changes at the top

Revamped principal evals could reshape superintendents' role

Attention has focused squarely on teacher evaluations in recent months. But the state’s evaluation law applies to principals, too, meaning that major changes could be on the way for the way city principals are assessed.

In some ways, principals in New York City have been preparing for the state’s evaluation system for years. Since 2008, the city has rated principals according to a tiered system based “multiple measures” that include student test scores — exactly as the state’s evaluation law requires.

The city’s current teacher evaluation system is “an old, antiquated process that has to take leaps and bounds to move forward,” said David Weiner, a top Department of Education deputy, during a discussion for about 50 principals affiliated with Teachers College’s Cahn Fellows program in January. “Our principals process is in a much better place.”

But that doesn’t mean a new system for principal evaluations is likely to come easily. The law’s requirements mean the city and principals union will have to settle on some major adjustments — adjustments that some question whether the city has the capacity to make.

The biggest adjustment will have to be to the role of the superintendent, who must formally observe principals under the state’s new evaluations framework. The city will have to restore authority and support to the offices of the city’s 38 superintendents, which have seen both of those things disappear during the Bloomberg administration.

In recent years, city superintendents have given up their support staffs and handed many of their responsibilities to network leaders that the principals select. Now, their main tasks revolve around making teacher tenure decisions, conducting “Quality Reviews” of school’s internal organizational structures, attending public hearings about schools in their districts, and putting out fires when they arise.

The delegation of tasks from superintendents to network leaders was a key element of the Bloomberg administration’s emphasis on principal empowerment. Under the doctrine, which holds that principals are most able to identify and provide what their schools need if they are not micromanaged by supervisors who do not work there, the city released principals from some mandates in exchange for greater accountability for student performance.

Now, because of the state’s evaluation requirements, “there are several things that are coming down that are impinging on principals’ autonomy,” Weiner told the principals.

Superintendents’ influence in rating principals, their main statutory requirement, even grew constrained as the city’s principal evaluation system grew so formulaic that their input became barely necessary to generate a score. The evaluation rubric currently in place, known as the Principal Performance Review, assigns principals a rating based on their school’s score on the city progress report, the results of their school’s most recent “Quality Review,” how well they met the “goals and objectives” they set out, and their compliance with city policies. In all, 85 percent of the PPR is based on academic performance, according to the city’s guidelines.

“There’s a lack of clarity about the role of what the superintendent is,” Judi Aronson, a former superintendent, told GothamSchools in 2009. “Although theoretically they evaluate principals and sign off on many documents relating to evaluation, evaluation is only by the metrics of the progress report, PPR, and quality review.”

Under the new system, a full 60 percent of principals’ evaluations must be based on “subjective” measures, those other than students’ academic performance, the same as is required in teachers’ evaluations. At least 31 percent must come from superintendents’ annual observations of principals.

“As you know, we don’t have that,” Peter McNally, a principals union vice president, told the principals at the January panel. “That’s a major hurdle.”

What the city does have is the Quality Review process, in which external assessors rate how well a school’s internal systems support student learning. Superintendents conduct some of the multi-day reviews, but they are more often conducted by leaders of the networks the schools have hired to provide support. Plus, because the city exempts new schools and high-performing schools, the reviews don’t happen every year for every school.

Further complicating matters, the city’s quality review rubric isn’t one of the state’s permitted models for principal observations. The city’s model is meant to assess the school as an organization rather than the principal as a leader. And, significantly, a full quality review takes at least two days and sometimes three to complete.

So under the new evaluation system, superintendents who have conducted only a handful of reviews each year to look at school-wide issues will have to conduct dozens of them for the purposes of rating principals — and they’ll have to do each of them twice. According to last month’s evaluation deal, superintendents will have to conduct two observations for each principal she supervises, one unannounced. District superintendents maintain portfolios of 30 to 40 schools, and the city’s six high school superintendents manage nearly 100 schools each.

“I don’t know she’s going to do that and do teacher tenure and quality reviews. It’s beyond human capability,” said the principal of a small high school. “Putting that onus on the superintendent —they’re going to have to create deputy superintendents or something to make that possible.”

It’s a view echoed by Kim Marshall, the creator of one of the rubrics the state has said superintendents can use when observing principals. Speaking on a panel about principal evaluations organized by the teacher group Educators 4 Excellence this week, Marshall said the city has a structural problem: There are too few supervisors with real authority.

