contract sport

What the teachers' contract talks are all about, part II: Evaluations and training time

PHOTO: Chalkbeat
Teachers and other UFT members at a rally in 2013 calling on the city to negotiate a new contract.

As the city and the teachers union move closer to an agreement on a new contract, the issues under the microscope are coming into focus.

We started here with the union’s desire for retroactive pay and the push to find a better solution for the city’s Absent Teacher Reserve.

Also on the table are changes to one of the year’s biggest upheavals: the city’s new teacher evaluation system. Another issue, professional development time, is close to new Chancellor Carmen Fariña’s heart.

3. Tinkering with teacher evaluations

By imposing a teacher evaluation plan on New York City last year, State Education Commissioner John King had the final say one significant piece of the contract. After months of complaints from teachers and principals about the new evaluation system, the city and union are both pining to make changes.

The issue: The evaluations were established last year to comply with a state law that requires districts to use performance ratings for all employment decisions: granting tenure and bonuses, termination, and promotions. This year, some teachers and students have boycotted tests required for teacher evaluations. Principals have also complained about rigid classroom observation rules under the new system.

Principals say the process is so rigid that it’s hard to evaluate instruction and provide feedback to teachers. Principal coach Kim Marshall detailed the challenges in a Chalkbeat post last week, saying that the requirement to score as many parts of a 22-element rubric as possible after each visit was particularly burdensome.

On the table: One area where change is possible is teachers are observations. Fariña wants to make the process is easier and less restrictive, and has told administrators that she’ll try to reduce the number of items that principals are required to measure.

The union has its own requests. Next year, student surveys are set to count for 5 percent of a teacher’s evaluation, but union officials have long been opposed to the idea. They also have raised concerns about how many people can visit a classroom at a time and how disruptive evaluators should be during observations.

Changes to the tests, used to measure student learning, are also likely. The union wants to more alternatives to the tests being administered only to evaluate teachers. Last year, UFT chief Michael Mulgrew said he wanted student work portfolios to count for teacher evaluation decisions, but King rejected the idea because he said it could be too easily gamed.

A state law enacted last month might also add pressure to reduce testing used for evaluations. The law also guarantees that one change to the contract will be to ban standardized tests for students in kindergarten through second grade.

4. Adding time for professional development

In 2005, the city extended the school day by 37-and-a-half minutes, four days a week, for struggling students. More than half of that time was carved out of parts of the school day previously used for department meetings and collaborative lesson planning.

Now, many people say that professional development time needs to be re-prioritized.

The issue: Last year, the city’s former Chief Academic Officer Shael Polakow-Suransky panned that swap as “one of the biggest mistakes” of the 2005 round of contract negotiations.

And just last week, King singled New York City’s contract talks as an example of where districts can negotiate ways to prioritize teacher-to-teacher collaboration. He also took a subtle swipe at the city’s 2005 contract.

“When New York City did their last contract, one of the tradeoffs they made was to reduce professional development time,” King said. “I think there’s an opportunity here, as they work on a new contract to figure out, how will they ensure that there’s real time for teachers to collaborate?”

On the table: Polakow-Suransky’s successors at the Department of Education seem to agree. Fariña is a big believer in giving teachers more time to work together, and has even created an office to oversee professional development.

Finding time in the city’s standard six-and-a-half-hour day will be tricky, so it’s likely that the city is pushing the union to add time to the school day or give schools extra scheduling flexibility in exchange for raises.

One idea could be to allow mandated faculty and grade conferences to take place after 3:45 p.m., an idea floated ahead of 2009 when the two sides last negotiated in earnest.

But timing might not be the only way to improve the way teachers are trained. The union sought an apprenticeship program to better prepare new teachers. The city supported a similar career ladder model that would have paid teachers more to serve in mentorship or leadership roles.

In addition, sources say, one idea being debated is to pilot a “slimmer” contract for a small group of schools that would shed many of the work rules that have been added into the 165-page contract over five decades worth of labor disputes.

Supporters say that for such an important document, it should be accessible for all education stakeholders.

“Trying to understand it if you’re a parent, a teacher, a journalist, is like going through an archeological dig of a lost civilization thousands of years ago,” said Dan Weisberg, a former chief negotiator at the Department of Education.

