Building Better Teachers

State board stops short of guiding schools toward more test scores in teacher ratings

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
The Indiana State Board of Education held off on major changes to teacher evaluation today.

The Indiana State Board of Education today held off a decision to ask school districts to count test scores and other “objective” measures of teaching as bigger factors in annual teacher ratings.

Board member Gordon Hendry said the board wants to talk with legislators and get public feedback before determining how to guide schools to help them determine what counts as “objective measures” of teaching quality how to meet the standard in state law that requires test results and other measures to “significantly inform” a teacher’s rating.

“The board will not be setting specific numbers today at the meeting,” Hendry said.

A large crowd, including several educators, came to the meeting expecting a vote on a proposal to set minimum and maximum percentages for how much teacher ratings should be driven primarily by student test score gains. The guidelines would have encouraged schools to count test scores for as much as half of the teacher’s rating score.

The board approved other recommendations  for teacher evaluation by a 7-4 vote, with state Superintendent Glenda Ritz and board members Cari Whicker, Troy Albert and Andrea Neal voting no. The dissenting board members said they opposed to changes because new tests and new accountability systems in the works right now make it difficult to change how teachers are evaluated. Whicker and Neal are classroom teachers, and Albert is a principal.

“For me it’s just a premature vote,” Neal said. “The assessment situation is just so up in the air, and until that situation resolves itself, I am uncomfortable moving a new teacher evaluation system forward.”

But Hendry said changes must be made sooner.

“The vast majority of educators currently say they are dissatisfied with the system,” he said.

A 2011 law that overhauled teacher evaluation in Indiana left decisions about how to count student test scores in a teacher’s rating 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 downside of local control is that what ends up happening is that there is a high degree of variability across the state,” said Jessica Conlon of The New Teacher Project. “Some districts weigh objective measures as low as 5 percent and others as high as 50 percent.”

A list of recommended changes to teacher evaluation processes was brought to the board by a consultant, New York-based The New Teacher Project, resulted from feedback the state got from the U.S. Department of Education as part of a waiver that releases Indiana from some of the sanctions of the federal No Child Left Behind law.

The consultant proposed increased training and communication among teachers and administrators along with suggesting schools count in more tests. But even giving guidance on what percentage of a teacher’s rating should be based on tests could require a change in state law.

Under the original recommendations, districts could break teachers’ evaluations into two big categories: one-half to two-thirds of the rating would be based on observations of their teaching, while the remaining one-half to one-third would be based mostly on student gains on state tests.

If a teacher is in a subject that is not part of the state testing system, then other sorts of test and objective measures such as portfolios of student work could count for as much as 40 percent of their ratings, under the recommendations. School districts would still determine their percentages within those ranges.

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.”

Daniel Brugioni, a high school English teacher in Lake Ridge schools near Gary, said putting too much emphasis on student test scores misses much of the improvement struggling students make throughout a school year. Brugioni said his supervisors consided the 51 percent of his students that passed the English end-of-course exam last year a “dismal failure,” but 110 of his 129 students began high school reading below a ninth-grade level.

“In any other parameter or any other statistical group, that would be a miracle, and I would be lauded,” Brugioni said.

Teaching cannot be judged primarily on numbers and statistics, said Ryan Russell, assistant superintendent in Warren Township. Poverty and other factors outside of school can affect how children perform on tests, he said. It’s not fair that teachers in high-poverty schools risk lower ratings because their students tend not to score as well on tests.

“Do we really believe — if we move highly effective teachers from a middle class district to a high-poverty one — do we really think the students would perform better?” Russell said. “If we do, let’s just set up a teacher exchange program and that will solve all our problems.”

Whicker said it’s not realistic to believe schools can use objective measures other than state test scores, such as portfolios.

“To grade 120 portfolios for my students across the state is not really realistic,” she said. “Well, we’re back to the ISTEP test, so that’s what practical. So we can talk about objective measures even just to talk about them, but the truth is that’s not the reality. That’s just less time for me to teach.”

 

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.

Getting there

With new contract, first-year teachers in Detroit could soon make more than peers in Grosse Pointe and other suburbs

PHOTO: Detroit Public Schools Community District
First-year teachers in Detroit could soon earn more than their peers in neighboring districts. The gray bar in this chart shows where starting salaries were in Detroit last year. The green one shows how the contract could change that.

For years, Detroit’s main school district has paid some of the lowest starting teacher salaries in the region but Superintendent Nikolai Vitti says that’s about to change.

The teachers contract approved by the Detroit school board Tuesday night doesn’t include enough of a pay increase to bring city teachers back to where they were in 2011 when a state-appointed emergency manager ordered a 10 percent pay cut.

But data compiled by the Detroit district show that the new agreement, which will boost teacher wages by more than 7 percent, would pay enough that starting teachers could soon earn more than their peers in Dearborn, Grosse Pointe and other nearby districts.

“It doesn’t begin to address the injustice [of pay cuts and frozen wages] but this is a first step,” Vitti told the board as it met at Osborn High School Tuesday.

The new contract was approved last month by members of the Detroit Federation of Teachers union. Now that the school board has signed off, the contract will go to a state financial review board for final approval.

Vitti, who hopes the higher salaries will make it easier for the district to fill more than 400 vacant teaching positions, showed the board a series of charts and graphs that illustrated some effects of the new contract.

Among the charts he flashed on a screen was one that compared starting teacher salaries in Detroit to other districts, before and after the new contract. Another slide showed how salaries would change for teachers at every level of the pay scale. A third warned that the city’s main district could be careening toward a “cliff” if it doesn’t recruit enough young teachers to replace the district’s predominantly senior educators as they begin to retire.

See the charts — and additional details about the contract — below. The last page spells out other steps Vitti says he plans to take to address the teacher shortage.