The city has started testing solutions to the problems introduced by the new evaluation requirements. A pilot group of 30 schools have received shorter quality reviews this year: three hours long, instead of multiple days, and focusing on six principal-specific items instead of the full 30 items that regular reviews examine. Weiner described the pilot as being “almost like a research project” for principals, who are being asked to complete surveys and assess the quality of the abbreviated observations.

“Before we roll it out for 1,700 principals, we need to work out some of the kinks first,” Weiner said.

But principals say reducing the length of quality reviews would make them less useful in identifying areas for improvement and make it more likely that the people conducting them would miss essential elements of principals’ leadership.

“A model where a superintendent is in a school only three hours a year is not a good model,” McNally said.

“I think you need the full two days,” said the principal of a middle school in Harlem who said he has been satisfied with the support his superintendent has given him.

Exactly how long the reviews will take is subject to negotiation between the city and principals union. When the city cut off talks with the United Federation of Teachers in December, it also cut off talks with the principals union, to President Ernest Logan’s chagrin. Those negotiations are set to resume but have not yet.

The union and city will also have to agree on academic performance measures to make up 20 percent of evaluations and on the non-observation elements of the subjective measures, just as the teachers union and city are required to do for teacher evaluations.

And they are likely to discuss evaluations for assistant principals during those talks, even though the state law doesn’t apply to them, according to McNally. In fact, the law doesn’t say anything at all about assistant principals, an omission that Weiner said was “very interesting. … I couldn’t have gone anywhere without my APs.” But because city schools often have multiple assistant principals, with different people focusing on instruction and operations, applying a single set of criteria to their evaluations could be complicated.

A broader concern is that the city’s system for delivering support to principals is ill equipped to accommodate the new evaluation requirements. The state’s evaluation law is intended both to identify weak teachers and principals so that they can be removed and also to figure out where to direct assistance for those who are struggling but have potential. For teachers, the same person — the principal — is supposed to provide support and conduct observations. But for principals, the superintendent would conduct observations while the network teams provide support, if the city does not make major changes to the network structure.

City and union officials are hoping that a training session on principal evaluations that the State Education Department has scheduled for March 14 will clear up some of the open questions surrounding principal evaluations and lay the groundwork for changes that might facilitate a new system. But training sessions conducted earlier this year about teacher evaluations left many questions unanswered, McNally noted.

And no matter what is decided, he said, changes to principals’ evaluations would likely come as a surprise to many school leaders who have been more focused this year on the prospect of changing the way they rate teachers.

“Our rank-and-file has not been briefed on any of these complexities,” McNally said.

Top 10

From forest preschools to a secret apology, here are Chalkbeat Colorado’s must-read stories of 2018

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Megan Patterson works with children to make a dam in a creek during a recent "forest school" class.

We spend a lot of time at Chalkbeat chasing the news to keep our readers informed about controversial policy changes, fast-moving debates, and late-breaking decisions.

But we also relish the opportunity to dig deep into issues affecting students and families, shine light on innovative ideas, and hear from dedicated educators making a difference. With that in mind, we’ve gathered 10 of our best stories from 2018.

These stories don’t necessarily chronicle the biggest education issues of 2018, from teacher walkouts to unprecedented state interventions. But they are stories we think are important and insightful, and that we enjoyed reporting and writing. We hope you enjoy reading them.

No walls: Forest preschools let kids run free, but can they change to reach diverse families?

One day this past summer, about a dozen children frolicked by a Jefferson County creek — making pretend tea in small metal buckets, and building dams with sticks and mud.

They were students at Worldmind Nature Immersion School, where children spend all their time outside. So-called forest preschools like Worldmind are beloved by many families but face significant regulatory and logistical barriers in expanding their footprint nationwide. Here in Colorado, a pilot program could lead a new kind of child care license designed for them.

And being licensed could help the schools confront another problem: a lack of diversity among their students. Read more.

Colorado was never ranked 46th for teacher pay. Does this change the debate?

It was an oft-cited statistic: that Colorado, despite its booming economy, ranked 46th in the nation for teacher pay. The eye-popping number found its way onto social media posts and signs at massive teacher rallies last spring. News outlets latched on to it, too.

But it was wrong. Colorado was actually ranked 30th in the nation.

Our story breaks down how the mistake happened (hint: a new data system, an unrevised report) — and how groups with different agendas seized on the snafu to score points. Read more.

This is the letter of apology that Adams 14 leaders never sent

The Adams 14 district in Commerce City is arguably the most troubled and low-performing in Colorado. Just last month, state officials directed Adams 14 to hire an external manager to oversee the district’s operations for at least the next four years.

