Building Better Teachers

Here are all of the policy changes proposed in Tisch and Berlin’s response to Cuomo

PHOTO: Geoff Decker
Commissioner John King and Chancellor Merryl Tisch at this month's Board of Regents meeting. Elizabeth Berlin, right, will take over as interim commissioner at the end of the month.

Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch and soon-to-be acting Education Commissioner Elizabeth Berlin offered a host of proposals that would dramatically change education policy in New York state in a 20-page letter released Wednesday.

The letter, a response to a series of pointed questions from Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office, is the first comprehensive look at the changes that the Board of Regents and State Education Department are willing to throw their support behind as Cuomo continues to push for aggressive changes to the way teachers are hired, fired, and evaluated.

While some of the changes were in direct response to issues raised by Cuomo’s office, others were unsolicited. The letter includes proposals around school funding, improving school integration and passing the DREAM Act.

The complete letter is below. We’ll be sorting through it today — but first, here are all of Tisch and Berlin’s suggested policy changes.

Teacher evaluation

  • Change the law so that state-determined test scores count for 40 percent of evaluations, instead of 20 percent.
  • Establish standardized “scoring ranges” for principal observations, instead of allowing local districts to determine those scoring ranges.
  • Make it easier to remove teachers who receive two consecutive “ineffective” ratings.

Removal of poorly performing teachers

  • Replace the independent hearing officers who oversee the termination process for teachers and principals with state employees.
  • Bar students from being assigned two teachers in a row with ineffective ratings. That policy has been proposed or adopted in other states, including Rhode Island, Indiana, and Florida.

Teacher training and certification

  • Establish year-long internships in schools and a statewide teacher residency program modeled on a New York pilot program created with Race to the Top funds.

Incentives for high‐performing teachers

  • Use $20 million apportioned to Cuomo’s Teacher Excellence Fund in last year’s budget to fund existing programs that compensate teachers for taking on leadership roles.
  • Increase total funding for teacher leadership programs in next year’s budget by as much as $80 million.

Probationary periods

  • Require teachers to work in a classroom for five years before being eligible for tenure.
  • Change the law to explicitly state that non-tenured teachers can be fired at will, regardless of their evaluation ratings. State education officials have already made some changes to reassure district officials who say the law is too vague on this issue.

Struggling schools

  • Allow the State Education Department to more forcefully intervene in “chronically underperforming districts” like Buffalo. Tisch and Berlin ask Cuomo to support an existing bill that would put districts on oversight plans.
  • Implement an intervention model used in Massachusetts that appoints receivers for struggling schools or districts and authorizing them to “take numerous aggressive actions.”

Charter schools

  • Eliminate the regional distinctions under the current cap or raise the cap on charter schools in New York City.
  • Make it easier to close charter schools that do not improve student performance to close, and change the law so that any closed charter schools are not counted toward the cap.

Mayoral control

  • Renew mayoral control in New York City.

Regionalization

  • Consolidate high schools in districts with declining student enrollment.
  • Encourage school districts to merge programs and services by boosting the funding formulas that help minimize the effects of changes in tax rates that can result from reorganizations.

Selection process for the Board of Regents

  • Do not change the selection and appointment process for Regents.

Selection process for the education commissioner

  • Do not change the selection process for the commissioner.

School funding

  • Adopt the Regents’ state aid proposal released earlier this month, which calls for an increase of $2 billion and targeted at the highest-need districts, as well as those hit hardest by the 2007-2009 economic recession.
  • The extra $2 billion would set aside $86 million for districts to improve their services for English language learners and $251 million more for the state’s universal pre-K program.
  • Boost funding for districts offering Career and Technical Education programs.

Socioeconomic diversity

  • Expand programs like the Rochester Urban-Suburban program designed to increase socioeconomic integration.
  • Require districts to establish enrollment policies meant to increase socioeconomic integration.

DREAMers Act

  • Pass the DREAMers Act, which would allow undocumented students to pay in-state tuition at the state’s public colleges and universities and to qualify for state financial aid.

power players

Who’s who in Indiana education: Sen. Dennis Kruse

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos and Sarah Glen

Find more entries on education power players as they publish here.

Vitals: Republican representing District 14 and parts of Allen and Dekalb counties. So far, has served 13 years in the Senate (current) and 15 years in the House. Kruse began his career as a teacher in 1970, spending five years in the classroom. Once he left education, he became an auctioneer and got involved in real estate.

What he’s known for: Kruse has served as Senate Education Committee chairman for eight years. While he is a less vocal advocate for choice-based education reform measures than his House counterpart, Kruse is a staunch conservative who has pushed — with varying levels of success — for incorporating more religion in public schools.

Career highlights: In 2011, Kruse was the author of Senate Bill 1, a massive bill that established the state’s formal teacher evaluation system. He has also consistently supported bills seeking to improve school discipline, before- and after-school programs and teacher preparation. This year, Kruse has authored bills dealing with school start dates, contracts for district superintendents, school employee background checks and testing.

On religion in schools: Kruse and fellow Sen. Jeff Raatz introduced a resolution this year that, according to the National Center for Science Education, has the “teaching of evolution” as “the specific target of the bill.” Previously, Kruse has put forward other legislation that would encourage the teaching of creationism and the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer at the start of the school day, but none of the bills passed. In 2015, Kruse was also a co-author of the controversial religious freedom bill.

On toeing the party line: Despite his conservative politics, Kruse doesn’t always line up with the will of his party. Republican leaders this year are calling for making the state superintendent an appointed, rather than elected, position, but Kruse won’t back the switch. Instead, Kruse has said he believes in elections and that people should get to make choices about their representation.

For that reason, some have speculated that’s why the senate’s version of the bill bypassed his education committee and instead was heard through the elections committee.

Who supports him: Kruse has received campaign contributions from Hoosiers for Quality Education, an advocacy group that supports school choice, charter schools and vouchers; K12, one of the largest online school providers in the country; and Education Networks of America, a private education technology company.

Legislative highlights via Chalkbeat:

Bills in past years: 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017

Also check out our list of bills to watch this year.

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.”