Seasoned teachers mentor colleagues through ‘TAP’ evaluation program

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Angie Kendall, a master teacher at Southport Elementary School, works with a student. The school received an A from the state this year.

More than anything, Megan Cheatham loved being a student.

So when she was ready to graduate from college, she lamented the changes ahead of her on Facebook: “If only I could be a student forever,” she wrote.

Fortunately, as a second-year, second-grade teacher at Southport Elementary School in Perry Township, Cheatham found her fit. With the “Teacher Advancement Program,” now known as the “TAP System” — an intertwined system of teacher evaluations, mentoring, and teacher leadership roles that can result in bonuses for teachers who score well — the kids aren’t the only ones expected to learn each day. Teachers are, too, given the program’s heavy emphasis on talking about, observing and learning from other teachers.

“I’m here to teach and help my students learn and grow, but this is the only job I can think of where I’m truly a student forever,” Cheatham said. “I have teachers here in the form of my (master teachers), mentors and administrators … and my students.”

Teacher mentoring is a hot topic in Indiana. State Superintendent Glenda Ritz last year brought together a panel of educators and policymakers to study teacher retention and recruitment in the face of a teacher shortage in certain parts of the state. The panel recommended that schools offer teachers leadership opportunities and customizable mentoring programs. Although Ritz’s specific ideas didn’t pass muster with legislators, the Indiana General Assembly did pass a bill that, in part, creates a state grant program to help schools that want to start using TAP.

TAP is 16 year-old program that doesn’t just rely on a single evaluation template to help teachers improve. Rather, it also sets up a system in which experienced teachers mentor their colleagues. Mentors typically receive $5,000 annual stipends for the extra work they do outside of their own classrooms, and master teachers receive $10,000, to help teachers develop goals for their teaching. They model lessons and offer feedback on teaching style. Mentors and master teachers must receive extra training and guidance from administrators as they work to make sure teachers’ goals support the school’s vision for student improvement.

There are several elements to TAP. Some schools use only its evaluation program — a scoring guide that includes skills teachers should demonstrate in the classroom. TAP is one of several evaluation programs that Indiana schools can choose from to complete required teacher evaluations.

Some schools have enough funding to use TAP to help determine which teachers get bonuses. Southport is one of 28 Indiana schools using the full TAP program, including its robust teacher mentoring component.

The program can cost schools anywhere from about $3,000 per year to gain access to materials and data-tracking software from the nonprofit National Institute for Excellence in Teaching. The price goes up for schools that use the program to award salary bonuses, which could be as much as $2,500 per teacher per year, depending on the formula used. Schools that use the mentoring program also must budget $5,000 or $10,000 per teacher for mentor or master stipends, as well as full salaries for educators who work primarily on teacher training.

Southport Principal Danny Mendez but he’s found that pairing mentoring directly with his teacher evaluation system has had an important impact on his school.

“The difference that we see in a first-year teacher now, especially by the end of the year, is what we would’ve seen — prior to TAP — it would’ve taken them three or four years to even get close,” Mendez said.

No external studies have documented clear evidence that TAP can improve test scores or produce other measurable results.

Arizona State University researcher Audrey Beardsley has co-authored reviews of observation-based evaluation programs and will soon publish a study on whether the TAP model’s structure is statistically sound. But the impact on students is still unknown, as little outside research has been done to see how well TAP affects student learning, she said.

“It’s not impossible that increases in student learning are happening,” Beardsley said. “But they just are not being demonstrated or observed on standardized tests.”

One study out of Chicago reported in 2010 that Chicago Public Schools’ use of TAP had no measureable effect on student test scores or on teacher retention compared to non-TAP schools. The National Institute for Excellence in Teaching disputes the study, saying the TAP program was not properly implemented in Chicago schools.

Yet TAP’s possible shortcomings in student test results isn’t unique — Beardsley said no current evaluation system has shown that it definitively raises student test scores.

The best thing TAP does, she said, is create a system that forces teachers to talk about their teaching and includes a model where they are paid to coach others.

“The No. 1 benefit of TAP is that it forces teachers to have discussions about their practice and it forces them to do it in a systematic way four times a year,” Beardsley said. “A strong majority of teachers enjoy engaging in those conversations.”

