First Person

Reasonable Doubt

I’ve been relatively quiet in the ongoing debate about how best to evaluate teachers in New York City and across New York State. I’m not close to the negotiations and can claim no expertise on the political machinations outside of public view. At its heart, this seems to me a dispute over jurisdiction: Who has the legitimate authority to regulate the work of an occupation that seeks the status of a profession—but one that is in a labor-management relationship?

The laws of New York recognize the labor-management fault line, but they do little to guide a collective-bargaining process toward agreements in the many districts in which teacher-evaluation systems are contested. Each side brings a powerful public value to bear on the disagreement.

For the employers, it’s all about efficiency. It’s in the public interest, they argue, to recruit, retain and reward the best teachers, in order to maximize the collective achievement of students. A teacher-evaluation system that fails to identify those teachers who are effective, and those who are ineffective, can neither weed out consistent low-performers nor target those who might best benefit from intensive help. Rewarding high-performing teachers can, in the short run, help keep them in their classrooms, they claim, and, in the long run, can help expand the pool of talented individuals who enter the occupation.

For teachers, the key concern is fairness. Fairness is primarily a procedural issue: Teachers, and the unions that represent them, seek an evaluation process that is neither arbitrary nor capricious, relying on stable and valid criteria that they believe accurately characterize the quality of their work. In this view, an evaluation process is unfair to the extent that it can be manipulated by a building administrator or school district to yield a particular rating for a teacher’s performance. It is also unfair if random factors beyond a teacher’s control unduly influence the evaluation of his or her performance.

The values of efficiency and fairness collide head-on in New York’s Education Law §3012-c, passed as part of the state’s efforts to bolster its chances in the 2010 Race to the Top competition. The law requires annual professional performance reviews (APPRs) that sort teachers into four categories—“highly effective,” “effective,” “developing” and “ineffective”—based on multiple measures of effectiveness, including student growth on state and locally selected assessments and a teacher’s performance according to a teacher practice rubric.

The fundamental problem is that it’s hard to assess the efficiency or fairness of an evaluation system that doesn’t exist yet. There are too many unknowns to be able to judge, which is one of the arguments for piloting an evaluation system before bringing it to scale. The properties of the state tests that are to be used to assess teachers’ contributions to student learning are a moving target; the tests have been changing in recent years in response to concerns about their difficulty, predictability and coverage of state curricular standards. And in a couple of years, those standards and assessments will change, as New York and many other states phase in the Common Core standards and new assessments designed to measure mastery of them. The models to estimate a teacher’s position relative to other teachers in contributing to students’ test performance are imprecise at the level of the individual teacher, and different models yield different results for a given teacher. There’s been little to no discussion of how to incorporate this uncertainty into the single numerical score a teacher will receive.

The evaluation of teachers’ practices via classroom observations using New York State Education Department (NYSED)-approved rubrics, such as Charlotte Danielson’s Framework for Teaching or Robert Pianta’s Classroom Assessment Scoring System, is another unknown. There’s evidence that with proper training, observers can reliably rate teachers’ classroom practices, but the nature of the training is critical, and there is no evidence to date of New York City’s ability to prepare more than 1,500 principals, or the principals’ “designees,” to carry out multiple observations of many teachers, teaching many different school subjects, each year.

Amazingly, there is even uncertainty about whether the evaluations can or should be based solely on a teacher’s performance in a single year. The statute creating the new evaluation system in New York describes it as an “annual professional performance review.” But is this a professional performance review that occurs annually, or a review of annual professional performance—that is, a teacher’s performance in the most recent year? The guidance provided by the NYSED suggests that it has no idea. “For 2011-12, only one year of teacher or principal student growth percentile scores will factor into each educator’s evaluation,” the guidance states. “When more years of data are available, NYSED will consider whether each evaluation year should include more than one year of educator student growth results. Empirical and policy considerations will determine the decision.”

Well, that certainly clarifies matters. In other words, a “bad” year where a teacher is ranked relatively low compared to other teachers might reverberate, affecting his or her ranking in subsequent years. But a good observational rating in a given year seemingly will have no spillover effect into subsequent years. If, as has been true in Washington, D.C.’s IMPACT teacher-evaluation system, teachers generally score higher on observational ratings than on their value-added or growth-score rankings relative to other teachers, the carryover for value-added performance—but not observations of teachers’ professional practices—appears unfair. And in D.C., this evaluation system has resulted in the termination of hundreds of teachers based on one or two years of performance.

