in-house turnaround

Low-rated teachers twice as likely to work in Renewal schools

PHOTO: Geoff Decker

Students who attend the low-performing schools at the heart of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s school turnaround initiative are twice as likely to have a low-rated teacher as their peers in an average city school, according to a Chalkbeat analysis.

More than 20 percent of teachers at the 94 struggling schools that are part of the city’s ambitious “School Renewal” program received the two lowest ratings on the state-mandated evaluation system last year, compared to less than 10 percent of teachers citywide who received those ratings – “developing” or “ineffective.”

While most teachers in Renewal schools — 77 percent —  were still rated effective, students were also less likely to have a top-rated teacher: Less than 2 percent of 3,373 teachers in those schools received a “highly effective” in 2013-14, compared to 9.2 percent of the city’s teachers overall.

The analysis offers new fodder in the divisive debate over how to fix struggling schools, which has inspired lobbying campaigns this winter and even overlapped into a referendum on renewing mayoral control. De Blasio, meanwhile, has staked the success of his initiative in part on the idea that its schools can improve rapidly without significant staff changes — a departure from his predecessor Michael Bloomberg.

Mayor Bill de Blasio meets with faculty at Automotive High School, one of two Renewal Schools where staff are required to reapply for their positions.  Credit: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office.
Mayor Bill de Blasio meets with faculty at Automotive High School, one of only two Renewal Schools where staff are required to reapply for their positions. Credit: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office.

“Most teachers are here for the right reasons,” de Blasio said last month. “Most teachers can do a lot better if they’re given training, additional support and good leadership.”

Evaluating the Evaluations

To some, the results hint at a larger pattern of inequities in public education. To others, they are unreliable and, possibly, unfair to those who are teaching in the most challenging environments.

The Renewal schools have disproportionately high numbers of disadvantaged students and students of color, populations that are also far more likely to be taught by new and uncertified teachers. High-poverty schools in New York City also grapple with higher rates of teacher turnover than schools serving better-off students.

“It certainly is possible that the teachers in these Renewal schools are not as good, because it is the case that schools with challenging populations have difficulty holding onto experienced teachers who are good at their jobs,” said Aaron Pallas, a professor of education and sociology at Teachers College Columbia University.

Like several other education researchers who reviewed Chalkbeat’s analysis, Pallas cautioned against making conclusions solely from the evaluation data, which are based on a combination of student performance and classroom observations. Because of how the system was set up, he said, plans vary from one school to the next.  (They are expected to become more standardized next year, following changes by the legislature last month.)

But the city’s results were closer to reality than other places that have implemented new evaluation systems in recent years, including the rest of New York State, according to Sandi Jacobs, vice president and managing director of state policy at the National Council on Teacher Quality. While almost every teacher elsewhere has received effective or better, Jacob said, there is at least some distribution in teacher quality in New York City.

“Here’s the question we really don’t know the answer to: Are the results really accurate reflections of teacher performance?” Jacobs said.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Education said last year’s ratings did not reflect the extra support that teachers were receiving this year. The city teachers union, which touted the results when they were released last year, did not respond to requests for comment.

State education officials — with prodding from the Obama administration — are planning to use the evaluation data to address equity issues around where high-quality teachers teach. By June, states need to develop and submit plans to the federal education department showing how districts and schools are ensuring the neediest students have equal access to high-quality teachers. The issue will be discussed at next week’s Board of Regents meeting, according to Chancellor Merryl Tisch.

The de Blasio way to teacher quality

City officials say they are committed to improving teacher quality in its struggling schools. But de Blasio’s strategy is less disruptive than Bloomberg’s, which reshuffled thousands of educators by shuttering schools and replacing them with new schools and new staffs.

Staffs in just two schools in the Renewal program are being forced to reapply for their jobs. At the other schools, officials have said they will encourage weak teachers to leave voluntarily, but officials say they’re also relying on extra support for existing teachers and bonuses to bring in new talent.

