First Person

Commentary: How to measure educator effectiveness

This commentary was written by Jessica Cuthbertson, an educator with 10 years’ experience. She is a literacy coach in Aurora Public Schools and an active member of the Denver New Millennium Initiative of the Center for Teaching Quality.

How do you measure the effectiveness of an educator?

As a literacy coach I experience firsthand the multi-tasking, the magic, and the mishaps that occur in schools every day. I see teachers and kids on their best days, their worst days and all of the days in between.

I see teaching and learning in action. And I see the planning, thinking and “behind the curtain” decision-making that drives the day-to-day instruction in classrooms.

So it was with mixed feelings that I agreed to serve on the “alternative evaluation team” for three teachers this year. Would this blurring of instructional coaching and evaluation make teachers more or less responsive to collaboration and feedback? Would it foster trust and honesty or fear and fabrication?

Despite my initial reservations, being a part of each teacher’s team has strengthened our relationships and added layers of depth to our work.

The alternative evaluation process was piloted in 2006-07 in Aurora Public Schools and is currently an option available to non-probationary teachers (those with more than three years of experience in the district). Non-probationary teachers can pursue alternative evaluation or continue with traditional evaluations that consist of two to four formal classroom observations throughout the school year and a pre/post conference with an administrator.

The alternative evaluation elevates teacher voice and choice in the process. Teachers select multiple indicators for their evaluation. The measures come from a bank of indicators that are aligned to standards in four broad categories: Teaching and student learning, learning environment, professional development and professionalism. Teachers choose the indicators that align with their daily work and reflect areas where they want to grow as professionals and instructional leaders.

Teachers also organize an “alternative evaluation team” – a group comprised of at least one administrator (the “evaluator of record”) and one or more colleagues, instructional coaches, mentors, parents or other professionals selected by the teacher. The team works as a panel to inform and support the evaluation process alongside the teacher, who is responsible for gathering evidence of his or her progress toward the indicators for each standard.

Angelina Walker, a high school literacy/ELD (English Language Development) teacher and administrative teacher n special assignment (TOSA) at Vista PEAK in Aurora is currently engaged in the alternative evaluation process. “I truly feel like the one snapshot evaluation is not conducive, nor is it informative, to how I really teach and interact with students, parents and staff.”

She added: “I know that I can plan a great lesson and have it executed well in one shot.  However, as a professional, I also know that you will know a person’s true ability by having multiple interactions and conversations with a teacher. I felt that this process would challenge me to become a better teacher.”

Vanessa Valencia, a sixth grade literacy and humanities teacher at Vista Peak, entered the field of education with previous experience in the corporate world where concrete, tangible results drove her evaluation. She believes the alternative evaluation process should be open to probationary and non-probationary teachers alike, and that this process is in closer alignment with the rules for SB 10-191 and the upcoming implementation of the new teacher evaluation system in 2014.

“Student data shouldn’t be the only indicator of a teacher’s effectiveness,” states Valencia, “but it should be an important indicator that lives within a larger body of evidence.”

It is the collection of this body of evidence over time that made the alternative evaluation process an appealing option for Valencia, Walker and many of their colleagues. It is a process, that while intensive and time-consuming, is also proving to be professionally rewarding.  A process implemented with hopeful optimism as the state prepares to roll out an evaluation system comprised of results (data) and teacher-collected and created evidence.

In fact, alternative evaluation as implemented in this district may serve as a viable, holistic model worthy of examination and replication to inform the 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation that represent measures other than data, as outlined in the current rules for SB 191. Teachers who have experienced both traditional and alternative evaluations are valuable resources who can support policymakers and district leaders as they design implementation plans in preparation for 2014.

How do you measure the effectiveness of an educator?

You involve teachers in the process. You ask them to collect evidence over time, to reflect on their practice and identify their successes and struggles. You collect evidence alongside them.  You interact with them consistently, inside and outside the classroom. You listen. You increase the number of voices represented on the final document.