In 2004, then-Chancellor Joel Klein proposed an eight-page contract, and his UFT counterpart at the time, Randi Weingarten, said she’d be open to trying it out in around 150 schools. Those talks stalled, but the idea has stayed alive.

 Weingarten negotiated a unionized charter school contract that included no tenure protections for teachers in 2009 and hailed it as a national model. Since then, a handful of union charter schools have followed suit.

Some district schools worked out deals with the city to try out new models for education. New American Academy in Brooklyn allows teachers to have larger class sizes, work longer hours and get paid differently that other UFT teachers.


Tennessee schools chief Candice McQueen leaving for job at national education nonprofit


Tennessee’s education chief is leaving state government to lead a nonprofit organization focused on attracting, developing, and keeping high-quality educators.

Candice McQueen, 44, will become the CEO of National Institute for Excellence in Teaching in mid-January.

Gov. Bill Haslam, whose administration will end on Jan. 19, announced the impending departure of his education commissioner on Thursday.

He plans to name an interim commissioner, according to an email from McQueen to her staff at the education department.

“While I am excited about this new opportunity, it is hard to leave this team,” she wrote. “You are laser-focused on doing the right thing for Tennessee’s students every single day – and I take heart in knowing you will continue this good work in the months and years to come. I look forward to continuing to support your work even as I move into this new role with NIET.”

A former teacher and university dean, McQueen has been one of Haslam’s highest-profile cabinet members since joining the administration in 2015 to replace Kevin Huffman, a lawyer who was an executive at Teach For America.

Her tenure has been highlighted by overhauling the state’s requirements for student learning, increasing transparency about how Tennessee students are doing, and launching a major initiative to improve reading skills in a state that struggles with literacy.

But much of the good work has been overshadowed by repeated technical failures in Tennessee’s switch to a computerized standardized test — even forcing McQueen to cancel testing for most students in her second year at the helm. The assessment program continued to struggle this spring, marred by days of technical glitches.

Haslam, who has consistently praised McQueen’s leadership throughout the rocky testing ride, said Tennessee’s education system has improved under her watch.

“Candice has worked relentlessly since day one for Tennessee’s students and teachers, and under her leadership, Tennessee earned its first ‘A’ rating for the standards and the rigor of the state’s assessment after receiving an ‘F’ rating a decade ago,” Haslam said in a statement. “Candice has raised the bar for both teachers and students across the state, enabling them to rise to their greatest potential. I am grateful for her service.”

McQueen said being education commissioner has been “the honor of a lifetime” and that her new job will allow her to “continue to be an advocate for Tennessee’s teachers and work to make sure every child is in a class led by an excellent teacher every day.”

At the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching, she’ll work with states, districts, and schools to improve the effectiveness of teachers and will operate out of the organization’s new office in Nashville. The institute’s work impacts more than 250,000 educators and 2.5 million students.

“Candice McQueen understands that highly effective teachers can truly transform the lives of our children, our classrooms, our communities and our futures,” said Lowell Milken, chairman of the institute, which has existing offices in Phoenix, Washington, D.C., and Santa Monica, Calif.

In an interview with Chalkbeat, McQueen said numerous organizations had approached her about jobs this year as Tennessee prepared to transition to a new administration under Gov.-elect Bill Lee. She called leading the institute “an extraordinary opportunity that I felt was a great fit” because of its focus on supporting, leading, and compensating teachers.

“It’s work that I believe is the heart and soul of student improvement,” she said.

McQueen’s entire career has focused on strengthening teacher effectiveness and support systems for teachers. Before joining Haslam’s administration, the Tennessee native was an award-winning teacher; then faculty member, department chair, and dean of Lipscomb University’s College of Education in Nashville. As dean from 2008 to 2015, Lipscomb became one of the highest-rated teacher preparation programs in Tennessee and the nation. There, McQueen also doubled the size and reach of the college’s graduate programs with new master’s degrees and certificates, the university’s first doctoral program, and additional online and off-campus offerings.

As Haslam’s education commissioner the last four years, McQueen stayed the course on Tennessee’s 2010 overhaul of K-12 education, which was highlighted by raising academic standards; measuring student improvement through testing; and holding students, teachers, schools, and districts accountable for the results.

