an objective measure

As new teacher evaluation system looms, Tisch defends need for state tests

Catherine Nolan, speaking to Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch (right) and Regent Kathleen Cashin.

As state education officials have been tasked with crafting a new teacher evaluation system, Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch on Tuesday continued to defend the need for a state test as a necessary measure to address longstanding inequities.

State test results “scream to anyone who looks at them carefully for the needs of access and opportunity for students living in our high-needs districts,” she said. “We need an objective measure and that objective measure is a state test.”

One week before schools will start to administer the state’s annual reading exam, Tisch took issue with the motives of those supporting the movement to opt students out of taking the tests and blamed high levels of student stress on “angry rhetoric” coming from adults.

“I truly believe that if the adults in the situation and in the room start to work with each other — calm down a little bit — I think the stress levels would be greatly diminished,” she said on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show Tuesday.

Tisch has spoken out against the opt-out movement before, calling it a “terrible mistake,” but her comments Tuesday went a step further by calling out Karen Magee, president of New York State United Teachers, for openly urging parents to “opt out.”

While city teachers union leaders have avoided making similar statements, Tisch cautioned against the possible implications of endorsing the movement for the purpose of parent choice.

If the teachers union comes out in support of opting out of annual state tests, “as Karen Magee at NYSUT has,” Tisch said, “I would say… if it’s parents’ rights, let’s put it all on the table. Let’s not just pick one thing and say, ‘We want parents to have a choice there.’”

“Why don’t we talk about parents whose kids don’t have a choice other than to go to a failing school or to have a teacher that hasn’t been effective or prepared effectively?”

Tisch also warned that a mass opt-out of the state tests could result in New York moving away from its own locally-designed exams and be forced to adopt the Common Core-aligned tests created by one of two groups of states.

“In order for us to be able to have a viable state test, we need a viable number of students in every district showing up to be tested,” she said.

Last year, tens of thousands of students across New York sat out the state exams, as did more than 1,900 in the city — a tiny fraction of the 410,000 students who took the tests, but a 450 percent increase over the previous year.

State test scores will continue to play a prominent role in how a teacher is rated, which will also take into account at least one observation by the teacher’s principal, and one observation from an “independent” evaluator.

Under the budget agreement, the ratings will also be tied to teacher tenure eligibility and be used to make it easier to fire a teacher who repeatedly earns “ineffective” ratings.

“Not one teacher in this state has yet been let go, to the best of my knowledge, because of anything having to do with evaluations,” Tisch said.

But Tisch reiterated that “nowhere in the new law” does it require that 50 percent of a teacher’s overall rating must be based on student growth on state standardized tests, which is the measure that Gov. Andrew Cuomo was hoping to achieve.

matrix_cb
Final ratings under a new default evaluation system will be determined by matching ratings from testing and observation subcomponents according to the matrix above.

The governor and legislative leaders are “all over the map” when it comes to the new rating system, Tisch said. “They are looking to us to bring a grown up’s perspective to a very complicated issue… This has been set up so no matter who we disappoint, it’s our fault.”

The state education commissioner (for now, a vacant position) and Tisch have been tasked with settling the details of the new scoring system by the end of June — though they require approval from the full 17-member board.

And while the governor’s office has been referring to the state education department’s role in developing the evaluation system as “purely administrative,” Tisch said the budget language provides an “enormous opportunity” to speak with teachers, principals, superintendents and parents about “where we’ve been” and “where we need to go.”

“I hope that the state education department will be able to become the table of reason to manage this in an appropriate way, so that educators feel good about it, parents are informed about it, and the system is allowed to go on and put all of this noise and nonsense behind them,” she said.

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rules and regs

State shortens length of ‘gag order’ on teachers discussing Regents questions online

PHOTO: G. Tatter

After pushback from teachers, the State Education Department has changed a new provision that temporarily prohibits teachers from discussing Regents exam questions online.

The original rule stated that teachers could not use email or a listserv to discuss test questions or other specific content with other teachers until a week after the exam period ended on June 23. As Chalkbeat reported Tuesday, teachers objected, arguing that they sometimes needed to discuss questions in order to properly grade the tests or to challenge questions that seems unfair.

