Building Better Teachers

Teacher evaluation law under scrutiny

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

(This is one of six stories on the release of teacher evaluation data. For links to all the stories go here.)

To some in Indiana, the high concentration of top educator ratings in the first year of a new evaluation system is perfectly reasonable.

“The data seems to be accurate to what I’ve always thought,” said Teresa Meredith, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association. “If anything, I thought there would be more highly effective teachers.”

But to others, including those who helped overhaul the state’s evaluation rules, the high scores are implausible given the performance of the state’s schools. Those leaders are scratching their heads — and weighing changes to the law.

“I find it hard to believe we wouldn’t see a different distribution of effectiveness ratings,” said Indiana State Board of Education member Brad Oliver.

Nearly all rated educators — 97 percent — were classified in the top two categories as effective or highly effective, which isn’t exactly what state education officials had in mind when they overhauled the state’s evaluation rules last year, with the expectation that it would be harder for teachers to win top ratings.

The overhaul made Indiana one of a growing number of states, now more than 35, to institute laws requiring more stringent reviews of educator performance that consider student test scores.

Now, the first round of ratings under the new system has some leaders already weighing changes to the law.

Unlike other states, Indiana gives local school districts tremendous flexibility to develop their own systems to judge performance. While districts must ultimately assign each educator a 1 to 4 rating, how they get there varies widely. For example, while state law says student test core gains should be a “significant” factor in an educator’s rating, districts get to decide just how much test scores count.

After the first round of ratings, one legislator who helped craft the law already is reconsidering some of that latitude.

Rep. Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis, who helped write the law as chair of the House Education Committee, said the overwhelmingly high scores prove that it’s not working as intended.

“We may have let there be too much local control,” he said. “There’s obviously too much subjectivity.”

Behning is already thinking about legislative fixes, including going back to an idea that was discarded when the law was written — requiring a specific percentage of an educator’s evaluation to be based on student test score gains.

While other states require as much as 50 percent of an educator’s rating to be based on student test score growth, most Indiana districts appeared to factor in test scores more in a range of 15 to 20 percent, Behning said.

But Meredith said the data needs a closer look before anyone begins talking about requiring more testing as part of the ratings. The law just might be having the desired effect of removing poor performing teachers, she said.

Meredith noted the large percentage of educators who were listed as not rated statewide: 10 percent. She wondered if an explanation for the low numbers of ineffective educators was hidden in that number.

There are a variety of reasons why an educator was not rated, such as not completing the year due to maternity leave or retirement. But one possibility Meredith noted was that some teachers retired early or left the profession because they feared an ineffective rating.

“I think that says the ones who should be weeded out are perhaps weeding themselves out,” she said. “Those are hard conversations. If they are not doing their job and serving our students we need to be moving them out.”

Behning also wanted to know more about those who weren’t rated before contemplating too many changes to the system.

“We may want to drill down into the data more first,” he said.

Separate from the issue of those in each district who were not rated was another group of educators missing from the data. Almost a quarter of Indiana school districts, 67 of them, did not report any evaluation scores.

The 2011 law allowed districts to work with their local unions to change their evaluation systems as their contracts expired. Those districts’ last contracts signed before the law changed are still in effect, so they have not yet finished creating new systems.

Charter schools were not required to report teacher evaluation scores under the 2011 law, but House Bill 1388, just signed into law last month, will require them to do so in the future.

The 249 districts that reported data had a wide variety of evaluation systems. Most (71 percent) used the RISE system, created by the Indiana Department of Education under former state Superintendent Tony Bennett, or a modified version of it. About 62 districts created their own evaluation systems. A handful of others used nationally recognized models from outside the state.

As those districts come on, and districts get more experience with the system, the state should get a better sense of how it can help them make the most of it.

I believe we made a good step forward,” Oliver said. “It might be good to look at how we provide good guidance.”

By the numbers

NYC announces it will subsidize hiring from Absent Teacher Reserve — and sheds light on who is in the pool

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman

Ever since the city announced a new policy for placing teachers without permanent positions into schools, Chalkbeat and others have been asking questions about just who is in the pool, known as the Absent Teacher Reserve.

Now we have some answers.

The education department released figures on Friday that show a quarter of teachers currently in the the pool were also there five years ago, and a third ended up in the ATR because of disciplinary or legal issues. The average salary for teachers this past year was $94,000, according to the data.

The city also said it would extend budget incentives for schools that hire educators from the ATR, a change to its initial announcement. Principals have raised concerns about the cost of hiring from the ATR, since its members tend to be more senior, and therefore more expensive, than new teachers.

The ATR is comprised of teachers who don’t have regular positions, either because their jobs were eliminated or because of disciplinary issues. It cost almost $152 million in the last school year — far more than previously estimated — and currently stands at 822 teachers.

In July, the city announced a plan to cut the pool in half by placing teachers into vacancies still open after the new school year begins — even potentially over principals’ objection.

Critics have argued that the city’s new placement policy could place ineffective teachers in the neediest classrooms. StudentsFirstNY Executive Director Jenny Sedlis called the move “shockingly irresponsible” in a statement.

“There are reasons why no principal has chosen to hire them and this policy is bad for kids, plain and simple,” she said.

But Randy Asher, the former principal of Brooklyn Technical High School who is now responsible for helping to shrink the pool, called the new policy “a common sense approach to treating ATR teachers like all other teachers,” since they now have the opportunity to be evaluated by a school principal.