Candice McQueen has been commissioner of education for Republican Gov. Bill Haslam since 2015.

One of the plan’s most controversial components was teacher evaluations that are tied to student growth on state tests — a strategy that McQueen has stood by and credited in part for Tennessee’s gains on national tests.

Since 2011, Tennessee has seen record-high graduation rates, college-going rates, and ACT scores and steadily moved up in state rankings on the Nation’s Report Card.

Several new studies say Tennessee teachers are getting better under the evaluation system, although other research paints a less encouraging picture.

Her choice to lead the national teaching institute quickly garnered praise from education leaders across the country.

“The students of Tennessee have benefited from Candice McQueen’s leadership, including bold efforts to ensure students have access to advanced career pathways to lead to success in college and careers, and a solid foundation in reading,” said Carissa Moffat Miller, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers.

Louisiana Education Superintendent John White said McQueen brings ideal skills to her new job.

“She is not just a veteran educator who has worked in higher education and K-12 education alike, but she is also a visionary leader with a unique understanding of both quality classroom teaching and the systems necessary to make quality teaching possible for millions of students,” White said.

Read more reaction to the news of McQueen’s planned exit.

reading science

Reading instruction is big news these days. Teachers, share your thoughts with us!

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

Lately, lots of people are talking about reading. Specifically, how it’s taught (or not) in America’s schools.

Much of the credit is due to American Public Media reporter Emily Hanford. In September, she took an in-depth look at what’s wrong with reading instruction in the nation’s classrooms and how explicit, systematic phonics instruction could help.

The crux of the issue is this: In the 1980s and 1990s, the “whole language” approach to teaching reading took hold, relying on the idea that learning to read is a natural process that could be helped along by surrounding kids with good books. At many schools, phonics was out.

In time, many educators brought small doses of phonics back into their lessons, adopting an approach called “balanced literacy.” The problem is, neither whole language nor balanced literacy is based on science, Hanford explained.

Her work on the subject — an audio documentary called Hard Words, a follow-up Q&A for parents, and an opinion piece in the New York Times — has spawned much discussion on social media and elsewhere.

A Maine educator explained in her piece for the Hechinger Report why she agrees that explicit phonics instruction is important but doesn’t think “balanced literacy” should be thrown out. A Minnesota reporter examined the divide in her state over how much phonics should be included in reading lessons and how it should be delivered.

In a roundtable discussion on reading last spring, Stephanie Finn, a literacy coach in the West Genesee Central School District in upstate New York, described the moment she became disillusioned with the whole language approach. It was while reading a story with her young daughter.

“The story was about gymnastics and she had a lot of background knowledge about gymnastics. She loved gymnastics. She knew the word ‘gymnastics,’ and ‘balance beam’ and ‘flexible’ and she got to the girl’s name and the girl’s name was Kate, and she didn’t know what to do,” said Finn. “I thought ‘Holy cow, she cannot decode this simple word. We have a problem.’”

In an opinion piece in Education Week, Susan Pimentel, co-founder of StandardsWork, provides three recommendations to help educators promote reading proficiency. Besides not confining kids to “just-right” books where they already know most words, she says teachers should increase students’ access to knowledge-building subjects like science and social studies. Finally, she writes, “Let quality English/language arts curriculum do some of the heavy lifting. Poor-quality curriculum is at the root of reading problems in many schools.”

Meanwhile, some current and former educators are asking teacher prep program leaders to explain the dearth of science-based lessons on reading instruction.

An Arkansas teacher wrote in a letter to her former dean on Facebook, “while I feel like most of my teacher preparation was very good, I can say I was totally unprepared to teach reading, especially to the struggling readers that I had at the beginning of my career in my resource classroom.”

Former elementary school teacher Robert Pondiscio, a senior fellow and vice president for external affairs at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, wrote to his former dean, “I’m grateful for the professional credential … But if there’s anything one might expect an advanced degree in elementary education to include, it would be teaching reading. It wasn’t part of my program.”

Teachers, now we’d like to hear from you. What resonates with you about the recent news coverage on reading instruction? What doesn’t? Share your perspective by filling out this brief survey.