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

I mentor students demoralized about not having a vote. Here’s their plan for getting civically involved before turning 18

Students in the Minds Matter program.

Every Monday night during the school year, I spend time with two wonderful young women. They’re high-achieving high school sophomores from low-income families whose success would be certain if they grew up in a more affluent ZIP code.

Along with a team of other mentors, I help the students improve their writing and communication skills to help them prepare for a successful college career. That’s what I’m prepared to do.

I was less prepared for what they brought to our meeting last week, the first time we met under the tenure of a new president. They talked about feeling the consequences of the national political shift, though at 15, they knew it would be years before they could cast a ballot of their own. “We feel left out of a system that affects us too,” they said.

So our task that night became to expand our ideas about what participation in the American political system really means.

Here are five ideas we came up with, designed to help high schoolers do just that.

1. Meet elected officials. Meeting state senators and representatives during their campaigns is often the easiest way to make contact. Attend a coffee event, a party meeting, or a fundraiser where students can introduce themselves and talk about their concerns. Encourage them to be more than just another face in the crowd.

There are plenty of young, local elected officials to learn from. Dominick Moreno, a prominent Senate Democrat on the state of Colorado’s powerful Joint Budget Committee, got his start running for class president as a high school sophomore. Still only 32, he has already served in the House of Representatives and as mayor pro tem of a Denver suburb.

2. Volunteer on a campaign. This is the best opportunity for students to get an inside look at the political process and can help them establish lasting relationships with real people working in politics.

Some legislators face tough races and are out knocking on doors for months. Others spend their time differently, and in either case, candidates need help reaching out to voters, managing social media accounts, answering emails or organizing events. Plus, this work looks great on student résumés.

I tell students about my own experience. It started small: When I was 10, I passed out stickers for local elected officials at holiday parades. When I was 16, I got the chance to intern at the South Dakota state capitol. At 21, I got my first job in Washington, and at 23 I started lobbying in Colorado, affecting policy that now touches all citizens of the state.

3. Think locally. There are so many small things that students can do that will help their community become a better place on their own timeline. Help students organize a neighborhood clean-up day or tutor at an elementary school. These might feel inadequate to students when they look at the big picture, but it’s important to remind them that these actions help weave a fabric of compassion — and helps them become local leaders in the community.

4. Pre-register to vote. Voting matters, too. It sounds simple, but pre-registering addresses a root cause of low voter turnout — missing deadlines. In Colorado, one must be a U.S. citizen, be at least 16 years old, and reside in the state 22 days prior to the date of the election.

5. Affiliate with a party.
This assures full involvement in the process. Before turning 18, students can still attend party meetings or even start a “Young Democrats/Republicans” group at school. If they don’t feel like they fit with either the Republican or the Democratic parties, that’s OK — unaffiliated voters can now take part in the primary elections and help name either Republican or Democratic leaders.

Talking through these ideas helped the students I work with realize voting isn’t the only way to make a difference. One of my students has started a group that helps other young women know about birth control options, after seeing girls in her high school struggle and drop out after getting pregnant. Other students in the group have asked to learn more about the legislative process and want to testify on legislation.

They’re proving that democracy doesn’t begin and end with casting a ballot — but it does depend on taking interest and taking action.

Zoey DeWolf is a lobbyist with Colorado Legislative Services, based in Denver. She also works with Minds Matter of Denver, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to help prepare accomplished high school students from low-income families for successful college careers.

First Person

It’s time to retire the myth that any counselor can do the job alone — even at a tiny school

A few of the author's students who graduated last year.

I waited five years to get my dream job as a counselor in a New York City public school. After all of that waiting, I was full of ideas about how I would be able to use my experience to help students navigate what can be an overwhelming few years.

I wanted to make our school counseling more individualized and full of innovative support mechanisms. I wanted our guidance department to be a place that anyone could leave with a grand plan.

A few months into that first year, in fall 2015, it was clear that my vision would be, to put it bluntly, impossible to achieve.

When I received my position at a Harlem high school in District 5, I was assigned to not only take on the responsibilities of a school counselor, but also to act as the college advisor, assign (and then frequently re-shuffle) class schedules for every student, and several other tasks. My school had just under 200 students — enrollment low enough that it was assumed this could all be managed.

This proved to be a very inaccurate assumption. I was working with a group of students with low attendance rates, and many were English language learners or students with disabilities. Many students were overage and under-credited, others were in foster care or homeless, some had returned from incarceration, and a couple were teen parents or pregnant.

The American School Counselor Association recommends a maximum school counselor-to-student ratio of one to 250. I know from experience that extremely high student need makes that ratio meaningless. Almost all of these students needed help in order to be ready to learn. Their needs tripled the feel of our enrollment.

This frequent mismatch between need and numbers puts school counselors like me in the position to do a great disservice to so many students. As the only counselor available, a seemingly small mishap with a task as crucial as graduation certification or credit monitoring could have spelled disaster for a student. I know some seniors missed certain financial aid opportunities and application deadlines, and some ninth, 10th, and 11th graders could have used more academic intervention to help them transition to the next grade level successfully.

My success at keeping our promotion and college admissions rates on the upswing was largely due to my outreach and partnership with community-based organizations that helped support several of our students. Had it not been for their assistance, I wouldn’t have achieved anything near what I did.

I’m still a counselor at my small school, and some aspects of the job have gotten easier with time. I love my job, which I think of as the most rewarding yet intense position in the building. But I still believe that there is almost no case in which only one counselor should be available for students.

Principals and school leaders directly involved with the budget must make sure to effectively analyze the needs of their student population, and advocate for an appropriately sized counseling staff. Small schools face real funding constraints. But ones serving students like mine need more than they’ve gotten.

Students’ social and emotional development and their academic success go hand in hand. Let’s not make the mistake of conflating enrollment numbers with need.

Danisha Baughan is a high school counselor and college advisor. She received her masters in school counseling in May 2010 and has held elementary, middle, and high school counseling positions since then.