Teacher-evaluation systems have multiple purposes, which might include certifying teachers as competent or selecting some for particular forms of professional development to enhance their professional practice. For most of these purposes, it’s essential that those with a stake in the education system view these evaluation systems as legitimate—and the perceived efficiency and fairness of an evaluation system are central to such judgments. It’s not hard to see why a great many teachers, in New York City and across the state, have serious doubts about the fairness of New York State’s APPR process. And if future teachers do as well, the process could have the unintended consequence of reducing, rather than increasing, the pool of individuals willing to consider teaching as a vocation. This, coupled with the more than 1,300 principals across the state who have raised questions about the efficiency of the process, illuminates the challenges confronting the state as it seeks to implement the APPR system and avoid a scolding from U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

William Blackstone, an 18th-century English legal scholar, wrote “better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.” Benjamin Franklin, one of the founders of our country, later upped the ante to 100 to one. The principle captures squarely the trade-off between the value of efficiency and the value of fairness. A legal system that lets the guilty go free is inefficient, as these offenders are free to continue to transgress against the common good. But to Franklin and others, that was still preferable to a legal system that did not provide adequate procedural protections for all, whether innocent or guilty, because such a system would be inconsistent with the principle of fairness so central to the American polity.

It’s important to note that Blackstone and Franklin were concerned with the workings of government; fairness in the private sector was not a central concern, and efficiency was taken for granted as a consequence of market forces. Civil servants, as agents and employees of the state, arguably are subject to a different set of rights and responsibilities than those working in the private sector, and teachers are one of the largest groups of such public servants. What’s an acceptable tradeoff between efficiency and fairness in the mix of teachers’ rights and responsibilities? It’s a lot easier to speculate about percentages in the abstract than to confront the possibility that you, or someone close to you, might be out of a job because of an untested teacher-evaluation system that cuts corners on fairness.

This post also appears on Eye on Education, Aaron Pallas’s Hechinger Report blog.

First Person

What a refugee student from Iraq taught me about reaching newcomers

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Some days, Fahad looked like defeat, his tight face tucked into a red hoodie and folded over his thin legs. Other days, he looked like chaos, a screaming fit of flailing limbs.

My role in this scenario remained the same. Each day, I failed to get through to him. Each day, I tried anyway.

I’ve spent years of my teaching career in rooms with refugee students like Fahad, who, for months, responded to only a handful of English words. He mumbled hi and yes and no. He didn’t make eye contact and walked on his tiptoes, gazing at the floor. He avoided human touch. Fire alarms were cause for an immediate meltdown.

He was placed in my classroom for newcomers, a community with 19 students encompassing 16 languages and six world religions, in the hope that it would be what he needed. And after spending so much time with students like Fahad, I’ve realized a few things outsiders should know about teaching students like him.

One is that these students protect their peers with everything they have.

I’ve watched as other students draped their arms around Fahad’s shoulders, physically coaching him toward the appropriate task without adult cues. I’ve watched as they chose him as a math buddy, as they rotated bully-defense duties in the lunchroom, and as they cheered for him when he succeeded. Perhaps the other students understood something about Fahad that only other refugee students could.

The other is just what it feels like when you do get through to a student like Fahad.

One day, walking through the hall, Fahad reached for my hand. “Mrs. K, you hold my hand, OK?”

I smiled. “Fahad?”

“Yeah, Mrs. K.”

“Do you know that I care about you and that you are safe with me?”

“Yeah, Mrs. K.”

“Can you look at me, buddy?”

Fahad comes to a complete stop. He faces me. Eight months after our introduction, our eyes meet for the first time. I blink quickly, struggling to restrain my emotion.

“Yeah, Mrs. K. But you have to keep holding my hand.”

Days later, we took a class playground break. As an afterthought, I brought along a box of colored chalk. The students charged the swings and monkey bars, making up for two hours of classroom time with a few seconds of unleashed energy.

Except Fahad. He reached for the chalk and set to work creating a mural along a sidewall of the playground. After some prompting, he explained.

“See, Mrs. K.? Those things in the sky have the guns. And here are guys on the floor with trucks.” (By things, he meant helicopters, and by trucks, tanks.)

“They have guns. You see this people over here? That people is hiding. The other people already die. Who is hiding? It’s me! And my baby sister and brother and my mom. No dad. He over here, see? By the guns, Mrs. K.”

Conversations with Fahad’s mother, through an Arabic translator, paint a clearer picture. Fahad’s father helped the U.S. government in Iraq, and a price was put on his head as a result. Fahad’s mother fled with their children. In the process, Fahad was kidnapped and held hostage by soldiers. After a few days, the soldiers relented to his mother’s incessant pleas for his release, and the family was eventually reunited and granted asylum. Twelve days after arriving in Denver, Fahad passed through our school doors.

His story is a reminder that teachers’ jobs are so much bigger than math, reading, and science. We are detectives, lighthouses, listeners, and foundation builders.

Fahad has a long road ahead, but he doesn’t hide under desks anymore. He hugs me every morning. He writes in full sentences and is working through multiplication. On occasion, Fahad is brave enough to read aloud. He wants to be a scientist — not just any scientist, he says, but an American scientist … of rocks.

Best practices in newcomer education have evolved significantly since my time with Fahad. But it’s always been a tough balance to strike between focusing on academic gains and creating safe spaces for children who have sometimes unthinkable backgrounds, and not all teachers get the help they need to make those minute-by-minute decisions. As an education community, we have a lot of room for growth here.

