First Person

Improving Teachers And Principals Go Hand In Hand

By now, everyone knows that if the Department of Education and the UFT don’t agree on a new teacher evaluation system by this Thursday, the city will lose $250 million in state funds, resulting in budget cuts that will harm children’s futures. With a looming deadline like that, a settlement will probably be cobbled together at the very last minute.

The danger, in my view, is that the outcome will be suboptimal, splitting the difference and producing an evaluation plan that satisfies nobody and fails to improve teaching and learning. Far better for city and union leaders to step back, look at the bigger issues, and use this crisis to forge a better outcome.

Why hasn’t this dispute been settled earlier? From my work in the city’s schools over the last decade (coaching principals and giving workshops to teachers), I can see legitimate concerns on both sides.

The Department of Education wants to replace the antiquated Satisfactory/Unsatisfactory teacher rating system with a 4-3-2-1 rating scale (Highly Effective, Effective, Developing, and Ineffective), with Level 2 describing the kind of mediocre teaching that’s been so difficult for principals to pinpoint and remedy over the years. Tweed also wants principals to use short, frequent, unannounced classroom visits (in addition to traditional full-lesson visits) to get a more accurate picture of what teachers are doing on a daily basis. The idea is to change mediocre and ineffective practices and dismiss persistently ineffective teachers. The department also believes administrators should use before-and-after test scores to evaluate some teachers (this is part of the state’s Race to the Top application).

UFT leaders are concerned about unannounced classroom visits: Might less-than-competent administrators (and they are definitely out there) use them as a “gotcha” or not know what to look for in classrooms? There are also worries about replacing the current Satisfactory/Unsatisfactory ratings with the proposed four-point scale using a detailed scoring guide: Is the rubric too cumbersome to be helpful for classroom visits, and are administrators trained to use it? And there’s concern about using test scores to evaluate teachers: Researchers around the nation have warned about major psychometric and implementation problems with this logical-sounding idea, and the track record when New York City published the test-based evaluations of 18,000 teachers in 2012 was not impressive.

Is there common ground? I believe both sides should be able to agree on the following propositions. First, all New York City children deserve effective or highly effective teaching in every classroom they walk into, moving them toward college and career success. Second, there is no place for mediocre and ineffective teaching in the city’s schools, and a four-point rating scale, implemented fairly, can help identify and change problematic practices. Third, teaching is one of the most difficult jobs out there and struggling teachers (once identified) deserve expert support and coaching. Fourth, ineffective teachers who don’t improve in a reasonable amount of time should be shown the door. Finally, the key to a good teacher evaluation process is competent principals who are held accountable for the quality of teaching in their buildings.

This last point might be the key to revamping the evaluation system. The New York City schools’ current administrative structure  — with networks, clusters, and community superintendents — results in principals not having an immediate boss with a manageable number of schools and the authority to hold them accountable for the skillful support and evaluation of teachers. The city has depended too much on data and infrequent school inspections and doesn’t have enough authoritative boots on the ground. This must change before teachers will feel safe with the innovative evaluation practices being proposed.

In New Jersey, Newark’s schools were recently reorganized along more effective lines — area superintendents are responsible for about 12 schools and have the authority to get into their buildings on a weekly basis and make sure good things are happening for children. If New York City reorganized along these lines, appointing about 150 area superintendents each responsible for 12 schools, things would change overnight. Are there 150 tough, talented, and fair-minded administrators out there who could handle these new jobs? You bet there are! The state is requiring new principal-evaluation procedures as well, and these new local honchos would be in the forefront of making it work.

With a structure like this in place, teachers should be willing to embrace short, frequent, unannounced classroom visits, which are amazingly accurate and informative. Many teachers around the country have stopped using the laughably ineffective annual dog-and-pony show process because they realize that frequent, short visits (always followed by face-to-face conversations) are less stressful and maximize supportive coaching, early intervention where there are problems, and continuous improvement. A four-point rating scale linked to a good rubric has distinct advantages for teachers: It provides a shared understanding of good (and not-so-good) teaching and gives teachers a clear sense of where they stand. Nobody wants a mediocre or ineffective teacher in the classroom next door, and an accelerated process of support and professional development for underperforming teachers, followed by dismissal for those who don’t improve, is a moral and educational imperative.

The issue of using test scores to evaluate teachers is trickier, and the UFT is right to be concerned. But while researchers and politicians battle this one out, the New York State Education Department has developed a much better process for including student achievement in teacher evaluation. In districts around the state (but not yet in New York City), teacher teams are deciding on Student Learning Objectives, testing students at the beginning of the year, and documenting learning gains for their principals. This is the best way to make student achievement part of the teacher-evaluation process, and the Big Apple should work to make it an integral part of continuously improving teaching and learning.

So why don’t the city Department of Education and the UFT agree on the broad outlines of a truly effective teacher-evaluation system, hold onto the $250 million, and implement the plan fully when the new system of teacher and principal support and accountability are in place? New York City’s students deserve no less.

Kim Marshall, a former Boston teacher, curriculum director, and principal, now works as an independent consultant with a particular focus on teacher supervision and evaluation. He is the author of Rethinking Teacher Supervision and Evaluation (Jossey-Bass 2009, second edition in press).

First Person

Two fewer testing days in New York? Thank goodness. Here’s what else our students need

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

Every April, I feel the tension in my fifth-grade classroom rise. Students are concerned that all of their hard work throughout the year will boil down to six intense days of testing — three for math and three for English language arts.

