examining gaps

At-risk students in some big Colorado districts have a better chance of having an effective teacher than others

PHOTO: Denver Post file

While at-risk students statewide were less likely to have teachers rated effective or higher in the 2014-15 school year, the gaps between the percentage of effective teachers in high-poverty and low-poverty and high-minority and low-minority schools varied greatly by district.

In Denver Public Schools, the state’s largest school district, the gaps were even wider than state averages, according to data released this week.

Students in the second-largest district, Jefferson County, experienced the opposite: Kids in high-poverty and high-minority schools were actually more likely to have an effective teacher.

And in Douglas County, large gaps that showed poor students at a significant disadvantage in terms of teacher effectiveness were attributable in part to the fact that the wealthy district has so few high-poverty schools and so many low-poverty schools.

The data was released nearly seven years after state lawmakers adopted a landmark teacher and principal evaluation system. The 2014-15 school year was the first year it was fully in effect. Under the law, the state must look at the number of effective educators in schools that serve varying levels of low-income students, students of color and English language learners.

To calculate those gaps, the state education department ranked every school in Colorado from highest to lowest by the percentage of students in each of those three groups.

The state then broke each of those lists into four quartiles and compared the percentages of effective teachers in schools in the highest and lowest quartiles for each district.

The gaps in Denver were bigger than statewide averages.

For example, in DPS schools with high proportions of English language learners, 62 percent of teachers were rated effective or higher, the data show. In schools with low proportions of English language learners, 89 percent of teachers were effective or better.

That’s a 27 percentage-point gap. Statewide, the gap was 8 percentage points.

The numbers were almost exactly the same for DPS schools with high and low proportions of students of color: 63 percent versus 89 percent, respectively.

And in DPS schools with high proportions of students living in poverty, 64 percent of teachers were rated effective or higher. In low-poverty schools, 84 percent were effective or better.

DPS uses its own teacher evaluation system, which meets Colorado requirements but is different than the state-developed system most school districts use. Denver also had a high percentage of teachers show up in state data as “not rated” in 2014-15 for a variety of reasons related to attrition, new hires and the large number of charter schools in DPS.

But while DPS officials said they’re still digging into whether the state’s gap analysis lines up with the district’s own number-crunching, they acknowledged that DPS is “not satisfied where we are” when it comes to teacher effectiveness gaps.

“One of the things we have been focused on is getting our strongest teachers to come to and stay in some of our highest needs schools,” said Sarah Almy, the district’s executive director of talent management. “…One of the challenges — and one of factors in that gap — is that we, as many districts do, struggle to retain teachers in our highest needs schools and consequently wind up with a greater proportion of new teachers in those schools.”

New teachers are more likely to be rated “partially effective” — as opposed to “effective” or “highly effective” — than veteran teachers, Almy said. DPS has been trying to attract more effective teachers to high-needs schools by offering them financial incentives, she said. This year, the district is also focusing on increasing teacher retention in those schools.

In neighboring Jefferson County, state data show 90 percent of teachers in schools that serve the county’s poorest students were rated effective or higher. At the same time, 82 percent of teachers in the county’s wealthiest schools earned one of the top two ratings.

Similar inverse gaps existed in schools that serve high and low proportions of English language learners and students of color.

Todd Engels, Jeffco’s executive director of educator effectiveness, said the district is studying the data but noted it could be difficult to draw any conclusions given how old it is.

“We’re thankful that we have some great teachers in those high-needs schools,” he said.

One possible reason for the reverse gap, Engels said, is that a dozen of the district’s highest poverty schools have been involved in a national pay-for-performance study known as Strat Comp to test new ways to pay teachers and identify what helps them become better instructors.

Teachers in the study were evaluated by both school administrators and trained peer evaluators that worked across multiple schools. Some teachers received bonuses up to $15,000 tied to their evaluations, while others received stipends. All teachers received a higher starting salary.

The research was funded by a $32.8 million five-year grant from the federal government. Engels said the district has not yet received the final report on the impact of the investment, but participating schools have been flushed with additional resources and training for teachers and principals.

One of the largest gaps based on poverty in the state was in wealthy, suburban Douglas County. In high-poverty Dougco schools, 42 percent of teachers were rated effective or higher. In low-poverty Dougco schools, 79 percent were effective or higher.

