comparative education

Advice, caution from early adopters of new teacher evaluations

New York City teachers discussed preparations for new teacher evaluations with Chancellor Dennis Walcott in September 2011.

In Washington, D.C., officials shortened a new teacher evaluation checklist after complaints from teachers and principals that it was too long and time-consuming.

In Memphis, Tenn., after a year of piloting new evaluations and a summer of training, some principals and teachers remained confused and overwhelmed.

In Louisiana, one expert warned of lawsuits as the state began to roll out a truncated observation system without first testing it.

But in New Haven, Conn., union officials and reformers alike have praised a collaborative effort to help teachers improve under the city’s new rating system.

As New York City officials and union leaders wrangle over the design of new teacher evaluations due to roll out citywide next year, the experiences of other states and districts offer both inspiration and lessons about what not to do.

“We have learned a lot over the last four years about how to do this effectively and well, and the changes we’ve made are reflective of that,” said Scott Thompson, deputy chief of teacher effectiveness in the D.C. Public Schools, which launched a new evaluation system in 2009.

More frequent and rigorous evaluations are part of a new national push to improve the quality of the teaching force. Two-thirds of states are in the process of adopting new evaluations, and many will include student achievement — usually as measured by standardized tests — along with intensive classroom observations. It’s unclear whether the new evaluations will have the desired effect. Even in places with a few years of experience using new systems, there is not enough data to tell for certain if student achievement is improving as a result of the evaluations.

But early adopters say they have at least begun to pinpoint what hasn’t worked, and what teachers and principals find most useful. Washington, D.C.’s experience may be particularly instructive to districts still in the process of designing systems. The city’s evaluation system has been overhauled twice in response to feedback — and problems.

The number of standards on which teachers are measured during a classroom observation was reduced to 18 because teachers found a checklist of 22 indicators too long and confusing. (New York has piloted a checklist that has 22 indicators but has asked schools to focus on just six at first.) The number of categories for teachers — ranging from “ineffective” to “highly effective” — was increased from four to five in an effort to prevent inflation in the ratings. And teachers who have consistently scored well will no longer be observed as frequently as lower performers to save time and lessen anxiety among teachers.

Tennessee also reduced the observation workload because principals felt overwhelmed. “It may seem pretty obvious, but I think anybody started down this road will tell you this is a huge shift in the role of the principal,” said Sara Heyburn, an assistant commissioner in the Tennessee Department of Education. “We had to move quickly to train more people, and we allowed people to combine observations.”

One of the biggest shifts in D.C. was the decision this year to reduce the reliance on test scores in favor of other measures of student achievement that teachers will determine with their principals. Before, value-added measures, which calculate expected student growth on standardized tests, counted for 50 percent of a D.C. teacher’s rating. But value-added measures have been widely criticized as unreliable. Going forward, they will only count for 35 percent of a teacher’s overall evaluation.

“Student performance will continue to be the largest piece of the pie,” said Kaya Henderson, the D.C. Schools Chancellor, in a statement when the change was announced in August. But, she said, “We are evolving that approach to now include multiple measures.”

Most systems combine two main factors in measuring a teacher’s performance: a rating based on at least one formal classroom observation, and a rating meant to capture how much students learn during the year. Previously, most states called for evaluations that relied on a single observation, and tenured teachers were not observed every year.

In New York, value-added measures — for those teachers whose students take standardized tests — will only make up 25 percent of their rating. Another 15 percent will be based on locally selected measures of student achievement, while the remaining 60 percent will depend on more qualitative measures such as classroom observations.

One of the most vexing problems that many education systems have faced is how to measure student growth, or learning, for the vast majority of teachers who don’t teach in tested subjects or grades.

In Florida, the state is simply developing more standardized tests. Last year in Tennessee, teachers without individual value-added scores were rated on their school’s overall performance on standardized tests. Many teachers said this was unfair, however, according to a report by the state education department. So this summer state officials recommended adding more tests, as long they “benefit student performance.”

Other states have left it to districts or schools to create their own “student learning objectives” or SLOs, such as portfolios of artwork or improvement in skills like playing scales on a trumpet. New York will join them when its system takes effect next year.

But a pilot in Rhode Island demonstrated that it’s difficult to ensure that the learning objectives are rigorous. “The quality of our student learning objectives was not where we ultimately want them to be,” said Rhode Island education commissioner Deborah Gist in an interview with The Hechinger Report last year. “There’s no way to make it be entirely objective ever.”