Now, I am working to help other teachers in positions like mine and to support other schools and districts in meeting these students’ unique needs. Fahad and his classmates continue to be my best teachers.

Louise El Yaafouri (Kreuzer) is a veteran teacher at Place Bridge Academy, Denver’s refugee magnet school. She is also the chief refugee/immigrant consultant at Sterling Literacy Consulting and the author of The Newcomer Student: An Educator’s Guide to Aid Transition.

guest perspective

People who say geography means rural areas can’t share in Trump’s school choice vision are wrong. Here’s why

PHOTO: Danielle Scott / Creative Commons

Do some school choice programs make sense in rural America? For students like Paige Knutson, Daniel Lopez Gomez, and Merle Vander Weyst, the answer is certainly yes.

President-elect Donald Trump and his choice for secretary of education insist that private-school vouchers are a good idea. I strongly disagree. But there are examples across America that show how public school choice options can help rural students and families. Having worked with rural schools for 28 years, I know that geography isn’t an insurmountable hurdle.

These options include district schools-within-schools, alternative and magnet schools, charter schools, distance learning options, and dual high school/college credit programs. With federal support, the best of them should be identified, strengthened and replicated.

Why? Let’s start with Paige, Daniel, and Merle.

Some years ago, Paige Knutson brought Minnesota legislators to tears as she explained how a rural Minnesota alternative school had saved her life. Knutson, an honor student and cheerleader, was the oldest in a large farm family that was in danger of losing their property. When she became pregnant, she was kicked off the cheerleading squad and removed from the honor society. These weren’t appropriate responses from the school. But they were the reality.

She thought about taking her own life. Fortunately, a friend told her about a nearby alternative school that welcomed her. Her testimony helped convince Minnesota legislators to permit state per-pupil dollars to follow youngsters who attend alternative schools across district lines.

Dozens of communities in rural Minnesota, like Blackduck, Cass Lake, and Redwood Falls, host these alternative schools. One of the most inspiring programs I’ve seen anywhere in the U.S. is the annual MAAP STARS conference, where alternative school students perform, display projects, and earn statewide recognition.

Daniel Lopez Gomez is one of them. He came to the small town of Worthington, Minnesota from Guatemala in 2013, speaking little English. But he blossomed at the Worthington Alternative School. He recently was named “MAAP Student of the Year.”

Thousands of Minnesota students, many of them in rural communities, attend schools of choice, including but not limited to alternative public schools for youngsters with whom traditional schools have not succeeded.

Merle Vander Wyste, who attends the online Blue Sky Charter School, represents another form of rural school choice. Online schools, including Blue Sky, aren’t successful with all students. But they work very well for some young people.

In an award-winning essay, Vander Wyste explained:

“I was never popular in school. Because of bullying I suffered from social anxiety and depression. I often had suicidal thoughts. In my own home, I didn’t have other students telling me how I needed to act. I did not have anyone pressuring me to try drugs. No one told me that the brand of clothing I was wearing was inadequate. I was able to experience my own personal growth as a person.

Attending Blue Sky Charter School has been a great experience for me. It has allowed me to continue my education in a safe, relaxed setting in my home … I work better at night … and I am able to schedule lessons around work or another activity.”

There are other forms of school choice that work in rural settings. They include:

District schools within schools: One way for rural districts to offer more choices is to innovate within the space they already occupy. Forest Lake, Minnesota features two schools in one building, one of which is Central Montessori Elementary. For many years, International Falls Elementary School did the same — one school had traditional grade-level classrooms, and the other operated more like a one-room schoolhouse, with several grades of students working with each other.

Rural charter schools: Most charter schools aren’t in rural areas. But some are: According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, there were 732 rural charters enrolling nearly 200,000 students in 2014-15 school year. Charisse Gulosino has provided fascinating maps of rural charters located, for example, on rural American Indian reservations. She also noted that rural charters serve a slightly higher percentage of low-income students than the national average. One of the most well-known is in tiny Henderson, Minnesota, where students at the Minnesota New Country School study and contribute to the local community.

Dual-credit programs: Minnesota and Washington allow 11th and 12th graders to spend time on a college campus (or in Minnesota, to take college courses on a campus or online), with state funds following students paying for the tuition. Minnesota’s Post-Secondary Enrollment Options law also pays for the students’ books and lab fees. Thousands of rural students use these great programs.

I hope that President-elect Trump, DeVos, and Congress will listen to rural, as well as urban and suburban, families that are making great use of these opportunities. Using multiple measures, the federal government can help identify the best of these programs. Then it can help share information, expand and replicate those that are unusually successful.

Joe Nathan has been a public school teacher, administrator, PTA president, National Governors Association project coordinator, researcher, advocate and weekly newspaper columnist. He directs the Center for School Change.