Under the change, tests taken between June 13 and June 16 can be discussed online beginning June 23. And for those taken between June 19 and June 22, teachers can discuss content online beginning June 27.

According to education department officials, the provision was intended to ensure that testing material did not spread online before all students had completed their exams, particularly among schools that serve students with special needs, who qualify for multiple-day testing.

“We believe that nearly all students who are testing with this accommodation will have completed their exams by these dates,” Steven Katz, director of the Office of State Assessment, wrote in a memo to school principals and leaders.

Still, longtime physics teacher Gene Gordon and former president of the Science Teachers Association of New York State noted that, to some extent, the damage was done since the amendment to the rule came out only after many teachers had already graded their exams.

“It did not have any real effect,” Gordon said.

The New York State United Teachers — which criticized the new provision on Tuesday as a “gag order” and called for its repeal — called the amendment a “clear victory” for educators. Still, NYSUT spokesman Carl Korn told Chalkbeat, “it clearly will be more helpful in the future than this year.”

An education U-turn

Carmen Fariña wants to help New York City teachers get better at teaching. But some of her own reforms are getting in the way

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
The math team at P.S. 294 in the Bronx discuss a recent lesson during the 80 minutes of professional development time carved out by the city's most recent contract with the teachers union.

It was a Monday afternoon and school was out at P.S. 294. But there was plenty of learning happening inside the blue-and-yellow building in the Bronx.

Teams of teachers were gathered in classrooms on almost every floor. One group discussed a recent math lesson on how to identify patterns; another analyzed which questions had stumped students during recent statewide tests. A third was thinking about new ways to encourage discussion in the classroom.

In each huddle, they were learning a valuable lesson from each other: how to become better teachers.

What’s happening at P.S. 294 is what Carmen Fariña envisioned when she became chancellor of the country’s largest school system. Among the veteran educator’s most deeply held beliefs is that school improvement starts in the classroom — by helping teachers get better at teaching.

“To me, everything that happens in the classroom is the most crucial thing in the building,” Fariña told Chalkbeat.

Many of Fariña’s reforms reflect that vision, including the city’s contract with the teachers union, which carves out time for professional development each week. But another set of changes Fariña made — overhauling the education department bureaucracy — has sometimes worked at cross purposes, taking power away from those who know schools best.

Strapped superintendents and staffers sidelined in support centers now oversee much of the training teachers encounter. Fariña herself acknowledges it has sometimes been a struggle to meet the diverse needs of schools under the new system.

One Bronx principal said he sees that struggle firsthand.

“What some people call ‘supporting instruction with professional development,’ other people would call ‘bloated bureaucracy,’” the principal told Chalkbeat. “I have no interest in their professional development, and they don’t know my school.”

***

Like much of what has happened at the education department under Mayor Bill de Blasio, the chancellor’s emphasis on teaching the teachers marks a radical shift from the preceding administration.

Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein wanted great teachers in every classroom, too. But their position was that it was easier to hire top talent than cultivate it. Instead of pouring resources into teacher improvement, they set about measuring teachers to weed out those who were ineffective.

“Joel didn’t believe in professional development at all,” said Eric Nadelstern, who served as deputy chancellor for school support and instruction under Klein. “His question was, ‘Is it easier to change the teacher — or to change the teacher?’” Klein himself did not agree to be interviewed for this story.

When Fariña took the helm, educators took heart that one of them was in charge again. With 50 years of experience in New York City classrooms, she was the first chancellor in more than a decade who didn’t need a waiver, which the state requires when a school leader does not have the experience set by law for the job.

“When de Blasio named Fariña chancellor, it was a message,” said Norm Fruchter, a researcher at New York University who previously served as a de Blasio appointee to the Panel for Educational Policy. “The pendulum was going to shift back towards valuing instruction.”

In one of her first moves as chancellor, Fariña helped hammer out a contract with the United Federation of Teachers, the union that had clashed for years with Bloomberg and Klein. Among its most significant changes: giving teachers 80 minutes after school every Monday to work on improving their craft. The contract also created new leadership positions that gave extra pay to skilled teachers who agreed to take on coaching roles in their schools.

