Evaluating Evaluations

With first round of evaluations in hand, city teachers are skeptical

The mood was glum at Stuyvesant High School on the second day back from summer vacation. But it wasn’t back-to-school anxiety that had dismayed the teachers.

As computer science teacher Mike Zamansky tells it, teachers came into school on Wednesday upset about their evaluation scores, which most city teachers received Tuesday night. Nearly all of the teachers received the second-highest rating, he said, but many were suspicious that the calculations used to come up with each teacher’s score weren’t entirely accurate, or even fair.

“Everybody came in this morning feeling as though we had our teeth kicked in,” said Zamansky, an outspoken critic of the new evaluations who also wrote about the issue on his blog.

Not all teachers had the same reaction as Zamansky to the ratings, which were the first visible results of a new evaluation system that began last year for city teachers.  Some teachers said the scores were barely brought up at their schools, while others said they were briefly discussed in a meeting, then dropped for more urgent matters like decorating classrooms and huddling in grade teams to focus on lesson planning.

It’s not a big surprise that the evaluations weren’t met with more enthusiasm. Performance reviews in any profession are rarely a reason for employees to celebrate, although top-rated city teachers could now be eligible for a $20,000 bonus from the state and leadership positions in the city. But even teachers with the highest ratings possible greeted the news with some skepticism.

”Because my ratings have been all over the place, I’m not taking it too seriously,” said Danielle Lerro, a middle school English teacher in the Bronx who was rated “highly effective,” recalling previous evaluation scores she received during a city pilot program. Those were so volatile that she was still skeptical of the new evaluations, which are based on different calculations, she said.

At the High School for Public Service, English teacher Jason Zanitsch said the mood at his school on Wednesday morning was “mostly negative” when evaluations came up.

“‘How was my score lower than his/hers?’” was a question that Zanitsch recalled from the discussions. With school about to start, the talk was “Not a good thing in building a learning community,” he said.

The evaluations for city teachers are calculated using a combination of student test scores, which count for 40 percent of the final rating, and classroom observations, which count for 60 percent. In most cases, teachers won’t face any negative consequences from their ratings this year, though that hasn’t eased criticism of the system.

Zamansky dismissed his own score, an 88 out of 100, in part because he was among thousands of city teachers whose evaluations was based partially on test scores of students and subjects that they didn’t teach. The city has not provided assessments for the areas in which they teach—computer science in Zamansky’s case—so a large part of their score comes from composite math or reading scores.

The first round of ratings comes just days after the state released older teacher evaluation data based on the 2012-13 school year, a year before New York City adopted its own evaluation plans. That data showed the vast majority of teachers statewide received high ratings, though the share of top ratings was lower in poor urban districts whose students are more similar to New York City’s.

The Department of Education won’t release a citywide breakdown of evaluation scores until later in the year, once the city verifies all data with the state and teachers have a chance to appeal their ratings.

Patrick Sprinkle, a history teacher rated “effective” on his evaluation, noted the ratings would mean more once he could see individual student’s test scores, which will be released to teachers on Sept. 15.

“It’s hard to really talk about [the evaluations] when there’s no actual data attached to it,” said Sprinkle, who teaches Advanced Placement courses at the Lab High School for Collaborative Studies in Manhattan.

A few teachers said they saw indications that the city would follow the statewide trend, since the vast majority in their schools were rated effective or highly effective. Still, an informational meeting held by the United Federation of Teachers about how teachers could appeal low ratings received from principal observations drew some teachers on Wednesday afternoon.

On his way out of the meeting at UFT headquarters, one science teacher from a large high school in Queens said he estimated he was one of 30 of 185 teachers to receive an “ineffective” rating at his school. He said he didn’t blame his supervisor for the low marks, however. “The kids can’t read, can’t write, can’t compute, can’t think,” said the teacher, who declined to give his name because he didn’t want others to know his rating. “What do you expect?”

By the numbers

NYC announces it will subsidize hiring from Absent Teacher Reserve — and sheds light on who is in the pool

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman

Ever since the city announced a new policy for placing teachers without permanent positions into schools, Chalkbeat and others have been asking questions about just who is in the pool, known as the Absent Teacher Reserve.

Now we have some answers.

The education department released figures on Friday that show a quarter of teachers currently in the the pool were also there five years ago, and a third ended up in the ATR because of disciplinary or legal issues. The average salary for teachers this past year was $94,000, according to the data.

The city also said it would extend budget incentives for schools that hire educators from the ATR, a change to its initial announcement. Principals have raised concerns about the cost of hiring from the ATR, since its members tend to be more senior, and therefore more expensive, than new teachers.

The ATR is comprised of teachers who don’t have regular positions, either because their jobs were eliminated or because of disciplinary issues. It cost almost $152 million in the last school year — far more than previously estimated — and currently stands at 822 teachers.

In July, the city announced a plan to cut the pool in half by placing teachers into vacancies still open after the new school year begins — even potentially over principals’ objection.

Critics have argued that the city’s new placement policy could place ineffective teachers in the neediest classrooms. StudentsFirstNY Executive Director Jenny Sedlis called the move “shockingly irresponsible” in a statement.

“There are reasons why no principal has chosen to hire them and this policy is bad for kids, plain and simple,” she said.

But Randy Asher, the former principal of Brooklyn Technical High School who is now responsible for helping to shrink the pool, called the new policy “a common sense approach to treating ATR teachers like all other teachers,” since they now have the opportunity to be evaluated by a school principal.

