cooldown

Citing "abuses," teachers union says it is wearying on eval talks

The teachers union is threatening to curb its efforts toward new teacher evaluations if the Department of Education doesn’t remind principals again that the old evaluation system is still in place.

The threat comes at the end of an angry letter sent by UFT Secretary Michael Mendel sent to the DOE yesterday. In the letter, Mendel says that UFT members report some principals are preparing to use the Danielson Framework, an evaluation model that the DOE favors, to rate teachers — even though the union hasn’t agreed to the change.

City officials dispute the charge, saying that Danielson is being used only in ways that the union has approved: in most schools, to give teachers information to help them improve. The model is being used to rate teachers only in 33 “persistently low-achieving” schools where the city and UFT agreed to new evaluations in order to land federal school improvement funds, the officials say.

But despite a joint reminder from the UFT, DOE, and principals union last month, the union is charging that some principals still haven’t gotten the message that the Danielson rubric shouldn’t be used to rate teachers. At a meeting for members of the UFT’s governing body last night, UFT officials said they had obtained documents showing that some networks, the groups that support principals, had devised evaluation checklists based on Danielson’s criteria, according to a union member who was there. The officials did not share the documents, the union member said.

Mendel told GothamSchools that teachers have reported getting official reprimands based on Danielson-influenced observations and that many administrators do not seem to have had adequate training before starting to test the new model.

Mendel said the union won’t break state law and pull out of negotiations altogether. But he said confusion and the sense that some principals are pushing Danielson prematurely have made the union less willing to collaborate with the DOE.

“If they don’t stop the abuses we will only talk to them formally about the things we are supposed to talk about,” he said. “We won’t partake in joint ventures that we think will be bad for our children and our teachers.”

In the letter, Mendel signaled that a window of opportunity to hammer out an evaluations deal, seen as key to winning education funds from the Obama administration, was closing.

“Any potential for a fair evaluation system based on a growth and development model has been corrupted and the concept is perceived very poorly in the schools,” he wrote. “While we have been involved with the administration in joint training for teachers in the PLA schools regarding Danielson, and discussions regarding the pilot schools, we cannot continue this work if you cannot bring this situation under control.”

A DOE spokesman, Matt Mittenthal, said the department would investigate cases where principals might be using Danielson inappropriately.

“If there are specific cases where principals took it upon themselves to use the framework for teacher evaluations, we will address them. But thus far the UFT has only shared one such example, with its school name hidden,” he said. “At the same time, it’s bizarre that the teachers union is so upset about the notion that teachers might receive more detailed and thoughtful feedback.”

Mendel’s full letter is below.

As you know on September 20, 2011, Chancellor Walcott and Michael Mulgrew, joined by CSA President Ernest Logan, sent a joint letter to teachers and principals that talked about preliminary work in building a foundation for a possible new evaluation system. The letter clearly stated that there would be no changes to the current evaluation system.

Unfortunately, many schools are ignoring this directive. We continue to receive reports from the field about schools outside the PLA agreement that are training people to use the Charlotte Danielson’s framework as a legal compliance evidence gathering mechanism for the 3020a process.

Consequently, we are asking the DOE to immediately CEASE efforts to implement changes in our evaluation system and send ALL principals a directive instructing them that – with exception of Transformation/Restart schools — they are NOT to implement any changes in the current evaluation system.

It is critical that we go from an evaluation system that does not support teachers to one that becomes a professional growth and development model. That is why we went to Albany to develop and implement legislation that gives us the framework to make these changes. It is an approach that will move our school system forward.

All that hard work is being put in jeopardy by the DOE’s actions. The intent and spirit of all of Danielson’s work is based upon trust, support and engagement, and it is imperative that approach is the focus of our work.

Whoever made the decision that schools outside of the PLA schools should be changing our present evaluation system by “practicing something new” clearly abused the DOE’s authority. The idea was to test this and learn from the pilot schools, not the whole system.

What’s more, the lack of training of both administrators and teaching staff has created many problems. Three days of training for Principals and two days for teachers is not anywhere near enough to do this properly.

As a result of the DOE’s poor instructions and these other factors, any potential for a fair evaluation system based on a growth and development model has been corrupted and the concept is perceived very poorly in the schools.

While we have been involved with the administration in joint training for teachers in the PLA schools regarding Danielson, and discussions regarding the pilot schools, we cannot continue this work if you cannot bring this situation under control.

I need your response to this situation immediately.

Michael Mendel
UFT Secretary/Executive Assistant to the President

the return

An innovative elementary school — a product of Denver education reform — tries to get back to normal post-strike

PHOTO: Centennial Elementary
Teachers last year at Centennial Elementary, which reinvented itself as an expeditionary learning school.

