untested

Instead of telling teachers apart, new evals lump some together

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Teachers attended training sessions about the city’s new teacher evaluation system over the summer, but some features of the system – including how teachers whose students don’t take state tests would have their student growth measured — were not decided until the school year began last week.

A Bronx performing arts school’s dance instructor will be judged on students’ English exam scores. Physical education teachers at a transfer school in Brooklyn are going to teach Olympic history lessons to prepare students for the history tests that will help determine their ratings. And teachers in Queens are putting the fate of their evaluations into a final exam that they don’t teach, but yields high pass rates.

The scenarios are not unusual — across the city this year, thousands of teachers will be rated in large part based on test scores of subjects and students that they do not teach.

Rather, the scenarios are examples of how schools have tried to comply with a new teacher evaluation system that must factor student performance into final ratings. They also represent how the original purpose of the evaluations, to differentiate teachers’ effectiveness, has been squeezed by restrictive state laws, limited resources, and a tight timeline for implementation.

“It’s insane to me that 40 percent of my evaluation is going to be based on someone else’s work,” said Jason Zanitsch, a high school drama teacher who will share the same “student growth” score with colleagues in his school this year.

An incomplete evaluation system, implemented rapidly

Sixty percent of teachers’ ratings this year will come from observations by administrators. The state’s evaluation law mandates that the remaining 40 percent come from a combination of state tests and assessments chosen by each district, whose scores are all crunched to determine student growth.

But neither kind of test exists for Zanitsch and other drama teachers, at least this year. They are among the thousands of city teachers for whom the state has not approved any way to measure student learning. They include librarians, 5,000 physical education and arts teachers, and others who teach foreign languages, health, and career education.

New York City principals had until the first day of school last week to choose from a menu of limited options, first made available in early August, for evaluating their teachers on student growth. Principals and teachers told GothamSchools that their schools have picked a “default” option in which all teachers — even core subject teachers — will receive the same score cobbled together from all of the state tests taken in the school.

“What we are advising most of our schools and principals this year is since the principal’s rating is based on how their school collectively is doing, just take the default, especially since it means the minimum of extra work and testing for everyone,” said a person who works in a network with many high schools.

The arrangement has drawn a lawsuit in Florida and criticism from dozens of city principals who last week pledged not to help execute it. But in lieu of state-approved assessments for all subjects, officials say rating teachers by their colleagues’ scores is the best option available until more credible alternatives can be developed.

“If the legislature had wanted us to be fully compliant at the outset, they would have put in place a massive funding program to support assessments to support every single subject,” said Shael Polakow-Suransky, the Department of Education’s chief academic officer. “But they decided to have a statewide evaluation system in place and then to build it from there.”

Looking on the bright side

Some principals and teachers say the arrangement could have benefits.

“It absolutely encourages collaboration,” said Vinnie Zarillo, a social studies teacher at Brownsville Academy High School whose students’ scores will influence the school’s physical education teachers’ ratings as well as his own. He said he is already talking to his colleagues about how to add lessons to P.E. classes about athletics’ role in world history.

Theatre Arts Production Company Principal Ron Link, whose teachers will be rated using results from the English Regents, said the school-wide approach meshed with how teachers already worked together on the school’s end-of-year theater productions. But Link also wondered if eventually it could lead the curriculum to narrow.

“Is it teaching to the test? I don’t know,” Link said. “I think we’re lucky here at TAPCO because we were already doing the infusion part with arts teachers working with the English and the social studies teacher on the production.”

Concerns about testing’s role

But the silver lining doesn’t sit well with everyone who has been told to look for it.

“I want my art teacher to teach students to make and analyze art. I don’t want them to teach mathematical modeling. That’s why I have a great algebra teacher,” said a Brooklyn high school principal, who asked to remain anonymous because she did not want to criticize the evaluation system publicly. The principal added, “The best that I can see coming out of this is that no harm is done.”

“The administration is saying it is teamwork and we are all in this together, but I don’t feel comfortable being graded based on how the other teachers in my school [are] preparing students for their tests,” a forensic science teacher told GothamSchools.  The teacher, who said her evaluation will be partially based on her students’ Living Environment Regents exam scores, requested anonymity because she feared retribution.

Department officials concede that the situation is far from ideal but say it’s the best they could have done under the state’s timeline for implementing the new evaluation law. Polakow-Suransky suggested that teachers could find solace in the fact that the city did not introduce more required tests, as some had worried that the new evaluation system would do. But he also noted that several schools are piloting arts assessments funded by federal grants and signaled that schools could have the option to add tests in the future.

“We’re not going to go out and invent a bunch of multiple choice-tests for gym classes. It’s a waste of time,” he said. “We are working hard to develop new assessments that would be useful” for teachers.

Lumping teachers together, instead of telling them apart

For now, educators are pondering the implications of an arrangement that groups teachers together rather than distinguishes their effectiveness individually.

