talking points

After accord, fault lines on where New York's teacher evaluations go from here

Albany’s deal to lower the stakes attached to Common Core tests for teachers on Thursday drew praise from both sides of the negotiating table—but for two very different reasons.

Federal and state education officials, who have resisted changes to New York’s new teacher evaluation system, framed the two-year deal as a small roadblock to reduce anxiety as the state moves toward tougher accountability measures. For state teachers union officials, it is a first step toward a bigger overhaul of the evaluation system that could reduce the use of student test scores even further.

The dueling motivations hint that the consensus among the teachers unions and the State Education Department that state test scores should play some role in teacher evaluations in New York is unraveling, and the union is planning to re-start the debate over whether test scores can help identify teacher quality.

“We must continue these discussions about fixing what’s not working,” New York State United Teachers  Vice President Andrew Pallotta said Thursday in a statement. “That has to include reducing over-testing and recognizing that a student is not a test score—and neither is a teacher.”

The legislative agreement, which Gov. Andrew Cuomo is expected to sign today, keeps Common Core-aligned state tests from being used to fire or deny tenure to teachers this year and next year. Teachers rated “ineffective” or “developing” will have their evaluations recalculated based on local tests and principal observations before their ratings can be used to fire them.

NYSUT suggested its next step will be to further reduce the role that state tests should play in a teacher’s evaluation. Teacher scores are based on a 100-point scale, with at least 20 points based on state tests (it will increase to 25 points next year). Another 20 points can be based on another set of tests that are locally decided.

Meanwhile, State Education Commissioner John King and Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who both played pivotal roles in pushing New York’s evaluation system, said the deal would allow their reforms to move forward. They indirectly acknowledged that the delay lowers the issue’s political temperature without changing the structure of the system they negotiated.

It upholds “New York’s commitment to be leaders in education reform,” Duncan said.

Duncan’s statement comes just two days after the U.S. Department of Education suggested New York was dangerously close to breaking its Race to the Top promises, signaling that the threat was—as some observers predicted—meant as a bargaining chip for state lawmakers to use against the union, which sought more sweeping protections from poor evaluations.

King said he supported the deal because it would ease anxiety while “preserving a multiple measures evaluation system that includes student performance”—an about-face from his stance over the last year, when he repeatedly rebuffed calls to adjust the evaluation system to account for the state’s quick transition to Common Core-aligned tests.

The two-year agreement has left critics saying it didn’t go far enough or shouldn’t have happened at all. StudentsFirstNY and the Daily News editorial board both panned the deal as election-year pandering, and a loss that would set back the effort to be able to fire teachers for ineffectiveness.

But NYS Allies for Public Education, a coalition of 50 parent groups, has argued that New York’s testing policies and use of the Common Core standards need to be entirely overhauled. The group sent out a statement criticizing the deal for not doing more to address those issues.

For the next two years, the legislative agreement comes down clearly on the side of the union. It says that the scores from this year and next year’s grades 3-8 English and math state tests aren’t reliable enough to be used for negative consequences, though they will still be used for decisions about giving teachers bonuses and other types of pay raises. High school teachers will also still be evaluated based on student scores on Regents exams.

At a press conference on Thursday, Cuomo offered something to both sides of the debate. Test scores might not be reliable because of a “flawed” rollout of the Common Core learning standards, Cuomo said. But he insisted that the evaluation system was moving forward.

“People’s lives are being judged by this instrument,” Cuomo said, “so you want the instrument in the evaluation to be correct.”

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Half-priced homes

Detroit teachers and school employees are about to get a major perk: Discount houses

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan is announcing an educator discount that will allow employees of all Detroit schools to buy houses from the Land Bank at 50 percent off.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan is getting ready this morning to announce a major effort to lure teachers and other school employees to the city of Detroit: Offering them half-priced homes.

According to a press release that’s expected to be released at an event this morning, the mayor plans to announce that all Detroit school employees — whether they work for district, charter or parochial schools — will now get a 50 percent discount on houses auctioned through the Detroit Land Bank Authority.

