Ratings Reduction

Fariña floats possible evaluations fix that would require UFT reversal

The city schools chief has floated an idea to simplify the complex new teacher evaluation system, but carrying it out would require a major concession from the teachers union.

When the union and city were negotiating teacher evaluations in recent years, one of the many sticking points was how many factors teachers should be rated on when their classes are observed.

The union wanted teachers to be scored on all 22 components of a teacher-effectiveness rubric, while the city pushed for just seven of the rubric components. Ultimately, the state intervened last year and insisted on 22 components.

Now, well into the city’s first year under the new system, many principals report feeling swamped by all their rating duties, and some teachers wonder how fairly they will be rated on all those measures.

Enter new Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, a former principal committed to lifting unnecessary burdens from school leaders. At a private meeting with administrators in January, she raised the idea of greatly reducing the number of rubric components that principals and other evaluators have to rate teachers on, according to several people at the meeting.

To get state approval for that change for next school year, the United Federation of Teachers would need to sign off on it. That would mark a significant reversal for the union — but perhaps a palatable trade-off as it seeks billions in back pay and raises in the ongoing contract negotiations with the city.

Meanwhile, the change would undoubtedly cheer school leaders who have struggled to observe each of their teachers multiple times this year and rate them on the nearly two dozen components as required by the new system.

“I’m way behind,” said William Frackelton, principal of Soundview Academy for Culture and Scholarship in the Bronx, who supports the 22-component rubric in theory. “But in practice, how manageable is it? It’s a beast.”

At a meeting in late January with district superintendents and school-support network leaders, Fariña spoke about the need to support overburdened principals, according to several attendees. She suggested one way to do that would be to pare down the 22 instructional components that principals must observe and rate.

“She said, ‘That’s too many, we need to get it down,’” said Alan Dichter, a network leader. He added that he took Fariña’s comment as an “intention,” not a firm commitment.

The component question has not gone away since that meeting. At a conference for new principals Saturday, a veteran principal leading a workshop on evaluations said there could be fewer components in the future, but that the city is still discussing the matter with the teachers union, according to a principal who attended the workshop.

“Something good is cooking,” said the attendee, who requested anonymity because she had not been authorized to discuss the private training.

The state education commissioner imposed the new evaluation system last summer after a long city-union tussle over the details. Under it, 60 percent of teachers’ ratings come from subjective measures, including observations by administrators.

To rate teachers’ performance, principals or other evaluators must use a rubric known as the Danielson Framework. The rubric is divided into four “domains” of teaching: planning; classroom environment, which includes managing student behavior; instruction; and professional duties, such as communicating with parents and keeping records. Those domains are then broken down into 22 narrower components, such as cultivating a respectful classroom culture and sparking rich class discussions.

In its written submission for the state arbitration hearing, the UFT argued that the full 22 components are “essential” to measure the complexity of teaching. What it didn’t say, but what many read into the UFT’s position paper, was that requiring all 22 components could protect low-rated teachers from consequences that include firing: More components mean more potential points a teacher could contest if given a poor rating.

The city education department argued that teachers could be fairly rated using just seven Danielson components. It pointed to research that shows complex rubrics can overwhelm evaluators, leading them to rate disparate components similarly. It also noted that the city had used seven components during an evaluation pilot program. It cited evidence that the pilot ratings were accurate and that 93 percent of school leaders in the program said the seven components provided enough data to make fair assessments.

State Education Commissioner John King sided with the union on the issue of components, ruling that the Danielson rubric was “validated and was designed to be used in its entirety.”

As a result, New York City principals must rate teachers annually on all 22 components, for which they can use both observations and other evidence, such as teacher-created lessons and tests.

Many principals and other administrators have struggled to observe each teacher the required number of times, document their ratings and evidence, and give teachers feedback.