Nic Savinar tried to maintain a measure of normalcy for three days in her fifth grade classroom at Centennial Elementary School in northwest Denver, even as her students asked awkward questions about why she was still there when most teachers were out.

Walking in the door, she had a fleeting thought that someone from outside the school community might join the picket line and lash out at her. Her fellow teachers marching in the cold lent nothing but support, sending her texts throughout the day checking in.

Then not long after 6 a.m. Thursday, word started getting around that the Denver teacher strike was over. Principal Laura Munro’s phone blew up after her morning Crossfit workout. Munro ended up getting to school late because excited teachers kept texting her.

With the three-day strike about teacher pay ending with a tentative deal that gave both sides reason to feel good, Denver schools spent Thursday in a strange in-between place as substitutes and central office staff fill-ins reported for duty and striking teachers returned.

The labor action and its sudden conclusion posed a test for the 147 district-run schools affected by the strike and the 71,000 students in grades K-12 who attend them. Centennial just a few years ago was at risk of closure due to persistently poor academic performance. The school started to turn around after it reinvented itself in 2013 as an expeditionary school, where teachers in each grade weave a year-long “expedition” theme into their everyday lessons.

The school, in a gentrified neighborhood in a city that has become less affordable for families and teachers alike, would not exist in its current form without the kind of education reform that has gained Denver both a national reputation and opposition from the union and its allies.

“We have worked really hard to build a positive and trusting culture,” said Munro, who has been principal for eight years. “Even that being said, trying times can make any situation difficult.”

Of the 32 teachers, nurses, counselors, and other educators at Centennial covered by the teachers contract, all but six took part in the strike on Monday, Munro said. One teacher returned to the classroom Tuesday, and a nurse came back Wednesday, she said.

Those are higher strike participation figures than in the district as a whole. Between 56 and 58 percent of teachers were out each day, Denver Public Schools has said.

Savinar was among those Centennial teachers who remained in the classroom. But it wasn’t because she disagreed with the union’s opposition to many aspects of ProComp, the once-promising pay-for-performance system that was the subject of negotiations.

Savinar recently took maternity leave, much of it unpaid. She and her husband crunched the numbers —  taking into account that teachers strikes typically last a week — and concluded that foregoing a paycheck, as striking teachers must do, was not something they could afford.

The irony is not lost on Savinar: She couldn’t afford to strike to improve her salary prospects.

“There was a lot of thought behind it, and it was definitely a financial decision,” she said, pointing out that her Centennial colleagues who remained in classrooms all have children 1 or younger. “It was a very challenging decision for every single person, I’m sure.”

A ninth-year teacher, Savinar left a job in neighboring Jeffco Public Schools to join Centennial four years ago. She said she was won over by the people and by expeditionary learning.

The school has a vegetable garden, an outdoor classroom with log benches, and a devoted corps of parent volunteers. For a recent lesson on biodiversity, Savinar took her students to Denver Botanic Gardens to visit a rainforest exhibit. They learned about different habitats and species of plants. Students who are now working on writing first-person narratives written from an animal’s perspective, like a jaguar or an exotic bird that makes its home in the lush canopy.

That a district-run public school would offer a model like expeditionary learning is unusual, and it’s part of Denver Public Schools’ philosophy of offering families a variety of school choices.

Centennial is also an innovation school, which means it doesn’t need to follow all aspects of state law or the teachers union contract. That allows for a much longer school day, for one. The opening bell rings at 8 a.m. and dismissal is at 3:45 p.m., with an 80-minute enrichment period.

Savinar is a “teacher-leader,” spending part of her time teaching and part of it coaching other teachers — another initiative that other U.S. school districts look to Denver to emulate.

Savinar said her support for the union stance during ProComp bargaining was rooted mostly in supporting an increase in all teachers’ base pay and in cost-of-living increases. She said she loves the flexibility that innovation status affords teachers and students both.

“It’s all relative, I guess,” she said. “Completely depends on what teachers are wanting in their school community.”

During the strike, Munro kept a detailed spreadsheet of classroom assignments, using a combination of regular teachers, substitutes, central office staff temporarily reassigned to schools, and her own preschool teachers who were available because DPS shut its preschools.

All but two classrooms were covered by certified teaching staff during the strike, she said.

Because of the timing of the tentative agreement, Thursday was more chaotic than when teachers were on strike, she said. Although all the striking teachers returned, the school retained a few substitutes to honor their commitments. Central office staff helped cover classrooms until late-arriving teachers got to work, then went back to their regular jobs.

