untested

Instead of telling teachers apart, new evals lump some together

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Teachers attended training sessions about the city’s new teacher evaluation system over the summer, but some features of the system – including how teachers whose students don’t take state tests would have their student growth measured — were not decided until the school year began last week.

A Bronx performing arts school’s dance instructor will be judged on students’ English exam scores. Physical education teachers at a transfer school in Brooklyn are going to teach Olympic history lessons to prepare students for the history tests that will help determine their ratings. And teachers in Queens are putting the fate of their evaluations into a final exam that they don’t teach, but yields high pass rates.

The scenarios are not unusual — across the city this year, thousands of teachers will be rated in large part based on test scores of subjects and students that they do not teach.

Rather, the scenarios are examples of how schools have tried to comply with a new teacher evaluation system that must factor student performance into final ratings. They also represent how the original purpose of the evaluations, to differentiate teachers’ effectiveness, has been squeezed by restrictive state laws, limited resources, and a tight timeline for implementation.

“It’s insane to me that 40 percent of my evaluation is going to be based on someone else’s work,” said Jason Zanitsch, a high school drama teacher who will share the same “student growth” score with colleagues in his school this year.

An incomplete evaluation system, implemented rapidly

Sixty percent of teachers’ ratings this year will come from observations by administrators. The state’s evaluation law mandates that the remaining 40 percent come from a combination of state tests and assessments chosen by each district, whose scores are all crunched to determine student growth.

But neither kind of test exists for Zanitsch and other drama teachers, at least this year. They are among the thousands of city teachers for whom the state has not approved any way to measure student learning. They include librarians, 5,000 physical education and arts teachers, and others who teach foreign languages, health, and career education.

New York City principals had until the first day of school last week to choose from a menu of limited options, first made available in early August, for evaluating their teachers on student growth. Principals and teachers told GothamSchools that their schools have picked a “default” option in which all teachers — even core subject teachers — will receive the same score cobbled together from all of the state tests taken in the school.

“What we are advising most of our schools and principals this year is since the principal’s rating is based on how their school collectively is doing, just take the default, especially since it means the minimum of extra work and testing for everyone,” said a person who works in a network with many high schools.

The arrangement has drawn a lawsuit in Florida and criticism from dozens of city principals who last week pledged not to help execute it. But in lieu of state-approved assessments for all subjects, officials say rating teachers by their colleagues’ scores is the best option available until more credible alternatives can be developed.

“If the legislature had wanted us to be fully compliant at the outset, they would have put in place a massive funding program to support assessments to support every single subject,” said Shael Polakow-Suransky, the Department of Education’s chief academic officer. “But they decided to have a statewide evaluation system in place and then to build it from there.”

Looking on the bright side

Some principals and teachers say the arrangement could have benefits.

“It absolutely encourages collaboration,” said Vinnie Zarillo, a social studies teacher at Brownsville Academy High School whose students’ scores will influence the school’s physical education teachers’ ratings as well as his own. He said he is already talking to his colleagues about how to add lessons to P.E. classes about athletics’ role in world history.

Theatre Arts Production Company Principal Ron Link, whose teachers will be rated using results from the English Regents, said the school-wide approach meshed with how teachers already worked together on the school’s end-of-year theater productions. But Link also wondered if eventually it could lead the curriculum to narrow.

“Is it teaching to the test? I don’t know,” Link said. “I think we’re lucky here at TAPCO because we were already doing the infusion part with arts teachers working with the English and the social studies teacher on the production.”

Concerns about testing’s role

But the silver lining doesn’t sit well with everyone who has been told to look for it.

“I want my art teacher to teach students to make and analyze art. I don’t want them to teach mathematical modeling. That’s why I have a great algebra teacher,” said a Brooklyn high school principal, who asked to remain anonymous because she did not want to criticize the evaluation system publicly. The principal added, “The best that I can see coming out of this is that no harm is done.”

“The administration is saying it is teamwork and we are all in this together, but I don’t feel comfortable being graded based on how the other teachers in my school [are] preparing students for their tests,” a forensic science teacher told GothamSchools.  The teacher, who said her evaluation will be partially based on her students’ Living Environment Regents exam scores, requested anonymity because she feared retribution.

