More than scores

Beyond test scores, Tennessee looks at how to evaluate districts and schools under ESSA

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Assistant Education Commissioner Nakia Towns speaks during Wednesday's testing task force meeting, which largely focused on what measures besides test scores should be included in Tennessee's accountability plan under the Every Student Succeeds Act.

As Tennessee education leaders draft a new plan to evaluate the state’s schools and districts, they’re trying to move beyond test scores.

But exactly which metrics to incorporate into the state’s new accountability equation are still very much in the air as the State Department of Education develops an accountability plan in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen put that challenge Wednesday to her 21-member testing task force of educators, politicians, and researchers — just one of several groups the state is consulting.

Passed by Congress last year, ESSA gives states more latitude in defining and measuring school and district success. While states still must report annual test scores, ESSA encourages choosing metrics that paint a fuller picture of what goes on inside schools.

“We do think we have a great moment and a great opportunity in Tennessee to really make a statement about our values,” Assistant Commissioner Nakia Towns told task force members. “What are our values beyond test data?”

Here are factors that could soon be part of Tennessee’s accountability plan, and what task force members are saying about them.

What do you think? Which metrics would best help the state determine which districts and schools that are serving schools well, and which need interventions? Let us know in the comments below.

Discipline data

No consensus emerged on whether discipline data, like expulsion and suspension rates, should be used to grade districts and schools. But department officials and task force members insisted the issue needs to be addressed, even if it’s not part of the accountability system.

Kyle Southern, policy director for the State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE), cited a University of Pennsylvania report showing that Tennessee suspended and expelled more students than any other state in the South — and that students of color are disproportionately affected.

Towns said she has been looking at discipline stats from across the state, especially in her home district in Knoxville.

“Frankly, some of the disparities around which subgroups are being most affected by suspensions, it’s shocking,” she said. “This is something that has very severe consequences when you talk about school-to-prison pipeline, dropout rates.”

Strengths: Data on suspensions and expulsions — and racial disparities — is easily accessible. Holding schools accountable for high numbers of suspensions and expulsion incentivizes alternatives, which would increase the amount of time students spend in school. Helping districts focus on discipline could improve school culture and equity across the state, as well as improve emotional supports for students.

Drawbacks: Districts report suspensions and expulsions differently. There’s the potential unintended consequence of schools not enforcing rules and being lenient on disruptive or unsafe behavior. And some schools and districts have more resources, such as guidance counselors and social workers, to help support students.

Chronic Absenteeism

Task force members were most adamant about including chronic absenteeism in the reboot of Tennessee’s accountability system, although they weren’t sure what the definition of chronic absenteeism should be.

Weakley County Schools Director Randy Frazier said students’ performance starts suffering from absences long before the courts consider them truant. “We know it’s an issue that affects instruction,” he said.

Pros: Research consistently shows a correlation between attendance and post-secondary success. Also, absenteeism gives insight into school culture and relationships in ways that other metrics can’t.

Cons: Absenteeism can be outside of schools’ control, and not all schools have access to support services that help ensure kids show up to schools.

A student social-emotional and learning survey

Tennessee districts already administer surveys around school climate to students and teachers. Department leaders asked task force members if districts and schools would want to be evaluated based on the results of a student survey about social and emotional supports, such as relationships with teachers and skills such as perseverance. Members answered that social and emotional learning conditions are important, but questioned how reliable a survey would be.

Pros: Social and emotional learning is linked not only to improved academic outcomes, but to improved conditions long after school, such as employment and happiness. It’s an untapped way to assess the non-academic factors at a school, such as relationships, that educators know are important.

Cons: Younger students might not understand the survey, and it might take a long time to develop one that can accurately capture both what a school does and how it feels for its students.

Early post-secondary options

About half of task force members said that early post-secondary measures — such as access to AP or IB courses and community college classes — should somehow be included in the accountability system. Towns listed a lot of questions to dig into if the state uses post-secondary opportunities as a metric: What counts as an early post-secondary opportunity? Should all opportunity be counted the same? And, since courses vary across schools and districts, how should performance in such courses be evaluated?

Pros: Expanding early post-secondary options aligns with the state’s Drive to 55 initiative to increase the number of students who finish some sort of postsecondary education.  Performing well in college prep or vocational courses is a strong indicator of success in college or careers. And being able to rack up college credits in high school saves students money.

Cons: Questions are plentiful about what “post-secondary” opportunities look like in elementary and middle schools, and what metrics could be used to measure them. Also, some schools can’t afford to offer many college preparatory or vocational courses, either because they don’t have enough students, lack funding, or both. Task force members want to avoid tracking wealthier students into different classes and opportunities than their less-affluent peers.

Access to highly effective teachers

Last fall, a State Department of Education report found that low-achieving students are less likely to have a teacher that scored well on their state teacher evaluation than their high-achieving peers — even though low-achieving students have more to gain from strong teaching. The department has earmarked access to quality teachers as a major equity issue.

Pros: Research shows that teachers have a significant impact on student performance, perhaps more than any other factor schools can control.

Cons: While there’s a consensus that effective teachers are important, not everyone agrees what a highly effective teacher is, and how that effectiveness can be measured. Some districts have an advantage in attracting good teachers, either because of the pay they can offer or because of geography: School systems near cities simply have a greater supply of teachers to choose from than rural districts.

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.

share your story

Teachers: How does your district handle family leave? How did it affect your life?

PHOTO: Logan Zabel

New York City is in the news because a petition there is calling for the city to create paid family leave for teachers, who currently must use accrued sick days if they have a child and are limited to six paid weeks off.

Chalkbeat wants to know: How do other districts and schools compare? What implications do these policies have for educators and their families?

If you have an experience to share, or can simply explain how this works where you work, please tell us here. Your answers will help guide our reporting.