the sig picture

Federal teacher evaluation mandate's impact felt across country

New York City’s controversial school turnaround proposals represent a tiny piece of a sweeping effort, funded by the U.S. Department of Education, to overhaul the country’s lowest-performing schools. In the last of three articles about the reform effort produced by Education WeekThe Hechinger Report, and the Education Writers Association, Sarah Garland looks at the  national impact of a federal requirement — tougher teacher evaluations — that has tripped up School Improvement Grants in New York. GothamSchools was one of four news organizations to contribute to the reporting.

Elliott Elementary in Lincoln, Neb., struck off on its own last year when it became the only school in the city to win money through the federal School Improvement Grant program. Winning wasn’t something to be proud of, though: It meant the school qualified as one of the worst in the nation. About a third of fifth-graders at Elliott were proficient on state reading tests when the reforms began, compared to 80 percent in Lincoln as a whole.

Winning also meant a lot of work for teachers and administrators. One of the biggest tasks was overhauling the way teachers at the school are evaluated. Elliott was the only school in the city making the change, which meant it had to come up with a new way of rating teachers mostly on its own.

“The challenge was connecting it to student achievement,” said Jadi Miller, named the principal at Elliott after a longtime principal was ousted to comply with the grant’s mandate of new leadership. “That was certainly very new for us.”

In the Obama administration’s new push to turn around the bottom 5 percent of schools nationwide, the vast majority of districts chose the reform option that seemed the least invasive: Instead of closing schools or firing at least half of the teaching staff, schools could undergo less aggressive interventions, such as overhauling how teacher performance is measured and rewarding teachers who do well.

But the teacher-evaluation requirement has turned out to be a major stumbling block for many schools in the SIG program.

Last summer, when the U.S. Department of Education offered waivers to extend the deadline for launching new teacher and principal evaluations, more than two dozen states applied on behalf of their SIG schools, according to federal officials. Anecdotal evidence from around the country suggests that nearly two years into their three-year grants, many schools have yet to change how they rate and reward teachers.

“You have this pressure you’re putting on these schools, and it really becomes a challenge for them to respond,” said Scott Marion, associate director of the New Hampshire-based Center for Assessment, which has advised schools on evaluation models.

The movement to overhaul how teachers are rated has sparked public battles between school officials and teachers unions across the country. Controversial state laws — fueled in part by a separate Obama administration grant competition, Race to the Top — have called for more thorough evaluations based on frequent classroom observations and student test scores. In some states, teachers now face losing tenure or their jobs if they are rated poorly.

Proponents of the new policies have argued that teachers have a significant impact on students’ academic careers, either preparing them for success later on or setting them back by years. Critics say that observations are subjective, and test scores aren’t a reliable measure of a teacher’s skills.

Amid the tumult, the SIG program has received less attention. Yet it’s likely to be just as instrumental in spreading the Obama administration’s vision of reform for the teaching profession. After the initial delays, many schools, along with entire districts and states, are set to launch new evaluation systems to fulfill the grant’s mandates in the next year — despite technical difficulties, resistance from teachers unions and questions about the accuracy of various evaluation methods.

Schools applying for SIG money had four reform models to choose from. During the first round of the program, launched in 2010, nearly three-quarters of schools — more than 600 — signed up for the “transformation” model, which requires schools to create new evaluation and reward systems for teachers based in part on student academic growth.

Some transformation schools are located in states already in the midst of launching new statewide teacher evaluation systems, including Florida, New York and Tennessee. State support has not been a guarantee that launching the new evaluations will go smoothly, however.

In New York City, schools officials and the local teachers union have battled over job protections for poorly rated teachers at 33 schools using the transformation model and another model, “restart.” After the two sides hit an impasse this winter, the district announced it was switching to another SIG model to sidestep the teacher evaluation requirement. Now, the city plans to remove up to half of the teachers at many of the schools.

Elsewhere, SIG schools have helped influence whole districts and states to rework how teacher performance is measured. For example, the school districts in Yakima, Wash., and Hazelwood, Mo., a suburb of St. Louis, plan to introduce new evaluations at every school, not just those in the SIG program. And in Michigan, Mississippi and New Jersey, SIG schools are acting as pilots for new teacher evaluation systems that will eventually be rolled out statewide.

In some states, however, schools like Elliott Elementary have had to go it alone.

In Louisville, Ky., the teachers union reluctantly agreed to a new evaluation system in four schools that entered the SIG program this year and chose the transformation model. Part of the agreement required that the new system — which includes bonus pay for high-performing teachers — not expand to any other schools in the district.

In Alaska, schools were left to figure out how to revamp their teacher evaluations with the help of private consultants. “The difficulty is that none of these sites had anything in place at all for collecting and analyzing student achievement data in terms of tying it to teacher evaluation,” said Gerry Briscoe, a school improvement specialist at the Alaska Comprehensive Center, a nonprofit group that is supporting the state’s 10 SIG schools. “We’re really building this from the ground up.”