Department officials concede that the situation is far from ideal but say it’s the best they could have done under the state’s timeline for implementing the new evaluation law. Polakow-Suransky suggested that teachers could find solace in the fact that the city did not introduce more required tests, as some had worried that the new evaluation system would do. But he also noted that several schools are piloting arts assessments funded by federal grants and signaled that schools could have the option to add tests in the future.

“We’re not going to go out and invent a bunch of multiple choice-tests for gym classes. It’s a waste of time,” he said. “We are working hard to develop new assessments that would be useful” for teachers.

Lumping teachers together, instead of telling them apart

For now, educators are pondering the implications of an arrangement that groups teachers together rather than distinguishes their effectiveness individually.

“If you have two or three really not-so-great teachers and you take the default, all those teachers are going to get effective or highly effective,” the network official said. “On the flip side, if your school does badly overall on the Regents this year, some really good teachers are going to get screwed.”

Some principals say they tried to mitigate against those possibilities by hinging teachers’ ratings on their colleagues whose students have done well in the past.

“I’m going to try to game it in little ways, [to] tie it to where we think we’re going to get some good performance,” said the Brooklyn high school principal.

“We picked based on past performance,” said Moses Ojeda, principal of Thomas Edison Career and Technical Education High School, where many teachers work in technology subjects.

But those choices, designed to protect teachers, lead to questions about the meaningfulness of the ratings that the new evaluation system will produce.

One teacher who will be rated based on his own students’ scores said the fact that exams in his subject would factor into the scores of his colleagues who teach other subjects would cause him to question all of their ratings. “If you create a system which will work only if administrators don’t follow the rules, it’s a bad system,” he said.

money matters

Report: Trump education budget would create a Race to the Top for school choice

PHOTO: Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead
President Donald Trump and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos participate in a tour of Saint Andrews Catholic in Orlando, Florida.

The Trump administration appears to be going ahead with a $1 billion effort to push districts to allow school choice, according to a report in the Washington Post.

The newspaper obtained what appears to be an advance version of the administration’s education budget, set for release May 23. The budget documents reflect more than $10 billion in cuts, many of which were included in the budget proposal that came out in March, according to the Post’s report. They include cuts to after-school programs for poor students, teacher training, and more:

… a $15 million program that provides child care for low-income parents in college; a $27 million arts education program; two programs targeting Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian students, totaling $65 million; two international education and foreign language programs, $72 million; a $12 million program for gifted students; and $12 million for Special Olympics education programs.

Other programs would not be eliminated entirely, but would be cut significantly. Those include grants to states for career and technical education, which would lose $168 million, down 15 percent compared to current funding; adult basic literacy instruction, which would lose $96 million (down 16 percent); and Promise Neighborhoods, an Obama-era initiative meant to build networks of support for children in needy communities, which would lose $13 million (down 18 percent).

The documents also shed some light on how the administration plans to encourage school choice. The March proposal said the administration would spend $1 billion to encourage districts to switch to “student-based budgeting,” or letting funds flow to students rather than schools.

The approach is considered essential for school choice to thrive. Yet the mechanics of the Trump administration making it happen are far from obvious, as we reported in March:

There’s a hitch in the budget proposal: Federal law spells out exactly how Title I funds must be distributed, through funding formulas that sends money to schools with many poor students.

“I do not see a legal way to spend a billion dollars on an incentive for weighted student funding through Title I,” said Nora Gordon, an associate professor of public policy at Georgetown University. “I think that would have to be a new competitive program.”

There are good reasons for the Trump administration not to rush into creating a program in which states compete for new federal funds, though. … Creating a new program would open the administration to criticism of overreach — which the Obama administration faced when it used the Race to the Top competition to get states to adopt its priorities.

It’s unclear from the Post’s report how the Trump administration is handling Gordon’s concerns. But the Post reports that the administration wants to use a competitive grant program — which it’s calling Furthering Options for Children to Unlock Success, or FOCUS — to redistribute $1 billion in Title I funds for poor students. That means the administration decided that an Obama-style incentive program is worth the potential risks.