Mendez said he’s noticed a clear benefit to intensifying the school’s focus on making sure inexperienced teachers have a seasoned educator to turn to. Southport improved it’s A-F school accountability grade to an A in 2014 from a C in 2011-12 — the first year the school implemented TAP.

Under TAP, teachers receive formal evaluations four times per year, but mentoring takes place every week.

A leadership team at Southport made up of Mendez, his assistant principal, two “master” teachers and four “mentor” teachers developed a teacher training program using TAP.

The program consists of weekly “cluster” meetings where teachers set goals for themselves and talk about what lessons that week resonated with students and which ones needed some work. The school also schedules conversations between teachers and their mentors throughout the day and makes arrangements, as needed, for a teacher needing help to get an extra pair of eyes in his or her classroom.

The key to the program’s success, Mendez said, is assuring teachers that they aren’t in it alone, he said.

“We had eight of us to go out and coach, weekly, every teacher, and every teacher needs that feedback,” Mendez said.

The master teachers focus primarily on helping their colleagues. They model lessons, give evaluations, have discussions with teachers about how they’re doing and keep track of school’s goals for its students and teachers. The mentor teachers balance some of those duties with full-time classroom teaching.

Jennifer Oliver, the director for TAP in Indiana with the the Center of Excellence in Leadership of Learning at the University of Indianapolis, said this program is much more comprehensive than traditional teacher training programs.

Tying mentoring to evaluations can be make teachers skeptical about the program, but Oliver said that tying mentoring to evaluations makes it easier to set expectations and make it clear to teachers what changes they need to make if they want to improve.

“When I hear policymakers talk about bringing back the old form of mentoring for new teachers we had in the past, I think, ‘We can do this so much better’ when I see how well support and coaching are provided to all teachers in TAP schools,” Oliver said.

Southport and Perry Township are among 14 districts that use the TAP program. Southport was recently awarded $50,000 from TAP for the student progress it’s seen while using the program. The school was among six finalists from across the country The annual Founder’s award is funded by the Lowell Milken Family Foundation, whose namesake founded TAP.

Southport, in a part of Marion County that has seen an influx of Burmese immigrants over the past decade, has seen dramatic change in its student demographics in that time. Now, 56 percent of students are English-learners, up from 3 percent in 2007. Most of the school’s students — 81 percent — are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, up from 45 percent. Of its English-learners, 40 percent are refugees fleeing religious persecution in Burma. That means teachers, as well as students, have needed extra support.

The school has typically posted above-average test scores and has been recognized for its successful work with students in poverty and those with special needs, but Mendez says since he started using TAP five years ago, he’s seen improvements in his school.

Originally, he heard about the program from his assistant superintendent, who asked if he was interested in learning more. He was impressed by what he saw at first, but he wondered if there was a catch. There wasn’t one, Mendez said.

“I had some other principals say, ‘Well Danny, why would you change a thing?’” Mendez said. “This is the next step. It’s easy to jump to a new system when you’re struggling. Our school was not.”

Mendez said he was attracted to the program by national data showing TAP helps English-learners and other students with special needs move ahead and reduce teacher turnover at schools. Data from the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching, which is affiliated with TAP, showed that schools using TAP hold on to 94 percent of their teachers from one year to the next — an improvement over a typical school where the retention rate is 84 percent.

In her second year, Cheatham said she’s really felt her teaching solidify. By watching others, talking extensively with master teachers and other teacher leaders and focusing on changing just one skill or lesson at a time, Cheatham said she feels like it’s all “clicking.”

Angie Kendall, a master teacher at Southport who’s been teaching for 15 years in Indianapolis, said she loves that her job allows her to both coach her peers and still have some time with students. The discussions and conversations teachers have certainly play a big role, she said. People are always stopping by her office to ask for advice on a lesson or to show off student work when things have gone well.

“Just like we want our teachers to believe in every student, our leadership team believes in every teacher,” Kendall said. “There’s not one teacher in our building that hasn’t grown from this process.”

The story has been updated to reflect new information provided by TAP about teacher stipends and schools involved with the program.

talking SHSAT

Love or hate the specialized high school test, New York City students take the exam this weekend

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
At a town hall this summer in Brooklyn's District 15, parents protested city plans to overhaul admissions to elite specialized high schools.

