trouble in paradise

Union official warns that new evals could be 'doomed for failure'

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
UFT Secretary Michael Mendel, at right, told Department of Education officials in an angry email that the union is unhappy about the way some schools are preparing for the likelihood of new evaluations.

Intimidating and inappropriate practices in some city schools that are preparing for a new teacher rating system could undermine the system before it goes into effect, a top union official has warned.

In an email sent Friday to Chancellor Dennis Walcott and his top deputies at the Department of Education, UFT Secretary Michael Mendel wrote that the union had recently received a spate of complaints about surprise observations by teams of administrators that seemed designed to make teachers uncomfortable.

“We have been told, increasingly over the last couple of days by our members from all parts of the city, that the DOE’s roll out of a new evaluation system has been a disaster and that it  has created a terrible atmosphere of fear around both the new evaluation system and the Danielson protocols,” Mendel wrote in the email, whose subject line was “I’m very Frustrated.”

Walcott’s email address was misspelled, so he did not get the message, according to a department spokeswoman. But the email came through for other top deputy chancellors. This afternoon, Mendel said he had not yet received any response.

The email, which the union described as “blistering” in a message to leaders at each school, is not the first that Mendel has sent in anger during the long lead-up to new evaluations. In October 2011, Mendel sent a similarly scathing email after the union received reports that some principals were using the Danielson model to observe teachers, even thought the union had not agreed to the change.

The current dustup also centers around observations. Mendel wrote that large groups of administrators have visited teachers’ classrooms without warning, made unreasonable demands, and then given scathing feedback. In an interview today, he said much of the criticism the teachers received had focused on minutiae such as the way they entered their lessons into a planning book.

Mendel said the reports had come from across the city, with more than a dozen complaints arriving after his email to the city. In one Brooklyn district, the union had received complaints from 11 schools, he said, and the report from another school was that all teachers had been told that their lesson plans were completed unsatisfactorily.

If principals had told the teachers that they would be observed and discussed the experience with them in a collaborative effort to prepare for new evaluations, the union would have had no objection, Mendel said today. “But if they do it this way where teachers are feeling intimidated, harassed, scared, put off — is it a good thing?” he said. “No. It is it a terrible thing, because it is turning them against the evaluation system.”

According to a decree by Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s, districts that do not agree with their teachers unions on new evaluations by Jan. 17, 2013, will risk losing an increase in state school aid. For New York City, not reaching a deal would mean forgoing about $250 million in state aid. Both union and city officials say they are committed to working to reach an agreement in time.

“Our staff quite frankly have been having constructive discussions,” Walcott said last week. “I’m always an optimist so we’ll see what happens.”

A department spokeswoman said today that Mendel’s letter had not weakened the department’s resolve. “Mr. Mendel is more focused on internal union politics than on the important work of finalizing a deal,” said the spokeswoman, Erin Hughes. “Even through these cheap shots, we remain committed to reaching an evaluation agreement.”

But Mendel’s letter suggested that an agreement would be unlikely to end disputes over how city teachers are evaluated.

“I believe even if we reach an agreement, the present structure of the DOE and the past practice since Sept 2011 demonstrate that you cannot and will not roll it out successfully,” he wrote, adding that the current “network” structure has muddied lines of accountability for principals.

“I would suggest we sit and talk about a proper roll out,” Mendel wrote. “If this continues the new evaluation system is doomed for failure.”

Mendel’s complete letter to the department officials is below:

Titled: I’m very Frustrated.

We have been told, increasingly over the last couple of days by our members from all parts of the city, that the DOE’s roll out of a new evaluation system has been a disaster and that it  has created a terrible atmosphere of fear around both the new evaluation system and the Danielson protocols.

In many parts of the city teachers are being told that the new evaluation system is a done deal. In some cases they are being told that starting in Jan. there will no longer be pre and post observations. In many places 8 or nine administrators are working into a teacher’s room without warning, writing notes in the back of the room and leaving.

We have Network people and Talent Coaches saying things that are just wrong as well as intimidating. It’s going on all over the city so please don’t ask me for specifics. It’s so pervasive that specifics become meaningless. As you all know we have had to give you pieces of evidence that Principals wanted to put  in the file in violation of the contract. To your credit you did stop this when we brought it to you attention. Unfortunately the damage has already been done by the mere fact that the Principal put on the bottom of these observations “for the file”.

