Timely advice from Gates Foundation as evaluation talks resume

The Gates Foundation's latest report from its teacher-effectiveness study concludes that many evaluation models can be useful as long as they include multiple measures.

Now that the city and teachers union are back at the negotiating table to work on teacher evaluations, the Gates Foundation has some tips.

The foundation today released the third and final report about the Measures of Effective Teaching project, an ambitious three-year study that included 3,000 teachers in seven districts, including New York City. The study concludes that teacher effectiveness can indeed be measured and identifies strategies for grading teachers.

Having multiple people observe the same teacher is more effective than having one person observe the teacher multiple times, the study found. Student surveys are stronger predictors of teachers’ ability to raise test scores than observations. And counting state test scores for a third to half of a teacher’s rating is better than weighting the scores less or more.

With the report, the foundation takes a bold stance on a policy issue that remains hotly contested, even as states and school districts across the country have adopted new evaluation systems. But foundation officials are confident because the latest report reflects a change in the study’s design that they say proves that teacher evaluation systems really do measure teachers.

Last year, the foundation released a report concluding that evaluation systems that combine classroom observations and other measures, including student surveys, reliably predicted students’ test scores gains for the teachers in the study.

But the researchers couldn’t conclude that they were measuring the teacher’s effect with their evaluation tools. Those tools could have been picking up other characteristics of students, such as the stability of their home life, instead. The possible interference of unmeasurable influences has been one of the many critiques of “value-added” models, which aim to rate teachers based on a comparison of students’ predicted scores to their actual ones.

So the researchers asked the districts to let them assign the students in the first year of the study randomly to teachers in their school the following year. They concluded that four different evaluation models all showed, to varying degrees, that a teacher’s value-added score with one set of students is likely to be similar with a different set of students, at least within the same school. The study could not test whether teachers were just as likely to be effective in different settings, or with very different student populations.

The researchers also concluded that teachers who elevated their students’ scores on notoriously easy state tests also improved the students’ scores on tougher tests. The tougher tests were aligned to the Common Core standards, on which New York’s state tests will be based starting this spring.

City and union officials are working to hammer out an evaluation deal before next week, a state deadline for districts to adopt a new system or lose funding.

So far, New York has gotten some things right, according to the MET study. The state requires districts to use multiple measures — at least test scores and observations — to rate teachers. Using a rubric to assess observations is also mandatory, as are multiple observations.

But not everything the city and state are doing is what the Gates Foundation would want. State law requires only that 20 to 25 percent of each teacher’s rating to be based on state test scores, less than the study recommends. (Districts can opt to weight test scores more heavily, but few have done so.) The UFT has vowed not to allow student surveys to influence city teachers’ ratings. And the city Department of Education has pushed to make it optional for administrators to speak with teachers about the classes they observed, union officials have said.

Tequilla Banks, the leading educator in Memphis, Tenn., said there’s no point in observing teachers if the teachers and the people who observed them don’t speak about the experience together afterwards.

“That’s the most critical piece, honestly,” Banks said on a conference call today organized by the Gates Foundation. She added, “The observation itself is okay. The feedback and the post-conference, that’s the piece that [teachers] want.”

Still, Chancellor Dennis Walcott said in a statement that the study bore out the city’s approach to new evaluations.

“This report outlines exactly what the city has sought for our teachers and students: a fair evaluation system that looks at many factors, like classroom observations and student achievement. The study shows that evaluation systems can help teachers grow and learn — which in turn helps our students succeed,” he said.

Coming as the city and union scheduled talks for the first time in weeks, Walcott’s statement omitted a second goal the city has often cited for evaluations, beyond helping teachers improve: enabling the city to remove weak teachers.

That was appropriate, because Gates Foundation officials said the MET study has led them to conclude that meaningful teacher evaluations can improve classroom instruction over the long term — something the city’s own research has also borne out.