The Specialized High Schools Admissions Test has been both lauded as a fair measure for who gets accepted to the city’s most coveted high schools — and derided as the cause for starkly segregating them.

This weekend, the tense debate is likely to be far from the minds of thousands of students as they sit for the three-hour exam, which currently stands as the sole admissions criteria for vaunted schools such as Stuyvesant and Brooklyn Tech.

All the debate and all the policy stuff that’s been happening —  it’s just words and there really isn’t anything concrete that’s been put into place yet. So until it happens, they just continue on,” said Mahalia Watson, founder of the website Let’s Talk Schools, an online guide for parents navigating their school options.

Mayor Bill de Blasio this summer ignited a firestorm with a proposal to nix the SHSAT and instead offer admission to top middle school students across the city. Critics say the test is what segregates students, offering an advantage to families who can afford tutoring or simply are more aware of the importance of the exam. Only 10 percent of specialized high school students are black or Hispanic, compared to almost 70 percent of all students citywide.

For some, the uproar, coupled with a high profile lawsuit claiming Harvard University discriminates against Asian applicants, has only added to the pressure to get a seat at a specialized school. Asian students make up about 62 percent of enrollment at specialized high schools, and families from that community have lobbied hard to preserve the way students are admitted.

One Asian mother told Chalkbeat in an email that, while she believes in the need for programs that promote diversity, the SHSAT is “a color blind and unbiased” admissions measure. Her daughter has been studying with the help of test prep books, and now she wonders whether it will be enough.  

“In my opinion, options for a good competitive high school are very limited,” the mom wrote. “With all the recent news of the mayor trying to change the admission process to the specialized high schools and the Harvard lawsuit makes that more important for her to get acceptance.”

Last year, 28,000 students took the SHSAT, and only 5,000 were offered admission. Among this year’s crop of hopeful students is Robert Mercier’s son, an eighth grader with his sights set on High School of American Studies at Lehman College.

Mercier has encouraged his son to study for the test — even while hoping that the admissions system will eventually change. His son plays catcher on a baseball team and is an avid debater at school, activities that Mercier said are important for a well-rounded student and should be factored into admissions decisions.

“If you don’t do well on that one test but you’ve been a great student your whole career,” Mercier said, “I just don’t think that’s fair and I don’t think that’s necessarily a complete assessment of a student’s abilities or worth.”

Teacher's tale

Video: This Detroit teacher explains how she uses her classroom to ‘start a real loud revolution’

Silver Danielle Moore, a teacher at the Detroit Leadership Academy, tells her story at the Tale the Teacher storytelling event on October 6, 2018.

Silver Danielle Moore doesn’t just see teaching as way to pass along information to students. She views teaching as a way to bring about change.

“The work of us as educators is to start a real loud revolution,” Moore told the audience this month at a teacher storytelling event co-sponsored by Chalkbeat. “The revolution will not happen without resistance, and social justice classrooms are the instruments of that resistance.”

Moore, a teacher at the Detroit Leadership Academy charter school, was one of four Detroit educators who told their stories on stage at the Tale the Teacher event held at the Lyft Lounge at MusicTown Detroit on October 6.

The event, organized by Western International High School counselor Joy Mohammed, raised about $120 that Mohammed said she used to buy a laptop for a student who needed it to participate on the school’s yearbook staff.

Over the next few weeks, Chalkbeat will be posting videos of the stories told at the event.

Moore, a self-proclaimed “black hip-hop Jesus feminist” opened her story with a memory of leaving a teacher training session four years ago to travel to Ferguson, Missouri, to be part of Labor Day weekend protests after Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old African-American man, was fatally shot by a police officer.

“There was so much grief but also so much fight in that place,” she recalled. “I will never forget the moment I stood at the place that Mike Brown was killed. I will never forget the look in his mother’s face.”

She recalled bringing that experience back to Detroit and to her classroom.

“Imagine, after that weekend, returning back to the classroom on September 2nd,” she said. “I fought that weekend for Mike Brown … but I also did it for the 66 kids I would have that school year and every child I have had since then.”

Watch Moore’s full story here:

Video by Colin Maloney

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