I believe even if we reach an agreement, the present structure of the DOE and the past practice since Sept 2011 demonstrate that you cannot and will not roll it out successfully. I do not attach any intentional motives on the DOE’s part. I am speaking from evidence city wide that has transpired. It is obvious to almost anyone involved with the DOE that the Network structure is an operational disaster. And I know that most of you and others in education from outside the DOE know it as well. I also know that it is almost impossible if not totally impossible for you to admit this.

I just want to remind you that we are still 100% committed to the new evaluation system – one that incorporates professional growth throughout a teacher’s career and a fair and honest evaluation process.

What should have happened was Principals telling the staff that we will learn this together in a non threatening way. We might come into your classroom in mass, 8 or 9 of us. We are just coming in to learn. After we leave one of us will go over what we saw or think we saw and see how you feel. Then we will rip up the observation. This is so we can all learn together in a professional atmosphere. We could even say if someone feels so strongly about not having 8 or 9 people come in at one time we would honor that. You get the idea. Learn together in a non threatening way. Unfortunately the opposite is happening in too many places. Anyway I would suggest we sit and talk about a proper roll out.  If this continues the new evaluation system is doomed for failure. And let’s be clear. This failure rests squarely on the DOE’s shoulders. No one else.

Michael Mendel
UFTSecretary/Executive Assistant to the President

Trade offs

Indianapolis is experimenting with a new kind of teacher — and it’s transforming this school

PHOTO: Teachers and coaches meet at Indianapolis Public Schools Lew Wallace School 107.
Paige Sowders (left) is one of three multi-classroom leaders who are helping teachers at School 107.

Teachers at School 107 are up against a steep tower of challenges: test scores are chronically low, student turnover is high and more than a third of kids are still learning English.

All the school’s difficulties are compounded by the struggle to hire and retain experienced teachers, said principal Jeremy Baugh, who joined School 107 two years ago. At one of the most challenging schools in Indianapolis Public Schools, many of the educators are in their first year in the classroom.

“It’s a tough learning environment,” Baugh said. “We needed to find a way to support new teachers to be highly effective right away.”

This year, Baugh and the staff of School 107 are tackling those challenges with a new teacher leadership model designed to attract experienced educators and support those who are new to the classroom. School 107 is one of six district schools piloting the opportunity culture program, which allows principals to pay experienced teachers as much as $18,000 extra each year to support other classrooms. Next year, the program will expand to 10 more schools.

The push to create opportunities for teachers to take on leadership and earn more money without leaving the classroom is gaining momentum in Indiana — where the House budget includes $1.5 million for developing educator “career pathways” — and across the country in places from Denver to Washington. The IPS program is modeled on similar efforts in North Carolina led by the education consulting firm Public Impact.

At School 107, Baugh hired three new teachers, called multi-classroom leaders, who are responsible for the performance of several classes. Each class has a dedicated, full-time teacher. But the classroom leader is there to help them plan lessons, improve their teaching and look at data on where students are struggling. And unlike traditional coaches, they also spend time in the classroom, working directly with students.

As classroom leaders, they are directly responsible for the test scores of the students in their classes, said Jesse Pratt, who is overseeing opportunity culture for the district.

“They own that data,” Pratt said. “They are invested in those kids and making sure they are successful.”

At School 107, the program is part of a focus on using data to track student performance that Baugh began rolling out when he took over last school year. It’s already starting to bear fruit: Students still struggle on state tests, but they had so much individual improvement that the school’s letter grade from the state jumped from a D to a B last year.

Paige Sowders, who works with classes in grades 3 through 6, is one of the experienced teachers the program attracted to School 107. After 9 years in the classroom, she went back to school to earn an administrator’s license. But Sowders wasn’t quite ready to leave teaching for the principal’s office, she said. She was planning to continue teaching in Washington Township. Then, she learned about the classroom leader position at School 107, and it seemed like a perfect opportunity to move up the ladder without moving out of the classroom.

“I wanted something in the middle before becoming an administrator,” she said. “I get to be a leader and work with teachers and with children.”

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
The multi-classroom leaders meet regularly with teachers and district coaches to review data and plan lessons.

The new approaches to teacher leadership are part of a districtwide move to give principals more freedom to set priorities and choose how to spend funding. But those decisions aren’t always easy. Since schools don’t get extra funding to hire classroom leaders, Baugh had to find money in his existing budget. That meant cutting several vacant part-time positions, including a media specialist, a gym teacher and a music teacher.

It also meant slightly increasing class sizes. Initially, that seemed fine to Baugh, but then enrollment unexpectedly ballooned at the school — going from 368 students at the start of the year to 549 in February. With so many new students, class sizes started to go up, and the school had to hire several new teachers, Baugh said.