Frackelton, the Bronx principal, and an assistant principal must observe and rate 30 teachers. He said some school leaders respond to that pressure by filling in “cookie-cutter” explanations of their ratings on multiple teachers’ forms. He said he avoids using such stock language only by working on the forms until 10 p.m. some nights and on Saturdays.

“It’s really a lot of work to do it well,” he said.

The schools in the city’s evaluation pilot program did not expect to jump from seven to 22 rubric components when the official system launched this year, said Thandi Center, New York City director for the New Teacher Center, which was one of the city’s lead partners in the pilot. She said many principals have complained the new system “isn’t doable,” and teachers have expressed concern about the “credibility” of their ratings.

“I just think it’s untenable to introduce 22 components and expect it to be done well consistently,” Center said.

Phil Weinberg, the education department’s new deputy chancellor for teaching and learning, acknowledged principals’ concerns about the evaluations in a letter last week. He offered them advice for “reducing evaluator burden” and announced a survey and “listening tour” next month where the city will collect feedback from principals about evaluations. He also urged principals struggling to rate all their teachers before the June deadline to contact their support networks “immediately.”

If the city and union were to agree on an evaluation change for next year, they would have to jointly submit a request to the state.

If they ask to rate teachers on fewer rubric components, they would need to prove that all four domains will still be assessed and that the “integrity of the rubric” is preserved, said Julia Rafal-Baer, executive director of the state education department’s Office of Teacher and Leader Effectiveness.

She noted that some districts have approved evaluation plans that guarantee all Danielson domains will be assessed, but not all 22 components will be rated. For example, Webster Central School District’s plan says any observed components can be rated, but only seven specific components absolutely must be rated.

Rafal-Baer added that it would be “interesting” if the city teachers union agreed to fewer components, since the UFT “really felt very strongly about having all 22 components” when it pitched its evaluation plan last year to the state.

The union is currently pushing for more than $3 billion in back pay in contract negotiations with the city, along with a pay hike for the future. Teacher evaluations are part of those negotiations, and the UFT could potentially use a component-number change as a bargaining chip.

A UFT spokesperson declined to comment, citing the union’s policy to avoid public negotiations.

A city Department of Education spokesman declined to comment on Fariña’s remarks or possible evaluation changes, saying the city’s focus is on “improving classroom instruction.”

“Through meaningful observations and feedback under the evaluation system, it’s our goal to help educators hone their craft,” said the spokesman, Devon Puglia.

Parent-to-Para

How the Adams 14 school district is empowering parents to join the classroom

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles
A parent volunteer works with two kindergarteners on reading as part of a pilot program at Dupont Elementary School that is training parents to become paraprofessionals.

Raeann Javier would like to know what she can do to help her second-grader read better. Sometimes, sitting with her daughter, the best she could offer was, “You know how to do this.”

Javier, a single mother, also would love to land another job to earn more for her family.

A pilot program launched by Adams 14 School District in Commerce City may help her with both.

The school district is trying to build more knowledgeable, active parents through classes and volunteer time working with young students struggling to read. For those who are interested, the program also provides parents a path to become paraprofessionals, or teacher’s aides.

The initiative is one way the nearly 8,000-student suburban district — facing state intervention this year after years of poor academic performance — is trying to turn things around.

District surveys found parents were looking for ways to become more supportive.

Javier, one of 17 mothers in the program, said she already feels like she has become a more patient parent less than a month in. She also is interested in becoming a paraprofessional to supplement the income she earns as an at-home nurse.

“It’s a little bit tough. I make it work,” Javier said. “But this would really, really help.”

Other parents taking part in the pilot program already were volunteers at their kids’ schools.

“They usually just did the normal things like helping with copying or sorting papers,” said Jesse Martinez, Adams 14’s director for family and community engagement. “But we really wanted to change that dynamic. We wanted to pull in our parents to tap their potential and bring them in to support their children.”

One of the parent volunteers, Susana Torres, was an elementary school teacher for 10 years before coming to the United States. Now with three children in district schools, Torres jumped at the opportunity to get back into a classroom.