“We’re making a real concentrated effort on making sure that only the best teachers are in these schools,” Chancellor Carmen Fariña said.

That goal has long proven elusive, both in New York City and across the country.

Black and Hispanic students are far more likely than their white peers to attend schools with many new and uncertified teachers, according to data released last year by the federal education department’s Office of Civil Rights. In New York City, high-poverty schools grapple with higher rates of teacher turnover than schools serving better-off students.

“It is hard to attract the highest-performing teachers to come and work in my school,” Paul Asjes, a former lawyer now in his third year teaching at the School of Performing Arts, a Renewal school. “I feel like I work with strong teachers, but it’s hard to motivate new teachers to want to come and work here.”

A stacked deck in struggling schools?

In addition to looking at the final ratings, Chalkbeat’s analysis included two subcomponents that make up 80 percent of a teacher’s overall rating: classroom observations conducted by principals and assistant principals and students’ state test scores. The remaining 20 percent is based on a student learning metric decided by groups of teachers in individual schools.

The data shows that teachers in Renewal schools were as likely to receive below-average grades on both the observation and state testing measures.

The Renewal schools serve some of the more challenging student populations in the city, which teachers and principals said was an important factor in the evaluations. At the School of the Performing Arts, where Paul Asjes is a teacher, a quarter of students have lived in temporary housing in the last five years, and it has a larger share of overage students than the vast majority of middle schools in the city, according to city data.

An internal Department of Education analysis from midway through last school year looked at classroom observations, which make up 60 percent of a teacher’s final rating, and shows a strong correlation between lower ratings and serving larger shares of poor, black, and special-education students. There was also a strong correlation between higher ratings and the school’s more recent progress report card grade. Recent national research found observations were unfairly hard on teachers with students who entered their classrooms further behind academically.

Ratings vary widely

Although in general Renewal schools had lower-rated teachers, ratings varied widely among the schools.

At 24 of the 93 schools, teachers were rated higher than city averages, and at 36 schools, no more than one teacher earned an ineffective rating. (Data for one of the 94 Renewal schools in the turnaround program was unavailable.)

But in eight schools, more than half the teaching staff received low ratings. Those include: the Middle School for Academic and Social Excellence in Crown Heights, where 87 percent of teachers were rated developing; The Bronx Mathematics Preparatory School, with 86 percent rated developing or ineffective; and the Young Scholars Academy of the Bronx, where 66 percent of teachers earned a low rating.

At most Renewal schools, teachers were more likely to receive a lower rating on their observations. But in some schools that were exceptions, some staff acknowledged that passing their observations were relatively easy, in part because of concerns that low ratings could be demoralizing.

“In retrospect, we erred on the side of caution too much,” said one such principal, Andrew Turay, former principal of Peace and Diversity, where only two out of 14 teachers received less than effective ratings on their observations.

At Long Island City High School, two-thirds of teachers earned highly effective ratings on their principal observations, more than twice the city average.

“He wasn’t looking to fail us,” said one special education teacher at the school, explaining that her assistant principal was sympathetic on the observations component to offset the potential for low ratings on the student performance components.

Principal Vivian Selenikas did not respond to emails requesting a comment. A city spokeswoman said Long Island City administrators were getting additional coaching on how to more accurately use the city’s evaluation rubric.

“Having a strong teacher at the front of every classroom is critical at our Renewal Schools and at every school,” spokeswoman Devora Kaye said. “We are using an aggressive set of tools to improve these historically struggling schools and we’ll hold them accountable for improved student outcomes.”

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Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community. 

School Politics

Colorado schools were a hot topic at the state Capitol this year. Here’s what lawmakers did.

A teacher reads to her students at the Cole Arts and Science Academy in Denver. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Colorado lawmakers this week are celebrating major education-related policy wins, including finding more money for public schools.

