Growing pains

Teachers aren’t the only only ones facing new evaluation system

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier/ Chalkbeat TN
Kenneth Woods and his daughters Breanna Rosser (r) and Taylor Woods (r) reviewed 12 powerful words with sixth grade language arts teacher Patricia Hervey.

Since a landmark piece of school reform legislation passed in 2010, teacher evaluations have become a hot topic in Colorado education circles. What’s lesser-known is that the system ushered in by Senate Bill 10-191 extends to thousands of school employees who don’t work in classrooms, but rather counseling offices, health rooms and other school spaces.

Starting this year, the law requires annual evaluations of counselors, psychologists, therapists, nurses and other staff labeled “Specialized Service Professionals” or SSPs. These employees fall into nine categories, number about 4,700 and make up around 9 percent of the licensed school workforce.

As with the introduction of statewide teacher evaluations last year, the evaluation process for SSPs has brought some predictable bumps in the road: anxiety, confusion and a steep learning curve.

“The details of it are huge,” said Anne Hilleman, director of exceptional student services for Montrose and Olathe Schools. “It’s a bear.”

It’s a sentiment familiar to Katy Anthes, executive director of educator effectiveness at the Colorado Department of Education.

“There was a big fear factor with Senate Bill 191,” she said.

Despite concerns, there’s a sense among some SSP staff that the new system offers meaningful professional feedback and concrete avenues for improvement.

“I was kind of excited to have a useful evaluation tool,” said school nurse Jackie Valpiando, who came to the Widefield School District last year after working in other districts. “Before, we were kind of evaluated like a teacher because they didn’t know what to do with us…Most of the time I wasn’t evaluated.”

Widefield is one of 19 sites—mostly school districts and BOCES—that piloted SSP evaluations last year. So was the Montrose district. Previously, evaluations there were conducted using generic rubrics that didn’t always fit well with the employees’ responsibilities.

Under the state model system, which districts can use to guide the evaluation process, there are rubrics defining high-quality practice for all nine SSP categories.

“These rubrics [are] very detailed, very specific to each specialty area, which in terms of morale had to feel good to folks,” said Hilleman.

“Before last year, we were like, ‘Which rubric do you put an audiologist on?”

New model includes student outcomes

While many states have implemented evaluation systems for teachers and principals, mandating evaluations for other licensed school personnel is less common.

SSP Numbers in Colorado

    • School counselors: 1,617
    • Speech language pathologists: 1,065
    • Psychologists: 738
    • Social workers: 461
    • School nurses: 357
    • Occupational Therapists: 325
    • Physical therapists: 79
    • Audiologists: 67
    • Orientation and mobility specialists: 12
*Numbers are from the 2012-13 school year

“We’re probably in a small grouping [of states] that includes the specialized services professionals,” said Anthes. “Our state was pretty all-encompassing and comprehensive when the law said all licensed personnel must be evaluated.”

By the end of this school year, Colorado’s SSP staff will earn one of four final ratings: ineffective, partially effective, effective or highly effective. Eventually, the ratings will be posted publicly in the aggregate, but individual employee ratings will not be available.

While all Colorado SSPs must be evaluated this year, districts do have some leeway in how they come up with the final rating. They can choose to weigh only professional practice scores—those based on the SSP rubrics—in the final rating. That will change next year when 50 percent of the final rating must include “measures of student outcomes.”

Those outcomes, usually three to four different measures, are defined by each district and will vary by SSP category. For example, nurses may be asked to ensure that a certain percentage of asthmatic students can demonstrate the proper use of inhalers. Meanwhile, a counselor may be judged on students’ acquisition of knowledge after a social skills program.

In some districts, student outcomes measures may include things like state test scores. That may sound counterintuitive since SSP staff don’t provide academic instruction, but the rationale is that all school staff have ownership of student achievement.

“Interestingly, a lot of the SSPs are including some portion of student growth in the collective measure,” said Anthes. “Kind of as a nod to saying, ‘We’re all supporting students. We’re all contributing to the environment that helps them learn.’”

In Widefield, state test scores will count for 5 percent of SSP evaluations.