Here’s what the latest numbers tell us about who is in the pool.

How did educators end up in the Absent Teacher Reserve?

Most of the educators in the ATR were placed there because their schools had closed (38 percent) or due to budget cuts (30 percent.)

Another 32 percent entered the pool because of a legal or disciplinary case.

How effective are they?

A majority — 74 percent — received an evaluation rating of “highly effective,” “effective” or “satisfactory” in 2015-16, the most current year available. Current ratings for teachers citywide were not immediately available, but in 2014-15, 93 percent of teachers overall were rated effective or highly effective, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Twelve percent of teachers in the pool received an “ineffective” or “unsatisfactory” rating in 2015-16, and about 7 percent received a “developing” rating, one step up from ineffective.

Some teachers in the ATR say evaluations can be unfair since teachers are often placed in classrooms outside of the subjects they are equipped to teach and because they are bounced between classrooms.

Asked whether teachers with poor ratings would be placed in classrooms, Asher said “all” teachers in the ATR have traditionally been placed in school assignments.

“They’re in schools, no matter what. It’s a question of what is their role in the school, and how are they supported and evaluated,” he said. “Obviously we will look at each individual teacher and each individual assignment on a case-by-case basis.”

How experienced are they?

Teachers in the ATR have an average of 18 years of experience with the education department, and earn an average salary of $94,000. By comparison, the base salary for a New York City teacher as of May 2017 was $54,000.

How long have they been in the pool?

Almost half the educators who are currently in the pool were also there two years ago. A quarter were in the ATR five years ago. That doesn’t mean that teachers have remained in the ATR for that entire time. They could have been hired for a time, and returned to the pool.

Still, the figures could be fuel for those who argue educators in the ATR either aren’t seriously looking for permanent jobs — or that the educators in the pool are simply undesirable hires.

How will schools pay for them?

Teachers in the ATR have argued that their higher salaries are one reason principals avoid hiring them — a concern that principals voiced in a recent Chalkbeat report.

“This is part of the injustice of the ATR placement,” said Scott Conti, principal of New Design High School in Manhattan. “Schools might not want them and they will cost schools more in the future, taking away from other budget priorities.”

Under the policy announced Friday, the education department will subsidize the cost of ATRs who are permanently hired, paying 50 percent of their salaries next school year and 25 percent the following school year.

Where have they worked previously?

This question is important because the answer gives a sense of where educators in the ATR are likely to be placed this fall. The education department’s original policy called for an educator to be placed within the same district they left, but the change announced in July allowed for placement anywhere within the same borough.

Almost half of ATR members, as of June 2016-17, came from high schools. That isn’t surprising: Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein targeted large high schools for closure, breaking them up into smaller schools as part of a turnaround strategy.

Of the school districts serving K- 8 students, District 19 in Brooklyn’s East New York and District 24 in Queens had among the most educators in the ATR. Each had 26.

What subjects do they teach?

The largest share of teachers in the ATR — 27 percent — are licensed to teach in early childhood or elementary school grades. Another 11 percent are licensed social studies teachers, 9 percent are math teachers and 8 percent are English teachers.

Questions have been raised in the past about whether the teachers in the pool had skills that were too narrow or out of date. A 2010 Chalkbeat story found that a quarter of teachers then in the pool were licensed to teach relatively obscure classes like swimming, jewelry-making and accounting.

Training teachers

More literacy coaches to bolster Tennessee’s drive to boost student reading

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

More than half of its school districts signed on last year when Tennessee created a network of literacy coaches to help classroom teachers improve their students’ reading.

Now entering the program’s second year, another 16 districts are joining up. That means two-thirds of Tennessee districts will have instructional supports in place aimed at addressing the state’s lackluster reading levels.

Tennessee has a reading problem. Less than half of its students in grades 3-8 were considered proficient in 2015, the last year for which test scores are available. In Memphis, the numbers are even more stunning. Less than a third of Shelby County Schools’ third-graders are reading on grade level.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Gov. Bill Haslam speaks during the statewide launch of Read to be Ready in 2016.

The state wants to get 75 percent of third-graders proficient by 2025. (New scores coming out this fall will help track progress.)

The coaching network is a major component of Tennessee’s Read to be Ready drive, launched in 2016 by Gov. Bill Haslam and Education Commissioner Candice McQueen. The focus is helping teachers improve literacy instruction for the state’s youngest students.

So far, some 200 coaches have worked directly with more than 3,000 teachers in 83 districts, including all four urban districts. This fall, 99 out of the state’s 146 school systems will participate.

About 92 percent of classroom teachers report that coaching is improving their teaching, even as many coaches say they are stretched too thin, according to a state report released Wednesday. Inadequate planning time for teachers is another barrier to success, the report notes.

To join the coaching network, districts must commit to funding a reading coach who will support about 15 teachers. New districts signing up this year are:

  • Scott County Schools
  • Smith County School System
  • Pickett County Schools
  • Jackson County Schools
  • Macon County Schools
  • Clay County Schools
  • Sumner County Schools
  • Dyer County Schools
  • Wayne County Schools
  • Bedford County Schools
  • Benton County Schools
  • Alamo City School
  • Polk County Schools
  • Kingsport City Schools
  • Oak Ridge Schools
  • Dayton City School

A complete list of participating districts can be found here.