Although hundreds of teachers have lost their jobs due to low ratings as new evaluations have gone into effect, the evaluations haven’t been the shock to the system that many educators expected. In Florida, for example, the percentage of teachers rated poorly only rose by one percentage point in comparison to the old system, which had been criticized as too lenient. In Tennessee, only 2.5 percent of teachers received one of the lowest two ratings (out of five) based on new classroom observations. Three-quarters of teachers fell into the top two categories. And one of the reasons D.C. changed its rating system this year is because the vast majority of teachers continued to be rated as either “effective” or “highly effective.”

“In the end, the anxiety about these systems is largely about the consequences they might carry,” said Timothy Daly, president of TNTP, a nonprofit advocacy group, which in 2009 published a report on teacher effectiveness that helped spur many of the new reforms. “And the truth is that very few teachers are in the position of facing any consequences, which raises the larger question of, ‘Are these ratings accurate?’”

At the same time, a nearly universal piece of advice from education officials in other districts and states is to work closely with teachers when designing the new evaluations. Dozens of teachers in New Haven, Conn., have left because they were rated poorly under the new evaluation system there. But the union was a partner in developing it, and criticism has been muted compared to elsewhere.

“If you create a system that doesn’t have maximum teacher input, it doesn’t matter how technically sound it is,” said Dan Cruce, a former official in the Delaware Department of Education who now works for the nonprofit policy organization Hope Street Group. “It has to be raised and informed by teacher voices, because that’s who it’s designed for.”

The experiences so far with new evaluations suggest that districts should also expect to make changes as they go along. “The idea is that this is going to continuously improve, just like we expect our educators” to do, said Heyburn, of Tennessee. “You can plan for the hypotheticals, but it’s not till feet hit the ground that you learn the real lessons.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Newcomers

This mom came to the newcomer school ready to stand up for son. She left with a job.

PHOTO: Provided by Javier Barrera Cervantes
Charlotte Uwimbabazi is a bilingual assistant at the Indianapolis Public Schools newcomer program.

When Charlotte Uwimbabazi showed up at Indianapolis Public Schools’ program for new immigrants, she was ready to fight for her son. When she left that day, she had a job.

A native of the Congo, Uwimbabazi fled the war-torn country and spent nearly a decade in Cape Town, South Africa waiting for a new home. Last spring, Uwimbabazi and her four children came to the U.S. as refugees.

(Read: Teaching when students are full of fear: Inside Indiana’s first school for new immigrants)

When the family arrived in Indianapolis, Uwimbabazi’s youngest son Dave enrolled at Northwest High School. But he wasn’t happy, and a volunteer helping to resettle the family suggested he transfer to Crispus Attucks High School. When the school year started, though, Crispus Attucks turned him away. Staff there said he had been assigned to the newcomer program, a school for students who are new to the country and still learning English.

There was just one problem: Dave was fluent in English after growing up in South Africa. Uwimbabazi said it’s the only language he knows. So Uwimbabazi and her son Dave headed to the newcomer school to convince them he should attend Crispus Attucks.

That’s when Jessica Feeser, who oversees the newcomer school and programing for IPS students learning English, stepped in — and found a new resource for the district’s growing population of newcomer students.

Feeser immediately realized that Dave was fluent in English and should enroll in Crispus Attucks. Then, Uwimbabazi started talking with Feeser about her own experience. With a gift for languages, Uwimbabazi speaks six fluently, including Swahili and Kinyarwanda, languages spoken by many African students at the school.

“Where are you working right now?” Feeser asked. “Would you like a job here?”

Uwimbabazi, who had been packing mail, took a job as a bilingual assistant at the school. Her interaction with the district went from “negativity to positivity,” she said.

The newcomer program has seen dramatic growth in enrollment since it opened last fall, and it serves about three dozen refugee students. Students at the school speak at least 14 different languages. As the only staff member at the school who speaks Swahili and Kinyarwanda, Uwimbabazi is a lifeline for many of the African refugees it serves, Feeser said.

She works alongside teachers, going over material in languages that students speak fluently and helping them grasp everything from simple instructions to complex concepts like graphing linear equations, Feeser said. She also helps bridge the divide between the district and the Congolese community on Indianapolis’ westside, going on home visits to meet parents and helping convince families to enroll their children in school.

When students in the newcomer program don’t share a language with staff members, the school is still able to educate them, Feeser said. But it is hard to build community without that bridge. Uwimbabazi has played an essential role in helping the school build relationships with families.

“She believes that all of our families are important, and she’s working diligently to make sure that they feel that their voices are heard,” Feeser said. “It was a gift from God that she joined us.”

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.”