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.

What's your education story?

Leaving finance was easy, teaching was hard, but this educator realized: ‘I’ve got to figure it out.’

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Tom Hakin is an assistant principal at Cold Springs Elementary School in IPS.

education_story_graphic

Chalkbeat journalists ask the people we come across in our work to tell us about their education stories and how learning shaped who they are today. Learn more about this series, and read other installments, here.

Tom Hakim is now an assistant principal at Cold Springs Elementary School in Indianapolis Public Schools. He’s been an educator in Marion County for eight years.

I worked in corporate finance for four years — I was a finance undergrad — in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I was always involved and volunteered a lot in high school and college and did a lot of things in the community … (As an adult), I was a big brother in Big Brothers, Big Sisters, and I was coaching rec league basketball, I was teaching Junior Achievement, so that was actually my first experience going into a classroom teaching kids.

But through all of that, (those activities were) what I was really getting excited about in my days, not so much the day-to-day work I was doing in my current job.

So I just started looking at education and what options might be out there. And I read an article in the Detroit Free Press about Teach For America, and I had never heard about it prior to that. This was a chance for me to transition very quickly into a career that I think I may want to do, and that happened.

Even in a program like that, where you get the “meat and potatoes” of training of how to be a teacher, your first couple years, it’s just so hard.

But there was more of an idealistic commitment to it. This is what I think I really want to do, so despite the challenges, I’ve got to figure it out.

I was part of the 2009 (TFA) corp, taught in the charter world for five years here in town, and then had an opportunity three years ago to move to Washington Township. It’s actually the only place I’ve ever lived in Indy, and it was kind of the right fit at the right time.

I was a department chair at one of their middle schools. It was one that was the lowest performing at the time, Northview.

I think for the first time in my teaching career, I felt, in addition to working really hard and wanting to provide a great education for the kids of the school I was working in, I also felt that bigger commitment of the community because that was where I was living. My own children are going to school (there).

So it made it even more real for me, the “why” behind what we do.

I grew up outside of Detroit. When you really look at it, some of the issues that plague Detroit Public Schools are some of the same things we see here in Indy. My experience was not comparable to what I see some of our kids going through on a day-to-day basis.

So I think there’s the initial shock of that, but then there’s this next phase, where if I’m really going to be a part of this, I’ve got to understand all the factors that are really involved and going on here, and it’s not easy. It’s not easy work.

Over two years (at Northview), we went from lowest performing to highest math (test scores) in the district in my time as the department chair, which I primarily attribute to the team I had around me.

I was teaching one grade level, but again, it gets back to this idea that when you get the right teachers on board, growing in the same direction and pushing for the right things, pretty great things can happen.

unpaid leave debate

Colorado Supreme Court weighs challenge to law governing job protections for teachers

PHOTO: Denver Post file
The Colorado Supreme Court.

Are good veteran teachers still guaranteed jobs in Colorado, provided they don’t mess up?

The Colorado Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday on that issue and others related to a landmark 2010 state law that changed the rules for teacher evaluations and assignments.

Lawyers for Denver Public Schools squared off against lawyers representing individual teachers in two separate lawsuits. One case was brought on behalf of seven current and former DPS teachers. It challenges a provision of the 2010 law that allows school districts to, under certain circumstances, put effective teachers who’ve earned job protections on unpaid leave.

The other case was filed by a single teacher, Lisa Johnson, who was put on unpaid leave.

In both cases, lawyers for DPS argued that putting experienced, effective teachers on unpaid leave is not the same as firing them — and thus doing so doesn’t violate their due process rights.

But lawyers for the teachers said unpaid leave is essentially “an end run” around those rights.

To understand both lawsuits, it helps to have some background on the 2010 law, known as Senate Bill 191. It did several things, including change the way teachers earn “non-probationary status,” which affords them job protections. To earn that status, teachers must now have three years of effective ratings instead of just three years of employment.

Earning that status is desirable because non-probationary teachers can only be fired for a limited number of reasons, including insubordination and unsatisfactory performance. In addition, non-probationary teachers are entitled to a hearing before being fired.

The 2010 law also effectively eliminated a practice known as “forced placement.” Before the law, teachers who lost their jobs not for cause but due to circumstances such as a decrease in student enrollment were assigned to open positions at other schools.

DPS officials didn’t like forced placement because most teachers were placed at low-income schools, which they said led to the neediest kids being taught by teachers who didn’t choose to be there. So after Senate Bill 191 passed, DPS changed its policy. The district now gives teachers who lose their positions temporary assignments with the expectation that they will look for “mutual consent” positions, meaning a school’s principal agrees to hire them.

If a teacher doesn’t find a mutual consent position within 18 months, he or she is placed on unpaid leave as per Senate Bill 191. The teacher is welcome to continue looking for jobs in DPS and is entitled to his or her previous salary and benefits if hired.

Since Senate Bill 191 went into effect, at least 1,113 non-probationary DPS teachers have lost their positions due to a decrease in student enrollment, the closure of a school or other similar circumstances listed in the law, according to data the district provided at Chalkbeat’s request.

The majority of them have found mutual consent positions. Sixty-two teachers are currently on unpaid leave because they were unable to do so, according to DPS.

However, that number doesn’t include teachers who resigned or retired rather than be put on unpaid leave. That information is difficult to gather, a district spokesman said, but DPS did tally some numbers in response to an open records request the Denver teachers union submitted in February. As best the district could tell as of earlier this year, 39 non-probationary teachers who lost their positions between 2010 and 2014 resigned and seven retired.

On Wednesday, a lawyer for the teachers who brought the lawsuit argued that state law has historically afforded teachers a “basic bargain:” if they work for three years and are asked to come back for a fourth, they’re entitled to job protections. Lawmakers were wrong to alter that under Senate Bill 191, attorney Philip Hostak told the seven justices.

But DPS’s lawyer pointed out that the historical idea of tenure no longer exists — and hasn’t since lawmakers stripped the word from state law in 1990. “There is no indication in the legislation itself … that these folks are permanent teachers,” said attorney Eric Hall.

Pushing back on Hostak’s argument, Hall said lawmakers can amend laws however they see fit — and in the case of Senate Bill 191, they added the mutual consent provision and unpaid leave.

A lawyer for Johnson also challenged that provision and argued that Johnson shouldn’t be subject to it because she lost her position for a reason not listed in Senate Bill 191.

“The legislature tells us exactly which teachers can be displaced,” said attorney Eric Harrington.

However, the lawyer representing DPS in the Johnson case, Jonathan Fero, argued that the reasons listed in the law aren’t exhaustive and mutual consent applies to all teachers.

The lawyers did not debate the reason Johnson lost her position except to say they disagreed on the facts but that those facts aren’t an issue for the Supreme Court to decide.

The justices typically take months to issue an opinion.