the scarlet letter

Number of teachers rated unsatisfactory rose again last year

u-ratings-super-for-real-this-timeMore teachers than ever received unsatisfactory ratings last year, suggesting that the city’s push to rid the school system of more struggling teachers is working.

Principals gave unsatisfactory ratings to 1,813 teachers, 17 percent more than in 2009, according to data the city released today. They also denied tenure to 234 teachers this year, 80 percent more than last year. And principals nearly doubled the number of teachers given an extra year before their final tenure decision is made.

In total, 11 percent of the 6,386 teachers up for tenure this year were denied or delayed, compared to 6.6 percent last year. It’s an even more dramatic jump from 2006, when tenure was denied or delayed less than 1 percent of the time.

By far, the leading cause principals cited for giving a U-rating was quality of instruction and student care. Attendance problems were the second-leading cause of low ratings, followed closely by the nebulous “personal and professional qualities.”

Still, the vast majority of teachers were rated satisfactory and received tenure after three years in the classroom. Just 3.66 percent of teachers up for tenure did not receive it, and about 2.2 percent of tenured teachers received a “U-rating,” which can put teachers on the path to dismissal.

“What we see in the numbers today is that principals are making proactive decisions to retain teachers as well as to evaluate and deny some of them tenure,” said Deputy Chancellor John White. “Principals are basing these decisions on years’ worth of information.”

Most of the teachers who received U-ratings had received one in the past, White said, showing that principals are not assigning the damaging rating capriciously.

The new numbers come after nearly three years of a sustained push to usher more weak teachers out of the system. Principals are encouraged to give weak teachers low ratings before they earn tenure, and a team of lawyers helps principals assemble the evidence needed to enable the city to fire low-performing tenured teachers, although their efforts have netted only a handful of dismissals.

This past year, the city also started using student test scores to advise principals about how to make certain tenure decisions. Of the 6,386 teachers up for tenure this year, about 700 taught for two years in subjects where students take state tests. The city ranked those teachers according to how much their students advanced, then advised principals to give tenure to top teachers and to deny tenure to those on the bottom. In the end, only one of the 96 teachers in the top tier was denied tenure, compared to 14 of the 81 teachers in the bottom tier. Half of teachers in the bottom tier had their probation extended.

Using state test scores to drive teacher evaluations is a problem, considering that state officials now say the scores have been hugely inflated, said Michael Mendel, a teachers union vice president.

“The DOE should immediately review and reconsider the cases of those teachers denied tenure on the basis of the now-discredited state test results,” he said.

White said test scores were only one factor principals considered when making tenure decisions. Still, he said, the city remains committed to using test scores in teacher evaluations, especially because state law now requires it.

As the state’s and city’s data collection becomes more sophisticated, principals will have even more information about how successfully teachers are helping students learn.

“I think we will see more thoughtful decision-making because there will be greater evidence of growth,” White said. “If that level of rigor results in fewer teachers granted tenure, then good. But it will also result in better teachers retained and better quality of instruction in our classrooms.”

Of the 200 principals eligible for tenure last year, seven did not receive it. Nearly a quarter more had their probation extended.

Nearly a third of probationary teachers in the Absent Teacher Reserve, the pool of teachers who have been working as substitutes after their permanent positions were eliminated, were denied tenure. The city has said teachers should be fired after four months in the ATR pool.

Town Hall

Hopson promises more flexibility as Memphis school leaders clear the air with teachers on new curriculum

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson answers questions from Memphis teachers at a town hall hosted by United Education Association of Shelby County on Monday.

The Shelby County Schools superintendent told passionate teachers at a union town hall Monday that they can expect more flexibility in how they teach the district’s newest curriculums.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the teachers who score highest on their evaluations should not feel like they need to read from a script to meet district requirements, although he didn’t have an immediate answer to how that would work.

Teacher frustrations were reaching a boiling point on district curriculums introduced this school year. Although the state requirements have changed several times over the last eight years, this change was particularly bothersome to teachers because they feel they are teaching to a “script.”

