a re-evaluation

In big shift, Regents vote to exclude state tests from teacher evals until 2019

PHOTO: Yvonne Albinowski/Ramapo for Children
A teacher at School of Diplomacy in the Bronx, one of 94 Renewal schools that received funding to hire teacher-leaders this school year.

In a dramatic reversal, New York’s Board of Regents voted Monday to suspend the use of state standardized test scores in teacher evaluations for four years.

According to the proposal state officials presented Monday, teachers will receive two annual evaluation ratings beginning next year and lasting through 2019. One rating will include state test results but be used only for advisory purposes. The other, which state officials called a transition rating, will not use state test results and will be the one used for personnel decisions. The same arrangement would also apply to principals during that period.

The plan takes up a recommendation made last week by a panel appointed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, and represents a fundamental change to New York’s teacher evaluation system.

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State policymakers, local school districts, and teachers unions have spent much of the last three years refining evaluation systems meant to categorize teachers more effectively than the longstanding system that rated teachers as satisfactory or unsatisfactory. The rating systems weigh multiple classroom observations as well as state test scores and local measures of student learning.

But the use of complicated formulas to determine student academic growth and repeated changes to New York’s state tests eroded trust in those scores. So did the fact that many teachers were rated based on state test scores of students they didn’t teach, or in subjects unrelated to their own.

Now, those observations and locally selected tests will remain, but state test scores won’t count in decisions about whether teachers get tenure or extra support.

The change follows mounting criticism of the teacher evaluation system, which grew in tandem with the state’s testing opt-out movement. One in five eligible students didn’t take the state’s math or English exams last year.

The number of Regents skeptical of using test scores to rate teachers has swelled recently, as support for the policies eroded in Albany and nationally. On Monday, the changes earned nearly unanimous support from Regents and from State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, who served on the governor’s task force.

“I’m glad that something happened in the atmosphere to get us to a better place because we certainly didn’t have this last year,” said Regent Betty Rosa. The state teachers union also hailed the vote.

Only outgoing Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch, who has long supported test-based teacher evaluations, voted against the new regulation.

“I want to say that on the issue of this regulation I am of a different opinion,” Tisch said. “I do not believe that we can do away from an objective measure.”

The transition evaluations will remove the growth scores that the state has calculated based on its standardized math and English exams in grades 3 through 8 or on Regents exam scores for high school students. Locally selected measures of student learning will take their place.

The Regents also said they were considering changes to the growth model itself to take longer-term trends into account. During the four-year transition period, Elia said officials will focus on revamping the Common Core standards and considering alternative ways to evaluate teachers.

Last year’s law requiring half of a teacher’s evaluation to be based on state test scores remains on the books, with the Regents adopting the changes Monday as an emergency provision. (New York City, along with most districts, is still negotiating the details of those changes with its teachers union, and it’s unclear how the Regents’ actions will alter that process.)

The Regents will take another vote on the proposal on Tuesday. That will finalize the plan, though a public comment period will also follow.

Read more: 92 percent of city teachers earned high marks in newest round of evaluations

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.”