“Teaching is really complex and great practice takes time [and] tailored feedback,” said Vicki Phillips, the foundation’s education director, on the conference call. “Districts are better served by trying to improve practice rather than trying to make too-fine distinctions among teachers.”

A forthcoming teacher effectiveness project for the foundation will identify strategies for producing value-added scores for the vast majority of teachers whose students do not take state tests, according to Steve Cantrell, the foundation’s chief research officer.

Those findings will not come in time for the city and union to make use of them: They have to agree on how to rate teachers in non-tested grades and subjects before the state will accept the city’s evaluation system.

The Gates Foundation’s complete report is below:


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.”

the end

A 60-year-old group that places volunteers in New York City schools is shutting down

PHOTO: August Young

Citing a lack of support from the city education department, a 60-year-old nonprofit that places volunteers in New York City schools is closing its doors next month.

Learning Leaders will cease operations on March 15, its executive director, Jane Heaphy, announced in a letter to volunteers and parents last week.

In the message, she said the group had slashed its budget by more than a third, started charging “partnership fees” to participating schools, and explored merging with another nonprofit. But the city pitched in with less and less every year, with no guarantee of consistency, she said.

“This funding volatility has created insurmountable challenges to the long-term viability of our organization,” Heaphy wrote. “We regret the vacuum that will be created by our closure.”

The group — which began as part of the city school system but became its own nonprofit in the 1970s — says its volunteers work with more than 100,000 students in more than 300 schools every year, many of them faithfully. When then-84-year-old Carolyn Breidenbach became the group’s 2013 volunteer of the year, she had been helping at P.S. 198 on the Upper East Side daily for 12 years.

Heaphy’s full message to volunteers is below:

Dear [volunteer],

It is with a heavy heart that I write to inform you Learning Leaders will cease operations on March 15 of this year. This organization has worked diligently over the last few years to sustain our work of engaging families as Learning Leaders, but the funding landscape has become too challenging to keep our programs going. While we have been able to increase our revenues from a generous community of funders, we have ultimately come to the conclusion that without a consistent and significant base of funding from the NYC Department of Education, we cannot leverage foundation grants, individual donors, or school fees sufficiently to cover program costs.

In the face of growing financial challenges, Learning Leaders reduced its costs as thoughtfully as possible — and in ways that did not affect our program quality. Rather, we sought to deepen and continually improve our service to schools and families while eliminating all but the most necessary costs. These efforts reduced our budget by more than 35 percent.

At the same time, we sought greater public support for our work with schools and families across the city. We are grateful to the foundations and individual donors that have believed in our work and provided financial support to keep it going. We were gratified when schools stepped up to support our efforts through partnership fees. While these fees only covered a portion of our costs, the willingness of principals to find these funds within their extremely tight school budgets was a testament to the value of our work.

Throughout an extended period of financial restructuring Learning Leaders advocated strongly with the Mayor’s Office and the DOE [Department of Education] for a return to historical levels of NYC DOE support for parent volunteer training and capacity building workshops. While we received some NYC DOE funding this year, it was less than what we needed and was not part of an ongoing budget initiative that would allow us to count on regular funding in the coming years. Several efforts to negotiate a merger with another nonprofit stalled due to the lack of firm financial commitment from the DOE. Over time, this funding volatility has created insurmountable challenges to the long-term viability of our organization.

We regret the vacuum that will be created by our closure. If you have questions or concerns about opportunities and support for family engagement and parent volunteer training, you can contact the NYC DOE’s Division of Family and Community Engagement at (212) 374-4118 or [email protected].

On behalf of the board of directors and all of us at Learning Leaders, I offer heartfelt thanks for your partnership. We are deeply grateful for your work to support public school students’ success. It is only with your dedication and commitment that we accomplished all that we did over the last 60 years. We take some solace in knowing that we’ve helped improve the chances of success for more than 100,000 students every year. The Learning Leaders board and staff have been honored to serve you and your school communities.

Jane Heaphy
Executive Director