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.

First Person

I’m a Chicago teacher who has watched many Javions fall through the cracks. Here’s what would help.

PHOTO: Adeshina Emmanuel
A mural inside the Community Youth Development Institute.

As a Chicago Public School teacher and librarian for the past 15 years, I’ve seen many students fall through the cracks.

I remember the young man who sat in my class at the beginning of his senior year, eager to learn. By the end he was failing, having missed over 30 days of school for reasons unknown to me. Or the sophomore girl who transferred out after displaying behavior and academic problems. I saw her years later on the Chicago Tribune’s mugshot webpage.

Both of these students came to mind when I read Adeshina Emmanuel’s story about Javion Grayer, a 16-year-old Chicago student who reads at the second grade level.

What struck me about Javion’s story was that his educational experience was as disjointed as his home life. He switched schools several times, and his family wished someone could help him. But many of the schools he attended did not provide adequate special education services or reading specialists.

This is not a problem unique to Javion. In Chicago Public Schools, a district that prides itself on its variety of choices for families, Javion’s story is an illustration of how little all of those schools can have in common and how little they work together. The result can be students getting a patchwork education within one school district, with little horizontal alignment among schools that serve the same grades, and little vertical alignment among its K-8 schools and high schools.

At Lindblom High School, where I am a teacher librarian, we see transfer students who want to come to Lindblom in search of something better. I watch many transfer students who come with grass-is-greener hopes struggle because of differences in curriculum, instruction, expectations, and school culture. Lindblom is a selective enrollment high school, and many that transfer in are not coming from other selective enrollment schools, which may exacerbate this. But Javion’s experience was probably somewhat similar, watching schools right next to one another operate in very different ways.

Elementary schools that once acted as feeder schools to neighborhood high schools are now feeder schools for every high school in the city. That leaves elementary schools not knowing much about the expectations of the high schools their students will go on to attend, and high schools not knowing exactly what students learned during their elementary experience.

When I taught freshman English for a couple of school years, not once did I know any information about the curriculum my incoming students had used. I didn’t even know what elementary school they came from, let alone their specific struggles or strengths. Think about how much more effective our high schools would be if we actually had that information.

Javion also missed out on something that many CPS children are missing — access to a reading specialist. Reading specialists have been disappearing in the last decade thanks to student-based budgeting, where schools receive budgets based on their enrollment and principals decide how to allocate their funds. If their school’s enrollment is declining, principals often decide to forego a reading specialist to save a teaching position. This does not mean that those positions are not needed; on the contrary, they are very much needed in schools that serve high-needs students like Javion. Those are also often the schools declining in enrollment.

When I started teaching, I experienced the benefits of a reading specialist myself. I was not prepared to teach reading, as much of my teacher education taught me to become a teacher like the ones I had in high school — ones that assigned texts, held discussions, and gave feedback on essays. I knew little of what to do when students didn’t or couldn’t read the assigned text. I quickly discovered that holding a discussion on a chapter that only a few students have read or understood didn’t make for an effective classroom.

It was my school’s reading specialist who taught me how to help students access unfamiliar texts and incorporate a slew of strategies into my classroom.  She also let me know that it’s OK to use class time for reading, and that my students would benefit from me reading aloud to the class, too. My students become better readers, and many of my classroom management issues disappeared, too.

In 2019, to help students like Javion, the district should prioritize addressing both problems. Chicago Public Schools needs to make sure students are learning the same basic reading skills in every school, and that high schools understand what’s being taught to younger students and vice versa.

The district also needs reading specialists to return. I wish that Javion had attended a school where such a specialist could have helped his teachers and worked one-on-one with students who are grade levels behind in reading. He would have been noticed; he would have been helped. I have that same wish for students and teachers across the district.

Gina Caneva is a 15-year Chicago Public Schools veteran who works as a teacher-librarian and writing center director at Lindblom Math and Science Academy. She is a National Board Certified teacher and Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellowship alum. She is also a certified reading specialist. Follow her on Twitter @GinaCaneva.

This Colorado history teacher sees the effects of immigration policy every day — in her worried students

PHOTO: Kelly Cvanciger
Kelly Cvanciger, at left, poses with students from her AP government class last year.

Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask educators who’ve been recognized for their work how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in the series here.

Some of Kelly Cvanciger’s students at Bear Creek High School in Lakewood live with constant worry — about the possibility of deportation, arrest, or being separated from their families. They are immigrants legally residing in the U.S. through the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, an Obama-era initiative that the Trump administration has sought to end.

“Trying to convince kids to actively participate in their education and learn geography when they face an uncertain future cripples our education system,” said Cvanciger, a history teacher. “It’s just not fair.”

