ask and ye shall receive

State finds assessing eval systems to be harder than expected

For months, state education officials have been hounding school districts to draft teacher evaluation plans and submit them for approval.

But now that the plans are streaming in, the officials are realizing the state is not adequately prepared to assess them. Each plan must be combed through to ensure that it complies with the state’s evaluation law and meets the State Education Department’s hard-and-fast rules and subjective guidelines.

“I think it’s fair to say we underestimated the time and resources that we needed to review these plans,” Valerie Grey, SED’s deputy commissioner, told members of the Board of Regents Monday in Albany.

Grey said the department would seek “additional resources to get through January,” when Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said districts must put new evaluation systems in place or risk forgoing an increase in state aid. She also said the department would ask districts to turn in their plans early to leave time for the approval process.

Grey later clarified that increasing manpower would not require any new funds but instead could be paid for by reallocating some of the state’s Race to the Top funds. The state committed to overhauling teacher evaluations as part of its application for the federal funds.

So far, Grey said, the department has enlisted law students as interns to wade through the complicated, encyclopedic applications that districts turn in. The extra funds will allow the department to hire full-time temporary employees to help with the task. Both the interns and the temporary workers are supervised by department officials. The department is also conscripting employees who do not normally work on teacher quality issues to assist with the project.

Of the state’s 715 districts, 295 have turned in proposals for evaluation systems, Grey said. But the department has provided feedback to only 150 of them, and 75 evaluation systems have been approved so far, she said.

To guard against the bottleneck, the state is asking districts to turn in their evaluation plans by mid-December, just three months away, in order to hit the governor’s Jan. 17 deadline.

The tightened timeline could add new pressure to already fraught negotiations in New York City. City and teachers union officials have both expressed optimism about being able to reach a teacher evaluations agreement by Cuomo’s deadline, but they have missed several state deadlines in the last year. Each time, their negotiations have gone to the wire.

Evaluation plans that the department has approved and published illustrate the complexity of the approval process. Binghamton’s plan, for example, comes to 123 pages and includes a long list of assessments the district wants to use to measure student growth; spreadsheets that show how the different components of the evaluation system will lead to a single score for each teacher; and detailed plans for how to help teachers and principals who get low scores. Each component was negotiated locally, then refined in conversation with state education officials before getting a final sign-off.

Another reason that the review process is taking longer than expected is that districts are so far taking very different approaches from one another, Grey said. She said she anticipated the review process speeding up as more districts look to each other and to models that the state has published for inspiration. Checking off the components of an evaluation system that is similar to one that has already met the state’s approval is simpler than thinking through a brand new system, Grey said.

It’s unlikely that a system New York City proposes would benefit from the economy of scale. The city and its teacher union have been negotiating over the evaluation system for longer than most districts have taken to develop theirs. Plus, the city is so large that some assessment process that are feasible in smaller districts could be hard to carry out here, and vice versa.

that was weird

The D.C. school system had a pitch-perfect response after John Oliver made #DCPublicSchools trend on Twitter

Public education got some unexpected attention Sunday night when John Oliver asked viewers watching the Emmys to make #DCPublicSchools trend on Twitter.

Oliver had been inspired by comedian Dave Chappelle, who shouted out the school system he attended before he announced an award winner. Within a minute of Oliver’s request, the hashtag was officially trending.

Most of the tweets had nothing to do with schools in Washington, D.C.

Here are a few that did, starting with this pitch-perfect one from the official D.C. Public Schools account:

Oliver’s surreal challenge was far from the first time that the late-show host has made education a centerpiece of his comedy — over time, he has pilloried standardized testing, school segregation, and charter schools.

Nor was it the first education hashtag to take center stage at an awards show: #PublicSchoolProud, which emerged as a response to new U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, got a shoutout during the Oscars in February.

And it also is not the first time this year that D.C. schools have gotten a surprise burst of attention. The Oscars were just a week after DeVos drew fire for criticizing the teachers she met during her first school visit as secretary — to a D.C. public school.

Incentives

Westminster district will give bonuses if state ratings rise, teachers wonder whether performance pay system is coming

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students work on an English assignment at M. Scott Carpenter Middle School in Westminster.

Teachers and employees in Westminster Public Schools will be able to earn a bonus if they help the struggling district improve its state ratings next year.

The district’s school board on Tuesday unanimously approved the $1.7 million plan for the one-year performance stipends, the district’s latest attempt to lift the quality of its schools.

School employees can earn $1,000 if their school meets a district-set score, or up to $2,000 if they reach a more ambitious goal the school sets. District employees, including the superintendent, can earn $1,000 if the district as a whole jumps up a rating next year.

“We recognize that everyone plays a critical role in increasing student achievement and we decided that if a particular school or the district as a whole can reach that next academic accreditation level, the employees directly responsible should be rewarded,” board president Dino Valente said in a statement.

The district is one of five that was flagged by the state for chronic low performance and was put on a state-ordered improvement plan this spring.

District officials have disputed state ratings, claiming the state’s system is not fairly assessing the performance of Westminster schools. Middle school teacher Melissa Duran, who also used to be president of the teacher’s union, drew a connection between that stance and the new stipends, saying any extra pay she gets would be based on one score.

“The district has gone to the state saying, ‘Why are you rating us on these tests, look at all the other things we’re doing’” Duran said. “Well, it’s the same thing for teachers. They’re still basing our effectiveness on a test score.”

Teachers interviewed Thursday said their first thoughts upon learning of the plan was that it sounded like the beginnings of performance pay.

“I already get the point that we are in need of having our test scores come up,” said math teacher Andy Hartman, who is also head of negotiations for the teacher’s union. “Putting this little carrot out there isn’t going to change anything. I personally do not like performance pay. It’s a very slippery slope.”

District leaders say they talked to all district principals after the announcement Wednesday, and heard positive feedback.

“A lot of the teachers think this is a good thing,” said Steve Saunders, the district’s spokesman.

National studies on the effectiveness of performance pay stipends and merit pay have shown mixed results. One recent study from Vanderbilt University concluded that they can be effective, but that the design of the systems makes a difference.

In Denver Public Schools, the district has a performance-pay system to give raises and bonuses to teachers in various situations. Studies of that model have found that some teachers don’t completely understand the system and that it’s not always tied to better student outcomes.

Westminster officials said they have never formally discussed performance pay, and said that these stipends are being funded for one year with an unanticipated IRS refund.

Westminster teachers said they have ideas for other strategies that could make a quick impact, such as higher pay for substitutes so teachers aren’t losing their planning periods filling in for each other when subs are difficult to find.

Waiting on a bonus that might come next year is not providing any new motivation, teachers said.

“It’s a slap in the face,” Duran said. “It’s not like we are not already working hard enough. Personally, I already give 110 percent. I’ve always given 110 percent.”

Last month, the school board also approved a new contract for teachers and staff. Under the new agreement, teachers and staff got a raise of at least 1 percent. They received a similar raise last year.