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In final hours of teacher eval talks, what they might be thinking

During the last year, Mayor Bloomberg repeatedly accused the United Federation of Teachers of trying to prevent a new teacher evaluation system from being adopted. At the same time, the union repeatedly questioned whether Bloomberg himself was committed to making a deal on evaluations.

Who was right? As the union and city prepare to emerge from the negotiating room for the last time, we don’t yet know. But what is clear is that each side has strong reasons to make a deal — and strong reasons to let negotiations fail. And our analysis of the incentives at play at the bargaining table suggests that Department of Education officials and the mayor might not always see eye to eye on evaluations.

Here’s why it would make sense for the UFT to leave a deal on the table:

  • Fears about some elements of the evaluation system, particularly its use of volatile “value-added” measures, and perceived abuses by the Department of Education have conspired to turn many teachers off of new evaluations. Some of them are so distressed that they are questioning whether the union’s leadership is making choices that are good for teachers. Union leaders rejected a call by a minority party for a resolution that would require all members to ratify any deal that the UFT struck, but especially with his own election set for just a few months from now, UFT President Michael Mulgrew knows he has to recognize the criticism. His refusal to negotiate until the city hashed out an implementation plan and the union’s call for a mediator this week could appease angry union members, but declining to make a deal at all might satisfy them more.
  • Bloomberg has made no bones about wanting to sign off on an evaluation system that allows weak teachers to be fired. Negotiators working for a mayor with a softer attitude about teachers might push for a different evaluation system. The city is likely to get such a mayor in just a year — and the union’s position would be even stronger if the candidate it endorses occupies City Hall when a new evaluation system is adopted.
  • Another reason to wait until 2014 is that it makes sense for the union to negotiate a deal in conjunction with a new contract, the first time that new evaluations legally must be adopted. A broader set of negotiations could allow the union to extract concessions from the city in exchange for linking test scores to teacher ratings and putting more pressure on teachers to improve. The city said the union has already asked for a limit on school closures and for “economic credits” toward a new contract, but it has argued that those requests are illegal outside of contract negotiations.
  • No one really knows what will happen under a new evaluation system. More teachers could get low ratings, leading to poor public opinion of teachers and forcing the union into defending teachers who score low under a system the union itself agreed to.

On the other hand, the union has many, many reasons to make a deal:

  • The current evaluation system is also completely arbitrary: Principals can issue unsatisfactory ratings for a wide array of reasons and show only minimal evidence. A new system would be more clear, understandable, and transparent — making retaliatory ratings less likely and inappropriately low ratings easier to contest.
  • And uncertainty about the impact of a new evaluation system could cut the other way, too: An untested system — particularly one that the union helped create — could result in good reviews for more teachers.
  • The union knows that most teachers want to be good at their jobs. The current evaluation system does not include any mechanism for helping teachers get better, and principals aren’t held accountable for providing support. Those features have to be built into the new system.
  • Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that the union also understands that teachers would be better off, on balance, if some weak teachers are ushered out of the classroom. The union would have more cover for making unpopular concessions if it strikes a deal under Bloomberg than under a future mayor who might be more union-friendly.
  • It’s also possible, though not probable, that the next mayor could be even less willing to play nice with the union. Now that Joe Lhota is on the scene, the prospect of a Democratic mayor in 2014 is less certain than it was a month ago. Even though insiders and polls both see him as a long shot, Lhota could push rhetoric in the race for City Hall rightward and harden other candidates’ lines toward the union.
  • Gov. Andrew Cuomo really, really wants every school district to adopt new teacher evaluations by the deadline he set — and almost all have. Blocking an evaluation deal in New York City would anger Cuomo just in time for the start of the legislative and budget season, when the union has its own agenda it would like to see supported.
  • If the governor makes good on his threat to withhold school aid from districts without evaluation systems, the city could face an education budget gap larger than in almost any other year since the economic recession started. Last-minute budget deals have averted teacher layoffs in the past, but there’s no assurance that the same thing would happen this time, particularly if there’s a perception that the shortfall is the teachers’ fault.
  • And attacks on the union until now would pale in comparison to those sure to be unleashed if teacher evaluation negotiations fail again.
  • Finally, union officials are shrewd, and they know that officials at the Department of Education have an incentive to reach a deal now, while Bloomberg is still in office. More on this in the next section.