The administration’s budget request would have to be fulfilled by Congress, so whether any of the cuts or new programs come to pass is anyone’s guess. Things are not proceeding normally in Washington, D.C., right now.

School Politics

Colorado schools were a hot topic at the state Capitol this year. Here’s what lawmakers did.

A teacher reads to her students at the Cole Arts and Science Academy in Denver. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Colorado lawmakers this week are celebrating major education-related policy wins, including finding more money for public schools.

This year’s legislative session, which ended Wednesday, was marked by big compromises on issues that have befuddled policy makers for years: charter school funding, ninth-grade standardized testing and measuring the reading skills of the state’s youngest bilingual students.

With so many thorny debates behind them, lawmakers and Capitol observers are now looking toward other major policy questions they’ve put off for years, including reforming how the state pays for its public schools and making changes to Colorado’s school accountability laws and teacher licensure policies.

“The hope is now that the K-12 community can come together to focus on the big issues,” said Jen Walmer, Colorado state director of Democrats for Education Reform.

But before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s look back at the last 120 days:

Lawmakers found more money for schools than anyone could have imagined.

Before the legislative session began, school districts were preparing for the worst. Despite the state’s booming economy, constraints on how much the state could spend meant schools could have gone without much of a funding increase.

State Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, a Republican from Sterling, on the first day of the legislative session.

The forecast became even more dire midway through the session when lawmakers learned the local tax base that generates about a third of all state spending on schools was going to shrink drastically. The worst predictions had the state’s education funding shortfall growing to more than $1 billion.

State officials found a technical workaround, and lawmakers were able to send more money to schools. On average, schools will see about $242 more per student next year.

However, leaders in both parties are aware that the state’s problematic constitutional constraints, tax policies and school funding formula still exist. That’s why a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers led a successful effort to create a committee to study and propose changes to the way the state funds it schools.

“We have more work to do. We need to continue with what we’ve done this session: have tough conversations,” said Speaker Crisanta Duran, a Denver Democrat.

“How do we make sure that students, regardless of race, income, regardless of whether they have a disability, that they have the opportunity to succeed?” she said. “There is no doubt that we have structural decisions we have to make when it comes to our budget.”

Republican leaders said they’re also anxious to see the committee get to work. But they’re less likely to support an influx of cash to the state’s schools.

“If we’re going to look at real overhauls to the system and funding, we need to look at all the options — not just throwing more money at the system — a system that by many’s accounting is not working well or efficiently,” said Senate President Kevin Grantham, a Canon City Republican.

He and other Republicans are encouraging the committee to look at how other states have focused their funding formulas on students rather than on a school’s size or geographic location, and used funding to expand school choice.

Lawmakers already have one option on the table: A proposal to set a statewide property tax rate, which was born out of the legislature’s budget office and floated early in the session. While there was a lot of talk behind the scenes, it failed to gain traction. Expect to hear a lot more about the idea.

The charter school funding compromise, which some called “historic,” was just one of many longstanding issues that were resolved this year.

The 2017 legislative session will likely be remembered as the most productive in a decade because of several big compromises.

State Rep. Brittany Pettersen, a Lakewood Democrat, sits alone on the House of Representatives floor as members of her own party filibustered her compromise on charter school funding. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

Lawmakers grinned Thursday as they ticked off a long list of accomplishments to reporters, including one that could send more local money to charter schools. In return, charter schools will be required to post on their official websites more tax documents and will no longer receive two specific financial waivers.

The last-minute charter school funding bill — sponsored by a bipartisan group of lawmakers that included state Reps. Brittany Pettersen and Lang Sias and state Sens. Owen Hill and Angela Williams — was the compromise no one saw coming.

“Anything is possible,” Pettersen said after the session.

Lawmakers had wrestled with the question of requiring the state’s school districts to share their locally approved tax increases with charter schools for two years. Despite vocal objections from several school superintendents, the legislature overwhelmingly supported the bill.

Early in the session, lawmakers eager to reduce the number of standardized tests reached another compromise with the governor’s office. High school freshmen will no longer be required to take the controversial PARCC English and math tests. Instead, they’ll take a test that is aligned to the college entrance exam, the SAT.

