Evaluating Evaluations

Appeal process in new evaluation plan shifts weight from student scores, for some

PHOTO: Sarah Darville

Imagine this: You’re a gym teacher at a struggling high school. Because of the way teacher evaluations were implemented in your school, 40 percent of your rating is based on test scores in a subject you don’t teach and from students who aren’t yours. And the students do poorly. Even when your principal says you’re doing well, or exceptionally well, in classroom observations, state law says that an “ineffective” for student learning means you’re stamped with an overall “ineffective” rating.

City and union officials said they had thousands of teachers like this one in mind when they agreed to a new appeal process as part of their contract agreement. Beginning this year, the process makes it easy for an “ineffective” rating to be boosted if it’s based on test scores of subjects and students that the teacher does not teach—as long a supervisor gives the teacher higher marks.

The new process isn’t protection for the sake of protection, local officials say. “It’s an appeal to address a particular problem that exists as a result of a lack of assessments,” said UFT Special Representative Amy Arundell.

But the new appeal process will also benefit thousands of math, English and other core subject teachers who receive “ineffective” ratings based on their own students’ academic growth. And shifting the weight of some teacher evaluations away from student performance metrics could make it controversial with state officials, who must approve the evaluation proposal.

core tenet of the state’s evaluation law is flunking teachers whose students show no academic growth. That’s an idea Gov. Andrew Cuomo and State Education Commissioner John King have fiercely defended over the years.

“If we’re serious about supporting excellence in teaching, we can’t have an evaluation system that permits a teacher who scores a zero on student achievement to receive a positive rating,” King said in 2011 in response to a legal challenge from the state teachers union to modify the role of state tests in evaluations.

The use of standardized test scores in teacher evaluations has garnered plenty of criticism, but the scores are preferred by officials because they are seen as a tougher standard than principal observations. Last year, for instance, just 1 percent of teachers across the state received an overall “ineffective” rating, though 6 percent of a subgroup of teachers were rated “ineffective” based solely on standardized test scores.

Research into the reliability of any one measure for teacher evaluations is mixed, with new studies casting doubt on both observations and value-added measures.

The deal has provided more ammunition for the union’s critics, who say it’s another way to weaken teacher accountability.

“Removing objective measures of student achievement undermines the intent of teacher evaluations, which we know was Mike Mulgrew’s goal in the first place,” said StudentsFirstNY Jenny Sedlis said. “Any professional needs an honest assessment of what’s working and what’s not in order to develop and improve.”

The problem with that critique, teachers say, is that the city hasn’t offered an “honest assessment” for many types of educators, including 5,000 physical education and arts teachers, librarians, and others who teach foreign language, health and career education—even though they’re evaluated like the rest of their colleagues.

“I’m being measured largely on kids I don’t even teach this year,” said Tara Brancato, a high school music teacher in the Bronx who, along with the rest of the school’s art department, will be evaluated based on how all students in the school do on their English Regents exams.

The city and union plan to improve assessment options in non-tested subjects, but Arundell said a safeguard is needed until fewer schools use learning measures that don’t relate to the work of some teachers.

“There’s an acknowledgement that there is a lack of authenticity to a person’s rating if you’re going to evaluate both on students you do not teach and subjects you do not teach,” Arundell said.

Brancato and other teachers who could be affected said the change was a welcome step toward addressing what they say has been a neglected part of teacher evaluations.

“They really are taking into consideration all teachers in the system,” said Jason Zanitsch, a high school drama teacher at the High School for Public Service in Brooklyn. “It’s far from perfect, but it’s definitely a step forward.”

Still, there are assessments available to evaluate many of the core subject teachers who will also qualify for appeals. Partially to prevent an onslaught of new tests, many schools opted to rate all teachers using a “group” measure, which gives an entire school’s staff—including math and English teachers—the same rating for the piece of the evaluation based on student performance on state tests. Having a “group” measure factor in to your evaluation qualifies a teacher for the new appeal process.

City officials said they were unable to calculate the number teachers who are being rated on “group” measures this year. But they said they anticipated that only a small percentage would use the appeal process, because the combination of receiving the lowest rating for student learning and an “effective” or “highly effective” rating by a supervisor is rare.

For those who do end up with that combination, the odds of a negative rating being boosted are in a teacher’s favor. The appeal process includes the presumption of a higher rating, meaning the burden of proof needed to uphold the original “ineffective” rating would fall on the city.

A separate appeal process would also be set up for teachers rated “highly effective” on student learning measures, but who earn an overall “ineffective” because of a principal’s observation. In that case, the UFT can choose which cases to appeal to an arbitration panel of three teachers.

