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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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.”