We kicked the PARCC test out of high schools,” said Rep. Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican. “It’s gone!”

Other deals that were reached include the creation of a diploma seal of biliteracy for students who demonstrate proficiency in two languages and new regulations on how to monitor the reading skills of young English language learners.

Colorado schools will also see a financial boost for the next three years after lawmakers passed an omnibus bill that resolved a debate over a hospital fee that helps pay for the state’s health insurance program.

As part of the biggest compromise of the year, the state will raise taxes on recreational marijuana. Those taxes will send $30 million to rural schools next year and $40 million over two years to the state education fund, a sort of savings account for schools.

Rural schools flexed their muscles and blocked a bill to reform the state’s student suspension rules, but they didn’t get everything they wanted.

Not every piece of bipartisan legislation reached the governor’s desk.

Students at Merino Elementary School work during class.

A bill that aimed to reduce the number of preschool and elementary school students who are suspended was killed by a GOP-controlled committee at the request of rural schools, despite having overwhelming support from both Democrats and Republicans.

Rural school leaders said the bill attempted to create a statewide solution for a Front Range problem. A Chalkbeat analysis of suspension data, which rural superintendents refuted, showed otherwise.

Supporters of the legislation vowed to work with opponents this summer and fall and try again next year.

While rural schools were successful in blocking that mandate, they were dealt a setback when a bill that would have allowed them to remedy a teacher shortage by hiring unlicensed teachers was killed by its sponsors.

State Rep. Jim Wilson, a Salida Republican, said he couldn’t garner enough support for his effort. At least not this year.

“Like Arnold Schwarzenegger said, ‘I’ll be back,’” Wilson said.

Even though that bill failed, lawmakers did take steps to curb the state’s teacher shortage.

Stanley Teacher Prep resident Lily Wool works with kindergartner Samori McIntosh at Tollgate Elementary School in Aurora. Wood’s residency program is merging the Boettcher Teacher Residency program. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Prior to the session, education leaders at the Capitol had few if any plans to take on the state’s teacher shortage. But retired teacher and freshman state Rep. Barbara McLachlan pushed to address the issue.

The Durango Democrat partnered with a host of other lawmakers from both parties to sponsor legislation to study the shortage and provide solutions. She also sponsored a bill that would allow rural schools to hire retired teachers without penalizing their pension. Both bills were sent to the governor.

Two other bills, including one to create multiple teacher preparation pilot programs, failed to advance. But with the issue on the legislature’s radar, expect it to come back.

“That’s the most pressing issue, next to funding,” said state Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat.

Despite newfound freedom from Washington, lawmakers didn’t make any bold changes to the state’s school accountability system.

Several lawmakers early in the session seemed eager to take advantage of new flexibility from the federal government.

While the state education department was busy putting together a mandated statewide plan to adopt the new Every Student Succeeds Act, lawmakers were debating how they could update the state’s school accountability laws.

But only two bills making minor tweaks advanced.

A HOPE Online student works during the day at an Aurora learning center. (Photo by Nicholas Garcia, Chalkbeat)

One requires elementary schools that receive low quality ratings to address the needs of students in preschool through third grade.

The second bill requires the state to measure how well high school students are meeting updated graduation requirements. As part of the new requirements, which go into effect in the year 2021, high schools must adopt a list of options students can use to prove they’re prepared for college or a career.

Those options include the SAT exam, which all Colorado juniors are required to take; passing a concurrent enrollment college-level course; passing a Advanced Placement test; or completing a college thesis-like capstone project demonstrating knowledge of a subject.

“This bill is a really clever way to allow school districts to say, ‘This is what we care about, and this how we’re going to do it,’” said Luke Ragland, president of Ready Colorado, a conservative education reform group.

Some of the most anticipated school-accountability bills of the session never materialized.

One would have provided more clarity on what happens to schools that consistently receive low quality ratings from the state.

“This was a big undertaking, and the bill’s sponsors needed more time,” Ragland said.

It’s another issue Capitol-watchers can expect to see return next year.

As Ragland put it, “The lack of clarity at the end of the state’s accountability clock is bad for everyone.”