That discount is already available to city employees, retirees and their families. Now it will be available to full-time employees of schools located in the city.

“Teachers and educators are vital to the city’s future,” Duggan is quoted as saying in the release. “It’s critical to give our school employees, from teachers to custodial staff, the opportunity to live in the communities they teach in.”

If the effort can convince teachers to live in the city rather than surrounding suburbs, it could help a stabilize the population decline that has led to blight and neighborhood deterioration in many parts of the city.

For city schools, the discounts give administrators another perk to offer prospective employees. District and charter schools in Detroit face severe teacher shortages that have created large class sizes and put many children in classrooms without fully qualified teachers.

Detroit’s new schools superintendent, Nikolai Vitti, has said he’s determined to make sure the hundreds of teacher vacancies that affected city schools last year are addressed by the start of classes in September.

In the press release, he’s quoted praising the discount program. “There is an opportunity and need to provide innovative solutions to recruit and retain teachers to work with our children in Detroit.”

The Detroit Land Bank Authority Educator Discount Program will be announced at an event scheduled for 10:45 this morning in front of a Land Bank house in Detroit’s Russell Woods neighborhood.

The Land Bank currently auctions three homes per day through its website, with bidding starting at $1,000.


try try again

Why this Bronx middle school believes in second — and third — chances

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Vincent Gassetto, the principal M.S. 343, hugs a staff member after winning the Teaching Matters prize in July 2017.

Teachers at M.S. 343 in the South Bronx had a problem: Their lessons weren’t sticking.

Students initially would test well on fundamental concepts — such as multi-digit long division or calculating the rate of change. But that knowledge seemed to melt away on follow-up exams just months or even weeks later.

The solution that teachers developed, based on providing constant feedback to students and encouraging regular collaboration among staff, has helped M.S. 343 beat district averages on standardized tests. It has also landed the school a $25,000 prize.

This week, M.S. 343 won the Elizabeth Rohatyn Prize, which is awarded to public schools that foster great teaching. Presented by the nonprofit Teaching Matters, the award money will go toward building a digital platform that students and teachers can use to track their progress from anywhere, at any time.

The work at M.S. 343 starts with determining which skills teachers will emphasize and test throughout the year. Working together, teachers draw on what they already know about which concepts are most likely to trip students up, contribute to success in later grades or appear on standardized tests. A key concept could be understanding ratios in sixth grade or mastering scientific notation by eighth grade.

“It’s all in the teachers’ hands,” said Principal Vincent Gassetto.

Students are regularly tested with “learning targets.” But they’re also given three chances to prove they’ve mastered the skills. Gassetto said the approach is backed by neuroscience, which suggests the best way to learn is to use the knowledge multiple times, instead of cramming for a single test.

“That actually tells the brain: You’re being tested on this, it’s important. And that stores it in a part of the brain that’s easily retrievable,” he said.

Only the highest score will be recorded, which serves a different purpose: boosting students’ confidence in themselves as learners.

“We’re celebrating their progress, not necessarily the end result,” math teacher Lola Dupuy explained in a video the school produced. “It can be very confusing for a student to receive a failing grade and very discouraging for them if they don’t know … what they’re doing wrong and what they need to do to improve it.”

In between tests, each department comes together to analyze students’ answers. They zero in on common misconceptions and come up with a list of questions for students to ask themselves when reviewing their work.

Using the questions as a guide, it’s up to the students to figure out where they went wrong, often by working in groups with peers with varying skill levels.

“Students are more engaged in their work and the outcomes are better because they’re self-reflecting,” Dupuy said.

M.S. 343’s approach also gets at a common knock on testing: The results are rarely used to improve teaching and students often don’t have the opportunity to learn from their mistakes. At M.S. 343, teachers spend entire weeks meeting as a team to go over results and fine-tune their instruction. That time, Gassetto said, is a valuable resource.

“Most of the time, when you give a big assessment,” Gassetto said, “you’re testing, but for what purpose? We don’t do that. If we’re going to ask kids to sit down and take an assessment, we need to look at it and get it back to them right away, so it’s useful.”