Some of those teachers were fresh out of college when they started in January, with little experience in such challenging schools. But because the school had classroom leaders, new teachers weren’t expected to lead classes without support. Instead, they are working with leaders like Sowders, who can take the time to mentor them throughout the year.

With teachers who are just out of school, Sowders spends a lot of time focusing on basics, she said. She went over what their days would be like and how to prepare. During the first week of the semester, she went into one of the new teacher’s classes to teach English every day so he could see the model lessons. And she is working with him on improving discipline in his class by setting expectations in the first hour of class.

Ultimately, Baugh thinks the tradeoffs the school made were worth it. The extra money helped them hold on to talented staff, and they have the bandwidth to train new teachers.

“If I’m a novice teacher just learning my craft, I can’t be expected to be a super star best teacher year one,” he said. “We learn our skill.”

school turnaround lessons

Too many good teachers are quitting Tennessee’s Achievement School District, researchers say

PHOTO: Micaela Watts
Students at Cherokee Elementary, an iZone school in Memphis, engage with their teacher. Tennessee's iZones have had success recruiting teachers with high marks in the state's teacher evaluation system.

A growing question in Memphis and across Tennessee has been why local school improvement efforts seem to be outperforming the state’s 5-year-old flagship initiative.

Now, researchers charged with studying that initiative have a hypothesis: Schools in the Achievement School District have struggled to hold on to their highest-rated teachers.

For their latest report, released on Tuesday, researchers at the Tennessee Education Research Alliance at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College partnered with the University of Kentucky to examine the extent to which the ASD and local turnaround initiatives called innovation zones, or “iZones,” have been able to recruit and retain teachers with top ratings.

They found that ASD teachers left their jobs far more frequently than teachers in iZone schools in Memphis, Nashville and Chattanooga.

That wasn’t a surprise the first year a school was in the ASD, given the requirement that teachers in turnaround schools must reapply for their jobs.

But even in following years, fully half of the ASD’s teachers left its schools each year. Among iZone schools, the corresponding rates were 40 percent and 23 percent, respectively.

In both initiatives, lower-rated teachers were replaced by better ones. Researchers found this to be more pronounced in iZone schools where, on Tennessee’s 5-point scale, incoming teachers scored an average of more than a half point higher than those moving to other schools or leaving the profession. In the ASD, incoming teachers averaged just over a third of a point  higher than outgoing teachers.

“The story seems to be one of general success in getting effective teachers in the door of these turnaround schools, and the iZone schools are also managing to keep and improve them,” said Vanderbilt’s Gary Henry, who co-authored the report.

Henry said disruption is a key part of school turnaround work, and that it might be necessary to lose some bad teachers before a school can thrive. But just as necessary is improving teachers already at a school — and that takes time.

“The iZone hired good teachers, kept good teachers, and their teachers improved,” he said.

Both iZones and the ASD had more difficulty recruiting good teachers for the schools they absorbed in the 2014-2015 school year. Henry said it’s not clear why that happened.

It could be because both the ASD and the Memphis iZone, the largest of the three, added high schools, and it’s typically harder to get effective high school teachers to switch schools. Or, it could be that Memphis, where nearly all of the ASD schools are located, needs more good teachers in general.

“Memphis might be reaching a ceiling on the number of effective teachers willing to move into priority schools,” he said of schools that are academically in the state’s bottom 5 percent. “They’re going to have to expand their pool in order to attract the type of talent needed to transform the lowest-performing schools.”

The researchers note that the iZone gains might not last. The one in Memphis has used teacher pay incentives to lure high-quality teachers to its schools, relying at least in part on philanthropic funds. Without those funds, it’s not clear if the iZone could be expanded or sustained.

“It’s terrific when philanthropies are able to support mechanisms proven to work,” he said, “but in the long run, it’s uncertain whether Memphis will be able to maintain these gains.”

ASD Superintendent Malika Anderson said she is heartened that more effective teachers have moved to working in historically low-performing schools. She attributed the ASD’s initial recruiting challenges to being “a big unknown,” but expressed optimism about the future.

“As we increase recruitment and retention of effective teachers in our schools, the ASD’s growing priority is to champion the efforts of local districts, community partners and the Department of Education to strengthen the pipeline and critical supports for effective teachers in all schools,” Anderson said in a statement.

This report follows a high-profile 2015 study that showed schools in Tennessee’s iZones had positive effects on student learning, while the ASD’s effects were statistically insignificant.  Henry said Vanderbilt researchers hope to examine in the future how school quality was impacted at the schools left by highly rated teachers to go to the iZone or the ASD.

You can read the full report here.