“If you have two or three really not-so-great teachers and you take the default, all those teachers are going to get effective or highly effective,” the network official said. “On the flip side, if your school does badly overall on the Regents this year, some really good teachers are going to get screwed.”

Some principals say they tried to mitigate against those possibilities by hinging teachers’ ratings on their colleagues whose students have done well in the past.

“I’m going to try to game it in little ways, [to] tie it to where we think we’re going to get some good performance,” said the Brooklyn high school principal.

“We picked based on past performance,” said Moses Ojeda, principal of Thomas Edison Career and Technical Education High School, where many teachers work in technology subjects.

But those choices, designed to protect teachers, lead to questions about the meaningfulness of the ratings that the new evaluation system will produce.

One teacher who will be rated based on his own students’ scores said the fact that exams in his subject would factor into the scores of his colleagues who teach other subjects would cause him to question all of their ratings. “If you create a system which will work only if administrators don’t follow the rules, it’s a bad system,” he said.

surprise!

Teachers in Millington and Knoxville just won the Oscar awards of education

PHOTO: Milken Family Foundation
Millington English teacher Katherine Watkins reacts after learning that she is the recipient of a 2017 Milken Educator Award.

Two Tennessee teachers were surprised during school assemblies Thursday with a prestigious national teaching award, $25,000 checks, and a visit from the state’s education chief.

Katherine Watkins teaches high school English in Millington Municipal Schools in Shelby County. She serves as the English department chair and professional learning community coordinator at Millington Central High School. She is also a trained jazz pianist, published poet, and STEM teacher by summer.

PHOTO: Milken Family Foundation
Paula Franklin learns she is among the recipients.

Paula Franklin teaches Advanced Placement government at West High School in Knoxville. Since she took on the course, its enrollment has doubled, and 82 percent of her students pass with an average score that exceeds the national average.

The teachers are two of 45 educators being honored nationally with this year’s Milken Educator Awards from the Milken Family Foundation. The award includes a no-strings-attached check for $25,000.

“It is an honor to celebrate two exceptional Tennessee educators today on each end of the state,” said Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, who attended each assembly. “Paula Franklin and Katherine Watkins should be proud of the work they have done to build positive relationships with students and prepare them with the knowledge and skills to be successful in college and the workforce.”

Foundation chairman Lowell Milken was present to present the awards, which have been given to thousands of teachers since 1987.

PHOTO: Milken Family Foundation
Students gather around Millington teacher Katherine Watkins as she receives a check as part of her Milken Educator Award.

The Milken awards process starts with recommendations from sources that the foundation won’t identify. Names are then reviewed by committees appointed by state departments of education, and their recommendations are vetted by the foundation, which picks the winners.

Last year, Chattanooga elementary school teacher Katie Baker was Tennessee’s sole winner.

In all, 66 Tennessee educators have been recognized by the Milken Foundation and received a total of $1.6 million since the program began in the state in 1992.

You can learn more about the Milken Educator Awards here.

Busing Ban

As school districts push for integration, decades-old federal rule could thwart them

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post
Several districts across the country want to use federal money to pay for school buses as part of their desegregation plans. A federal spending restriction could get in the way.

In Florida, officials plan to use federal money to shuttle students across vast Miami-Dade County to new science-themed magnet programs in a bid to desegregate several schools.

In South Carolina, a tiny district west of Myrtle Beach intends to spend federal funds on free busing for families who enroll at two predominantly black schools, hoping that will draw in white and Hispanic students.

And in New York, state officials want to deploy federal school-improvement money to help integrate struggling schools, believing that may be the secret to their rebirth.

But each of these fledgling integration efforts — and similar ones across the country — could be imperiled by obscure budget provisions written during the anti-busing backlash of the 1970s, which prohibit using federal funding for student transportation aimed at racial desegregation. The rules have been embedded in every education spending bill since at least 1974, as Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia pointed out in September when he tried unsuccessfully to remove the provisions from the latest appropriations bill.

The rules are “a relic of an ugly history when states and school districts across the nation resisted meaningful integration,” said Scott, the top Democrat on the House education committee, during a floor speech where he called the persistence of the rules “morally reprehensible.”

After Scott’s amendment to eliminate the provisions was blocked, advocates are now working behind the scenes to convince members of the Senate from both parties to strike the rules from the latest spending bill during negotiations. More than 40 integration advocates and experts have signed onto a letter to lawmakers calling for the anti-busing language to be removed, and members of that coalition plan to meet with lawmakers in the coming days.

Advocates are especially worried about funding for magnet programs, like those in Miami and the South Carolina district, which rely on special science or art offerings or rigorous academic courses to draw students of different races into the same school — a choice-based approach that has become the primary way districts now pursue desegregation.

This is the first year districts that receive federal magnet-school grants are allowed to spend some of that money on transportation, after Congress changed the rules as part of its education-law overhaul in 2015. Among the 32 districts that received a total of nearly $92 million in magnet grants this year, at least six plan to use some of that money for transportation, according to their applications.