Back in September, Adams 14 officials considered taking a rare step: saying sorry to the community. But an apology letter was never signed nor sent out.

Chalkbeat obtained a copy of the letter, which makes mention of “various and conflicting priorities, coupled with constant turnover and organizational disarray.” Read more.

Rising test scores and dwindling trust: Denver’s Tom Boasberg leaves a complicated legacy

Colorado’s largest school district experienced a big change this year when longtime leader Tom Boasberg announced he would step down after nearly 10 years in Denver Public Schools.

Because of his school improvement strategies — some of which were controversial and heightened tensions with the community — the district that the new superintendent, Susana Cordova, will inherit in January is vastly different than it was a decade ago.

One tangible difference: Schools that once served as anchors of the community but struggled academically have been closed or replaced. That disappearance was on display on one of Boasberg’s last days, when he held his cell phone close to his mouth and enunciated each word so his GPS would understand his direction: “Montbello High School.” Read more.

Parents in one Aurora high school are visiting classrooms and giving teachers feedback

Like many schools in Colorado, Aurora’s Rangeview High School has a test score gap between white and black students. But the assistant principal there came up with a unique way to try to address it: by inviting black parents to visit classrooms and observe how students are — or are not — engaging with the teacher’s lesson, and then provide suggestions for improvement.

“We give true and honest feedback,” said one parent involved, “if they looked or appeared comfortable, how they interacted with the environment, the temperature of the room.”

Although the assistant principal considers the African American Parent Committee an experiment, she said it’s generating uncomfortable but necessary conversations. Read more.

How education reform became a wedge issue among Colorado Democrats this election year

For years, more moderate Democrats, often working in unison with like-minded Republicans, championed education reform efforts ranging from school choice to holding educators accountable for student performance.

But partly because of backlash against President Donald Trump and his education secretary, those strategies no longer fly with many Democrats — especially left-leaning Democrats who see them as undercutting public education and devaluing the work of teachers.

That sentiment was palpable in Colorado’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, and could shape the next legislative session, which starts in January. “Education is the issue that really stands to divide the left in a very substantial way,” one observer said. Read more.

How a Colorado school district turned things around at 10,000 feet above sea level

School improvement efforts look a little different high in the Rocky Mountains. While many of the strategies used by the 1,000-student Lake County school district are familiar to urban settings, they’ve been retrofitted to meet the needs of a district that’s 100 miles west of Denver.

For example, instead of firing teachers and principals who weren’t accelerating student learning fast enough, the district adopted a new curriculum and gave its teachers lots of training.

“The belief that the people are the problem is wrong,” the superintendent said. “Our teachers are professionals, and we believe in them. We’re proving that there is a framework or a pathway for rural schools to improve that’s about building capacity within your own community.” Read more.

7 things to know about how Colorado schools punish their youngest students

After state lawmakers rejected a bill to limit the use of suspensions in the earliest grades, Chalkbeat wanted to know more about the early childhood discipline landscape in Colorado. Data from the Colorado Department of Education revealed several trends.

Among them: Young black boys are suspended at disproportionate rates. Some rural school districts have the highest early childhood suspension rates in the state.

And despite nationwide debate about the impact of harsh discipline on young children and local efforts to bring the numbers down, suspensions in the early grades are actually going up. Read more.

In Denver’s gentrifying neighborhoods, some middle-class parents are avoiding the school down the block

Many neighborhoods in Denver are gentrifying, with middle-class families moving into what have historically been working-class communities. That type of demographic shift could easily lead to neighborhood schools that are more integrated by family income and race.

But that doesn’t always happen in Denver. Instead, data show that wealthier families – more often than low-income families – are using Denver Public Schools’ universal school choice process to send their kids to schools elsewhere in the city.

That’s a problem because research shows integrated schools boost test scores for students from low-income families without lowering the scores of those from wealthier ones. Denver officials want to see those benefits, but allowing parents to choose may be thwarting them. Read more.

Why this Colorado principal hand delivers birthday cards to more than 2,000 students and staff

Northglenn High School Principal Sharee Blunt is Colorado’s 2018 School Principal of the year — but perhaps even more impressive is the enormous number of birthday cards she hand delivers each year. If you’re one of those people who can barely remember your spouse’s birthday, you’ll be floored by Blunt’s annual feat.

In our interview with Blunt, part of Chalkbeat’s “How I Lead” Q&A series with distinguished school leaders, she talks about what she realized after a mother’s emotional reaction, and why she gave a teacher a pass during a lesson that went awry. Read more.

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.