“They want us to have buy-in and I agree with that 100 percent,” said Vialpando. “We need to make sure the kids are successful too.”

She added, “I’m glad it’s 5 percent and not 50 percent.”

Adjusting to a new system

While most district administrators have always had some role in evaluating SSP staff, most agree that the new system is far more time-consuming. Hilleman, who evaluates SSP staff as well as other employees, said the new system has tripled her evaluation workload.

“You are more frequently engaged in coaching and evaluative conversations with people,” she said.

Overall, she believes the process is valuable, but given the time commitment wonders if “rock star” employees truly need annual evaluations.

James McGhee, assistant director of special education in Widefield, said the district’s old process, which entailed a written narrative about the employee’s strengths and weaknesses, took about an hour to complete. Not only do the new write-ups take 1.5-2 hours to complete, the district opted to move from one formal evaluation a year to two though that’s not required by the state.

“It’s a big shift,” he said, one that was rough at first but ultimately more informative for staff.

“The feedback is more specific in helping them grow as professionals.”

SSP staff have noticed the increased time commitment too, but some say the close examination of their day-to-day work is welcome.

“It’s a chance to be acknowledged and validated for what we do as special service providers,” said Christine Gray, a counselor at Aspen Elementary School.

Working outside the classroom sometimes gives SSPs the sense, “You’re an ‘other,’ a  little out of the mainstream,” she said.

The evaluation process–time-consuming though it is–helps remedy that feeling. For Gray, the new system has also meant more on-going reflection. Under the previous system, she’d usually turn her attention to her evaluation for a day, maybe two.

Now, she says she can’t quantify the minutes and hours she spends preparing for, having, or reflecting on her evaluation because it’s woven throughout her job.

“Its not something you put to bed anytime,” she said. “Hopefully its something you carry with your and it guides your practice.”

Moderating expectations

Aside from the extra time investment, many SSP employees find the new system challenging because earning top ratings on the professional practice half of the evaluation is tougher than under most previous evaluation systems.

Under the state model system, SSP staff can earn one of five ratings for professional practice: exemplary, accomplished, proficient, partially proficient and basic. While “proficient” meets state standards, it can seem like a mediocre rating to employees who are used to superlatives.

Valpiando said she earned “exemplary” on a few standards last year, but overall would have fallen into the proficient category.

“I’ve always thought of myself as better than proficient….so that was hard for me to take,” she said.

One of the criteria that distinguishes proficient from “accomplished” or “exemplary” for all types of SSP staff, is whether they move from carrying out required duties to empowering students, parents or teachers around certain professional goals. For example, a proficient employee might make a recommendation to a student, whereas an exemplary employee prompts the student to act on the recommendation.

“That is a really unique piece of all of our rubrics…the same things happen with principal and assistant principal rubrics,” said Anthes. “When you move to accomplished or exemplary it’s what has the work you’ve done enabled others to do?”

Hilleman said while her SSP staff all scored well into proficiency based on the rubric, few were exemplary.

“I did really have to frontload especially with my overachievers…Don’t feel like this is a ding.”

Impacting personnel decisions

With many SSP staff employed on single-year contracts, their employment status may depend more on student enrollment and district needs than evaluation ratings. Still, those not on single-year contracts who score below effective for two years in a row can lose non-probationary status. Technically, this could make it easier for districts to dismiss them.

“It is easier to fire you if you don’t have non-probationary status,” said Anthes. “Whereas if you had non-probationary status… it might take a district longer to remove you.”

No SSPs will lose non-probationary status till the end of the 2016-17 school year at the earliest, since this year is considered a hold-harmless year. Even then, districts will not be required to dismiss partially effective or ineffective employees, though administrators will have that option.

Despite the potential influence of SSP evaluations on job security, Anthes said, “That’s really not the main point of the law…We really try to emphasize…it’s about professional growth.

As always, she said, districts should use evaluation ratings for personnel decisions, such as determining what professional development to offer, how to draft professional growth plans or where to place staff.

