Evaluating Evaluations

Appeal process in new evaluation plan shifts weight from student scores, for some

PHOTO: Sarah Darville

Imagine this: You’re a gym teacher at a struggling high school. Because of the way teacher evaluations were implemented in your school, 40 percent of your rating is based on test scores in a subject you don’t teach and from students who aren’t yours. And the students do poorly. Even when your principal says you’re doing well, or exceptionally well, in classroom observations, state law says that an “ineffective” for student learning means you’re stamped with an overall “ineffective” rating.

City and union officials said they had thousands of teachers like this one in mind when they agreed to a new appeal process as part of their contract agreement. Beginning this year, the process makes it easy for an “ineffective” rating to be boosted if it’s based on test scores of subjects and students that the teacher does not teach—as long a supervisor gives the teacher higher marks.

The new process isn’t protection for the sake of protection, local officials say. “It’s an appeal to address a particular problem that exists as a result of a lack of assessments,” said UFT Special Representative Amy Arundell.

But the new appeal process will also benefit thousands of math, English and other core subject teachers who receive “ineffective” ratings based on their own students’ academic growth. And shifting the weight of some teacher evaluations away from student performance metrics could make it controversial with state officials, who must approve the evaluation proposal.

core tenet of the state’s evaluation law is flunking teachers whose students show no academic growth. That’s an idea Gov. Andrew Cuomo and State Education Commissioner John King have fiercely defended over the years.

“If we’re serious about supporting excellence in teaching, we can’t have an evaluation system that permits a teacher who scores a zero on student achievement to receive a positive rating,” King said in 2011 in response to a legal challenge from the state teachers union to modify the role of state tests in evaluations.

The use of standardized test scores in teacher evaluations has garnered plenty of criticism, but the scores are preferred by officials because they are seen as a tougher standard than principal observations. Last year, for instance, just 1 percent of teachers across the state received an overall “ineffective” rating, though 6 percent of a subgroup of teachers were rated “ineffective” based solely on standardized test scores.

Research into the reliability of any one measure for teacher evaluations is mixed, with new studies casting doubt on both observations and value-added measures.

The deal has provided more ammunition for the union’s critics, who say it’s another way to weaken teacher accountability.

“Removing objective measures of student achievement undermines the intent of teacher evaluations, which we know was Mike Mulgrew’s goal in the first place,” said StudentsFirstNY Jenny Sedlis said. “Any professional needs an honest assessment of what’s working and what’s not in order to develop and improve.”

The problem with that critique, teachers say, is that the city hasn’t offered an “honest assessment” for many types of educators, including 5,000 physical education and arts teachers, librarians, and others who teach foreign language, health and career education—even though they’re evaluated like the rest of their colleagues.

“I’m being measured largely on kids I don’t even teach this year,” said Tara Brancato, a high school music teacher in the Bronx who, along with the rest of the school’s art department, will be evaluated based on how all students in the school do on their English Regents exams.

The city and union plan to improve assessment options in non-tested subjects, but Arundell said a safeguard is needed until fewer schools use learning measures that don’t relate to the work of some teachers.

“There’s an acknowledgement that there is a lack of authenticity to a person’s rating if you’re going to evaluate both on students you do not teach and subjects you do not teach,” Arundell said.

Brancato and other teachers who could be affected said the change was a welcome step toward addressing what they say has been a neglected part of teacher evaluations.

“They really are taking into consideration all teachers in the system,” said Jason Zanitsch, a high school drama teacher at the High School for Public Service in Brooklyn. “It’s far from perfect, but it’s definitely a step forward.”

Still, there are assessments available to evaluate many of the core subject teachers who will also qualify for appeals. Partially to prevent an onslaught of new tests, many schools opted to rate all teachers using a “group” measure, which gives an entire school’s staff—including math and English teachers—the same rating for the piece of the evaluation based on student performance on state tests. Having a “group” measure factor in to your evaluation qualifies a teacher for the new appeal process.

City officials said they were unable to calculate the number teachers who are being rated on “group” measures this year. But they said they anticipated that only a small percentage would use the appeal process, because the combination of receiving the lowest rating for student learning and an “effective” or “highly effective” rating by a supervisor is rare.

For those who do end up with that combination, the odds of a negative rating being boosted are in a teacher’s favor. The appeal process includes the presumption of a higher rating, meaning the burden of proof needed to uphold the original “ineffective” rating would fall on the city.

A separate appeal process would also be set up for teachers rated “highly effective” on student learning measures, but who earn an overall “ineffective” because of a principal’s observation. In that case, the UFT can choose which cases to appeal to an arbitration panel of three teachers.

Now, the deal must get a final sign-off from Commissioner John King. The city is supposed to submit a draft of its proposal to King by Thursday. A spokesman for the State Education Department declined to comment on the plan.

Department of Education officials said they believe the city’s proposed plan complied with state evaluation laws and regulations. In a statement, a spokeswoman said the agreement “focuses on raising student achievement in ways we’ve never been able to do before.”

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Team Memphis

How do you get teacher candidates to fall in love with Memphis? Shelby County Schools is taking them to a Grizzlies game.

PHOTO: Nikki Boertman/The Commercial Appeal
Memphis Grizzlies fans raise their growl towels during an NBA game at the FedEx Forum on April 25, 2013.

Home to one of the nation’s 25 largest school districts, Memphis has stepped up efforts in recent years to attract talented new teachers to a fast-changing education landscape, and now is including the city’s popular NBA basketball team as part of its playbook.

Shelby County Schools will kick off its hiring season this weekend by treating teacher candidates to dinner and a free game between the Memphis Grizzlies and Dallas Mavericks on Friday night at FedEx Forum.

A networking event will follow on Saturday at the Halloran Centre for Performing Arts & Education, a new downtown venue operated by the Orpheum Theatre to put arts and education center stage.

The activities are part of a first-ever “preview weekend” to fill openings for next school year in Tennessee’s largest district. Shelby County Schools typically hires between 600 to 800 teachers each year and is especially in need of special education and math teachers, said district spokeswoman Kristin Tallent.

Historically, the district has simply held recruitment fairs,” Tallent said Monday. “Through the weekend events, the district is hoping to expose potential teachers to our school district and some of the best that Memphis has to offer, which includes the Memphis Grizzlies.”

Teacher recruitment, development and retention has been a centerpiece of school reform efforts in Memphis since 2009 when the district won a seven-year, $90 million Gates Foundation grant that came to a close this school year. That grant, in partnership with the local nonprofit SchoolSeed, is helping to fund this weekend’s recruitment event. (To learn more about the influence of the Gates Foundation on Memphis public schools, read our special report).

The preview weekend comes as Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has proposed a budget without a shortfall or layoffs for the first time in years. The spending plan also includes $10.7 million for teacher raises to address inequities in the pay structure and shift to performance-based pay.

The district is asking teacher candidates to RSVP by Friday.

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.”