take your time

New York officials promise to move slowly as they revamp teacher evaluations — again

PHOTO: Monica Disare
New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña and State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia at Thomas A. Edison Career and Technical Education High School.

State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia began outlining a roadmap on Wednesday for how she plans to revamp teacher evaluations and stressed that it’s going to take a long time.

The current evaluation system has been in limbo since 2015, when state policymakers put a four-year freeze on the use of student test scores in teacher ratings. Her pledge to move slowly is an attempt to avoid the battles that erupted between the state and teachers unions when test scores became a more significant part of teacher evaluations three years ago.

On Wednesday, Elia said officials are preparing a survey that will ask teachers across the state what they like in the current teacher evaluation system and what they would like to see changed. The state education department will also solicit input from focus groups that will include teacher representatives, superintendents, and school board members, Elia said during testimony before state lawmakers.

She did not provide a specific timeline for finishing the evaluation overhaul, but stressed that it will be a slow and deliberate process.

“This isn’t going to be a fast process,” Elia said. “Because if you do things too quickly, then you don’t give yourself time to listen.”

Elia’s commitment to take things slow may put her at odds with the state teachers union, whose leader appeared to push for a more aggressive timeline on Wednesday.

“Now is the time to make these changes to the New York State teacher evaluation system,” said New York State United Teachers President Andy Pallotta during the same legislative hearing. “Teacher evaluations should be returned to local control, with no state mandates.”

The teacher evaluation system that New York adopted in 2015 gave greater way to students’ test scores, upsetting many teachers and their union, which argues that the tests are not designed for that purpose. The state’s top education policymakers passed a moratorium on the use of grades 3-8 math and English tests in teacher evaluations until 2019. However, when the moratorium lapses, officials will have to tackle the issue again.

Elia said she hopes the next round of changes results in a rating system that teachers embrace.

“There’s no question teacher evaluation, principal evaluation was a hot spot in New York and we have to address that,” Elia said. “We need to have this be a collaboration with teachers, not having them be something that’s done to teachers.”

Super Search

Denver community has lots of advice on picking a new superintendent – who will the board heed?

PHOTO: Denver Post file
DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg guest teaches an Advanced Placement history class at Lincoln High in 2009.

Denver teacher Carla Cariño hopes the district’s next superintendent is a bilingual person of color. Ariel Taylor Smith, a former Denver teacher and now an education advocate, wants a leader who tackles school improvement with a sense of urgency. Collinus Newsome, a leader at the Denver Foundation, hopes the search process includes community voices that have been silenced in the past.

These are just a few of the desires community members have expressed in the wake of Tuesday’s news that Tom Boasberg will step down after nearly a decade as superintendent of Colorado’s largest school district.

While the district has released few details about the process for selecting the next schools chief, board President Anne Rowe said Tuesday it’s the board’s most important role and that it will soon schedule a meeting to discuss the process publicly.

The 92,600-student district won’t be without a superintendent immediately. Boasberg‘s contract requires him to serve for another 90 days.

Randy Black, who coordinates superintendent search services for the Colorado Association of School Boards, said large urban districts like Denver typically launch comprehensive national searches to fill superintendent vacancies. On average, such searches take two to three months, but the length can vary based on district circumstances, he said.

“DPS is royally set up to do this,” Black said, using the district’s acronym. “They’ve done great strategic work in an extremely complex environment.”

The suburban Douglas County district, the state’s third largest, picked a new superintendent in April after a national search that drew more than 1,000 inquiries and culminated with three finalists. Thomas Tucker, previously superintendent of Princeton City Schools in Cincinnati, Ohio, is the new schools chief there.

While national searches are the norm for large districts, that’s not what happened when Boasberg was unanimously selected by the board in January 2009, a few weeks after his predecessor Michael Bennet was appointed to a vacant U.S. Senate seat. Boasberg was the district’s chief operating officer at the time and the sole finalist for the position.

Susana Cordova, currently the district’s deputy superintendent, is one likely internal candidate this time around. A graduate of Denver’s Abraham Lincoln High School and a longtime district administrator, she served as acting superintendent in 2016 when Boasberg took a six-month sabbatical to live abroad.

“Most urban and suburban boards will wrestle with how do you honor internals at the same time you open the door to potential matchups outside the district,” Black said. “That’s a fairly common dilemma.”

With news of Boasberg’s departure, one of the biggest questions on the minds of Denver parents and educators is how the public can weigh in on the superintendent selection.

Cariño, a teacher at North High School, responded to Chalkbeat’s online survey, wondering how the district plans to involve teachers and community members in the process.

She also wrote, “While being the superintendent of a large urban district is no easy task, the gains made under Boasberg for students of color were minimal. The fact of the matter is there is still a significant amount of work to be done so our students of color can better access and complete [a] four-year college … Our new superintendent should be a bilingual person of color who understands our communities and can make the needle move out of a genuine need to see progress for our students versus a political career.”

Ricardo Martinez, president of the parent advocacy group Padres & Jóvenes Unidos, said Wednesday he would like to see an open process where students, parents, and the community have some opportunity to ask questions and provide feedback.

He said parents he works with didn’t feel left out when Boasberg was selected because they understood the district had a short timeframe to find a replacement, and they had already worked with Boasberg and knew he supported the work they were doing together.

Now, Martinez said, parents are looking for a leader who understands and listens to the community, and who can take stock of what’s working and what’s not and use that information to find solutions.