And in Nebraska, teacher unions are currently locked in a battle with state legislators over a proposal to increase the frequency of classroom observations. At the same time, Jim Havelka, a consultant who is aiding the state’s seven SIG schools, all of which chose the transformation model, says measuring student academic growth ha h ha s been challenging because the state doesn’t provide sufficient test score data to schools.

“Doing value-added just isn’t going to happen,” Havelka said, referring to the statistical models that many states are now using to measure student growth on standardized tests. “We just don’t have that kind of data.”

Even schools in states with advanced data systems must figure out how to measure student academic progress for the vast majority of teachers whose students don’t regularly take standardized tests, including those who teach social studies, music, art or physical education. The Department of Education has said the measurements must be both “rigorous and comparable” across teachers and schools, but experts say following that mandate can be hard.

In one popular approach, teachers set goals for their students at the beginning of the school year and then check to see if they have met them the following June. In some schools, teachers are using packaged tests, like MAP, a computer-adaptive assessment sold by the Northwest Evaluation Association, to set goals like having a certain percentage of students pass by the end of the year. But others may allow teachers to use student projects, teacher-created tests or other classroom work to set goals, which can vary by teacher.

Laura Goe, a researcher for the Educational Testing Service who has advised SIG schools, says goal-setting systems may not always meet federal expectations. “If every teacher is setting their own goals and using measures of their own choosing … there’s going to be big differences in the goals, and there’s going to be big differences in the scoring,” she said.

Tim Daly, president of TNTP, a nonprofit organization that helped Rhode Island develop a statewide system of measuring teacher performance through goal-setting, said in an email that the strategy can be useful, “provided the process is sound.”

“It should be simple, rigorous, and transparent,” Daly said.

Elliott Elementary is using goal-setting to get around Nebraska’s lack of data, which makes more sophisticated statistical modeling impossible. In the fall, teams of teachers create a set of goals based on the end-of-the-year standardized tests, along with benchmark tests given during the year. Individual teachers may choose to set their own separate goals for their evaluations, although not many do.

“We never say a 50 percent goal is okay, we push people,” said Miller, the principal. “It allows everyone to be a part of it, without direct comparability.”

Officials in the Obama administration say they recognize the challenges, but insist that the requirements for the new teacher and principal evaluation systems are critical to the success of the reforms as a whole.

“This is tough work,” said Jason Snyder, deputy assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Elementary and Secondary Education. “We want to make sure that districts have time to develop high-quality evaluation systems that will help them successfully turn around their schools.”

The waivers given out to the first set of SIG schools moved the deadline for launching the new evaluation systems from this school year to 2013-14, the year after their grant money runs out. Officials say the development process is the costliest part of the reforms. And there are no federal consequences if schools don’t make the deadlines or if their systems do not meet expectations, officials said.

Jadi Miller is optimistic that the reforms at Elliott, including the new evaluation system, will transform the school: Already, test scores have risen significantly after just one year. The next challenge is to figure out how to follow another SIG requirement — that high-performing teachers be rewarded for their work.

“To be one of 37 elementaries and we’re the only one looking at [evaluation] this way, that has created some issues sometimes,” she said. “That compensation piece continues to be a puzzle for us, and there hasn’t been great guidance.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, the Education Writers Association and Education Week. Reporting was contributed by Leslie Brody of The Bergen (N.J.) Record, Antoinette Konz of the The (Louisville) Courier-Journal, Philissa Cramer and Rachel Cromidas of GothamSchools, and Lori Higgins of the Detroit Free Press.

headcount

New York City school workforce grows, driven by 40 percent rise in teaching assistants

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
A teaching assistant worked with a pre-K student in East Harlem in 2014.

New York City’s public-school workforce grew 8 percent over the past decade, according to a new report, driven largely by the rising number of teaching assistants who work with preschool students and students with disabilities — two populations whose numbers have risen even as overall student enrollment declined.

The education department employed about 131,200 people this June — an increase of 10,200 workers since July 2007, according to an analysis by the city’s Independent Budget Office released Tuesday. The expansion comes even as student enrollment in district-run schools fell by 1.5 percent, or some 15,300 students, during that same period, the report notes.

While the number of teachers remained basically flat during that time, the department added nearly 8,600 additional teaching assistants, or “paraprofessionals,” as they’re known within the school system — an increase of over 40 percent.

“This is a story about the use of paraprofessionals — that’s the main thing,” said Yolanda Smith, a senior IBO analyst who prepared the report.

The majority of the paraprofessionals who were added during that period work with students with disabilities. Teachers union officials attributed the increase to a citywide effort since 2012 to place more students with disabilities in classrooms alongside their general-education peers, often with the support of a paraprofessional. (An education department spokesman said students are assigned paraprofessionals based on their unique needs.)

Nearly 2,000 of the paraprofessionals hired over the past decade work in pre-kindergarten classrooms, which are required to have both an assistant and a teacher. The number of assistants spiked after 2014, when Mayor Bill de Blasio rapidly expanded the city’s pre-K program.