Taken together, those moves helped create a structure for helping teachers improve within their own schools.

“The thing with the most value in schools is time,” said Phil Weinberg, deputy chancellor of the department’s Division of Teaching and Learning. “The biggest thing that we’ve done is to honor the fact that learning has to happen by creating time.”

Share your thoughts on the quality of New York’s professional development for educators in our short survey.  

***

In the education world, there is much debate around whether professional learning really works. Plenty of research suggests that typical models do not. Educators have their own disparaging vocabulary to describe those models: drop-and-go, spray-and-pray, even drive-by professional development. The idea is that one-off lectures and workshops are rarely effective in changing teacher practice, let alone improving how much students are learning.

However, recent research suggests there are ways to get it right. A review of 35 different studies, released in June by the Learning Policy Institute, found common themes in professional learning programs that actually improve student performance. Those programs provide coaching, are collaborative and typically happen on the job — much like what’s happening at P.S. 294.

P.S. 294 The Walton Avenue School serves students who are traditionally among the city’s lowest-performing — those who are homeless, learning English, or have disabilities. Yet it outperforms the city average on standardized tests.

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Daniel Russo (center) working with the math team at P.S. 294

The school has taken on Algebra for All, a de Blasio initiative that helps schools change the way they teach math. P.S. 294 also has teacher leaders paid to share their knowledge with teams of their colleagues. Those teams then work together in the 80 minutes each week reserved for professional development. All of that comes together under a principal, Daniel Russo, who makes sure teachers get the feedback they need to improve their practice.

“We come back every couple of months and say, ‘How are we doing on this? What fell by the wayside and what are ways that we can do better?’” Russo said. “Everyone is going to contribute to, and benefit from, the greater knowledge that there is in the room.”

For all its ambitions, the 80 minutes don’t always work as planned. In about a dozen interviews with teachers and principals, many school staff said they appreciate that the Monday sessions have provided time and space to think about their practice. But others said that time can feel wasted or forced.

“Everyone is very busy at our school, and that’s just another meeting that has to take place to plan more meetings,” a Bronx high school teacher told Chalkbeat. (The teacher, like many educators interviewed for this story, agreed to speak only on the condition of anonymity.)

“A lot of times we’re not really sure what we’re going to do on a given day,” the teacher said. ”It’s not very focused throughout the year.”

***

Why, then, are some schools making good use of the new training time and at others, teachers feel like it’s being frittered away?

One factor: changes to the way principals are supervised and how schools get support.

Under Bloomberg and Klein, principals who needed help turned to dozens of “networks” scattered throughout the city. Principals opted into networks based on their schools’ needs, regardless of where the school or network were located in the city. The network providers were expected to solve problems for schools, or principals could vote with their feet and join different networks.

"That’s the system-wide idea of support now: taking people away from kids."David Baiz, former principal of Global Technology Preparatory

As chancellor, Fariña took a different approach. She promptly rebuilt the department’s Division of Teaching and Learning, which had been dissolved after she left the DOE in 2007. Once again, there was an office at the Department of Education’s central headquarters dedicated to actively helping schools decide what and how to teach.

She also empowered superintendents, calling them the “instructional leaders” of their districts, and upped the years of experience required to land the job. They evaluate principals but are also responsible for making sure schools get the support they need.

In the place of networks, Fariña opened “field support centers,” which serve hundreds of schools but don’t hold supervisory power. Unlike networks, most centers only work with schools located in the same borough. Superintendents and support centers are expected to work together to help schools improve teaching.

Crucially, that doesn’t always happen. The result can work against the 80 minutes, by distancing decision-making about professional development from schools — and complicating it, too.

Our principal is “held with her hands behind her back,” said Corey Taylor, a music teacher at P.S. 33 in the Bronx. “She has to do what she’s being told by her higher-ups.”

Now, principals are expected to ask their superintendents for help, who then turn to field support centers. Some principals and support centers do work directly together, though Weinberg said that’s not the preferred system.

“The ideal thing is that you’re in constant conversation with your superintendent,” he said. “It would be hard for each borough field support center to hear 145 different requests every day, from each of their schools.”