“Every professional in public schools deserves meaningful practice.”

survey says

We asked Indiana teachers why they’re leaving the classroom: ‘Death by a thousand cuts’

PHOTO: Getty Images

In her first classroom at Indianapolis Public School 79 in 1977, art teacher Teresa Kendall had five whole potter’s wheels to herself. Plus clay. And a kiln.

She was under orders from her principal, she remembers, to make sure her students “have all the art they can have.”

Nearly 39 years, five layoffs, and four school districts later, she returned to Indianapolis Public Schools, where she was told there were just a handful of potter’s wheels in the entire district. She managed to get her hands on one, rescuing it from an unused classroom at Arlington High School.

Chalkbeat asks Indiana teachers: Why did you leave the classroom?

“It’s a huge difference,” Kendall said, comparing her situation to other schools she’s seen. “It just puts a knot in my stomach when I think about it … I think about what my kids at [School] 105 have to do without.”

Kendall said she spent hundreds of dollars on supplies, and she was overwhelmed by having to configure her 28-seat classroom to accommodate 62 students. At the end of last year, she decided to leave teaching altogether.

“It was the most solid community school I’ve ever been in, in all of my career,” Kendall said. “I miss it tremendously. But I couldn’t stay there.”

Carrie Black, an Indianapolis Public Schools spokeswoman, said classes might have been large at one point when the district was working to hire a substitute for a teacher on family leave, but the principal at School 105 said there were enough tables and chairs for the whole class. The principal also said teachers were told they could be reimbursed for supplies.

“Under no circumstances was she required to supply her art room in any way, shape, or form,” Black said. “So if she did, those were decisions she made on her own.”

More than 60 former Indiana teachers responded to a Chalkbeat survey about why they decided to leave teaching, a problem that policymakers and state lawmakers have said is part of the reason behind this year’s efforts to raise teacher salaries — which some educators and advocates say don’t go nearly far enough. Across the country, teachers have gone on strike and protested to demand better pay and working conditions, stirring up national conversation about the challenges they face.

Kendall, who has two master’s degrees, made $48,000 when she left IPS. The most she’d made, she said, was close to $62,000 when she taught in Lebanon. Now, she’s a paralegal.

The former teachers, from schools all over the state, reported a wide range of salaries over the years — from as low as $26,000 to more than $66,000. Now out of the classroom, they have found jobs as nurses, bus drivers, engineers, insurance agents, and seasonal park rangers. Some are unemployed, stay-at-home-parents, or graduate students.

While many former teachers said low pay or stagnant salaries contributed to their decisions to find other careers, more cited increasing responsibilities for reporting and testing, dwindling support and coaching from administrators, and “punitive” teacher evaluations.

Here is a selection of their reasons for leaving, lightly edited for clarity and length.

Too little pay

  • I had a third child and my entire paycheck was going toward insurance and childcare. I couldn’t afford to work.
  • State laws were being introduced that would make it next to impossible to ever increase my salary, or even to bargain to try to keep pace with the cost of living.
  • I was 20 years into teaching and felt undervalued, overworked, and underpaid for my education, training, and role as a teacher. I had reached the top of the pay scale and there was not room to advance. I didn’t want to become an administrator. Our insurance was steadily rising and with no pay raises, we were making less than what I had started with 20 years ago. My wife and I were both teachers and we both had to take part-time jobs to help pay the bills.
  • The level of stress, the constant demand on more and more of my time and energy with no compensation, and the low wages! Also the constant micromanaging!
  • In my 12th year I was making less than I did in year one. Health insurance was too costly, parents were overbearing, and the amount of accommodations needed for students was out of hand.

