Future of Teaching

State board poised to add more test scores into teacher ratings

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
The Indiana State Board of Education will hold its March meeting Wednesday.

The Indiana State Board of Education is expected to vote tomorrow on how much student test scores factor into teacher evaluations — for some, it could be as much as 50 percent.

The recommendations come from The New Teacher Project, a consultant brought in by the board to help improve the evaluation system. If the state board approves and the legislature makes accompanying changes to state law, some school districts could be required to include student test score growth as a bigger factor in teacher evaluation scores than they do now.

A 2011 law that overhauled teacher evaluation in Indiana left those decisions up to local school districts. That law required student test score growth to “significantly inform” a teacher’s evaluation score, which was interpreted very differently by different school districts.

The recommendations to the state board vary on what percentage of a teacher’s evaluation score should be based on student test scores. It would depend on what subject is taught. Student scores could be as little as 25 percent of ratings and as much as 50 percent for those teaching tested subjects. Several districts count test scores as less than 25 percent of a teacher’s overall rating.

So far, it has been difficult to compare teacher results across the state because the evaluation systems schools are using vary. Critics of using test scores to determine teacher effectiveness have said the scores are unreliable. For example, factors other than the teacher’s work could affect student scores. Where test scores are used as a major factor in evaluation, it is common to see big swings in ratings — teachers rated at the bottom one year rise to the top the next, while those at the top fall to the bottom at unexpectedly high rates.

Indiana teachers this year saw predominantly positive ratings — more than 97 percent of the state’s teachers who were rated were deemed “highly effective” or “effective,” the top two of four categories. Hardly any were rated “ineffective.”

The board is also expected to take action on these four issues:

IPS wants approval for its planned “transformation zone:” The state board will consider plans from Indianapolis Public Schools to create a “district-within-a-district” to oversee some of the district’s most struggling schools. The idea is modeled after a similar approach in Evansville that IPS argues could work better than traditional state takeover of failing schools. The IPS transformation zone is eventually expected to include George Washington, John Marshall and Broad Ripple high schools as well middle and elementary schools that feed into those high schools.

The district might have a plan for Arlington High School: IPS regained control of Arlington in December, the first district to get back control over a failing school that was taken over by the state. IPS officials will present a plan for board approval, but details are not clear. Previously, IPS has said they might merge Arlington and John Marshall high schools or allow an outside group to independently manage the school. Merging was unpopular at a community meeting, and Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said the district would consider other options.

IPS wants the board’s blessing for its plan to jointly oversee Donnan Middle SchoolIPS and representatives from Florida-based Charter Schools USA will ask the board to approve a partnership between the two that would create a K-8 school in Donnan that CSUSA would manage. Officials from the charter school organization have said in the past students would do better if they started in the school when they were younger. IPS and CSUSA would recruit 300 students each to fill grades K-6 under the plan. The new K-8 school would open this fall.

There could be more changes to A-F gradingThe state board is expected to change the way schools can appeal their letter grades. Currently, schools appeal directly to the Indiana Department of Education, but under a proposal schools would instead petition the board and then send a copy of that petition to the Indiana Department of Education — effectively cutting them out of the decision-making process over which schools are considered for appeals.

The board also has plans to discuss changes to science standardsThe board will hear a presentation of proposed new science standards. Science has not been part of the past debate over Common Core and new English and math standards for Indiana. But, like Common Core, the science standards Indiana is considering are also shared by other states: 14 have adopted it so far. If the board approves them Wednesday, the proposed standards begin a nearly year-long process of review and feedback from Indiana educators, board members and the public before final approval is expected in January 2016.

Exiting

Tennessee schools chief Candice McQueen leaving for job at national education nonprofit

PHOTO: TN.Gov

Tennessee’s education chief is leaving state government to lead a nonprofit organization focused on attracting, developing, and keeping high-quality educators.

Candice McQueen, 44, will step down in early January to become the CEO of National Institute for Excellence in Teaching.

Gov. Bill Haslam, whose administration will end on Jan. 19, announced the impending departure of his education commissioner on Thursday.

He plans to name an interim commissioner, according to an email from McQueen to her staff at the education department.

“While I am excited about this new opportunity, it is hard to leave this team,” she wrote. “You are laser-focused on doing the right thing for Tennessee’s students every single day – and I take heart in knowing you will continue this good work in the months and years to come. I look forward to continuing to support your work even as I move into this new role with NIET.”

A former teacher and university dean, McQueen has been one of Haslam’s highest-profile cabinet members since joining the administration in 2015 to replace Kevin Huffman, a lawyer who was an executive at Teach For America.

Her tenure has been highlighted by overhauling the state’s requirements for student learning, increasing transparency about how Tennessee students are doing, and launching a major initiative to improve reading skills in a state that struggles with literacy.

But much of the good work has been overshadowed by repeated technical failures in Tennessee’s switch to a computerized standardized test — even forcing McQueen to cancel testing for most students in her second year at the helm. The assessment program continued to struggle this spring, marred by days of technical glitches.

Haslam, who has consistently praised McQueen’s leadership throughout the rocky testing ride, said Tennessee’s education system has improved under her watch.

“Candice has worked relentlessly since day one for Tennessee’s students and teachers, and under her leadership, Tennessee earned its first ‘A’ rating for the standards and the rigor of the state’s assessment after receiving an ‘F’ rating a decade ago,” Haslam said in a statement. “Candice has raised the bar for both teachers and students across the state, enabling them to rise to their greatest potential. I am grateful for her service.”

McQueen said being education commissioner has been “the honor of a lifetime” and that her new job will allow her to “continue to be an advocate for Tennessee’s teachers and work to make sure every child is in a class led by an excellent teacher every day.”

