Future of Teaching

State education officials signal extension of moratorium on teacher evaluations tied to state tests

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Chancellor Betty Rosa, center, at a recent Board of Regents meeting.

Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa announced Monday that the state’s education policymakers want to extend a moratorium that excludes state English and math test scores from how New York teachers are evaluated, before the ban expires in June.

Rosa said the board is directing Commissioner MaryEllen Elia and the state Department of Education to come back with a proposal in December for extending the moratorium by one year, through the 2019-2020 school year.

Officials want to use an extension to continue speaking with teachers, principals and advocates about the evaluation system, which has long been a politically charged issue in the state.

The evaluations, called Annual Professional Performance Reviews, or APPR, have seen stiff resistance for years, especially when it comes to associating state test scores with teachers performance.

Rosa’s announcement came just one day before the election, which could usher in Democratic control of the state Senate and could make state government more friendly toward untying state test scores from teacher assessments.

“As the board is aware, APPR has been extremely challenging,” Rosa said. “It has been an issue that, in many ways, has created some barriers.”

Right now, teachers are evaluated based on principal observations and students’ academic progress. State law requires state test scores to be considered as well, but the Regents suspended the use of grades 3-8 English language arts and math exams three years ago.

The evaluation system drew blowback from advocates and teachers unions, and also fueled testing boycotts that led to one in five students sitting out of the exams across the state (the number is considerably lower in New York City).

In remarks to reporters after the meeting, Rosa said they wanted to make sure they were giving themselves “time to really look at this” before the current moratorium expires on June 30, 2019.

When use of state test scores in evaluations was first suspended in 2015, Elia said officials would focus on revamping Common Core standards and consider other ways to evaluate teachers.

“The importance of the moratorium is to greater assure that we’ll get it right,” said Vice Chancellor Andrew Brown to reporters after Monday’s meeting. “We’ve been out talking to a lot of the stakeholders around the state, and the commissioner is doing that now. We believe the additional time will allow us to get it right. We value our teachers greatly. We have to have a system that works not only for teachers but also to the benefit of students, and that’s what the moratorium would allow us to do.”

Monday’s move wasn’t a complete surprise, as officials have previously said they could extend the moratorium.

Earlier this year, the state Assembly — the government’s lower chamber in New York — passed a bill that would untether teacher evaluations from state test scores.

The bill, which died in the Senate, wasn’t expected to have a big impact on New York City teachers because of the moratorium. And, over the past three years, the city has created a new evaluation system that uses local tests to assess student progress, which union officials said would probably stay unchanged.

New York State United Teachers, the state teachers union, applauded the move but, as it has before, signaled the need for a permanent fix.

We welcome the extension of the moratorium and thank Chancellor Betty Rosa and the Regents for continuing to recognize that the state’s over-emphasis on standardized testing has worked for neither students nor teachers,” the union said in a statement. “While we welcome the moratorium extension, NYSUT will continue to seek a long-term legislative solution that will return evaluations to local control. Teachers and local school districts know what works best in their own communities.”

But it was viewed as “neither a surprise nor a solution” by High Achievement New York, a group that describes itself as a coalition that supports college and career ready standards.

“What we need is for all parties to agree on an evaluation plan that contains an objective, statewide measurement of student growth,” HANY said in a statement. ‘Without it, the state may inadvertently increase student testing and undermine their drive toward equitable education outcomes.”

Julie Marlette, the government relations director for the New York State School Boards Association, said the move could be designed to avoid a too-quick approach to finding a solution. If the Republican-controlled Senate flips to Democrats, who are one seat shy of the majority, it’s possible Democrats would quickly pass legislation to untie test scores from teacher evaluations.

“It suggests to me that the board, too, believes this could be a quick action in January, and they could be trying to position themselves for a more moderate approach as opposed to a more swift change in January that might not involve all the stakeholders,”  Marlette said.

Alex Zimmerman contributed to this report.

Exiting

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

PHOTO: TN.Gov

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 step down in early January to become the CEO of National Institute for Excellence in Teaching.

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.

PHOTO: TN.gov
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.