Now, the deal must get a final sign-off from Commissioner John King. The city is supposed to submit a draft of its proposal to King by Thursday. A spokesman for the State Education Department declined to comment on the plan.

Department of Education officials said they believe the city’s proposed plan complied with state evaluation laws and regulations. In a statement, a spokeswoman said the agreement “focuses on raising student achievement in ways we’ve never been able to do before.”

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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.”

Price of entry

Becoming a Colorado teacher could soon require fewer transcripts, more training on English learners

Stephanie Wujek teaches science at Wiggins Middle School , on April 5, 2017 in Wiggins, Colorado. Rural areas are having a hard time finding teachers in areas like math and science. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

The rules for becoming a teacher in Colorado are about to change — and officials hope the moves will help attract more math teachers and better prepare educators to work with students learning English.

The changes, which the Colorado Department of Education proposed this week, would also cut down on the paperwork needed to enter the profession and make it easier for teachers licensed in other states to re-enter the classroom after they move to Colorado.

The package of changes also includes a slimmed-down teacher evaluation rubric, the first major revision to the rules under Colorado’s 2010 teacher effectiveness law.

Among the proposed changes:

  • Less paperwork for new teachers. Applicants for a teaching license would no longer have to provide transcripts for every school they attended, only the transcripts for the school that granted them their highest degree. (Many colleges hold transcripts hostage for unpaid debt, even minor ones like unpaid parking tickets.
  • Less paperwork for teachers coming from other states. Experienced, licensed teachers from outside Colorado would no longer need to provide transcripts or prove that their teacher preparation program met Colorado standards.
  • More flexibility about previous teaching experience. Licensed teachers from other states would no longer need to have previously worked under a full-time contract to qualify for a Colorado license.
  • A new credential limited to middle-school math. Right now, Colorado only has a secondary math endorsement, which requires competency in trigonometry and calculus. That’s a barrier for teachers moving from other states with a math endorsement limited to middle school, and some see it as a roadblock for those who feel comfortable with algebra but not higher-level math.
  • Additional pathways for counselors and nurses to get licensed to work in schools.

Two bills making their way through the Colorado General Assembly this session would remove another barrier for out-of-state teachers. To qualify for a Colorado license today, teachers must have had three years of continuous teaching experience. If those bills are signed into law, applicants would only need three years of experience in the previous seven years.

Together, the proposals indicate how Colorado officials are working to make it a little easier to become a teacher in the state, which is facing a shortage in math teachers, counselors, and school nurses, among other specialties, as well as a shortage in many rural districts.

Colleen O’Neil, executive director of educator talent for the Colorado Department of Education, said many of the proposed changes came out of listening sessions focused on the state’s teacher shortage held around the state.  

The changes still don’t mean that if you’re a teacher anywhere in the country, you can easily become a teacher in Colorado. Just six states have full reciprocity, meaning anyone with a license from another state can teach with no additional requirements, according to the Education Commission of the States. Teachers whose licenses and endorsements don’t have a direct equivalent in Colorado would still need to apply for an interim license and then work to meet the standards of the appropriate Colorado license or endorsement.

The rule changes also add some requirements. Among those changes:

  • Prospective teachers will need more training on how to work with students learning English. Most significantly, all educator preparation programs would have to include six semester hours or 90 clock hours of training.
  • So will teachers renewing their licenses. They will need 45 clock hours, though the requirement wouldn’t kick in until the first full five-year cycle after the teacher’s most recent renewal. A teacher who just got her license renewed this year would have nine years to complete that additional training, as the requirement wouldn’t apply until the next renewal cycle. Superintendents in districts where less than 2 percent of the students are English language learners could apply for a waiver.

Colorado’s educator preparation rules already call for specialized training for teaching English language learners, but the rule change makes the requirements more explicit.

“We’re the sixth-largest state for English language learners,” O’Neil said. “We want to make sure our educators are equipped to teach all our learners.”

The rule changes would also “streamline,” in O’Neil’s words, the teacher evaluation process. Here’s what would change:

  • The five teacher quality standards would become four. “Reflection” and “leadership” are combined into “professionalism.”
  • The underlying elements of those standards would be reduced, too. Twenty-seven elements would become 17.

Fifty school districts and one charter collaborative have been testing the new evaluation system this year in a pilot program. O’Neil said most of the feedback has been positive, and the rest of the feedback has been to urge officials to winnow down the standards even further. That’s not a change she would support, O’Neil said.

“The reality is that teaching actually is rocket science,” she said. “There are a lot of practices and elements that go into good teaching.”

The state is accepting additional public comment on the rules until April 20, and a public hearing will be held in May. The new rules are expected to be adopted this summer.

Submit written feedback online or send an email to the State Board of Education at state.board@cde.state.co.us.