Knock knock

Home visits help Memphis teachers know their students before the first bell rings

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Neighborhoods in South Memphis surround Memphis Delta Preparatory Charter School, which opens in August through Shelby County Schools.

The first day of school is still a week away for Aleesia Isom, but the first-year teacher already has met most of her students — in their homes.

Early home visits are part of the foundation for teacher training at Memphis Delta Preparatory, a 300-student, K-4 charter school that will open this month under a contract with Shelby County Schools. One of the charter’s 18 teachers will have visited the homes of each student by the time school starts on Aug. 8.

The goal is to open up early channels of communication among parents, students and teachers, but home visits also serve as a kind of professional development, according to Michael McKenna, the school’s founder.

“Doing home visits for each kid isn’t a common practice for a school starting with 300 kids,” McKenna said. “But we believe it’s a powerful thing for our teachers to sit at the kitchen table and get to ask their parents and students what challenges they are nervous for and what they are excited about. It gets our teachers ready for those challenges before school even starts.”

Isom is a good example. Starting out, she wasn’t familiar with South Memphis, the community where she’ll be teaching this year. But now she has a comfort level with the children who will be in her class and the neighborhoods they come from.

Even so, home visits are challenging. “Going into a stranger’s home is intimidating,” Isom acknowledged. “But the mom welcomed me in so warmly, and I got to hear the background of her kids and promised them I would do my best to provide a quality education.”

Memphis Delta Prep teachers practice classroom management skills with each other during a training exercise.
PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Memphis Delta Prep teachers practice classroom management skills during a training exercise.

Home visits are just part of the unique teacher training approach under the leadership of McKenna, who worked at nearby Soulsville Charter School before leaving Memphis for a few years to work at a KIPP school in Philadelphia. There, he learned about Jounce Partners, a model that focuses on “teacher coaches” who use high-repetition practices. While training, a teacher will repeat the same specific skill, such as always following up a question with another question, at least 20 times a day, multiple times a week. This creates a muscle memory, McKenna said.

“You never see a basketball player do one or two jump shots and call it good until game time,” McKenna said. “Teaching is a performance sport, and you’ve got to practice.”

In her first year of teaching as part of Memphis Teacher Residency, Isom said the repetition drill has given her more confidence in skills like classroom management. For example, she’s practiced countless times how to scan the room and give an observable direction, such as “all eyes on me.”

Still, it’s the school visits that have had the biggest impact on her.

“This is our first year, so it’s not like we have test scores or data to point to and say that we’re going to give your child a great education,” Isom said. “I’ve promised every family that I’ve visited with that we’ll make their child college-ready. …That intense motivation, most professional development doesn’t give you.”

a high-stakes evaluation

The Gates Foundation bet big on teacher evaluation. The report it commissioned explains how those efforts fell short.

PHOTO: Brandon Dill/The Commercial Appeal
Sixth-grade teacher James Johnson leads his students in a gameshow-style lesson on energy at Chickasaw Middle School in 2014 in Shelby County. The district was one of three that received a grant from the Gates Foundation to overhaul teacher evaluation.

Barack Obama’s 2012 State of the Union address reflected the heady moment in education. “We know a good teacher can increase the lifetime income of a classroom by over $250,000,” he said. “A great teacher can offer an escape from poverty to the child who dreams beyond his circumstance.”

Bad teachers were the problem; good teachers were the solution. It was a simplified binary, but the idea and the research it drew on had spurred policy changes across the country, including a spate of laws establishing new evaluation systems designed to reward top teachers and help weed out low performers.

Behind that effort was the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which backed research and advocacy that ultimately shaped these changes.

It also funded the efforts themselves, specifically in several large school districts and charter networks open to changing how teachers were hired, trained, evaluated, and paid. Now, new research commissioned by the Gates Foundation finds scant evidence that those changes accomplished what they were meant to: improve teacher quality or boost student learning.  

The 500-plus page report by the Rand Corporation, released Thursday, details the political and technical challenges of putting complex new systems in place and the steep cost — $575 million — of doing so.

The post-mortem will likely serve as validation to the foundation’s critics, who have long complained about Gates’ heavy influence on education policy and what they call its top-down approach.

