First Person

Toward An Equity Framework For Teacher Evaluations

As tomorrow’s deadline looms for the New York City Department of Education and the United Federation of Teachers to reach an agreement on a new teacher evaluation system, much of the debate has focused on what the specific terms mean for teachers and for the millions of dollars the city schools stand to lose if a deal is not crafted in time.

These storylines are all dramatic. But both sides are missing a major issue: whether and how a new teacher evaluation system would advance educational equity and opportunity for the city’s over one million students.

Even after over a decade of mayoral control, the education landscape in New York City remains uneven and opportunities inequitable. A number of studies and reports, some initiated by the DOE itself, have illustrated the large and persistent gaps in attainment and opportunity faced by African-American and Latino students compared to their white peers. Disparities in the use of school discipline policies that push children out of school, along with inequitable access to rigorous curriculum and special schools and programs, help to drive these gaps. But a growing body of research indicates that the students who perform most poorly and who suffer the harshest forms of school discipline tend to have less access to great teachers, as measured across multiple criteria. So regardless of whether the DOE and UFT reach an agreement by the deadline, the new evaluation system will not mean anything unless it addresses the inequitable distribution of human capital — in other words, unequal access to high-quality, fully prepared, and effective teachers.

Fortunately, it’s not too late to address this issue. The following are three key principles for an equity-focused teacher evaluation system:

1. Evaluation data should inform the placement/distribution of teachers.

Too often students are relegated to schools that are set up to fail because they are under-resourced, both in terms of fiscal and human capital. Some schools and classrooms have too many novice or ineffective teachers; others have more experienced high-quality educators. That’s no way to run a school system; and it is unfair to students, teachers and well-intentioned school leaders alike.

The UFT has indicated that discussions regarding the teacher evaluation system should be linked to the union contract negotiations; and the DOE has implied that it is gravely concerned about equity and the quality of teaching. But both sides now have an opportunity to make these aspirations real. With the data produced by a robust teacher evaluation system, schools and districts can identify trends regarding which groups of students are served best by which teachers. The data produced by an evaluation system should be used to inform teacher assignment and transfer policies, with the explicit goal of ensuring that the students with the highest needs are taught by the best teachers.

Using evaluation results in this way first requires a sound evaluation system, something that has eluded the city to date. And any proposal to use evaluation results in this way would certainly mark a dramatic departure from current practice that could be potentially disruptive for both the city and the union if not responsibly executed. But it would be a mistake for them to squander the opportunity to use new information in new ways to boost equity.

2. Comprehensive evaluations should look to broad measures of teacher competency and effectiveness, without unduly relying on standardized test scores as a shortcut.

Although the New York State law sets some parameters for teacher evaluation systems, negotiation of additional terms by the DOE and UFT could lead to additional weight being placed on standardized test scores. This would be a mistake. Abundant research and a decade of experience under the No Child Left Behind Act have shown that placing too much emphasis on standardized test scores can produce negative results, encouraging schools to narrow curriculum by “teaching to the test” and creating perverse incentives to push out students whose test performance may threaten schools’ or teachers’ evaluation results. And some systems, like the DOE’s previous and now-abandoned test-driven system, produce flawed data that actually masks the inequities that are painfully apparent to anyone who visits classrooms in the city’s schools. Under that experiment, the DOE actually presumed lower rates of achievement for black, Latino, and poor students; therefore, even mediocre results and even minimal gains in test scores seemed like real growth.

An equity-based evaluation system could change this by providing more and better information about teachers than simply their students’ test scores. Such a comprehensive set of measures would include multiple, varied demonstrations of student learning and teacher practice, along with classroom observations of teacher performance by instructional leaders, and peer reviews. Student and family surveys have also been shown to be highly correlated with teacher practice; these instruments should be incorporated into teacher evaluations as well. Including these broad measures, with the proper weight given to each, would more comprehensively assess teachers and would also place the onus on school district leadership to ensure that every school and every classroom had truly well-rounded educators, not simply teach-to-the-test drones.

3. Evaluations should be used as learning tools, not just ways to fire teachers.

If equity is the true goal, evaluations should be used proactively to help teachers improve the quality of instruction, not simply to fire them. Failing to invest in improvement means kicking the can down the road, and another lost generation of students, while school officials offer the illusion of progress.

We simply do not have enough high-quality teachers to waste potential; and we do not have time to start from scratch each year with the constant churn of teachers that destabilizes schools. Rather, we should invest in the development of educators, especially those who work in high-needs schools, serve populations of students living in concentrated poverty, or serve populations with more extensive learning needs, so that those who do have potential have the supports they need to become excellent. And each teacher should receive professional development that targets areas identified as in need of improvement.

The outcome of this debate will have far-reaching implications. So it is important that any evaluation system the two sides agree upon is fair not only to lawmakers and teachers, but also to students. More than securing funding for New York City’s schools, an equity-focused evaluation framework can move the city toward equity in the educational opportunities offered to students. This is, indeed a golden opportunity. Let’s hope both sides take advantage of it.

Damon Hewitt is the director of the Education Practice Group at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

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.