Finally, you acknowledge that evaluation is a subjective and imperfect practice. But you endeavor to capture the complexities that comprise the art and science of teaching and learning.

First Person

I’ve been mistaken for the other black male leader at my charter network. Let’s talk about it.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

I was recently invited to a reunion for folks who had worked at the New York City Department of Education under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. It was a privilege for me to have been part of that work, and it was a privilege for me to be in that room reflecting on our legacy.

The counterweight is that only four people in the room were black males. Two were waiters, and I was one of the remaining two. There were definitely more than two black men who were part of the work that took place in New York City during that era, but it was still striking how few were present.

The event pushed me to reflect again on the jarring impact of the power dynamics that determine who gets to make decisions in so-called education reform. The privileged end up being relatively few, and even fewer look like the kids we serve.

I’m now the chief operating officer at YES Prep, a charter school network in Houston. When I arrived at YES four years ago, I had been warned that it was a good old boys club. Specifically, that it was a good old white boys club. It was something I assessed in taking the role: Would my voice be heard? Would I truly have a seat at the table? Would I have any influence?

As a man born into this world with a black father and white mother, I struggled at an early age with questions about identity and have been asking those questions ever since.

As I became an adult, I came to understand that being from the suburbs, going to good schools, and being a lighter-skinned black person affords me greater access to many settings in America. At the same time, I experience my life as a black man.

Jeremy Beard, head of schools at YES, started the same day I did. It was the first time YES had black men at the leadership table of the organization. The running joke was that people kept mistaking Jeremy and me for each other. We all laughed about it, but it revealed some deeper issues that had pervaded YES for some time.

“Remember when you led that tour in the Rio Grande Valley to see schools?” a board member asked me about three months into my tenure.“That wasn’t me,” I replied. I knew he meant Jeremy, who had worked at IDEA in the Valley. At that time, I had never been to the Valley and didn’t even know where it was on the map.

“Yes, it was,” he insisted.

“I’ve never been to the Valley. It wasn’t me. I think you mean Jeremy.”

“No, it was you, don’t you remember?” he continued, pleading with me to recall something that never happened.

“It wasn’t me.”

He stopped, thought about it, confused, and uttered, “Huh.”

It is difficult for me to assign intent here, and this dynamic is not consistent with all board members. That particular person may have truly been confused about my identity. And sure, two black men may have a similar skin tone, and we may both work at YES. But my life experience suggests something else was at play. It reminds me that while I have the privilege of sitting at the table with our board, they, as board members, have the privilege of not having to know who I am, or that Jeremy and I are different black dudes.

It would be easy to just chalk this all up to racial politics in America and accept it as status quo, but I believe we can change the conversation on privilege and race by having more conversations on privilege and race. We can change the dynamics of the game by continuing to build awareness of diversity, equity, and inclusion. We can also advocate to change who has seats at the table and whose voices will be heard.

I remain hopeful thanks to the changes I have witnessed during my time at YES. The board has been intentional in their efforts to address their own privilege, and is actively working to become more diverse and inclusive.

Personally, I have worked to ensure there are more people of color with seats at the table by mentoring future leaders of color at YES Prep and other black men in this work. Jeremy and I also created Brothers on Books, a book club for black men at YES to find mentorship and fellowship. Through this book club, we can create a safe space to have candid discussions based on literature we read and explore what it means to be black men at YES.

When I think about privilege, I am torn between the privilege that has been afforded to me and the jarring power dynamics that determine who gets to have conversations and make decisions in so-called education reform. White people are afforded more voices and seats at the table, making decisions that primarily impact children of color.

It is not lost on me that it is my own privilege that affords me access to a seat at the table. My hope is that by using my role, my voice and my privilege, I can open up dialogue, hearts, minds, opinions, and perceptions. I hope that readers are similarly encouraged to assess their own privileges and determine how they can create positive change.

Recy Benjamin Dunn is YES Prep’s chief operating officer, overseeing operations, district partnerships, and growth strategy for the charter school network. A version of this piece was first published on YES Prep’s blog.

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.