The Department of Education? Isn’t that the same as City Hall?

Yes and no. While Bloomberg controls the Department of Education right now, it will continue to exist after he leaves office. That gives officials there a slightly different set of incentives around teacher evaluation talks.

  • When a new mayor takes over the department a year from now, his or her first act is likely to be installing new leadership to push department policy in a new direction. The most obvious reason for department officials to want an agreement is that this might well be their last chance to influence teacher evaluations in the city.
  • But reaching a deal could also prove a lifeline for remaining in the position. As the end of Bloomberg’s term nears, officials in the department are expected to depart for other districts or the private sector. But all signs suggest that some near the top are angling to stay on, throwing themselves into less confrontational policies that are unlikely to yield benefits during the rest of Bloomberg’s term and could even cause a short-term dip in test scores and graduation rates. If the officials show that they can play well with the UFT, a new mayor might be willing to keep them around and let them see the policy changes through.
  • And officials who want to stay on have an added incentive to get a deal done. If a system isn’t adopted now, it will be under a new administration when the city and union negotiate a new contract. A system crafted under those circumstances, again, is likely to be softer than one agreed upon now, so if the officials really want the teacher evaluations they’ve been touting, this is their chance to get them.

Department officials have little incentive to let talks fall through:

  • If there’s any reason for them to walk away without an agreement, it’s that the training, supervision, and development that various components of an evaluation system would take are daunting. The city has not sent principals to state trainings on assessing teachers in non-tested grades and subjects the way other districts have, for example. But the department has invested time, energy, and money in preparing for other elements of new evaluations, and it’s hard to imagine officials being happy to shut or slow that all down.

Bloomberg might not be as bothered by a failure at the bargaining table:

  • The mayor has never kept his disdain for the state’s teacher evaluation law a secret. He sought a more aggressive strategy last year because he said the new law would not lead to more teachers getting fired, and he redoubled that strategy even after he agreed to an appeals process for new evaluations, seemingly resolving a major point of contention between the city and union. He has said repeatedly — even today, just before the state’s deadline —that he will not sign off on an evaluation plan that is not “really evaluate,” or show that some teachers are low-performing.
  • No matter how stringent the agreed-upon evaluation system is, no teacher will be fired because of it under Bloomberg’s watch. Knowing that could make him less interested in being part of putting a new teacher evaluation system on the books.
  • There’s also one big upside to letting a deal fall through: The mayor would get to renew his campaign against the UFT, which he has sometimes seemed to take pleasure in characterizing as a special interest group that does not put children first.
  • And in the last month, for tragic reasons, it has become likely that gun control will be Bloomberg’s enduring legacy. That makes an education win less crucial in his last year as mayor.

But the reasons for Bloomberg to make a deal are powerful, too:

  • After campaigning to be an education mayor, Bloomberg’s education legacy is still not settled, and the specter of lower test scores this spring poses a new threat. Nailing down a new teacher evaluation system would be a coup and allow Bloomberg to leave office with the city firmly at the vanguard of education reform.
  • It could also help him after he leaves office in other ways. Making a deal could put Bloomberg in favor with Cuomo, a potentially significant thing since they both have ambitions beyond their current office.
  • And finally, $250 million is a heck of a lot of money. Bloomberg might be on his way out, but he still has to balance one more budget. Filling an enormous gap would be logistically difficult and politically unpleasant, because some services would almost certainly be cut in the process.

So what’s the bottom line? The union has a lot of reasons to make a deal, but the costs could be high. And Bloomberg has more reasons to let the deadline pass, but the incentives he does have are mighty. We’ll know in the next 24 hours which ideas will win out.

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.