a re-evaluation

In a win for the UFT, city reaches deal that moves further away from evaluating teachers based on multiple-choice tests

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña (center) unveils a new evaluation agreement with teachers union chief Michael Mulgrew (left)

New York City teachers may soon be rated based in part on collections of their students’ work, under a deal struck by the city that continues a shift away from using multiple-choice tests to judge teachers.

The announcement answers a big question raised last year when New York policymakers banned the use of grades 3-8 math and English state tests in teacher evaluations: What should replace those scores?

Districts across the state were on the hook to come up with an answer by the end of 2016. On Wednesday, schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña and leaders of the city’s teachers and principals unions said they had agreed on new options which would provide more “authentic” measures of learning, including city-created tests in a variety of new subjects, lengthier projects, and “student learning inventories,” or compilations of student work.

“The best evaluation tool is the work that students do day-to-day in the classroom,” Fariña said. “Sometimes it’s not the end product that matters but the process to get there.”

That’s a significant shift from what city officials were saying in 2010, when they were battling over the use of test scores in teacher ratings for the first time. Spurred by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the prospect of extra money from the Obama administration, lawmakers had overhauled the state’s evaluation law to require teachers be rated in part based on how much their students’ test scores went up — then left many details up to districts and their local teachers unions.

Then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg wanted to make sure the new evaluations would lead to low-scoring teachers losing their jobs, while the United Federation of Teachers argued that test scores aren’t a useful measure of student learning. A multiyear showdown between the union and the city followed.

The evaluations have seen many rounds of changes in the years since, but few teachers were ever removed because of their low ratings. Meanwhile, anti-testing sentiment has grown, and Cuomo’s 2015 push for a teacher evaluation law increasing the weight of state standardized tests in evaluations helped inspire a testing boycott movement — and a moratorium on the use of those exams.

The new evaluation scheme will go into effect this school year, officials said Wednesday, if it receives state approval. It will likely be in place for the next three years.

Under the new plan, the other main ingredient in New York City teacher ratings, classroom observations, will not change see big changes, union officials said.

A new legal requirement that some observations be conducted by outsiders, not school administrators, was supposed to kick in this spring. But after districts including New York City complained about the burden, the Board of Regents decided to offer waivers from the requirement. New York City plans to apply for one, officials said.

Schools will also continue to be able to choose from a menu of tests for deciding how to evaluate teachers. Some of the options will remain in place, like the “Measures of Student Learning” created by city teachers in recent years that consist of essay prompts or performance-based exams. The new option to present portfolios of student work would include assignments coming from teachers and others created centrally by the Department of Education.

Advocacy groups that have fought for evaluation systems that identify more low-performing teachers and remove them from schools immediately criticized the new system. Jenny Sedlis, executive director of StudentsFirstNY, called it “Mayor de Blasio’s scheme to rate every teacher effective.”

But there was little tension between union and city officials, who stood side by side and presented a coordinated message Wednesday morning.

“This is the first time where I can stand here before you and say we are moving in a better direction,” teachers union chief Michael Mulgrew said.

By the numbers

Early reports indicate New York opt-out rates are decreasing statewide, a possible sign of eased tension

PHOTO: Ann Schimke

Early opt-out estimates started rolling in Wednesday, the day after students sat for their first round of New York state standardized tests this year.

The number of families refusing to take the controversial tests seems to have decreased slightly in Rochester, the Hudson Valley, Buffalo and Albany. In Long Island, typically an opt-out hotbed, the rates thus far seem similar to last year. It’s still too soon to tell in New York City, but the number of families refusing to take tests has been traditionally been much lower in the city than in the rest of the state.

These are only preliminary numbers, based mostly on reports from school districts. Both High Achievement New York and New York State Allies for Public Education are tracking these reports closely and providing early tallies. The state will release an official tally this summer and would not provide any information at this time. But if it is true that opt-out rates are declining, it could be a sign that tension is slowly seeping out of what has been a charged statewide education debate.

“I think slowly and steadily, the situation is calming,” said Stephen Sigmund, executive director of High Achievement New York, a coalition of groups that promotes testing. “The changes that the state made are good changes and have helped calm the water.”

On the other side, Lisa Rudley, a founding member of New York State Allies for Public Education, said the numbers still look strong, the decreases are “very minor” and there is still a lot of information to be collected.

“The reality is, whether the numbers go up or down, there’s still a major problem with the testing in our state,” Rudley said.

Over the past few years, the number of families opting their children out of tests statewide has been on an upward trajectory, as teachers and parents protested what they saw as an inappropriate emphasis on testing. (There are currently three testing sessions each for English and math administered to students in public school grades 3-8.)

Backlash to the tests heightened in response to the state’s decision to adopt the Common Core learning standards and to tie those test results to teacher evaluations. The opt-out rate climbed to one in five students in 2015.