Full-time paraprofessionals with a high school degree earn a starting salary of around $22,000. While the number of paraprofessionals focused on special-education and preschool students grew during this period, those assigned to general-education classrooms declined by roughly 1,100.

At the same time, the ranks of other school workers expanded 22 percent during this 10-year period. Those more than 2,200 additional employees include nurses, occupational and physical therapists, and “parent coordinators,” who answer families’ questions and help organize school events.

The number of teachers, principals, and assistant principals barely budged over that period, adding just over 500 additional workers. Union officials noted that there was a teacher hiring freeze from 2009 to 2014, but said that in recent years any new hires were essentially balanced out by teachers who retired or chose to leave the system.

Education department spokesman Will Mantell said in a statement: “We’re focused on recruiting and retaining talented staff that meet the needs of New York City students and families.”

Human Resources

A minimum salary for Colorado teachers? State officials may ask lawmakers to consider it.

A teacher reads to her students at the Cole Arts and Science Academy in Denver. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

As part of a broad plan to increase the volume of high-quality teachers in Colorado, state officials are considering asking lawmakers to take the bold step of establishing a minimum teacher salary requirement tied to the cost of living.

Officials from the state departments of education and higher education are finalizing a list of recommendations to address challenges to Colorado’s teacher workforce. Pressing for the legislation on teacher salaries is one of dozens of recommendations included in a draft report.

The report, assembled at the request of the legislature, also proposes a marketing campaign and scholarships to attract new teachers to rural areas.

Representatives from the Colorado Department of Education said they would not discuss the recommendations until they’re final. However, the department earlier this month briefed the State Board of Education on their proposed recommendations in advance of the Dec. 1 deadline for it to be finalized.

The impending report — based on thousands of responses from educators, students and other Colorado residents in online surveys and town halls across the state — is a sort of first step for the state legislature to tackle a problem years in the making. Since 2010, Colorado has seen a 24 percent drop in the number of college students graduating from the state’s traditional teacher colleges. There’s also been a 23 percent drop in enrollment in those programs.

Residency programs, which place graduate students in a classroom for a full year with an experienced teacher, and other alternative licensure programs have seen a 40 percent increase in enrollment. But those programs produce far fewer teachers and can’t keep up with demand.

Colorado faces a shortage of teachers in certain subjects, regions and schools, and circumstances vary. Math and science teachers are in short supply: Only 192 college students in 2016 graduated with credentials to teach those subjects. The same year, 751 students left with a degree to teach elementary school.

And rural schools have had an especially hard time finding and keeping teachers.

Here’s a look at what the state departments are considering recommending, based on the presentation from education department officials to the state board:

Provide more and better training to new — and veteran — teachers.

Colorado schools are already required to offer some sort of induction program for new teachers. This training, which lasts between two and three years, is supposed to supplement what they learned during college.

For the last two years, the state education department has been pushing school districts to update their programs. The recommendations in the report could kick things up a notch.

The education departments are asking for updated induction requirements to be written into statute and more money to be provided to districts to pay for the training.

The draft report also calls for more more sustained training for veteran teachers, including competitive grant programs.

An additional suggestion is to create a program to train teachers expressly to teach in rural classrooms.

Increase teacher compensation and benefits.

This will be a hard pill to swallow. According to the presentation to the state board, the education departments want to call on lawmakers to set a minimum salary for teachers based on the school district’s cost of living.

The presentation to the board lacked specifics on how lawmakers and school districts could accomplish this. One board member, Colorado Springs Republican Steve Durham, called it a “mistake” to include such a recommendation.

Keeping up with the rising cost of living is a challenge. A new report shows new teachers in the state’s three largest school districts couldn’t afford to rent a one-bedroom apartment.

“We hope the report itself is going to talk a lot the cost of living — that’s what we heard from our stakeholders across the field,” Colleen O’Neil, the education department’s executive director of educator talent told the state board. “They literally were not able to meet the cost of living because their salaries did not compensate them fairly enough to find housing.”

Other suggestions the report might highlight to improve teacher compensation include loan forgiveness, housing incentives and creating a differentiated pay scale for teachers — something teachers unions staunchly oppose.

Help schools better plan for hiring and send teachers where they’re needed.

One short-term solution the state is considering recommending is allocating more resources to help schools plan for teacher turnover. This includes providing incentives for teachers to notify school leaders about their plans to leave the classroom earlier.

The education departments are also suggesting the state increase the number of programs that can help teachers get licensed in more than one subject at a time. Other ideas include offering scholarships to potential teachers to complete licensing requirements for content areas that are lacking viable candidates — likely math and science — and providing transportation and technology stipends for rural teachers.

Make the teaching profession more attractive.

Teachers “feel they’re not treated like professionals,” O’Neil told the board. So the education departments want the legislature to allow them to partner with private entities to launch a marketing campaign to lift the profile of teaching as a career in the state.

The education departments also hope the legislature considers creating more opportunities for middle and high school students to consider teaching as a viable career path. This could include reinvigorating the state’s Educators Rising program, a program for high school students interested in teaching.