experimental education

UFT helping city recruit for Gates-funded teacher quality study

Schools Chancellor Joel Klein wants teachers to sign up to be guinea pigs in a national study on teacher evaluations–and the UFT is backing him up.

In an email sent tonight, Klein and UFT president Michael Mulgrew asked city teachers to volunteer for a new Gates Foundation study that will test methods of evaluating teachers.

The study comes at a time when policymakers are calling for changes in the way teachers are evaluated. The Obama administration is pushing states to judge teachers based on student test scores. But the city teachers’ union last year lobbied the state to ban that practice, at least in teacher tenure decisions.

This study, however, has the union’s wholehearted support because it will begin with measures rooted in classroom practices. Mulgrew told GothamSchools he thought the project was a “fantastic endeavor” that could convince teachers to accept new forms of evaluations.

“It takes the politics out of what’s being measured,” UFT president Michael Mulgrew said. “Teachers are very frustrated with the political debate. They are always saying, ‘why don’t you just come into the classroom?’ That’s what this is doing.”

“I think you’ll have so many teachers volunteer,” he said.

Teachers who volunteer for the two-year study will open their classrooms to videotaped observations, student surveys, and test score scrutiny. Those results will then be analyzed, but they won’t be shared with principals.

“The idea is that at the end of the project we will have a better sense of what kinds of measures are accurate in evaluating what’s actually going on in the classroom,” said Christopher Williams, senior program officer at the Gates Foundation. The project will be led by the Gates Foundation’s Stephen Cantrell and by Tom Kane, a professor of economics and education at Harvard University.

Williams said that the study will be conducted in a variety of school districts across the country and would involve several thousand teachers. He declined to comment on how much funding the Gates Foundation is dedicating to the project. But he emphasized that it was an integral part of the foundation’s larger educational goals.

“This is one part of a broader effort that we’re undertaking to see if we can get more effective teachers in classrooms across the country, especially with the students who need them most,” Williams said.

The full letter that Klein and Mulgrew sent to UFT members is below:

September 1, 2009

Dear Colleagues,

The United Federation of Teachers (UFT) and the Department of Education (DOE) are looking for volunteers to participate in a Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation study to help develop fair, accurate, and useful guides to what really makes effective teaching and learning. This two-year research study is premised on the principle that good teaching is multi-dimensional, and that teachers and their schools need consistent and reliable information in order to identify and support good teaching.

Both the United Federation of Teachers and the Department of Education will be collaborating with independent researchers on this project because we all recognize that the work of teachers must be measured in ways that are fair and valid.  Nationally, current measures of teaching rarely take into account the full range of what teachers do (no single measure really can), or the context in which they teach. The Measures of Effective Teaching project, on the other hand, begins right in the classroom and will explore a broad array of teacher measures: video observations, surveys, and student growth.  It will compare these measures to each other, and to nationally recognized standards, and it will look at their inter-relatedness.  It will be informed by actual teacher practice.

In other words, the real work of real teachers in real classrooms will be central to every aspect of this project.  That’s why both the UFT and the DOE have looked forward to working with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation: we want to support student achievement with solid research based on what our teachers do in class.

To that end, together, we are inviting eligible teachers to join us in this project.  Participation is completely voluntary, and those teachers who volunteer will be allowing Gates-funded researchers to collect information about their teaching from a broad variety of sources in order to answer two basic questions: what is our common understanding of the teaching learning process, and how do we measure it consistently?  To answer these questions, researchers will video classrooms; collect surveys from participating teachers and students; assess teacher knowledge of content and pedagogy though a brief test; and collect information on student academic growth through specially administered standardized tests.  Researchers will look at the videos through the lens of several different sets of nationally recognized teaching standards to see which work best. And, teachers will also provide their own reflections on the lessons that have been videotaped.

As you can see, Gates hopes to capture the full range of what teachers do by gathering multiple sources of information, including information on the context in which the teachers teach. The goal is to use this information to create multiple, reliable measures of good teaching.

And that is important to all of us.  We all know that teachers teach best when they know what the standards are for their teaching, have been supported in reaching those standards, and feel assured that no single, snapshot measure will determine the course of their career. If you volunteer, you will be joining us in a project that will help us understand what works when it comes to assessing teachers. We hope this will lead to fairer guides for all of us, and raise the level of achievement in our schools.

To acknowledge their contribution over the course of the two years, teachers will receive a $1500 stipend. And of course, they will also have access to their own videos as well as student test results.

Finally, let us say clearly at the outset: this is a research project, and it assures full confidentiality to the teachers who volunteer. That means that principals and other DOE employees will not receive copies of your videos, surveys, or assessments.  And, teachers will be able to opt out of the program at any time. This project it is not about the evaluation of the 1000 teachers we hope will join us, and it cannot be used by the DOE to evaluate them; rather it is about evaluating the multiple evaluation measures that are used across the country in order to ensure that they are fair, transparent, and consistent. Schools need a better understanding of these measures.  To that end, the researchers do hope to share aggregated data with the central DOE and the union, which could prove helpful in supporting teachers.

Schools and teachers will have opportunities to learn more about this study in the coming weeks through borough meetings and other communications.  More information, including important details about which schools and teachers are eligible and the requirements of the study can be found at: http://schools.nyc.gov/Teachers/Resources/Other/Grants/MET/default.htm

We hope you will join us in this project; it may turn out to be among the most meaningful projects of your career.  And, thank you, as always, for your work on behalf of our students.


Joel I. Klein                                                                  Michael Mulgrew
Chancellor                                                                    UFT President

UPDATE: This post has been clarified to show that the study will examine multiple measures of teacher evaluation beyond just test scores.

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.