At the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching, she’ll work with states, districts, and schools to improve the effectiveness of teachers and will operate out of the organization’s new office in Nashville. The institute’s work impacts more than 250,000 educators and 2.5 million students.

“Candice McQueen understands that highly effective teachers can truly transform the lives of our children, our classrooms, our communities and our futures,” said Lowell Milken, chairman of the institute, which has existing offices in Phoenix, Washington, D.C., and Santa Monica, Calif.

In an interview with Chalkbeat, McQueen said numerous organizations had approached her about jobs this year as Tennessee prepared to transition to a new administration under Gov.-elect Bill Lee. She called leading the institute “an extraordinary opportunity that I felt was a great fit” because of its focus on supporting, leading, and compensating teachers.

“It’s work that I believe is the heart and soul of student improvement,” she said.

McQueen’s entire career has focused on strengthening teacher effectiveness and support systems for teachers. Before joining Haslam’s administration, the Tennessee native was an award-winning teacher; then faculty member, department chair, and dean of Lipscomb University’s College of Education in Nashville. As dean from 2008 to 2015, Lipscomb became one of the highest-rated teacher preparation programs in Tennessee and the nation. There, McQueen also doubled the size and reach of the college’s graduate programs with new master’s degrees and certificates, the university’s first doctoral program, and additional online and off-campus offerings.

As Haslam’s education commissioner the last four years, McQueen stayed the course on Tennessee’s 2010 overhaul of K-12 education, which was highlighted by raising academic standards; measuring student improvement through testing; and holding students, teachers, schools, and districts accountable for the results.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Candice McQueen has been commissioner of education for Republican Gov. Bill Haslam since 2015.

One of the plan’s most controversial components was teacher evaluations that are tied to student growth on state tests — a strategy that McQueen has stood by and credited in part for Tennessee’s gains on national tests.

Since 2011, Tennessee has seen record-high graduation rates, college-going rates, and ACT scores and steadily moved up in state rankings on the Nation’s Report Card.

Several new studies say Tennessee teachers are getting better under the evaluation system, although other research paints a less encouraging picture.

Her choice to lead the national teaching institute quickly garnered praise from education leaders across the country.

“The students of Tennessee have benefited from Candice McQueen’s leadership, including bold efforts to ensure students have access to advanced career pathways to lead to success in college and careers, and a solid foundation in reading,” said Carissa Moffat Miller, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers.

Louisiana Education Superintendent John White said McQueen brings ideal skills to her new job.

“She is not just a veteran educator who has worked in higher education and K-12 education alike, but she is also a visionary leader with a unique understanding of both quality classroom teaching and the systems necessary to make quality teaching possible for millions of students,” White said.

Read more reaction to the news of McQueen’s planned exit.

reading science

Reading instruction is big news these days. Teachers, share your thoughts with us!

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

Lately, lots of people are talking about reading. Specifically, how it’s taught (or not) in America’s schools.

Much of the credit is due to American Public Media reporter Emily Hanford. In September, she took an in-depth look at what’s wrong with reading instruction in the nation’s classrooms and how explicit, systematic phonics instruction could help.

The crux of the issue is this: In the 1980s and 1990s, the “whole language” approach to teaching reading took hold, relying on the idea that learning to read is a natural process that could be helped along by surrounding kids with good books. At many schools, phonics was out.

In time, many educators brought small doses of phonics back into their lessons, adopting an approach called “balanced literacy.” The problem is, neither whole language nor balanced literacy is based on science, Hanford explained.

Her work on the subject — an audio documentary called Hard Words, a follow-up Q&A for parents, and an opinion piece in the New York Times — has spawned much discussion on social media and elsewhere.

A Maine educator explained in her piece for the Hechinger Report why she agrees that explicit phonics instruction is important but doesn’t think “balanced literacy” should be thrown out. A Minnesota reporter examined the divide in her state over how much phonics should be included in reading lessons and how it should be delivered.

In a roundtable discussion on reading last spring, Stephanie Finn, a literacy coach in the West Genesee Central School District in upstate New York, described the moment she became disillusioned with the whole language approach. It was while reading a story with her young daughter.

“The story was about gymnastics and she had a lot of background knowledge about gymnastics. She loved gymnastics. She knew the word ‘gymnastics,’ and ‘balance beam’ and ‘flexible’ and she got to the girl’s name and the girl’s name was Kate, and she didn’t know what to do,” said Finn. “I thought ‘Holy cow, she cannot decode this simple word. We have a problem.’”

In an opinion piece in Education Week, Susan Pimentel, co-founder of StandardsWork, provides three recommendations to help educators promote reading proficiency. Besides not confining kids to “just-right” books where they already know most words, she says teachers should increase students’ access to knowledge-building subjects like science and social studies. Finally, she writes, “Let quality English/language arts curriculum do some of the heavy lifting. Poor-quality curriculum is at the root of reading problems in many schools.”

Meanwhile, some current and former educators are asking teacher prep program leaders to explain the dearth of science-based lessons on reading instruction.

An Arkansas teacher wrote in a letter to her former dean on Facebook, “while I feel like most of my teacher preparation was very good, I can say I was totally unprepared to teach reading, especially to the struggling readers that I had at the beginning of my career in my resource classroom.”

Former elementary school teacher Robert Pondiscio, a senior fellow and vice president for external affairs at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, wrote to his former dean, “I’m grateful for the professional credential … But if there’s anything one might expect an advanced degree in elementary education to include, it would be teaching reading. It wasn’t part of my program.”

Teachers, now we’d like to hear from you. What resonates with you about the recent news coverage on reading instruction? What doesn’t? Share your perspective by filling out this brief survey.