Now, just as those funds are about to flow to busing — which many families insist upon before they will enroll their children in magnet schools across town — the decades-old spending restriction could cut them off, advocates warn.

That could create a major problem for districts like Miami-Dade County.

It hopes to attract students from across the district to three heavily black and Hispanic schools by launching magnet programs that focus on zoology, cybersecurity, and mobile-app development, according to its application. To pull that off, it requested $245,000 for buses next year since, as the application notes, the “most limiting factor” for many families is “the cost associated with transporting their child to the magnet school.”

The district in Lake City, South Carolina wants to pull new families from different neighborhoods into an elementary school and a middle school that suffer from sagging enrollment and intense poverty. Previous recruitment efforts that didn’t provide transportation amounted to “failed attempts,” the district said in its application.

However, if the anti-busing provisions are not removed from the next federal spending bill, they would cancel out the new rule allowing those districts to spend some of their magnet money on transportation (though districts could still use local funds to fill in the gap). As such, magnet-school representatives are pushing hard for lawmakers to remove the provisions during budget negotiations.

“We’re hoping this doesn’t see the light of day,” said John Laughner, legislative and communications manager at Magnet Schools of America, an association of magnets from across the country. He plans to discuss the issue with lawmakers next week.

Beyond magnet schools, other desegregation efforts could be undercut by the anti-busing provision, which was included in a spending bill for fiscal year 2018 that the House approved and one the Senate has yet to vote on.

At least one state — New York — listed socioeconomic and racial integration among the ways it could intervene in low-performing schools under the new federal education law. In addition, New York officials announced a grant program this week where up to 30 districts will receive federal money to develop integration plans.

Advocates fear the anti-busing rule could disrupt any of those plans that require transportation and aim to reduce racial segregation. (New York education officials said they did not want to speculate on the impact of a spending bill that hasn’t been approved.)

A Democratic Congressional aide who has studied the issue said the provision could even block federal funding for planning or public outreach around desegregation programs that involve busing, not just busing itself.

Either way, advocates say the provision could dissuade districts from using the new education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, to pursue integration — even though research suggests that student achievement on tests and other measures improve when they attend less segregated schools.

“We shouldn’t have this,” said Philip Tegeler, a member of the National Coalition on School Diversity, which is leading the charge to remove the restriction. He added that the provision stemmed from mandatory desegregation busing of an earlier era: “It’s clearly an anachronism that doesn’t really fit any more with what states and districts are doing voluntarily.”

A U.S. education department spokeswoman said Secretary Betsy DeVos would be bound to enforce any funding prohibitions that Congress approves, though she noted that state and local funds are not subject to the same restrictions.

Negotiators from the House and Senate must still agree on a single spending bill, which would go before the full Congress for a vote. Until then, lawmakers have voted to temporarily extend 2017 spending levels through December. It’s possible Congress will pass another extension then, meaning a final deal — and a decision on the anti-busing language — may not arrive until early next year.

In the meantime, advocates are pressing lawmakers like Sen. Lamar Alexander, the Republican chairman of the Senate education committee who helped craft ESSA, with the argument that the anti-busing provision limits the flexibility and local control the law was meant to provide districts.

Margaret Atkinson, a spokeswoman for the senator, would not say whether he is open to removing the provision, but said he would continue working to ensure ESSA “is implemented as Congress intended.”

The anti-busing language — found in two sections of the current appropriation bills — prohibits using federal funds for transportation “to overcome racial imbalance” or “to carry out a plan of racial desegregation,” or forcing students to attend any school other than the one closest to home. (A separate education law contains a similar restriction, but ESSA exempted magnet schools from it.) The provisions emerged in the early 1970s, just after the Supreme Court ruled that busing students to schools outside their own racially isolated neighborhoods was an appropriate tool for school desegregation.

At the time, many white parents raged against what they called “forced busing.” In response, the U.S. House of Representatives passed at least one law annually from 1966 to 1977 meant to curb school integration, according to historian Jason Sokol, and in 1974 the full Congress voted in favor of an anti-busing amendment to an education bill. The restrictions in the current spending bills appear to have originated around the same time.

The attacks on busing reflect how crucial free transportation is to school desegregation, said Erica Frankenberg, a professor at Pennsylvania State University who studies segregation. Busing was included in guidelines outlining how districts should comply with desegregation requirements in the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and later upheld by the Supreme Court, she pointed out.

More recently, studies have shown that non-white parents are more likely to opt into magnet schools when they provide transportation, and that magnets that don’t offer busing are more likely to enroll students of a single race, Frankenberg said. Yet, many politicians remain reluctant to endorse busing for desegregation — which may reflect a deeper ambivalence, she added.

Resistance to busing, she said, “is a very politically acceptable way to be opposed to integration.”