Too much testing, politics, and red tape

  • I couldn’t take any more of the state legislature’s disrespect of teachers. The loss of school funding, punitive evaluation methods, and absolute lack of willingness to truly listen to educators about our needs and what goes on in a classroom made me realize it wasn’t worth it anymore.
  • The constant change in state testing.
  • I had had it with ISTEP and school accountability practices demanding measurable outcomes and driving learning away from what we all know are best practices.
  • There was constant assessing without allowing kids to be kids and grow socially and mentally. Spent more hours assessing than teaching.
  • The time required to be spent on more red tape and paperwork instead of just doing what I knew was best for kids was too much.
  • I was working 10-12-hour days just to get state-mandated paperwork done AND papers graded. I loved my kids, I loved my school, I loved my principals, but I hated meetings every morning to appease legislators who are clueless, and I hated having to prove what a great teacher I was.
  • The time the job required meant my son and I were at school until 8 or 9 every night. All that time and dedication with no guarantee of a job? No thanks.
  • Teachers were treated as if we were entry level employees who could not make any decisions for themselves.
  • My afternoon classes had 39, 38, and 40 students. The Rise rubric [for teacher evaluations] made everyone feel like they were failures before even being evaluated.
  • I was dealing with burnout, and I was tired of working as many hours as I did and being as undervalued as I was. It felt like I constantly had administrators, parents and community members telling me what was wrong with how I did things.
  • I was expected to assign at least 10 math problems to every student every night. Since I had about 100 students, that’s about 1,000 math problems every night. Bottom line, time with my family is more important.
  • I felt overwhelmed by what the legislators were inflicting on us, the lack of true support from administrators, and just the stress that is teaching even in the best of times. Most of all — I was exhausted, I guess. Death by a thousand cuts, more or less.

Kids eat free

Colorado could expand lunch subsidy to high school students

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
Bernadette Cole serves food to students at Prairie View High School in Brighton.

When Colorado expanded a school lunch subsidy to middle school students, the number of sixth- through eighth-graders eating lunch at school went up in districts across the state.

Twenty-sixth percent more middle school students ate lunch at school in the Greeley-Evans district, where a majority of students live in poverty, but even in the more affluent Littleton district in Denver’s south suburbs, 11 percent more middle school students ate lunch.

For school nutritionists and children’s advocates, these kinds of results make the case for extending this same lunch subsidy to high school students.

“We know the co-pay is a barrier because of the large uptick in participation when it goes away,” said Erin Miller, vice president of health initiatives for the Colorado Children’s Campaign.

The “co-pay” is the 40 cents per meal that families who qualify for reduced-price lunch — but who make too much money to qualify for free lunch — are responsible for. The federal government picks up most of the cost for these lunches, and since 2008, Colorado has covered the 40 cents for the youngest students, rendering those lunches free to their families. This program has gradually expanded, reaching middle school students in legislation passed last year.

A bill that passed out of the House Education Committee Thursday would cover the 40-cent cost difference for high school students, a longtime goal of advocates.

“The state of Colorado has been trying to ensure that kids in poverty have access to food for a decade,” said Danielle Bock, nutrition services director for the Greeley-Evans district and a public policy and legislative consultant with the Colorado School Nutrition Association. “This is the final step.”

Miller said hunger affects children in school not just academically but also emotionally, with hunger even associated with higher suicide rates. Advocates have pushed to expand the state subsidy because participation in school lunch goes down as children get older, even as their caloric needs go up.

Currently, households that earn less than 130 percent of the federal poverty level, or $32,630 for a family of four, qualify for free lunch through the federal program. Families who earn between 130 and 185 percent of the federal poverty limit, or up to $46,435 for a family of four, qualify for a reduced-price lunch. It’s children from that second category families who will benefit if this bill becomes law.

Bock said the vast majority of school food service agencies in Colorado have unpaid lunch debt that, under federal law, they can’t just write off. School districts either pick up the costs out of their general fund or try to collect from parents, which sometimes leads to the controversial practice of “lunch shaming,” in which schools serve less nutritious and appealing alternative lunches to students whose parents owe money.

Lawmakers started out wanting to ban lunch-shaming, but school nutritionists convinced them it would be better to have the state cover some of the extra lunch cost for families who are struggling to make ends meet.

When Denver ended the practice of serving “alternative” meals to families who hadn’t paid for lunch, the amount of lunch debt skyrocketed, with a large portion of it coming from families who had not signed up for subsidized lunches and might have the means to pay.

According to a fiscal analysis, Colorado plans to spend $2.2 million on lunch subsidies this school year. Expanding the program to high school students would cost an additional $464,000 next year, with that money going into school food service budgets.