“Teachers have to be given the autonomy,” Hopson said. Although he cited the need for the district to have some control as teachers are learning, “at the end of the day, if you’re a level 4 or level 5 teacher, and you know your students, there needs to be some flexibility.”

Vocal teachers at the meeting cited check-ins from central office staff as evidence of the overreach.

“I keep hearing people say it’s supplemental but we have people coming into my room making sure we’re following it to a T,” said Amy Dixon a teacher at Snowden School. “We’re expected to follow it …like a script.”

The 90-minute meeting sponsored by the United Education Association of Shelby County drew a crowd of about 100 people to talk about curriculum and what Hopson called “a culture of fear” throughout the district of making a mistake.

Hopson said his team is still working on how to strike the right balance between creativity and continuity across nearly 150 district-run schools because so many students move during the school year.

He reassured despondent teachers he would come up with a plan to meet the needs of teachers and keep curriculums consistent. He said some continuity is needed across schools because many students move a lot during the school year.

“We know we got to make sure that I’m coming from Binghampton and going over to Whitehaven it’s got to be at least somewhat aligned,” he said. “I wish we were a stable, middle-class, not the poorest city in the country, then we wouldn’t have a lot of these issues.”

Ever since Tennessee’s largest district began phasing in parts of an English curriculum called Expeditionary Learning, teachers have complained of being micromanaged, instead of being able to tailor content for their students. The same goes for the new math curriculum Eureka Math.

The district’s changes are meant to line it up with the state. Tennessee’s new language arts and math standards replaced the Common Core curriculum, but in fact, did not deviate much when the final version was released last fall. This is the third change in eight years to state education requirements.

Still, Shelby County Schools cannot fully switch to the new curriculums until they are approved by the Tennessee State Board of Education. District leaders hope both curriculums, which received high marks from a national group that measures curriculum alignment to Common Core, will be added when textbooks are vetted for the 2019-20 school year.

Some urged educators to not think of the new curriculums as “scripts,” and admitted to poorly communicating the changes to teachers.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Pam Harris-Giles

“It’s not an expectation that we stand in front of our children and read off a piece of paper,” said Pam Harris-Giles, one of the district’s instructional support directors, who helps coordinate curriculum training and professional development.

Fredricka Vaughn, a teacher at Kirby High School, said that won’t be easy without clear communication of what flexibility will look like for high-performing teachers.

“If you don’t want us to use the word script, then bring back the autonomy,” she said.

Hopson stressed that the state’s largest school district could be a model for public education if everyone can work together to make the new curriculums work.

“It’s going to take work, hard work, everyone aligned from the top, everyone rowing in the same direction.”

on the run

‘Sex and the City’ star and public schools advocate Cynthia Nixon launches bid for N.Y. governor

Cynthia Nixon on Monday announced her long-anticipated run for New York governor.

Actress and public schools advocate Cynthia Nixon announced Monday that she’s running for governor of New York, ending months of speculation and launching a campaign that will likely spotlight education.

Nixon, who starred as Miranda in the TV series “Sex and the City,” will face New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in September’s Democratic primary.

Nixon has been active in New York education circles for more than a decade. She served as a  longtime spokeswoman for the Alliance for Quality Education, a union-backed advocacy organization. Though Nixon will step down from that role, according to a campaign spokeswoman, education promises to be a centerpiece of her campaign.

In a campaign kickoff video posted to Twitter, Nixon calls herself “a proud public school graduate, and a prouder public school parent.” Nixon has three children.

“I was given chances I just don’t see for most of New York’s kids today,” she says.

Nixon’s advocacy began when her oldest child started school, which was around the same time the recession wreaked havoc on education budgets. She has slammed Gov. Cuomo for his spending on education during his two terms in office, and she has campaigned for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

In 2008, she stepped into an emotional fight on the Upper West Side over a plan to deal with overcrowding and segregation that would have impacted her daughter’s school. In a video of brief remarks during a public meeting where the plan was discussed, Nixon is shouted down as she claims the proposal would lead to a “de facto segregated” school building.

Nixon faces steep competition in her first run for office. She is up against an incumbent governor who has amassed a $30 million war chest, according to the New York Times. If elected, she would be the first woman and the first openly gay governor in the state.