The report also comes as the foundation has shifted its priorities away from teacher evaluation and toward other issues, including improving curriculum.

“We have taken these lessons to heart, and they are reflected in the work that we’re doing moving forward,” the Gates Foundation’s Allan Golston said in a statement.

The initiative did not lead to clear gains in student learning.

At the three districts and four California-based charter school networks that took part of the Gates initiative — Pittsburgh; Shelby County (Memphis), Tennessee; Hillsborough County, Florida; and the Alliance-College Ready, Aspire, Green Dot, and Partnerships to Uplift Communities networks — results were spotty. The trends over time didn’t look much better than similar schools in the same state.

Several years into the initiative, there was evidence that it was helping high school reading in Pittsburgh and at the charter networks, but hurting elementary and middle school math in Memphis and among the charters. In most cases there were no clear effects, good or bad. There was also no consistent pattern of results over time.

A complicating factor here is that the comparison schools may also have been changing their teacher evaluations, as the study spanned from 2010 to 2015, when many states passed laws putting in place tougher evaluations and weakening tenure.

There were also lots of other changes going on in the districts and states — like the adoption of Common Core standards, changes in state tests, the expansion of school choice — making it hard to isolate cause and effect. Studies in Chicago, Cincinnati, and Washington D.C. have found that evaluation changes had more positive effects.

Matt Kraft, a professor at Brown who has extensively studied teacher evaluation efforts, said the disappointing results in the latest research couldn’t simply be chalked up to a messy rollout.

These “districts were very well poised to have high-quality implementation,” he said. “That speaks to the actual package of reforms being limited in its potential.”

Principals were generally positive about the changes, but teachers had more complicated views.

From Pittsburgh to Tampa, Florida, the vast majority of principals agreed at least somewhat that “in the long run, students will benefit from the teacher-evaluation system.”

Source: RAND Corporation

Teachers in district schools were far less confident.

When the initiative started, a majority of teachers in all three districts tended to agree with the sentiment. But several years later, support had dipped substantially. This may have reflected dissatisfaction with the previous system — the researchers note that “many veteran [Pittsburgh] teachers we interviewed reported that their principals had never observed them” — and growing disillusionment with the new one.

Majorities of teachers in all locations reported that they had received useful feedback from their classroom observations and changed their habits as a result.

At the same time, teachers in the three districts were highly skeptical that the evaluation system was fair — or that it made sense to attach high-stakes consequences to the results.

The initiative didn’t help ensure that poor students of color had more access to effective teachers.

Part of the impetus for evaluation reform was the idea, backed by some research, that black and Hispanic students from low-income families were more likely to have lower-quality teachers.  

But the initiative didn’t seem to make a difference. In Hillsborough County, inequity expanded. (Surprisingly, before the changes began, the study found that low-income kids of color actually had similar or slightly more effective teachers than other students in Pittsburgh, Hillsborough County, and Shelby County.)

Districts put in place modest bonuses to get top teachers to switch schools, but the evaluation system itself may have been a deterrent.

“Central-office staff in [Hillsborough County] reported that teachers were reluctant to transfer to high-need schools despite the cash incentive and extra support because they believed that obtaining a good VAM score would be difficult at a high-need school,” the report says.

Evaluation was costly — both in terms of time and money.

The total direct cost of all aspects of the program, across several years in the three districts and four charter networks, was $575 million.

That amounts to between 1.5 and 6.5 percent of district or network budgets, or a few hundred dollars per student per year. About half of that money came from the Gates Foundation.

The study also quantifies the strain of the new evaluations on school leaders’ and teachers’ time as costing upwards of $200 per student, nearly doubling the the price tag in some districts.

Teachers tended to get high marks on the evaluation system.

Before the new evaluation systems were put in place, the vast majority of teachers got high ratings. That hasn’t changed much, according to this study, which is consistent with national research.

In Pittsburgh, in the initial two years, when evaluations had low stakes, a substantial number of teachers got low marks. That drew objections from the union.

“According to central-office staff, the district adjusted the proposed performance ranges (i.e., lowered the ranges so fewer teachers would be at risk of receiving a low rating) at least once during the negotiations to accommodate union concerns,” the report says.