Students know they need to be prepared to sit in a room for anywhere from 90 minutes to three hours with no opportunity to leave, barring an emergency. Many of them are sick to their stomachs, feeling more stress than a 10-year-old ever should, and yet they are expected to perform their best.

Meanwhile, teachers are frustrated that so many hours of valuable instruction have been replaced by testing, and that the results won’t be available until students are moving on to other classrooms.

This is what testing looks like in New York state. Or, at least it did. Last month, state officials voted to reduce testing from three days for each subject to two, to the elation of students, parents, and teachers across New York. It’s an example of our voices being heard — but there is still more to be done to make the testing process truly useful, and less stressful, for all of us.

As a fifth-grade teacher in the Bronx, I was thrilled by the news that testing time would be reduced. Though it doesn’t seem like much on paper, having two fewer days of gut-wrenching stress for students as young as eight means so much for their well-being and education. It gives students two more days of classroom instruction, interactive lessons, and engagement in thought-provoking discussions. Any reduction in testing also means more time with my students, since administrators can pull teachers out of their classrooms for up to a week to score each test.

Still, I know these tests provide us with critical data about how students are doing across our state and where we need to concentrate our resources. The changes address my worries about over-testing, while still ensuring that we have an objective measure of what students have learned across the state.

For those who fear that cutting one-third of the required state testing hours will not provide teachers with enough data to help our students, understand that we assess them before, during, and after each unit of study, along with mid-year tests and quizzes. It is unlikely that one extra day of testing will offer any significant additional insights into our students’ skills.

Also, the fact that we receive students’ state test results months later, at the end of June, means that we are more likely to have a snapshot of where are students were, rather than where they currently are — when it’s too late for us to use the information to help them.

That’s where New York can still do better. Teachers need timely data to tailor their teaching to meet student needs. As New York develops its next generation of tests and academic standards, we must ensure that they are developmentally appropriate. And officials need to continue to emphasize that state tests alone cannot fully assess a student’s knowledge and skills.

For this, parents and teachers must continue to demand that their voices are heard. Until then, thank you, New York Regents, for hearing us and reducing the number of testing days.

In my classroom, I’ll have two extra days to help my special needs students work towards the goals laid out in their individualized education plans. I’ll take it.

Rich Johnson teaches fifth grade at P.S. 105 in the Bronx.

First Person

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder

High schools have become obsessed with “million-dollar scholars,” and it’s hurting students.

Across Memphis, students often are pushed by counselors to apply to as many colleges as possible — as many as 100 — all to push students to reach that million-dollar scholarship mark. The more dollars and college acceptance, the better!

I graduated in 2016, and my experience offers a case study.

I’m a pretty well-rounded individual: In high school, I was a finalist in the Let’s Innovate Through Education program and was able to launch SousChef-Memphis, a culinary nonprofit organization. I was a dual-enrollment student and took honors courses. I was committed to community service. I was vice president of my high school organization, Modern Distinctive Ladies. I was on the bowling team, managed the basketball team, and participated in debate forensics and drama.

I was also told by counselors to apply to 100 colleges. I was never told why that number was chosen, but my peers were told the same. We were often pulled out of class to complete these applications, which took away from instructional time — about an hour per day. My high school also ran on an infraction system, and not turning in college applications and other documents led to disciplinary actions.

The quality of those applications only shed a dim light on the student and person that I am. A hundred applications was never my goal. A hundred applications doesn’t measure the capability, intelligence or worth of me as a student. A hundred applications is just ridiculous!

Schools with similar approaches, though, get glowing media coverage. Meanwhile, a lot of that scholarship money is irrelevant, since a single student obviously can only attend one school.

I think that if I had been counseled properly, I would have had a better grasp on my high school-to-college transition. I ultimately chose to leave Memphis to attend another state university on a full scholarship. Looking back, that school was not the best fit for me. I returned to Memphis to attend our local public university.

A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.

I was more than capable of getting back on track, and I did. But not every student can afford to go through what I went through.

High schools need to realize that, while students amassing millions of dollars in scholarships and hundreds of college acceptance letters seems like an accomplishment, the outcome for many students is the total opposite.

Too many students end up not going to a school that is the best fit for them, taking on piles of debt, and dropping out with no workforce experience.

The goal should be that each high school student will graduate having a grasp on their career path (and experience in that field), scholarships to the school of their choice (full rides or little to no debt), and be confident in where they will be spending the next four to six years of their life. Being thorough in the college search and submitting quality applications is what leads to a college that is the best fit for the student, obtaining scholarships, and ultimately graduating.

Here’s what I wish a counselor had told me:

"It is time to start thinking about quality over quantity. Quality counseling. Quality applications. And quality choices about what to do next."Anisah Karim

Try things you like, but don’t overload yourself. Look for summer internships that pay, rather than minimum-wage jobs. Build a network of people who can help you make good decisions about college and work. Research schools with a major you’re interested in, and find out what scholarships they offer. Keep an eye on your GPA and make sure you’re taking the classes you need to graduate. Apply for colleges when applications open and submit the FAFSA form in October.

And most importantly, through all four years of high school, don’t be afraid to ask for help.

It is time to start thinking about quality over quantity. Quality counseling. Quality applications. And quality choices about what to do next.

Anisah Karim is a psychology student at the University of Memphis. She plans to continue her education in speech pathology and otology and eventually start her own private practice. She also plans to launch two new business ventures in the fall and relaunch SousChef in the fall of 2018.