pumping the brakes

Fariña: State shouldn’t force quick changes to teacher evaluations

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Carmen Fariña talks to members of the city's pre-K enrollment outreach team in 2015.

A few months is not enough time to thoughtfully rework a teacher evaluation system, Chancellor Carmen Fariña said Thursday, joining a growing number of education officials critical of the tight timeline included in a new state law.

The changes require state education officials to hash out most of a new teacher-grading system over the next two months. Only then will districts and their teachers unions be able to negotiate a host of details, like how to introduce observations from outside educators. The law gives districts until Nov. 15 to implement an updated plan or lose an increase in state funding — for New York City, a $400 million prize.

On Wednesday, Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch she called for a one-year deadline extension for “districts facing hardship,” an unusual proposal that comes less than a month after Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the legislature established the November deadline in budget negotiations. Tisch’s proposed extension, which she first floated last week, came as Cuomo and lawmakers have come under intense criticism for approving the new evaluation framework and its timeline for implementation.

“Over the past few weeks, I’ve heard from administrators, teachers and school boards across the state,” Tisch said in a statement. “They’re concerned about the very tight timeframe, and they’re right.”

Just hours after Tisch floated the extension, which she said she would try to do without changing state law, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Assembly Education Committee Chair Catherine Nolan praised the move at “the right one.”

Cuomo’s office, meanwhile, did not dispute its legality.

It’s now up to the State Education Department to define what would warrant “hardship” for a district to seek the extension. Fariña, speaking to reporters at a pre-kindergarten outreach center on Thursday, said she and Tisch were on the same page and suggested the November timeline might be too soon for New York City.

“I think she’s hearing what I’m hearing,” Fariña said, “that to radically change what we’re doing now and do it so quickly would not do a good job. So I appreciate her statement. I certainly will support her opinion.”

Teachers under the new evaluation system will still be graded on student performance and classroom observations. But the new system will represent the second state-mandated evaluation overhaul in three years for New York City, upheaval that has frustrated teachers.

Fariña will also lose control of many portions of how teachers are evaluated. Under the current system, 80 percent of evaluations are negotiated by local officials and local unions, while the new framework leaves the most important details up to state education officials.

Technically, that means a lot less negotiating work for Fariña and United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew this summer. But they will still have decisions to make. Whether to add a second measure of student performance (or discontinue use of the city’s much-touted performance assessments) will be decided locally, as will deciding whether teachers can be observed by their peers.

The evaluation law also explicitly states that other measures, such as rating teachers based on student surveys, are prohibited. That means that the city’s two-year pilot program, which this year will include survey results at 50 schools, will likely be shuttered.

Fariña cautioned against making any decisions quickly, and said she expected to continue talking with Tisch and the Board of Regents about the pace of change.

“We can’t keep changing the system year by year because it’s a new fad or a new way of doing things,” Fariña said. “We’ve got to have some stability.”

Since the new evaluation law was passed as part of budget negotiations earlier this month, Fariña has spoken sparingly about the changes, although she was a more outspoken critic of Cuomo’s proposal when it was still being haggled over in March. In her only comments on the evaluation system prior to Thursday, Fariña reiterated concerns about how heavily test scores will factor in evaluations and about allowing teachers to be observed by outside educators.

In two weeks, state officials are holding a day-long event in Albany meant to provide a forum for such concerns. Tisch and her colleagues on the Board of Regents have asked for feedback on the issues that still need to be settled by the education department before the end of June, like defining the role of the outside evaluators.

Representatives from teachers unions, including the city’s United Federation of Teachers, principals unions, education researchers, and other experts have been invited to the May 7 summit, which is not open to the public. Officials are soliciting public comment through an email address, and the event will be viewable online.

“We will be urging the Regents to adopt regulations that limit the impact of the state tests, maximize local control and help teachers grow throughout their careers,” Mulgrew told UFT members in a letter this week.

But state officials are trying to manage expectations about their power to shape the new system, which was laid out in legislation passed at the beginning of April. A presentation from Deputy Commissioner Ken Wagner emphasized that “much of the evaluation system is strictly prescribed by statute.”

The state appears to have the most authority around classroom observations, which will count for about half of a teacher’s evaluation. Observations will have to come from at least two people, a school supervisor and an outside evaluator, but how much weight each of their ratings is worth is up to the department. The Regents are also charged with setting a minimum number and length for the observations and with deciding what rubrics can be used.

Several other issues will be up for discussion at next month’s event, according to a memo Wagner sent to districts this week. That includes the mechanism for converting scores into one of four ratings — ineffective, developing, effective, and highly effective — on both the student performance and observation categories. Previously, that was left up to districts and was seen as the reason more than 60 percent of teachers outside of the city last year received the highest rating possible.

The state has until June 30 to finalize regulations for the new evaluation law. New York City will have until Sept. 1 to negotiate a new plan and submit it to the department for review, although that timeline could change if Tisch’s proposed extension goes unchallenged.

The most daunting task for the city will be to prepare what could amount to thousands of new independent observers in just a few months, said Evan Stone, executive director of the teacher advocacy group Educators 4 Excellence.

“That’s going to be very difficult to implement,” Stone said. “It’s a large number of people to train and get up to speed.”

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.