“People had been gone three days and were just trying to put the puzzle pieces back together,” Savinar said. “People were scrambling a little bit because teachers are always prepared for their students, and they were feeling unprepared, coming into I am not sure what.”

Centennial will move on from the disruption of the strike at a time it faces its owns challenges. What was once a predominantly Latino student population has grown whiter and wealthier, driven by neighborhood changes and the appeal of expeditionary learning.

Having fewer students whose families live in poverty cost Centennial its Title I status, and the extra funding that goes with it. Munro said school officials knew it was coming and planned accordingly, accounting for the lost revenue over a two-year period and lessening the blow.

The older grades at Centennial are more diverse than kindergarten and the earlier grades, so as a fifth-grade teacher Savinar has a more diverse class than most.  

Next up, her students will begin a module on inequality. She and a returning colleague struck upon an idea Thursday: including a discussion about the issues underlying the strike. It’s in keeping with expeditionary learning’s aspiration to connect learning to real-world events.

So in the near future, Nic Savinar’s fifth-grade students at Centennial Elementary could talk about the issues that kept their teacher in school while her colleagues picketed outside.

teacher prep

Report: Tennessee’s teacher prep programs are doing a better job, but graduating fewer educators

PHOTO: Chalkbeat/Oliver Morrison
Teacher candidates undergo training through Memphis Teacher Residency in 2014. The nontraditional training program is among eight in Tennessee that scored in the top tier on the State Board of Education's latest report card.

Tennessee’s teacher training programs improved or maintained their scores on a report card released Friday, even as the number of would-be educators they graduated dipped for a third straight year.

Eight of the state’s 40 programs received the top overall score in 2018, while seven others moved up one notch to earn the second-highest scores. None of the programs saw their overall ratings decrease on the four-point scale, with 4 being the best.

Nontraditional training programs continued to excel, with Memphis Teacher Residency, Teach for America in Memphis and Nashville, and the New Teacher Project in Nashville all achieving a top ranking.

Among traditional programs, Lipscomb University in Nashville, Union University in Jackson, and the University of Tennessee at Knoxville maintained their top scores, while Christian Brothers University in Memphis broke into the top tier as well.

“We’re now seeing a greater distribution of top scores” among traditional and nontraditional programs, said Sara Morrison, executive director of the State Board of Education.

That’s important because university-based programs produce about 90 percent of the state’s new teachers.

The State Board issues its annual report card to gauge how well programs are preparing candidates for the classroom and whether they’re meeting the needs of school districts and the goals of the state. Criteria includes a profile of graduates over the past three years, their placement and retention in Tennessee public schools, and their observation and growth scores on their evaluations on the job.

The latest report card is the third under a redesigned grading system that launched after a 2016 report said most of the state’s training programs weren’t equipping teachers to be highly effective in their classrooms. It was a big red flag because the quality of teachers matter more to student achievement than any other aspect of schooling.

“We have seen an improvement in overall scores year after year,” said Morrison, noting that more first-year teachers are being retained and are helping their students show gains on state standardized tests.

Also encouraging: More recent graduates were prepared for teaching positions that districts struggle to fill every year, including English as a Second Language, Spanish, special education, high school math, and high school science.

On the flipside, the report card showed a gradual decline in the number of teacher candidates completing their training programs.

That troubling trend comes as the state braces for half of its 65,000 teachers to leave or retire in the next decade.

“Every program is looking to improve their recruitment strategies,” said Amy Owen, the board’s policy director, who spoke with reporters on the eve of the report’s release.

Another continued concern is lagging diversity among teacher candidates. Only 15 percent are people of color, compared with 35 percent of the state’s student population — a challenge since research shows that students of color are more likely to succeed academically when taught by teachers of color.

Among the report card’s other highlights, Tennessee Tech University, one of the state’s largest teacher training programs, improved its overall score to reach the second-highest rating. So did Belmont University, King University, Maryville College, Milligan College, Trevecca Nazarene University, and Western Governors University.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Sara Morrison is executive director of Tennessee’s State Board of Education.

The University of Memphis maintained its score in the second-highest tier, as did Austin Peay, East Tennessee State, and Middle Tennessee State. All three are among the state’s largest training programs.

Morrison applauded programs for increasingly aligning their training to the state’s newest academic standards, especially in the area of literacy, and for collaborating more with nearby school districts to meet their needs.

“Some programs have even begun implementing dual-certification models so that their candidates are prepared to teach both an area like elementary education and either special education or English as a Second Language,” she said. “The result is a win-win situation, with teachers being more prepared and in-demand, districts having ready access to the educators they need, and education preparation providers improving on the state report card.”

You can view the full report card here and find previous report cards here.