a second take

NYSUT head: Getting rid of test scores only a 'first step' toward evaluation overhaul

As pressure mounts for lawmakers to decide how to adjust the state’s teacher evaluation system, the president of New York State United Teachers ratcheted up her rhetoric, saying the union wants changes that go beyond the use of test scores.

“NYSUT’s goal is to do an overhaul of the entire APPR,” Karen Magee told Chalkbeat, referring to the state’s evaluation law. “This is the first step towards doing so.”

Magee wouldn’t comment on the negotiations, which are centered on the role that tougher, Common Core-aligned state tests will play in teacher evaluations this year and next year. But she said the union was still in talks with the governor’s office about removing the scores and that she remained “guardedly optimistic” that a deal would get done.

Magee, a self-described “militant,” took over NYSUT in April when she unseated sitting union chief Richard Iannuzzi in an election that was framed as a repudiation of the union’s recent cooperation with the state on issues including changes to teacher evaluations.

Since students first took the new tests last year, which sent proficiency rates plummeting, teachers have protested that the assessments aren’t accurate measurements of student growth, especially while teachers are still becoming familiar with the standards. They have also raised other concerns with how the evaluations measure student learning, since thousands of teachers’ evaluations will be based partially on test results for students and subjects they didn’t teach.

“There’s a hundred ways that we need to go to make this right,” Magee said, adding that the principal observation process was also a concern. “The way we’re doing it right now is broken.”

The union leader’s comments come just a day before the legislative session is scheduled to end, and pressure is mounting for officials to come to a deal. NYSUT, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and lawmakers in the Assembly and Senate have all said that making changes to teacher evaluations are a top legislative priority.

Magee was more measured last Friday, when she said that “stopping evaluations would be completely overkill.” The union’s issues, she said then, were only with the component of a teacher’s evaluation based on the new state tests. Those tests mostly affect the evaluations of elementary and middle school teachers, though high school English teachers will be rated on Common Core-aligned Regents exams this year.

On Wednesday, Magee said she hadn’t ruled out including high school teachers’ evaluations in a final deal, and that a number of issues remained on the table.

“We’re looking to remove anything that would jeopardize a teacher’s career,” Magee said.

Over the last two days, though, officials have raised concerns that what Magee is proposing could mean New York lose federal Race to the Top funding. On Tuesday, a federal education official said New York could lose $292 million if it approves a teacher evaluation bill supported by NYSUT and the Assembly that would remove test scores from teacher evaluations.

State Education Commissioner John King and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver have also said the threat of funding cuts was a concern, according to Capital New York. But Magee and the bill’s sponsor, Catherine Nolan, both said they aren’t taking those warnings seriously.

“The Race to the Top funding is not a concern,” Magee said, adding that New York could apply for a “temporary waiver” from the U.S. Department of Education. (On Tuesday, a spokeswoman for the department said that was not an option.)

At a press conference on Wednesday, Cuomo said that he wouldn’t sign any legislation that put Race to the Top funding at risk. The governor, who has repeatedly cited teacher evaluations as a signature achievement of his administration, is hoping this year’s legislation will be a final fix before implementation is complete.

“We’re implementing a system that should have been implemented years ago,” Cuomo said.

Others doubted that the U.S. Department of Education’s threats were serious.

“Plenty of other [Race to the Top-funded] states have hit the pause button on teacher evaluation consequences and I haven’t seen similar threats,” said Mike Petrilli, executive vice president at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. “I think they are trying to help their friend John King.”

On Wednesday, Ohio’s legislature passed a “safe harbor” bill that would delay using Common Core tests on teacher and school evaluations for one year. Ohio won $400 million in Race to the Top funds.

Newcomers

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.”