Here’s what the latest numbers tell us about who is in the pool.

How did educators end up in the Absent Teacher Reserve?

Most of the educators in the ATR were placed there because their schools had closed (38 percent) or due to budget cuts (30 percent.)

Another 32 percent entered the pool because of a legal or disciplinary case.

How effective are they?

A majority — 74 percent — received an evaluation rating of “highly effective,” “effective” or “satisfactory” in 2015-16, the most current year available. Current ratings for teachers citywide were not immediately available, but in 2014-15, 93 percent of teachers overall were rated effective or highly effective, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Twelve percent of teachers in the pool received an “ineffective” or “unsatisfactory” rating in 2015-16, and about 7 percent received a “developing” rating, one step up from ineffective.

Some teachers in the ATR say evaluations can be unfair since teachers are often placed in classrooms outside of the subjects they are equipped to teach and because they are bounced between classrooms.

Asked whether teachers with poor ratings would be placed in classrooms, Asher said “all” teachers in the ATR have traditionally been placed in school assignments.

“They’re in schools, no matter what. It’s a question of what is their role in the school, and how are they supported and evaluated,” he said. “Obviously we will look at each individual teacher and each individual assignment on a case-by-case basis.”

How experienced are they?

Teachers in the ATR have an average of 18 years of experience with the education department, and earn an average salary of $94,000. By comparison, the base salary for a New York City teacher as of May 2017 was $54,000.

How long have they been in the pool?

Almost half the educators who are currently in the pool were also there two years ago. A quarter were in the ATR five years ago. That doesn’t mean that teachers have remained in the ATR for that entire time. They could have been hired for a time, and returned to the pool.

Still, the figures could be fuel for those who argue educators in the ATR either aren’t seriously looking for permanent jobs — or that the educators in the pool are simply undesirable hires.

How will schools pay for them?

Teachers in the ATR have argued that their higher salaries are one reason principals avoid hiring them — a concern that principals voiced in a recent Chalkbeat report.

“This is part of the injustice of the ATR placement,” said Scott Conti, principal of New Design High School in Manhattan. “Schools might not want them and they will cost schools more in the future, taking away from other budget priorities.”

Under the policy announced Friday, the education department will subsidize the cost of ATRs who are permanently hired, paying 50 percent of their salaries next school year and 25 percent the following school year.

Where have they worked previously?

This question is important because the answer gives a sense of where educators in the ATR are likely to be placed this fall. The education department’s original policy called for an educator to be placed within the same district they left, but the change announced in July allowed for placement anywhere within the same borough.

Almost half of ATR members, as of June 2016-17, came from high schools. That isn’t surprising: Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein targeted large high schools for closure, breaking them up into smaller schools as part of a turnaround strategy.

Of the school districts serving K- 8 students, District 19 in Brooklyn’s East New York and District 24 in Queens had among the most educators in the ATR. Each had 26.

What subjects do they teach?

The largest share of teachers in the ATR — 27 percent — are licensed to teach in early childhood or elementary school grades. Another 11 percent are licensed social studies teachers, 9 percent are math teachers and 8 percent are English teachers.

Questions have been raised in the past about whether the teachers in the pool had skills that were too narrow or out of date. A 2010 Chalkbeat story found that a quarter of teachers then in the pool were licensed to teach relatively obscure classes like swimming, jewelry-making and accounting.

Training teachers

More literacy coaches to bolster Tennessee’s drive to boost student reading

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

More than half of its school districts signed on last year when Tennessee created a network of literacy coaches to help classroom teachers improve their students’ reading.

Now entering the program’s second year, another 16 districts are joining up. That means two-thirds of Tennessee districts will have instructional supports in place aimed at addressing the state’s lackluster reading levels.

Tennessee has a reading problem. Less than half of its students in grades 3-8 were considered proficient in 2015, the last year for which test scores are available. In Memphis, the numbers are even more stunning. Less than a third of Shelby County Schools’ third-graders are reading on grade level.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Gov. Bill Haslam speaks during the statewide launch of Read to be Ready in 2016.

The state wants to get 75 percent of third-graders proficient by 2025. (New scores coming out this fall will help track progress.)

The coaching network is a major component of Tennessee’s Read to be Ready drive, launched in 2016 by Gov. Bill Haslam and Education Commissioner Candice McQueen. The focus is helping teachers improve literacy instruction for the state’s youngest students.

So far, some 200 coaches have worked directly with more than 3,000 teachers in 83 districts, including all four urban districts. This fall, 99 out of the state’s 146 school systems will participate.

About 92 percent of classroom teachers report that coaching is improving their teaching, even as many coaches say they are stretched too thin, according to a state report released Wednesday. Inadequate planning time for teachers is another barrier to success, the report notes.

To join the coaching network, districts must commit to funding a reading coach who will support about 15 teachers. New districts signing up this year are:

  • Scott County Schools
  • Smith County School System
  • Pickett County Schools
  • Jackson County Schools
  • Macon County Schools
  • Clay County Schools
  • Sumner County Schools
  • Dyer County Schools
  • Wayne County Schools
  • Bedford County Schools
  • Benton County Schools
  • Alamo City School
  • Polk County Schools
  • Kingsport City Schools
  • Oak Ridge Schools
  • Dayton City School

A complete list of participating districts can be found here.