team of rivals

Seven ed research heavyweights to head to Albany to help direct evaluation overhaul

Education research heavyweights are headed to Albany next week to offer their advice about the state’s imminent overhaul of teacher evaluations, and they represent many sides of the contentious debates around how to rate teachers.

Seven researchers, economists, and professors accepted an invitation to weigh in on the debate at a May 7 summit being held by the State Education Department and Board of Regents, according to a department memo obtained by Chalkbeat. Officials are required by law to collect public comment on how to design the regulations that will govern how a teacher’s performance in the classroom gets graded, a process that must be complete by the end of June.

On Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s side is Thomas Kane, an economist from Harvard University who last week penned an op-ed praising the governor and the evaluation system he pushed into law earlier this year. Kane is best known for directing the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Measures of Effective Teaching study, an influential project that many states drew from when designing their new evaluation systems over the last half-decade. (Disclosure: Chalkbeat also receives some funding from the Gates Foundation.)

Kane’s three-year, $45 million project ultimately recommended that 33 to 50 percent of a teacher’s rating be determined by student growth as determined by their state test scores, 25 percent by student surveys, and the rest by classroom observations. (New York’s new system puts a heavier emphasis on student growth, but prohibits the use of student surveys.)

Kane will have some intellectual allies on the panel, but he’ll also be joined by several experts who are less supportive of Cuomo’s ideas. They include University of California at Berkley economist Jesse Rothstein, who analyzed data from Kane’s MET study and found substantial differences in value-added scores for the same teacher when different tests were used. Rothstein has also questioned whether state tests are the best assessments to capture teacher quality.

“If it’s right that some teachers are good at raising the state test scores and other teachers are good at raising other test scores, then we have to decide which tests we care about,” Rothstein told Chalkbeat in 2012. “If we’re not sure that this is the test that captures what good teaching is, then we might be getting our estimates of teaching quality very wrong.”

Also due to offer their opinions are Catherine Brown, vice president of the left-leaning think tank Center for American Progress, which has published papers endorsing the use of value-added methodologies; Manhattanville College professor Stephen Caldas, who once called New York’s evaluation system “psychometrically indefensible“; and Teachers College sociologist Aaron Pallas, who has been critical of New York’s system and served as an expert witness in lawsuits brought by teachers unions challenging low teacher ratings.

Balancing out the panel will be Sandi Jacobs, a vice president at the National Council on Teacher Quality, an organization that has pushed states to adopt stringent evaluation systems that rely more on student learning measures, and Leslie Guggenheim of TNTP, an advocacy organization whose influential 2009 paper “The Widget Effect” was critical of districts for not using teacher performance to make important policy decisions.

It’s unclear what influence the researchers and policy analysts will have on the state’s work, given that much of the evaluation system has been prescribed by the law passed in April. Still, officials have decisions to make about what types of student performance should be factored into evaluation plans and how those scores should be used.

According to the memo, the state’s invitation was turned down by several other prominent researchers. One was Stanford’s Linda Darling-Hammond, who said in an email that she was working with the California’s education department and couldn’t travel. Another was Sean Corcoran of New York University, who has found that the city’s teacher ratings calculated by value-added measures were highly volatile from one year to the next and often riddled with errors, and said he was traveling.

Six of the seven experts will appear in person next week, where representatives from teacher unions, superintendent associations, and other advocacy groups will also be in attendance. A spokesperson for the department said the experts will get about 45 minutes to present their views on teacher evaluation policy before taking questions from Regents members.

Meanwhile, the city teachers union got a jump start on its attempts to influence state education officials, sending a lengthy letter and documents to the Regents this week outlining its own goals for changes to teacher evaluations.

The letter stated for the first time that the union wants the state to eliminate the use of “group measures” of student growth, which can be used to give ratings to teachers based on test scores of students or subjects they do not teach. Those measures are among the most frustrating aspects of evaluations for teachers of non-tested subjects like art, music and physical education, but also allow schools to reduce the time students spend taking subject-specific tests.

The union also pushed for as many aspects of the evaluation system as possible be left to districts and their unions to negotiate, rather than be decided by state officials.

“Every district is different, and a top-down, one-size-fits-all system will not meet the needs of all students and schools,” Evelyn De Jesus, the union’s vice president for education wrote.

Newcomers

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.”