This year’s legislative session, which ended Wednesday, was marked by big compromises on issues that have befuddled policy makers for years: charter school funding, ninth-grade standardized testing and measuring the reading skills of the state’s youngest bilingual students.

With so many thorny debates behind them, lawmakers and Capitol observers are now looking toward other major policy questions they’ve put off for years, including reforming how the state pays for its public schools and making changes to Colorado’s school accountability laws and teacher licensure policies.

“The hope is now that the K-12 community can come together to focus on the big issues,” said Jen Walmer, Colorado state director of Democrats for Education Reform.

But before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s look back at the last 120 days:

Lawmakers found more money for schools than anyone could have imagined.

Before the legislative session began, school districts were preparing for the worst. Despite the state’s booming economy, constraints on how much the state could spend meant schools could have gone without much of a funding increase.

State Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, a Republican from Sterling, on the first day of the legislative session.

The forecast became even more dire midway through the session when lawmakers learned the local tax base that generates about a third of all state spending on schools was going to shrink drastically. The worst predictions had the state’s education funding shortfall growing to more than $1 billion.

State officials found a technical workaround, and lawmakers were able to send more money to schools. On average, schools will see about $242 more per student next year.

However, leaders in both parties are aware that the state’s problematic constitutional constraints, tax policies and school funding formula still exist. That’s why a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers led a successful effort to create a committee to study and propose changes to the way the state funds it schools.

“We have more work to do. We need to continue with what we’ve done this session: have tough conversations,” said Speaker Crisanta Duran, a Denver Democrat.

“How do we make sure that students, regardless of race, income, regardless of whether they have a disability, that they have the opportunity to succeed?” she said. “There is no doubt that we have structural decisions we have to make when it comes to our budget.”

Republican leaders said they’re also anxious to see the committee get to work. But they’re less likely to support an influx of cash to the state’s schools.

“If we’re going to look at real overhauls to the system and funding, we need to look at all the options — not just throwing more money at the system — a system that by many’s accounting is not working well or efficiently,” said Senate President Kevin Grantham, a Canon City Republican.

He and other Republicans are encouraging the committee to look at how other states have focused their funding formulas on students rather than on a school’s size or geographic location, and used funding to expand school choice.

Lawmakers already have one option on the table: A proposal to set a statewide property tax rate, which was born out of the legislature’s budget office and floated early in the session. While there was a lot of talk behind the scenes, it failed to gain traction. Expect to hear a lot more about the idea.

The charter school funding compromise, which some called “historic,” was just one of many longstanding issues that were resolved this year.

The 2017 legislative session will likely be remembered as the most productive in a decade because of several big compromises.

State Rep. Brittany Pettersen, a Lakewood Democrat, sits alone on the House of Representatives floor as members of her own party filibustered her compromise on charter school funding. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

Lawmakers grinned Thursday as they ticked off a long list of accomplishments to reporters, including one that could send more local money to charter schools. In return, charter schools will be required to post on their official websites more tax documents and will no longer receive two specific financial waivers.

The last-minute charter school funding bill — sponsored by a bipartisan group of lawmakers that included state Reps. Brittany Pettersen and Lang Sias and state Sens. Owen Hill and Angela Williams — was the compromise no one saw coming.

“Anything is possible,” Pettersen said after the session.

Lawmakers had wrestled with the question of requiring the state’s school districts to share their locally approved tax increases with charter schools for two years. Despite vocal objections from several school superintendents, the legislature overwhelmingly supported the bill.

Early in the session, lawmakers eager to reduce the number of standardized tests reached another compromise with the governor’s office. High school freshmen will no longer be required to take the controversial PARCC English and math tests. Instead, they’ll take a test that is aligned to the college entrance exam, the SAT.

We kicked the PARCC test out of high schools,” said Rep. Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican. “It’s gone!”

Other deals that were reached include the creation of a diploma seal of biliteracy for students who demonstrate proficiency in two languages and new regulations on how to monitor the reading skills of young English language learners.