“But making sure everyone is aware of that logic — That’s been extremely lacking with the administration. It’s about letting the community know so it’s not just an internal debrief,” he said.

local leadership national impact

Denver’s longtime superintendent turned the city into a national school reform favorite

PHOTO: AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post
DPS superintendent Tom Boasberg sits in a board meeting with board members in 2017.

Over Tom Boasberg’s nearly 10 years as Denver superintendent, he made a national impact.

He pioneered a model of school reform that involved close collaboration — rather than hostility or solely competition — with charter schools, helping inspire a national push to bring similar policies to cities across the country.

By marshaling unusual levels of political support, donations from both local and national philanthropies, and a lengthy tenure, Boasberg was able to execute on that vision, even if the effectiveness of his approach remains the subject of fierce debate.

“What Denver realized is you could fight charter school growth or you could work with the charters to achieve your goals,” said Robin Lake of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, which studies and has supported the portfolio model, which Denver has embraced. “They’ve been at the forefront of a lot of really important developments in the field.”

Today, over half of Denver’s public schools are either charters or “innovation schools,” which are district-run schools given charter-like flexibility. The city has a common enrollment system for district and charter schools. Boasberg also led the charge to close schools deemed low-performing, even over the opposition of many in the community.

But while he championed the bread-and-butter education reform playbook of charters and test-based accountability, he pushed for school funding, more integrated schools, restorative justice, and the rights of immigrant children. He also described his approach to school choice as driven by concerns about equity, and pushed charters to accept more students with disabilities and for in-demand schools to take in more students mid-year.

During his tenure, Denver became a magnet for money from national philanthropies that support charter schools, while also attracting the attention of other school districts looking for models. Delegations from cities including Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. have trekked to Denver to examine its approach, while the head of Kansas City schools and Boston media have highlighted Denver’s tactics, too.

What enabled Boasberg’s lengthy tenure was the backing of the city’s school board. The degree of support ranged from 4-3 to 7-0, but his allies never lost their grip on the board for his nearly decade-long tenure — a sign, backers say, of his deep well of support in the city.

Many of those members’ campaigns were supported by pro-charter donors. In last year’s contentious board races, Democrats for Education Reform and Stand for Children spent hundreds of thousands of dollars combined to back pro-Boasberg candidates. Those dollars outstripped substantial spending by local teachers unions, which often butted heads with Boasberg.

Local and national philanthropies interested in education reform also saw Denver as a testing ground for key initiatives.

In 2009, the district netted well over $4 million from the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation to fund its school accountability framework and teacher performance pay system; in 2012, it took in another $4 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to support collaboration between charter and district schools. According to documents obtained through a public records request, the district recently received $375,000 from Dell and $335,000 from the Walton Family Foundation to support its enrollment system, touted by some as a national model.

The district’s approach has also drawn substantial support from local funders, including the Donnell-Kay Foundation and Gates Family Foundation.

(Chalkbeat is also funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates, Donnell-Kay, Gates Family, and Walton foundations.)

Advocates of the portfolio model — which posits that schools of all types will do best when they are given autonomy, are held accountable for results, are chosen by families, and have their overarching functions like enrollment overseen by a central body — have highlighted Denver as a model. (Although Denver has a “portfolio management” team, Boasberg, like many other district leaders, avoids this term, referring instead to the district’s “family of schools.”)

“Denver still has a long way to go but its progress offers hope to other urban districts with elected school boards,” wrote David Osborne in a book promoting the portfolio approach, which uses Denver as a case study. “A combination of courageous leadership, political skills, and positive results has yielded broad support for its strategy.”

Boasberg continued and expanded on policies begun by his predecessor Michael Bennet, now a U.S. Senator, creating unusual continuity of leadership. But there were still fierce local fights about the direction of the district.

Boasberg faced pushback locally both from those who wanted to slow down the expansion of charter schools and those who wanted to speed it up. Two critics of the district’s direction won seats on the school board in the most recent election.

“You have a number of people he works with that are reformers. They think he’s leaving an awesome legacy,” said Brandon Pryor, a local critic and member of Our Voice, Our Schools. “But if you come to my community and ask some black folks what Tom Boasberg’s legacy will be, they’ll tell you something totally different.”

Earlier this year, former Denver student Vanessa Quintana spearheaded an initiative at the state’s Democratic convention to condemn the group Democrats for Education Reform. She was driven by Bennet’s closure of her high school in 2006.

“When Manual [High School] shut down my freshman year, it told me education reformers didn’t find me worthy of a school,” she said. The school eventually restarted, but continued to struggle under Boasberg.

In 2015, the district adopted a new policy meant to demystify its school closure rules, then closed an elementary school for poor performance. The rollout was widely seen as rocky, and the district halted its closure policy this year.

Boasberg has faced pushback from local school choice advocates, too, including those who felt he wasn’t tough enough on low-performing schools or aggressive enough in expanding charters.

Meanwhile, last year, U.S. Secretary of Education and charter advocate Betsy DeVos criticized Denver’s approach to school choice as not expansive enough — something that charter advocates in the heavily blue city privately celebrated.

The effectiveness of Denver’s approach remains an open question. Test scores and graduation rates have improved, and students’ academic growth has outstripped that of many other cities. Still, yawning disparities between the district’s low-income and higher-income students remain.

Research on those questions is surprisingly limited for a city whose approach is so widely touted. Studies have shown that Denver’s charter schools generally outperform the district on standardized tests, but there is little if any research on how the city’s reforms have affected school performance across the board.

Lake, of CRPE, says that while other cities can take lessons from Denver, she warns leaders not to believe they can easily transport the policies of one city into another.

Every local context deserves its own approach,” she said. “I don’t think there should be any cookie cutters.”