But according to the way the state calculated the gaps, the district had 79 schools in the wealthiest quartile and only three in the poorest quartile. All three are run by the HOPE Online charter organization, a multi-district online school with learning centers along the Front Range.

Britt Wilkenfeld, director of research for educator talent at the Colorado Department of Education, said that because of the exceedingly low number of Dougco schools in the high-poverty quartile, the gap analysis there “might not be as meaningful” as in other districts.

“You’re really just looking at the gap between that school and the rest of the district,” she said.

Douglas County School District officials did not provide responses to Chalkbeat questions by the end of business Tuesday.

hiring crisis

Want ideas for easing Illinois’ teacher shortage? Ask a teacher.

PHOTO: Beau Lark / Getty Images

West Prairie High School is feeling the teacher shortage acutely.

The school — in a town of 58 people in downstate Illinois — hasn’t had a family and consumer science teacher for eight years, a business teacher for four years, or a health teacher for two years. The vacancies are among the state’s 1,400 teaching jobs that remained unfilled last school year.

To alleviate a growing teacher shortage, Illinois needs to raise salaries and provide more flexible pathways to the teaching profession, several teachers have urged the Illinois State Board of Education.  

“If we want top candidates in our classrooms, we must compensate them as such,” said Corinne Biswell, a teacher at West Prairie High School in Sciota.

Teachers, especially those in the rural districts most hurt by teacher shortages, welcomed the board’s broad-brush recommendations to address the problem. The board adopted seven proposals, which came with no funding or concrete plans, on Wednesday. It does not have the authority to raise teacher pay, which is negotiated by school districts and teacher unions.

“I appreciate that ISBE is looking for creative ways not only to approve our supply of teachers, but looking at the retention issues as well,” said Biswell, who favored the recommendations.

Goals the board approved include smoothing the pathway to teaching, providing more career advancement, and improving teacher licensing, training and mentorship.

However,  teachers attending the monthly meeting  disagreed over a proposal to eliminate a basic skills test for some would-be teachers and to adjust the entrance test to help more midcareer candidates enter the profession.

Biswell and other teachers warned that some of the recommendations, such as dropping the test of basic skills for some candidates,  could have unintended consequences.

Biswell urged the state board to change credentialing reviews to help unconventional candidates enter teaching. When issuing a teaching credential the state should look at a candidate’s work and college grades, and a mix of skills, she said, and also consider adjusting the basic-skills test that many midcareer candidates take — and currently fail to pass.

She told the board a warning story of teacher licensing gone wrong. When a vocational education teacher failed to pass the teacher-entry tests, he instead filed for a provisional certification. That meant he ended up in the classroom without enough experience.

“We are effectively denying candidates student teaching experiences and then hiring them anyway simply because we do not have any other choice,”  said Biswell, who is a fellow with Teach Plus, a nonprofit that works to bring teacher voices into education policy.

But other teachers want to make sure that credentialing stays as rigorous as possible. In the experience of Lisa Love, a Teach Plus fellow who teaches at Hawthorne Scholastic Academy, a public school in Chicago, too many new teachers don’t know what they are in for. “Being able to be an effective classroom teacher requires a lot of practice and knowledge and education that you can bring to the table in the classroom,” Love said. “Unprepared teachers are more likely to leave the classroom.”

Over the years, she has seen that attrition.

Teach Plus surveyed more than 600 teachers around Illinois about the teacher shortage and how to solve it. The survey found that most teachers wanted a basic skills requirement but also flexibility in meeting it.

The survey also found a divide between current and prospective teachers, as well as rural and urban teachers, on several issues. For example, the majority of current teachers said it wasn’t too difficult to become a teacher, while people trying to enter the profession disagreed. Educators in cities and suburbs didn’t find it too hard to become a teacher, while teachers in rural areas did.

Better pay came up for several teachers interviewed by Chalkbeat.

Illinois legislators passed a bill to set a minimum salary of $40,000 for teachers in Illinois, but Gov. Bruce Rauner vetoed it last summer.

Love noted that she has spent years getting advanced degrees related to teaching. And yet, she said, “I don’t make the salary of a doctor or lawyer but I have the same loans as a doctor or lawyer and the public doesn’t look to me with the same respect.”