“This is my thing,” Torres said. “I love the program.”

Torres also helps other Spanish-speaking moms who are part of the program. She said that even though they don’t have the teaching background she does, the program has made it easy for all of them to learn to help kids. “All you need is a passion to make change,” she said.

Pat Almeida, the principal of Dupont Elementary, where the program is being piloted, said the goal is also to help more students become proficient in reading before third grade — especially those who are not far behind but just need a boost to get to grade level.

“We’re able to give them more repetition so they can apply that to their reading,” Almeida said. “If they’re able to have more repetition, their progress is going to be accelerated.”

Dupont Elementary is among the Adams 14 schools that is struggling, though the school isn’t yet facing sanctions like the district as a whole is this year.

District officials have been working on setting up reforms all year to present to the state as a suggestion for their corrective action, including getting help from an outside company for developing curriculum and testing. Increasing parental engagement through this and other new efforts, like having teachers visit families at home, are part of the work to improve the district.

The parent-to-para program is being funded with money from the Denver-based Rose Community Foundation (Rose also supports Chalkbeat) and Climb Higher Colorado, a coalition of advocacy groups that support strong academic standards and tests.

At Dupont, while the parent volunteers work with almost 75 students that they pull out of class for about an hour, teachers can spend the time in class working with students who need the most help.

An instructional coach supervises the moms to work with groups of two to six students and helps them plan lessons each day for kids.

During one lesson this week, parents were helping kindergarteners learn how to differentiate between capital and lowercase letters and how to sound out words. Some students were still having trouble identifying letters, while one boy was writing words so quickly he was standing up, moving around and at one point fell.

The volunteers said it’s rewarding to see the kids catching on.

“Knowing that just a little bit of our time can help them is a good feeling,” said volunteer Adelaida Guerrero. “It’s an excellent opportunity for them and for us.”

For Maria Rodriguez, the program has unexpectedly given her another benefit — bringing her closer to her teenage daughters. She said she joined the program because when a bilingual program for her two oldest daughters was removed seven years ago, she had stopped being able to help them on their school work.

When Rodriguez heard about the program, she thought she could prepare to help her younger children, a second and third grader, before they too required more help than she could offer.

“It’s brilliant,”Rodriguez said. “I’ve been helping them work on their vowels.”

Within the last week, the two older girls came to Rodriguez complaining that she hadn’t ever worked to help them in the same way, and asking to join in during the at-home lessons. Over time, the girls had kept their ability to speak Spanish, but never learned how to write it. Now they were asking to learn alongside their younger siblings.

“They have that apathy of adolescence that makes them not always want to get close to us as parents,” Rodriguez said, tearing up as she recalled the moment. “I honestly felt really good.”

the write way

What’s missing from the conversation about the state’s ditched literacy test for teachers?

PHOTO: Monica Disare
The Board of Regents applauds James Tallon at his last meeting, moments after officially voting to eliminate a literacy test for prospective teachers.

In a major change to teacher certification, New York officials decided prospective teachers will no longer have to pass an “academic literacy” test in order to enter classrooms.

It didn’t take long for media outlets to jump on the news, raising concerns that teachers who struggle to read and write could now be able to enter New York’s classrooms.

State officials say that argument is misguided. Since aspiring teachers must earn a college degree, and pass three other certification exams, they argue, illiterate applicants will not make the cut in the first place. The exam also is inherently flawed, they say, and kept a disproportionate number of black and Hispanic teachers out of schools.

But experts say that narrow debate about literacy misses a broader conversation. They argue that the test was never meant to protect against a flood of teachers unable to read and write. It was, however, intended to help ensure high teacher quality, they say, and the question is whether the current certification process furthers that goal.

The Academic Literacy Skills Test, which the state implemented a few years ago, was part of a larger movement to elevate the quality of the teaching profession. Officials thought at the time that a more rigorous test of reading and writing should be part of that mix.

