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.

second chance

An embattled Harlem charter school that serves kids with disabilities will be allowed to keep its middle school — for now

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Opportunity Charter School

A Harlem charter school will be allowed to keep its middle school next school year, despite the fact that top city education officials have repeatedly ruled that it is too low performing to stay open.

That decision offers at least temporary relief for Opportunity Charter School, which has been embroiled in a dispute with the education department since March. The disagreement centers on whether city officials properly took into account the school’s students — over half of whom have a disability — when it judged the school’s performance.

The city’s education department, which oversees the school as its charter authorizer, tried to close the middle school and offered only a short-term renewal for the high school when the school’s charter came up for review earlier this year. The school appealed that decision, and was denied late last month.

But the education department is backing down from its position — at least for now. That reversal appears to be based mostly on logistics: A Manhattan Supreme Court judge has temporarily blocked the closure through at least mid-July in response to a lawsuit filed by the school and some of its parents last month, complicating the process of finding students new schools outside the normal admissions cycle.

“Students always come first, and given where we are in the school year, we will allow the middle school grades to remain open in 2017-18,” education department spokesman Michael Aciman wrote in an email on Thursday. Still, he noted, the department will continue to push to close the middle school in the future.

Kevin Quinn, a lawyer representing Opportunity Charter, said the city’s decision was the only responsible one, given that the school has already held its admissions lottery and made offers to parents.

“This is a wise decision by the [education department],” Quinn wrote in an email, “and [we] appreciate their acknowledgment that placement of this population at this time would be significantly disruptive.”

language proficiency

Educators working on creating more bilingual students worry new state requirements aren’t high enough

A second grade class at Bryant Webster K-8 school in Denver (Joe Amon, The Denver Post).

Colorado educators who led the way in developing high school diploma endorsements recognizing bilingual students worry that new legislation establishing statewide standards for such “seals of biliteracy” sets the bar too low.

Two years ago, Denver Public Schools, Eagle County Schools and the Adams County School District 14 started offering the seal of biliteracy to their students. The three districts worked together to find a common way to assess whether students are fluent in English and another language, and recognize that on high school diplomas. Advocates say the seal is supposed to indicate to colleges and employers that students are truly bilingual.

A bill passed by state legislators this year that will go into effect in August sets a path for districts that want to follow that lead by outlining the minimum that students must do to prove they are fluent in English and in another language.

According to the new law, students must meet a 3.0 grade point average in their English classes and also earn a proficient score on the 11th grade state test, or on Advanced Placement or IB tests. For showing proficiency in the second language, students can either earn proficient scores on nationally recognized tests — or meet a 3.0 grade point average after four years of language classes.

Although educators say the law sends a message of support for bilingual education, that last criteria is one part of what has some concerned.

“It allows for proficiency in a world language to be established solely by completing four years of high school language classes,” said Jorge Garcia, executive director of the Colorado Association for Bilingual Education. “Language classes in one school district may have a different degree of rigor than they do in another.”

The second language criteria should be comparable to the English criteria, several educators said. In the requirements set by Denver, Eagle County and Adams 14, students must at a minimum demonstrate language proficiency through a test score, or in some cases with a portfolio review and interview if a test is not available.

The three districts also catered their requirements based on what each community said was important. In Adams 14 and in Eagle schools, students must perform community service using their language skills. Students also have to do an interview in both languages with a community panel.

“Our school district team developed the community service criteria because we wanted our kids to have authentic practice in their languages,” said Jessica Martinez, director of multilingual education for Eagle County Schools. “We also wanted students to be a bridge to another community than their own. For example, one group of students created academic tutoring services for their peers who don’t yet speak a lot of English. Another student started tutoring her mom and her parents’ friends so they could get their GED.”

The state law doesn’t require students to do community service. But it does allow school districts to go above the state’s requirements when setting up their biliteracy programs.

“Thoughtful school districts can absolutely address these concerns,” Garcia said.

Several school districts in the state are looking to start their own programs. In March, the school board for the Roaring Fork School District in Glenwood Springs voted to start offering the seal. Summit School District also began offering the seal this year.

Leslie Davison, the dual language coordinator for Summit, said that although her program will change in the next year as she forms more clear requirements around some new tests, she will continue to have higher requirements than the state has set.

This year her students had prove proficiency in their second language by taking a test in that language. They also had to demonstrate English proficiency through the ACT. In addition, students did oral presentations to the community in both languages.

“Their expectations aren’t as high as mine are,” Davison said. “We’ll probably stay with our higher-level proficiencies. I do have some work to do in terms of how that’s going to look for next year, but I certainly don’t want to just use seat time.”

Meanwhile, the districts that started the seal are increasing their commitment to biliteracy so as many students as possible can be eligible to earn seals in the future.

The Adams 14 school district in Commerce City is using Literacy Squared, a framework written by local researchers for teaching students to read English by strengthening literacy in the native language. The program is being rolled up year by year and will serve students in 34 classrooms from preschool through fourth grade in the fall.

In Eagle County, Martinez said parents have shown such a strong demand for biliteracy that most elementary schools are now dual language schools providing instruction to all students in English for half of the school day and in Spanish for the other half.

Both districts are also increasing the offerings of language classes in middle and high school. The options are important for students who are native English speakers so they too can become bilingual and access the seal. For students whose primary language is not English, the classes can help ensure they don’t lose their primary language as they learn English.

Of Eagle’s 25 students who graduated with a seal of biliteracy this year, 17 were native Spanish speakers and eight were native English speakers.

“We want all kids to see their bilingualism is an asset,” Martinez said. “It’s huge for them.”