ask and ye shall receive

State finds assessing eval systems to be harder than expected

For months, state education officials have been hounding school districts to draft teacher evaluation plans and submit them for approval.

But now that the plans are streaming in, the officials are realizing the state is not adequately prepared to assess them. Each plan must be combed through to ensure that it complies with the state’s evaluation law and meets the State Education Department’s hard-and-fast rules and subjective guidelines.

“I think it’s fair to say we underestimated the time and resources that we needed to review these plans,” Valerie Grey, SED’s deputy commissioner, told members of the Board of Regents Monday in Albany.

Grey said the department would seek “additional resources to get through January,” when Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said districts must put new evaluation systems in place or risk forgoing an increase in state aid. She also said the department would ask districts to turn in their plans early to leave time for the approval process.

Grey later clarified that increasing manpower would not require any new funds but instead could be paid for by reallocating some of the state’s Race to the Top funds. The state committed to overhauling teacher evaluations as part of its application for the federal funds.

So far, Grey said, the department has enlisted law students as interns to wade through the complicated, encyclopedic applications that districts turn in. The extra funds will allow the department to hire full-time temporary employees to help with the task. Both the interns and the temporary workers are supervised by department officials. The department is also conscripting employees who do not normally work on teacher quality issues to assist with the project.

Of the state’s 715 districts, 295 have turned in proposals for evaluation systems, Grey said. But the department has provided feedback to only 150 of them, and 75 evaluation systems have been approved so far, she said.

To guard against the bottleneck, the state is asking districts to turn in their evaluation plans by mid-December, just three months away, in order to hit the governor’s Jan. 17 deadline.

The tightened timeline could add new pressure to already fraught negotiations in New York City. City and teachers union officials have both expressed optimism about being able to reach a teacher evaluations agreement by Cuomo’s deadline, but they have missed several state deadlines in the last year. Each time, their negotiations have gone to the wire.

Evaluation plans that the department has approved and published illustrate the complexity of the approval process. Binghamton’s plan, for example, comes to 123 pages and includes a long list of assessments the district wants to use to measure student growth; spreadsheets that show how the different components of the evaluation system will lead to a single score for each teacher; and detailed plans for how to help teachers and principals who get low scores. Each component was negotiated locally, then refined in conversation with state education officials before getting a final sign-off.

Another reason that the review process is taking longer than expected is that districts are so far taking very different approaches from one another, Grey said. She said she anticipated the review process speeding up as more districts look to each other and to models that the state has published for inspiration. Checking off the components of an evaluation system that is similar to one that has already met the state’s approval is simpler than thinking through a brand new system, Grey said.

It’s unlikely that a system New York City proposes would benefit from the economy of scale. The city and its teacher union have been negotiating over the evaluation system for longer than most districts have taken to develop theirs. Plus, the city is so large that some assessment process that are feasible in smaller districts could be hard to carry out here, and vice versa.

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.”