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Teachers at a training for Computer Science for All, a citywide initiative

Relationships between superintendents and support centers don’t always run smoothly, and both are tasked with overseeing many schools. Superintendents have staffs of around six people, yet may be responsible for dozens of schools. Support centers work with up to 323 schools, with an average caseload just below 200.

With superintendents acting as a filter between schools and support centers, many principals report a divide between what they’re offered and what they want to learn.

“There’s a disconnect between the reality of what’s going on in classrooms, and the offerings,” one Manhattan principal told Chalkbeat. “It usually comes down to: Teachers need to learn, very specifically, techniques, tips, philosophies that affect their own practice.”

When they work well, support centers might send staff to a school to provide targeted help requested by its principal. But, faced with heavy caseloads, the centers often respond to schools’ needs by creating borough-wide professional development sessions that can vary in quality. In the city’s most recent survey of principals, only 73 percent said they were satisfied with the support they get from the centers.

One Manhattan teacher said she went to sessions offered by the support center last year and was disappointed with what she found. The presenters led a lesson on “guided reading,” a technique that includes introducing vocabulary and breaking students into groups, but they seemed fuzzy on how to execute the practice in the classroom.

“Teachers were actually correcting them,” the teacher said. “They’re removed and they forget what it’s like to be a teacher.”

***

Despite Fariña’s emphasis on classroom-based learning, many of the support centers’ professional development sessions are happening outside schools, while class is in session. At three separate support centers, almost all the trainings for teachers offered during the month of May were held during school hours.

"We’ve set aside the time. We’ve set up the space. Can we just manage it?"Michael Mulgrew, president of the teachers union

That wouldn’t have happened under Bloomberg, according to Nadelstern, the former Klein deputy. He said his policy was that teachers and principals should not be pulled away from schools while students are in the building.

“That’s the system-wide idea of support now: taking people away from kids,” said David Baiz, the former principal of Global Technology Preparatory in East Harlem. “That’s not really the best way that adults learn: to sit in a meeting away from the context of their work environment and then try to come back and incorporate it.”

In addition to out-of-office professional development, superintendents host monthly meetings, pulling principals out of their schools for the entire day. In some cases, they include meals paid for by vendors who present professional development sessions based on educational products they’re selling.

“There’s just this feeling among almost every principal that I know,” a Bronx principal told Chalkbeat. “Like meeting after meeting after meeting and requirement after requirement are being added, and really drowning out the time needed for real collaboration.”

In an interview with Chalkbeat, Fariña admitted that professional development run by outside vendors is “not that effective.” She also acknowledged there have been growing pains as the superintendents and field support centers try to meet the needs of all the schools they serve.

“It’s been more of a struggle in some places where there was a more diverse need,” she said.

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Schools chancellor Carmen Fariña looks over a card from students in her office.

To address that, Fariña said the centers have been working on “modules” based on different areas of need. A module may highlight effective strategies for teaching students who are learning English, for instance, and come with a series of professional development courses that can be run over a period of multiple weeks.

“Each principal can adapt it as they see fit,” Fariña said.

***

Weinberg said it is easy, in a system as large as New York City, to point to “random” weak points.

“What our real goal is, is continuous improvement,” he said. “I think that we make mistakes, oftentimes, by looking at one anecdotal example as a way of disproving a larger movement.”

Michael Mulgrew, president of the teachers union, said the department needs to pay closer attention to how schools are using the resources that are now available. While the the 80 minutes of professional development time is a game-changer, he said, it can also vary in usefulness depending on school culture, principal leadership and how well superintendents and the field support centers can provide help.

“We’ve set aside the time. We’ve set up the space. Can we just manage it?” Mulgrew said. “The fact that the chancellor made this a priority when she came in is the reason why you see the school system moving forward. My fear is, have we reached a plateau?”

It may be tricky, however, to balance the kind of oversight that Mulgrew envisions with the personalization that teachers and principals say is necessary for effective professional development. But the city is evaluating its own work to make sure it’s hitting the mark for teachers and schools.

“Teaching is really fascinating and difficult work,” Weinberg said. “We need to approach this hard job with the humility that says we have the ability to learn more — and we want to learn more.”

Chalkbeat reporters Monica Disare and Alex Zimmerman contributed to this report.