But literacy tests for teachers got their start in a different era, said Linda Darling-Hammond, a leading national education researcher who now runs an education policy think tank. They were originally implemented in the 1980s when there were fewer hurdles to entering the teaching profession, she said.

“That might have made sense at that time in those places,” Darling-Hammond said, but added there is little evidence today that literacy tests are a good way to screen for effective teachers. There’s also no widespread concern, she said, that illiterate teachers are entering the profession.

“I think at this point, there is not strong evidence about that,” she said.

Ken Lindblom, dean of the School of Professional Development at Stony Brook University, who has taught prospective teachers, agreed that the focus on literacy is misplaced.

“It’s simply not the case that we have all these teachers … and they’re illiterate and we need to stop,” Lindblom said. “This is a false conundrum that we have invented.”

Dylan Roth, who is studying to become a teacher in a graduate program at Queens College, said he felt “insulted” by news coverage suggesting an epidemic of teacher illiteracy. “They speak of the ALST as if it were the line in the sand keeping horridly illiterate and unqualified teachers out of the classroom,” he said. “Yet besides brief mentions of teachers unions [in the articles], there is no virtually no input from teachers themselves who have gone through the process of certification,” he said.

Roth pointed out that the test’s fee (more than $100) poses a burden for aspiring teachers already paying for seminars, textbooks, tuition and more. Meanwhile, he said, the test is unnecessary when similar questions could simply be added to one of the three other certification tests, a proposal the state has offered.

Still, some say this conversation is about more than just a test — it’s about how the state can build a superior teacher workforce. Ian Rosenblum, executive director of the Education Trust-NY pointed to a 2007 study that found recruiting teachers with stronger certification status or SAT scores could improve student achievement.

“Research shows that having teachers with stronger academic skills makes a meaningful difference in student outcomes, and that is why we believed that maintaining the ALST … is important for equity,” Rosenblum said.

Daniel Weisberg, CEO at TNTP, an organization focused on creating more effective teachers, says the best way to attract high-quality teachers isn’t a tough literacy test. He thinks the emphasis should be on more teacher observation instead.

But he said, over the years, he has seen some prospective educators who want to become teachers even though they lack basic reading and writing skills. In order to avoid certifying those teachers, state officials could create a more narrow test of basic skills, he said.

“What you need is a surgical tool, not a chainsaw,” Weisberg said. “With a lot of these certification exams right now … they end up being a chainsaw, not a surgical tool.”

State Education Department officials plan to add a long reading and writing requirement to the Educating All Students Test, a change that is still being reviewed. They could not yet say whether a student who failed a new literacy portion of another exam could still become a teacher. According to a state education official, the test is expected to include the new literacy portions by January 2018.

The other certification tests already involve reading and writing. The edTPA, a performance-based assessment that asks students to videotape a lesson, requires them to write about their teaching practice. The exams require writing, but the edTPA handbook says the rubrics “do not address the quality of your writing,” and does not penalize test-takers for grammar and spelling errors, though it suggests the ability to effectively communicate is critical.

The other exams include content questions and some questions that require written responses. Supporters of eliminating the literacy test argue that even though prospective teachers are not given a writing score, literacy is embedded in the exams.

The edTPA “requires teacher candidates to organize their arguments, to logically sequence claims,” said Jamie Dangler, vice president for academics at United University Professions, which represents SUNY employees and who co-chaired the state’s edTPA task force. “That’s how you assess literacy. It’s the ability to write, but it’s more then that.”

Stephen Sigmund, executive director of High Achievement New York, a coalition of groups that promote rigorous standards, isn’t convinced. Literacy is crucial to teaching and should be assessed separately, he said. And while the state may include more literacy questions in a different exam, it’s a mistake to eliminate the test without having a fully developed alternative, he said.

“I don’t know enough about the specifics of the test but I take the [State Education] Department and the Regents’ word for it that they think there was a flawed test,” Sigmund said. “So fine, if there are problems with the test, fix the test.”