Partly in response to the movement, the state began to revise learning standards and removed grades 3-8 math and English tests from teacher evaluations tied to consequences. The Board of Regents selected a new leader, Betty Rosa, endorsed by opt-out supporters. Last year, the tests themselves were shortened slightly and students were given unlimited time to complete them. But, officials were unable to quell the tension. Roughly the same number of students sat out of the tests last year as the year before.

It’s difficult to estimate whether the opt-out rate has increased or decreased in New York City yet, said Kemala Karmen, a New York City representative for NYSAPE. She said that, anecdotally, in schools she has been in contact with, opt-out rates have either remained constant or decreased. Yet she has also heard of opt-outs in schools that had not reported them in the past. Karmen is also critical of the state’s changes to testing, which she thinks do not do nearly enough to assuage parents’ concerns.

New York City has traditionally had much lower opt-out rates than the rest of the state. While statewide 21 percent of families opted out last year, less than three percent did in the city. In part that’s because the movement hasn’t taken hold with as strongly with black and Hispanic families, who make up the majority of the city’s student body. Still, the movement’s political ramifications are being felt statewide.

iZone lite

How Memphis is taking lessons from its Innovation Zone to other struggling schools

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Sharon Griffin, now chief of schools for Shelby County Schools, confers with Laquita Tate, principal of Ford Road Elementary, part of the Innovation Zone during a 2016 visit.

One of the few qualms that Memphians have with Shelby County’s heralded school turnaround initiative is that more schools aren’t in it.

The district’s Innovation Zone has garnered national attention for its test score gains, but it’s expensive. Each iZone school requires an extra $600,000 annually to pay for interventions such as an extra hour in the school day, teacher signing and retention bonuses, and additional specialists for literacy, math and behavior.

But instead of just replicating the whole iZone model, the district is trying a few components on some of its other struggling schools.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Whitehaven High School is the anchor school for the Empowerment Zone, the first initiative to employ lessons learned from the iZone.

Last year, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson launched the Empowerment Zone, a scaled-down version of the iZone for five Whitehaven-area schools in danger of slipping to the lowest rankings in the state. The iZone’s most expensive part — one hour added to the school day — was excluded, but the district kept teacher pay incentives and principal freedoms. And teachers across the five schools meet regularly to share what’s working in their classrooms.

This year, district leaders are seeking to inject iZone lessons in 11 struggling schools that Hopson would rather transform than close. His team has been meeting with the principals of those “critical focus schools” to come up with customized plans to propel them out of the state’s list of lowest-performing schools.

As part of that effort, Hopson’s budget plan calls for providing $5.9 million in supports, including $600,000 for retention bonuses for top-ranked teachers at those schools. Spread across the 11 schools, that investment would shake out to about $100,000 less per school than what the iZone spends.

“We’re trying to provide targeted academic support based on the individual school needs. And that can include a lot of our learnings from the iZone as well as a host of other suggestions,” Hopson told school board members last month.

The iZone launched in 2012 and now has 21 schools in some of Memphis’ most impoverished neighborhoods. The initiative was thrust into the national spotlight after a 2015 Vanderbilt University study found the turnaround effort had outpaced test gains of similarly poor-performing Memphis schools in a state-run turnaround district.

Overseeing the iZone has been Sharon Griffin, the former principal who has become Hopson’s chief catalyst and ambassador on school improvements happening in Tennessee’s largest district. In January, he promoted Griffin from chief of the iZone to chief of schools for the entire district.

Griffin has long touted good leadership as the key to the iZone’s successes. The turnaround model relies on placing top principals in struggling schools and giving them the autonomy to recruit effective teachers to put in front of students. Academic supports and daily collaboration across iZone schools are also important tenets.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Shelby County Schools has branded its Innovation Zone to showcase one of its most successful initiatives.

In her new role, Griffin is trying to equip principals across the school system to carry out the district’s academic strategies and spread the iZone culture of leadership and collaboration districtwide.

The latest “critical focus” initiative represents the most significant investment so far to magnify the iZone model. It also shows the level of confidence that Hopson has in Griffin, her team, and their strategies.

“We recognize that if we truly want to turn around our schools, it can’t be just one teacher at a time. It has to be one team at a time,” Griffin said Monday. “And we know if we hire the most effective leader, they hire the most effective teachers, and we’re building a team and a cadre of greatness. … Human capital is going to be our secret weapon.”

As for which iZone components will be culled this spring for each of the 11 critical-focus areas schools, that’s under review. In keeping with the iZone model, those schools are being assessed to create a “school profile” that will determine the course for interventions. Among the possibilities: Adding staff, lengthening the school day, and ramping up after-school programs.

“We’re looking at all our schools and making sure that we’re not duplicating our resources. Then we’re taking additional resources and aligning them to one mission,” Griffin said. “ … We want to give our schools an opportunity to put their own spin on an aligned curriculum and professional development.”