Colorado schools will also see a financial boost for the next three years after lawmakers passed an omnibus bill that resolved a debate over a hospital fee that helps pay for the state’s health insurance program.

As part of the biggest compromise of the year, the state will raise taxes on recreational marijuana. Those taxes will send $30 million to rural schools next year and $40 million over two years to the state education fund, a sort of savings account for schools.

Rural schools flexed their muscles and blocked a bill to reform the state’s student suspension rules, but they didn’t get everything they wanted.

Not every piece of bipartisan legislation reached the governor’s desk.

Students at Merino Elementary School work during class.

A bill that aimed to reduce the number of preschool and elementary school students who are suspended was killed by a GOP-controlled committee at the request of rural schools, despite having overwhelming support from both Democrats and Republicans.

Rural school leaders said the bill attempted to create a statewide solution for a Front Range problem. A Chalkbeat analysis of suspension data, which rural superintendents refuted, showed otherwise.

Supporters of the legislation vowed to work with opponents this summer and fall and try again next year.

While rural schools were successful in blocking that mandate, they were dealt a setback when a bill that would have allowed them to remedy a teacher shortage by hiring unlicensed teachers was killed by its sponsors.

State Rep. Jim Wilson, a Salida Republican, said he couldn’t garner enough support for his effort. At least not this year.

“Like Arnold Schwarzenegger said, ‘I’ll be back,’” Wilson said.

Even though that bill failed, lawmakers did take steps to curb the state’s teacher shortage.

Stanley Teacher Prep resident Lily Wool works with kindergartner Samori McIntosh at Tollgate Elementary School in Aurora. Wood’s residency program is merging the Boettcher Teacher Residency program. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Prior to the session, education leaders at the Capitol had few if any plans to take on the state’s teacher shortage. But retired teacher and freshman state Rep. Barbara McLachlan pushed to address the issue.

The Durango Democrat partnered with a host of other lawmakers from both parties to sponsor legislation to study the shortage and provide solutions. She also sponsored a bill that would allow rural schools to hire retired teachers without penalizing their pension. Both bills were sent to the governor.

Two other bills, including one to create multiple teacher preparation pilot programs, failed to advance. But with the issue on the legislature’s radar, expect it to come back.

“That’s the most pressing issue, next to funding,” said state Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat.

Despite newfound freedom from Washington, lawmakers didn’t make any bold changes to the state’s school accountability system.

Several lawmakers early in the session seemed eager to take advantage of new flexibility from the federal government.

While the state education department was busy putting together a mandated statewide plan to adopt the new Every Student Succeeds Act, lawmakers were debating how they could update the state’s school accountability laws.

But only two bills making minor tweaks advanced.

A HOPE Online student works during the day at an Aurora learning center. (Photo by Nicholas Garcia, Chalkbeat)

One requires elementary schools that receive low quality ratings to address the needs of students in preschool through third grade.

The second bill requires the state to measure how well high school students are meeting updated graduation requirements. As part of the new requirements, which go into effect in the year 2021, high schools must adopt a list of options students can use to prove they’re prepared for college or a career.

Those options include the SAT exam, which all Colorado juniors are required to take; passing a concurrent enrollment college-level course; passing a Advanced Placement test; or completing a college thesis-like capstone project demonstrating knowledge of a subject.

“This bill is a really clever way to allow school districts to say, ‘This is what we care about, and this how we’re going to do it,’” said Luke Ragland, president of Ready Colorado, a conservative education reform group.

Some of the most anticipated school-accountability bills of the session never materialized.

One would have provided more clarity on what happens to schools that consistently receive low quality ratings from the state.

“This was a big undertaking, and the bill’s sponsors needed more time,” Ragland said.

It’s another issue Capitol-watchers can expect to see return next year.

As Ragland put it, “The lack of clarity at the end of the state’s accountability clock is bad for everyone.”