Morgaen Donaldson, a professor at the University of Connecticut, said the initial buy-in followed by pushback isn’t surprising, pointing to her own research in New Haven.

To some, aspects of the initiative “might be worth endorsing at an abstract level,” she said. “But then when the rubber hit the road … people started to resist.”

More effective teachers weren’t more likely to stay teaching, but less effective teachers were more likely to leave.

The basic theory of action of evaluation changes is to get more effective teachers into the classroom and then stay there, while getting less effective ones out or helping them improve.

The Gates research found that the new initiatives didn’t get top teachers to stick around any longer. But there was some evidence that the changes made lower-rated teachers more likely to leave. Less than 1 percent of teachers were formally dismissed from the places where data was available.

After the grants ran out, districts scrapped some of the changes but kept a few others.

One key test of success for any foundation initiative is whether it is politically and financially sustainable after the external funds run out. Here, the results are mixed.

Both Pittsburgh and Hillsborough have ended high-profile aspects of their program: the merit pay system and bringing in peer evaluators, respectively.

But other aspects of the initiative have been maintained, according to the study, including the use of classroom observation rubrics, evaluations that use multiple metrics, and certain career-ladder opportunities.

Donaldson said she was surprised that the peer evaluators didn’t go over well in Hillsborough. Teachers unions have long promoted peer-based evaluation, but district officials said that a few evaluators who were rude or hostile soured many teachers on the concept.

“It just underscores that any reform relies on people — no matter how well it’s structured, no matter how well it’s designed,” she said.

evaluating evaluation

Teaching more black or Hispanic students can hurt observation scores, study finds

Thomas Barwick | Getty Images

A teacher is observed in her first period class and gets a low rating; in her second period class she gets higher marks. She’s teaching the same material in the same way — why are the results different?

A new study points to an answer: the types of students teachers instruct may influence how administrators evaluate their performance. More low-achieving, black, Hispanic, and male students lead to lower scores. And that phenomenon hurts some teachers more than others: Black teachers are more likely to teach low-performing students and students of color.

Separately, the study finds that male teachers tend to get lower ratings, though it’s not clear if that’s due to differences in actual performance or bias.

The results suggest that evaluations are one reason teachers may be deterred from working in classrooms where students lag farthest behind.

The study, conducted by Shanyce Campbell at the University of California, Irvine, analyzed teacher ratings compiled by the Measures of Effective Teaching Project, an effort funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. (Gates is also a supporter of Chalkbeat.)

The paper finds that for every 25 percent increase in black or Hispanic students taught, there was a dip in teacher’s rating, similar to the difference in performance between a first and second-year teacher. (Having more low-performing or male students had a slightly smaller effect.)

That’s troubling, Campbell said, because it means that teachers of color — who often most frequently work with students of color — may not be getting a fair shot.

“If evaluations are inequitable, then this further pushes them out,” Campbell said.

The findings are consistent with previous research that shows how classroom evaluations can be biased by the students teachers serve.

Cory Cain, an assistant principal and teacher at the Urban Prep charter network in Chicago, said he and his school often grapple with questions of bias when trying to evaluating teachers fairly. His school serves only boys and its students are predominantly black.

“We’re very clear that everyone is susceptible to bias. It doesn’t matter what’s your race or ethnicity,” he said.

While Cain is black, it doesn’t mean that he doesn’t see how black boys are portrayed in the media, he said. And also he knows that teachers are often nervous they will do poorly on their evaluations if students are misbehaving or are struggling with the content on a given day, knowing that it can be difficult for observers to fully assess their teaching in short sessions.

The study can’t show why evaluation scores are skewed, but one potential explanation is that classrooms appear higher-functioning when students are higher-achieving, even if that’s not because of the teacher. In that sense, the results might not be due to bias itself, but to conflating student success with teacher performance.

Campbell said she hopes her findings will add nuance to the debate over the best ways to judge teachers.

One idea that the study floats to address the issue is an adjustment of evaluation scores based on the composition of the classroom, similar to what is done for value-added scores, though the idea has received some pushback, Campbell said.

“I’m not saying we throw them both out,” Campbell said of classroom observations and value-added scores. “I’m saying we need to be mindful.”