But how much do the tests actually measure who might be good at teaching in the classroom? Gina Caneva, a teacher at Lindblom Math and Science Academy, said that written or video tests are very little like the daily work of being an educator. “Being a teacher, you are really out there in the field, you have to respond on your feet,” she said. “These tests don’t equate to the teaching profession.”

Chicago Public Schools is trying to tackle the teacher shortage problem by offering a teacher training program that would offer would-be teachers the chance to get into a classroom and earn a master’s degree in two years.

Some educators also suggest that there are region-specific barriers that could go. Caneva suggests that Chicago get rid of the requirement that teachers live in the city, and instead draw talent from the broader Midwest.

The seven measures the state board passed to improve the teaching force came from Teach Illinois: Strong Teachers, Strong Classrooms, a yearlong partnership between the board and the Joyce Foundation.

First Person

How football prepared me for my first year of teaching (but maybe not the second)

Football brought me to Memphis, and Memphis brought me to teaching.

That’s how, last August, I found myself the solo teacher for seventh grade science at a KIPP middle school in North Memphis that hadn’t had a teacher in that role make it to May in four years.

I completed and even enjoyed that year of teaching, despite its challenges. And while I don’t think my years of high school and college football gave me every tool or personality trait I needed to do that, the experience helped.

First, football taught me to perform when I was not at 100 percent. One of my former coaches used to ask ailing players, “Are you hurt, or are you injured?” in an attempt to parse the words of high schoolers. Hurt was a bruise; injured was a break. I learned to play with bruises.

I found myself asking the hurt or injured question one early morning in February, when I woke up with a throbbing headache. I was hurt, not injured. I made it in.

But physical ailments aren’t the only ones that can sideline a teacher. Teachers have bad days. Frankly, teachers can have bad weeks or months. The same can go for football players. All-star quarterbacks throw interceptions, and gutsy linebackers miss tackles.

The same coach used to tell me, “The only play that matters is the next play.” I found that true last year, too. I couldn’t go back and change the way I unduly reprimanded a student any more than a wide receiver can get another shot at catching a dropped pass.

Some days, though, you “learn” more than you bargained for. In football, those days may be when you feel like you probably should have never tried to play. Those days you drop every ball that comes your way, you forget where you’re supposed to be on every play, and you wonder if the knitting club has any openings.

Football taught me how to drown out these thoughts of inadequacy with positive visualization and by staying focused on concrete goals. As my coach used to tell us after a particularly good play, or a particularly bad one: “Never too high, never too low.” Just as the bad days will soon be washed away in the unrelenting tide of the school year, so will the good ones.

Retaining any sense of perspective on the school year was hard, and there’s no easy fix to an extended period of self-pity or frustration at a string of bad days. My goals were to help kids learn to appreciate science, and to be an adult that students felt they could go to for support. Keeping them at the front of my mind was the best help I could find.

On that note, I have a confession to make. Before my first year of teaching, I was one of those people who didn’t truly understand how difficult teaching was. The reality of how many hours teachers spend outside of school putting their lessons together never crossed my mind. The fact that planning units ahead for my students felt like scouting out my opponents didn’t make the long hours any easier. That first month of teaching was a shock to my system, and the only solution was to put my head down and go, the way I had been taught to do.

Football also left me with some loose ends. The sport taught me next to nothing about patience or about the virtues of benevolence; it never pays to be gentle on the gridiron. Football also didn’t teach me anything about working with people you don’t agree with. On a football team, everyone is united under the same cause: winning.

The parallels I discovered also raise a few uncomfortable questions. I decided to pursue an advanced degree instead of continuing to teach a second year. Does football truly inform teaching as a career, then, or just that first year? A main tenet of football is to never quit. Did I violate that by switching career paths?

Pushing past pain, and centering most hours of one’s life around one goal, can be difficult principles to build a life around. They were also valuable to me when I needed them most.

And regardless of whether football continues to be popular among young people, I hope that parents still find ways to give their kids a chance to compete — a chance to win, and more importantly, to lose.

Having to do that time and time again made me able to accept struggle in life, and it made me a better learner. I think it made me a better teacher, too.

Evan Tucker is a former teacher at KIPP Memphis Academy Middle. He is now pursuing a master’s degree in ecology.