to accomplish it.

“We’ve got a ship that’s sailed on a dangerous course through uncharted waters and we’re not prepared — and somehow that’s okay and we have to go full-steam ahead,” he said. “We’re betting people’s careers on something that does not work. It’s unconscionable.”

Feeney speculated that city principals are less shocked by the state’s evaluation requirements because the city has already tried to develop “value-added” evaluations of some teachers using student test scores.

“The city’s been living with this for a while,” he said.

Plus, he said about city principals, “I think they’re a little more nervous” about jeopardizing their jobs by speaking out.

One of the principals who signed the petition, P.S. 257’s Brian Devale, has been an outspoken defender of teachers unions in the past, lobbying to keep “last in, first out” seniority layoff rules in place even when some of his colleagues were advocating to end them.

The second city principal to sign, M.S. 324’s Janet Heller, actually went to bat against the seniority layoff rules last year. She told GothamSchools today that she signed the petition because she thought the city’s approach to incorporating test scores into teacher evaluations was superior to the state’s.

A third city educator who signed the petition, Donald Freeman, retired as the principal of Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School and went on to coordinate the New York Performance Standards Consortium, which advocates against all high-stakes testing.

A spokeswoman for the principals union, the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, said CSA had not observed city principals showing interest in the cause.

“What we’re witnessing here is a grassroots movement that individuals have signed onto,”  Antoinette Isable-Jones wrote in an email. “Those individuals are understandably frustrated.”

Feeney, a founding teacher at Manhattan Village Academy before moving to Long Island, said advocacy groups and professional organizations based in the city are working to promote the position paper. Already, dozens of city teachers have signed on, as well as a handful of activists include Class Size matters’ Leonie Haimson and Diane Ravitch.

But he said the petition has a shot of affecting state policy only if many principals sign on, and not just from Long Island, which he said state officials tended to view as “a thorn in their side.”

“The principal’s voice is an important one,” Feeney said. “We welcome all signatories … but we certainly put the signing on of a principal at a premium.”

Betsy DeVos

‘Underperformer,’ ‘bully,’ and a ‘mermaid with legs’: NYMag story slams Betsy DeVos

PHOTO: New York Magazine
A drawing of DeVos commissioned by an 8-year-old starts the New York Magazine article.

A new article detailing Betsy DeVos’s first six months as U.S. education secretary concludes that she’s “a mermaid with legs: clumsy, conspicuous, and unable to move forward.”

That’s just one of several brutal critiques of DeVos’s leadership and effectiveness in the New York Magazine story, by Lisa Miller, who has previously covered efforts to overhaul high schools, New York City’s pre-kindergarten push, and the apocalypse. Here are some highlights:

  • Bipartisan befuddlement: The story summarizes the left’s well known opposition to DeVos’s school choice agenda. But her political allies also say she’s making unnecessary mistakes: “Most mystifying to those invested in her success is why DeVos hasn’t found herself some better help.”
  • A friend’s defense: DeVos is “muzzled” by the Trump administration, said her friend and frequent defender Kevin Chavous, a school choice activist.
  • The department reacts: “More often than not press statements are being written by career staff,” a spokesperson told Miller, rejecting claims that politics are trumping policy concerns.
  • D.C. colleagues speak: “When you talk to her, it’s a blank stare,” said Charles Doolittle, who quit the Department of Education in June. A current education department employee says: “It’s not clear that the secretary is making decisions or really capable of understanding the elements of a good decision.”
  • Kids critique: The magazine commissioned six portraits of DeVos drawn by grade-schoolers.
  • Special Olympics flip-flop: DeVos started out saying she was proud to partner with the athletics competition for people with disabilities — and quickly turned to defending a budget that cuts the program’s funding.
  • In conclusion: DeVos is an underperformer,” a “bully” and “ineffective,” Miller found based on her reporting.

We’ve reached out for reaction from DeVos’s team and will update when we hear back.

teachers with borders

Schools near state lines perform worse — and rules discouraging teachers from moving may be to blame

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Want a leg up in school? Don’t attend one near a state border.

That’s the surprising finding of a new study published in the Economics of Education Review. The likely culprit: certification and pension rules that discourage teachers from moving between states, limiting the labor pool on each side of the border.

The peer-reviewed paper focuses on test scores at public middle schools near a state boundary. Eighth-graders attending those schools, the researchers find, perform consistently worse in math than students at non-boundary schools. (The results are negative in reading, too, but smaller and not always statistically significant.)

One reason the findings ought to catch the attention of policymakers across the country: the data comes from 33 states, including big ones like Florida, New York, and Texas.

“We estimate that roughly 670,000 students are enrolled in middle schools nationally that are [considered] ‘intensely affected’ by a state boundary in our study,” the researchers write.

Of course, schools and students are not randomly assigned to be near state boundaries, so the study can’t definitively conclude that boundaries are the cause of lower performance. But the researchers — Dongwoo Kim, Cory Koedel, Shawn Ni, and Michael Podgursky, all of the University of Missouri — control for a number of student characteristics that might affect performance.

And while the study can’t pinpoint why a boundary seems to hurt test scores, the researchers have a theory: “state-specific pension and licensing policies” that discourage teachers from moving between states, likely forcing border schools to draw from a more limited pool of potential teachers.

In some places, those pension rules mean a substantial loss of retirement wealth if teachers move states mid-career. Complicated licensure rules that in some cases require experienced teachers to take certification exams or obtain additional degrees can also make that kind of switch practically difficult. Other research has found that teachers rarely move across state lines, even if they live near a boundary.

Why might that harm performance of schools near state lines?

Say a school in New York City has two science teachers and no math teachers, while a school right across the river in New Jersey has two math teachers and no science teachers. If each school needs exactly one teacher per subject, the solution is easy in theory: the New York City school gets a math teacher and loses a science one, and vice versa for the New Jersey school. But if certification or pension rules prevent that from happening, both schools lose out — and student achievement might suffer.

States aren’t typically eager to change those policies, though, for several reasons.

For one, states that require prospective teachers to clear a high bar to become certified may worry that making it too easy for an out-of-state teacher to receive a license could reduce teacher quality. A study from North Carolina provides some evidence for this argument, showing that teachers trained elsewhere were less effective than teachers trained in-state, though the difference was very small.

Another argument is that limiting teachers’ ability to bring pension money along with them when they move helps states hold on to their educators — even if they are in turn harmed when they can’t recruit teachers from elsewhere.

The latest study suggests that the net impact of those restrictions are negative. Still, the effects on students are quite small, implying that changes to pension and certification policies are unlikely to lead to large improvements in student performance.

But, the study points out, policies that eliminate the harm from attending school near a state line could help hundreds of thousands of students.

“Although the boundary effects are small on a per-student basis, they are spread across a very large population,” the researchers write.