performance pushback

Risking disciplinary action, International teachers refuse to administer eval-linked test

PHOTO: Geoff Decker

A group of teachers boycotted a required part of their school’s teacher evaluation plan on Thursday, breaking from the city education department, the teachers union, and their principal and raising questions about whether they will face disciplinary action.

Standing in a park across the street from International High School at Prospect Heights, more than a dozen teachers held up signs and criticized the increased role that tests have played in their school. They argued that a city-created reading and writing test now being administered in city high schools was developed with little consideration for their students—most of whom recently moved to the United States and are still learning English.

“We believe that the tests should be designed for the students who are being tested,” said Steve Watson, a math teacher and the school’s union chapter leader. “And the students that are being tested are not standardized, so we do not believe that one size fits all.”

International High School at Prospect Heights is part of a network of schools serving immigrant students. Most students in the school had already opted out of the test, but the protesting teachers said they would refuse to give tests to those who still planned to take them today.

Still, their protest didn’t actually stop any students from taking the tests, according to Department of Education officials who said that the school’s principal, Nedda de Castro, still planned to administer the exams. (De Castro did not respond to requests for comment on Thursday morning.)

But the protest did reflect a new side of the anti-testing sentiment that has bubbled up across the city this year.

Unlike other anti-testing demonstrations, the International High School protest was focused not on state tests but on a new, separate test required to measure student learning for use in the new teacher evaluation formulas.

Similar tests were given earlier in the year to establish “baselines” for student growth, prompting pushback in some schools. Elementary school teachers refused to administer some tests to their youngest students, and some students at Stuyvesant High School publicly refused to take them.

Those tests were less significant than the ones teachers were protesting today because they could be replaced with other kinds of student progress data, like student work from the beginning of the year. The exams the protesting teachers would have administered today, on the other hand, are schools’ only option for assessing student growth for evaluations.

That put the boycott on shaky legal ground, since the framework for the teacher evaluation system is a part of the teachers union contract.

The United Federation of Teachers distanced itself from the event, though it was organized with help from the Movement of Rank and File Educators, a political caucus within the union. A union spokesman said that while the UFT agreed with the demonstrators’ anti-testing sentiments, teachers are “under a legal obligation” to abide by rules of the evaluation system.

“The UFT believes that our schools have been the victims of a testing culture that has focused far too much attention on test prep and too little on strategies that will actually lead to student learning,” the spokesman said. “However, this protest is not a union-sponsored event.”

A spokeswoman from the Department of Education said the city was looking into the situation and potential disciplinary action against the protesting teachers.

Ironically, though the teachers were defying the union and the city with their protest, they all have all raised similar concerns about over-testing students.

The rules of the teacher evaluation system were handed down last year by State Education Commissioner John King. Both the city and the teachers union have said they don’t like his decision to require the contested performance assessments, and the union and the city have both recently asked the state to allow some flexibility around how schools can measure teacher performance. But the state has placed the blame on the city, saying it could have chosen a different way to measure student learning, but opted for the performance assessments instead.

The protesting teachers have also sent a letter to schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, asking that she allow schools to use different types of assessments that better fit their students’ language needs. In particular, they said, student learning should be based on portfolio-style assessments, which are intensive projects that require students to complete a series of assignments.

In her first months on the job, Fariña has spoken out about a need to better serve the city’s English Language Learners. But a department spokeswoman said that was unrelated to today’s protest.

“At the International High School at Prospect Heights, these assessments have no stakes for students, and as DOE policy mandates, these students should receive all the accommodations they require,” the spokeswoman said.


This mom came to the newcomer school ready to stand up for son. She left with a job.

PHOTO: Provided by Javier Barrera Cervantes
Charlotte Uwimbabazi is a bilingual assistant at the Indianapolis Public Schools newcomer program.

When Charlotte Uwimbabazi showed up at Indianapolis Public Schools’ program for new immigrants, she was ready to fight for her son. When she left that day, she had a job.

A native of the Congo, Uwimbabazi fled the war-torn country and spent nearly a decade in Cape Town, South Africa waiting for a new home. Last spring, Uwimbabazi and her four children came to the U.S. as refugees.

(Read: Teaching when students are full of fear: Inside Indiana’s first school for new immigrants)

When the family arrived in Indianapolis, Uwimbabazi’s youngest son Dave enrolled at Northwest High School. But he wasn’t happy, and a volunteer helping to resettle the family suggested he transfer to Crispus Attucks High School. When the school year started, though, Crispus Attucks turned him away. Staff there said he had been assigned to the newcomer program, a school for students who are new to the country and still learning English.

There was just one problem: Dave was fluent in English after growing up in South Africa. Uwimbabazi said it’s the only language he knows. So Uwimbabazi and her son Dave headed to the newcomer school to convince them he should attend Crispus Attucks.

That’s when Jessica Feeser, who oversees the newcomer school and programing for IPS students learning English, stepped in — and found a new resource for the district’s growing population of newcomer students.

Feeser immediately realized that Dave was fluent in English and should enroll in Crispus Attucks. Then, Uwimbabazi started talking with Feeser about her own experience. With a gift for languages, Uwimbabazi speaks six fluently, including Swahili and Kinyarwanda, languages spoken by many African students at the school.

“Where are you working right now?” Feeser asked. “Would you like a job here?”

Uwimbabazi, who had been packing mail, took a job as a bilingual assistant at the school. Her interaction with the district went from “negativity to positivity,” she said.

The newcomer program has seen dramatic growth in enrollment since it opened last fall, and it serves about three dozen refugee students. Students at the school speak at least 14 different languages. As the only staff member at the school who speaks Swahili and Kinyarwanda, Uwimbabazi is a lifeline for many of the African refugees it serves, Feeser said.

She works alongside teachers, going over material in languages that students speak fluently and helping them grasp everything from simple instructions to complex concepts like graphing linear equations, Feeser said. She also helps bridge the divide between the district and the Congolese community on Indianapolis’ westside, going on home visits to meet parents and helping convince families to enroll their children in school.

When students in the newcomer program don’t share a language with staff members, the school is still able to educate them, Feeser said. But it is hard to build community without that bridge. Uwimbabazi has played an essential role in helping the school build relationships with families.

“She believes that all of our families are important, and she’s working diligently to make sure that they feel that their voices are heard,” Feeser said. “It was a gift from God that she joined us.”

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.”