Cvanciger, who was one of six finalists for the 2019 Colorado Teacher of the Year award, talked about how current immigration policies distract students from their studies, why she moved her desk to the back of the classroom, and what she learned from her son, who has autism spectrum disorder.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Was there a moment when you decided to become a teacher?

I have had some amazing teachers in my life who inspired me as a student. In elementary school it was my fifth grade teacher, Mr. Strong. In high school, it was my French teacher, Ms. Nasvitis. In college, it was Dr. Harry Swanhart. They made me fall in love with education and never want to miss a day. I would cry if my parents told me I was too sick to attend school. I thought teaching was the coolest job because they made teaching look so fun and loved their students. While I temporarily flirted with majoring in veterinary medicine in college, my love of history lured me back to teaching and by my second year of college I was sure that it was my future. I have not looked back since.

Has having a child on the autism spectrum shaped your approach to teaching? If so, how?

Having a son diagnosed with autism opened up an entire new world in terms of understanding how education needs to look different for individual students. My son has taught me that too many people know little to nothing about autism spectrum disorder and that includes the vast majority of teachers who instruct students diagnosed with the disorder. Most do not understand sensory triggers and how students with autism learn. Every child with autism spectrum disorder is unique and their learning styles are more varied than the average mainstream learner.

Because of my son, I have become a better teacher. I taught for 13 years before he was born. He has opened my eyes to learning obstacles that I was otherwise not tuned into, especially for children with developmental disabilities who do not learn from the archaic model of “sage on the stage” teaching.

How do you get to know your students?

I constantly talk to my students and ask them questions so I can cater my examples in class to topics that they can relate to in their lives. Making a connection with each student is important so that they know people care about their lives. Most students are very willing to talk to teachers about their life, family situation, and goals for their future. Some people discredit the relationship-building piece in a classroom, but I believe fostering positive relationships is really the start to opening students up to a world of learning.

Tell us about a favorite lesson to teach. Where did the idea come from?

I love to start teaching with Hammurabi’s Law Code. It is an insightful look into the social and political ideals of the ancient river valley civilization of Mesopotamia. The reason it still has relevance today is that many of the social rules that existed related to birth rights, marriage, gender roles, and societal norms have changed little in over 3,000 years. It provides a useful glimpse into how inflexible social hierarchies really are and defines a foundation for right and wrong for millennium within those societies.

What object would you be helpless without during the school day?

This sounds so simple, but I have a pen in my hand the entire time, and write notes everywhere in my room. It is crucial to document everything in education down to the smallest detail and I always find that I could have taught a lesson differently so I write it down as I am teaching. I have entire notebooks full of “fixes” from years of teaching the same subjects. I always feel an urgent need to record thoughts before they slip away. A pen also helps when teaching as I can make comments specific to each child while students are working.

What’s something happening in the community that affects what goes on inside your class?

I have a lot of students that have “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals status” in my classes. The news affects my students on a daily basis. They worry about being deported, being arrested, and being separated from their families. It is impossible to end their worries with our existing immigration policies. Trying to convince kids to actively participate in their education and learn geography when they face an uncertain future cripples our education system. It’s just not fair. We have to find a way to teach students so that they understand their role in society and how they can change their future.

What part of your job is most difficult?

The most difficult part of my job is talking to students who have difficulties in their family situations. It breaks my heart when students come to school and face significant hardships at home through no fault of their own. For students, this presents an obstacle to learning and is a challenge to overcome.

What was your biggest misconception that you initially brought to teaching?

I used to think that all students wanted to learn and come to school since I always wanted to go to school to learn. But when I became a teacher I realized that was the exception, not the norm. Some students grow up with a conception of school as a necessary evil, something they are forced to do because the law says so or their parents say so. Not all students want to learn (at least the subjects they are offered in school), they have too many obstacles to learn, and most dread coming to school for a variety of reasons. No matter how hard I try to get every student to love history, some just never will, and that was a tough lesson.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

I have always been a reader, since I was a little girl. I find that it is the only way to calm my brain in the evenings. I only read two types of books: historical fiction and historical non-fiction. Reading allows me to keep up in my field. Right now, I am reading “The Gulag Archipelago” by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and “Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar” by Simon Sebag Montefiore. Both are challenging reads in their own right, and discuss polarizing views on Stalin’s purges of Soviet-era Russia.

What’s the best advice you’ve received about teaching?

I was reading a study about a decade ago that came to the conclusion that your teacher desk should be at the back of the room. The study concluded that students have a fear of approaching teachers who place their desk at the front of the room because it creates a psychological barrier between the student and teacher, making the student feel inferior to the teacher as a human being. I immediately moved my desk to the back of the room. This was an eye-opening change as students wanted to talk to me more often as I navigated the classroom rather than coming to my desk with questions. By removing the barrier, I built closer relationships between myself and my students.