in absentia

City bolstering ATR evaluation process, but challenges remain

A year after starting to rotate teachers without permanent positions into different empty slots weekly, the Department of Education has settled on a way to evaluate them.

But the plan, hiring administrators to observe and coach the teachers in multiple placements, could be stymied if the department cannot find enough available evaluators who are up to the task.

Last year, when the city launched the rotation system for members of the Absent Teacher Reserve, it left up in the air the question of who would be responsible for evaluating them. Previously, ATRs were typically assigned to one school for the entire year, so principals could rate them as they did any other teacher on staff.

For almost all of the roughly 830 teachers in the pool at the end of last year, district superintendents ended up issuing the annual ratings with input from potentially dozens of principals who supervised each teacher — in most cases, without conducting the formal observations that teachers are required to receive each year.

But in Brooklyn, which had about 250 ATRs last year, the city took a different approach. It interviewed and selected five administrators who had also lost their positions to budget cuts or school closures to visit the teachers in their classrooms and give them feedback about their performance.

The “field supervisors” each took on a caseload of between 20 and 30 ATRs, observing them several times throughout the year and conducting four training sessions for them as well, according to department officials. Ultimately, the administrators rated each teacher as either satisfactory or unsatisfactory at the end of the year.

Union officials said they were initially skeptical that the administrators would balance support with tough feedback, given the city’s repeated demands that it be allowed to fire ATRs, whom former chancellor Joel Klein characterized as “teachers who either don’t care to, or can’t, find a job.”

But the officials said they received few complaints from teachers participating in the pilot and found that the administrators selected for the task largely were conducting the observations in good faith. Some ATRs whose first observations netted them an unsatisfactory rating even had that label reversed after follow-up observations documented progress, the officials said.

Ultimately, 60 of the ATRs evaluated last year were rated unsatisfactory overall, according to city data — a rate three times the citywide rate but hardly suggestive of a broad effort to push ATRs out of the system, particularly because a higher portion of teachers in the pool had previous U-ratings. Teachers who receive two U-ratings can be fired, and one low rating can make it harder for teachers to land a permanent position.

Now the city is planning to expand the observation system piloted in Brooklyn to the rest of the ATR pool, which today numbers about 1,822. The number is likely to shrink by the end of October, when schools set their student registers and more teachers receive offers for permanent positions.

Amy Arundell, a teachers union representative who oversees personnel matters, said the union is in favor of the pilot’s expansion.

“We’re supportive of the DOE creating a structure whereby folks in the excess pool get the same kind of support that all teachers across the system are supposed to get,” she said in a statement.

But union officials said they have been told the expansion is contingent on having enough administrators on hand who are both capable of the unorthodox task and contractually able to complete it.

Currently, there are 200 administrators in excess in the city, according to department officials.

Teachers in the ATR pool who were rated last year said they were not satisfied with the way they were evaluated.

One teacher who attended a hiring fair on Thursday said she did not remember being observed at all, but she received a satisfactory rating anyway — a designation she said felt completely arbitrary.

“Whatever they ask you to do, you just do it,” she said of the assignment process, which had her teaching middle school at times and preparing her own lesson plans when someone she substituted for did not leave instructions.

A middle school teacher starting his third year in the pool said he was part of the Brooklyn pilot last year. Even with an observation, he said, he found the system “unfair” because his supervisor had little information about his performance before issuing a satisfactory rating.

The strong mark came “only because I happened to get an honors class on the day that he observed me,” said the teacher, who asked to remain anonymous. He said he was observed twice but not offered any extra training.

Connie Pankratz, a department spokeswoman, said the city was short on manpower last year, so it focused the observations on teachers who had been reported for problems such as poor attendance. This year, the department intends to observe every ATR at least once, she said. But she said she did not yet have concrete details on how the program would roll out and who would staff it.

The evaluation strategy, which Pankratz said had been developed with the union’s support addresses one problem posed by the rotation system: Each ATR does not have a regular set of supervisors. But it does not tackle some of the other system’s other challenges. Because many of them receive assignments outside of their license areas, or at schools that only need help with administrative tasks such as record-keeping, judging their teaching quality is trickier.

That reality was reflected in the ratings issued last year, union officials said, noting that most of the U-ratings were for attendance issues. A low rating attributed to incompetence in the classroom would be easily challenged if the city could not show the teacher had been observed and given chances to improve, or if the teacher was handling classes he or she was not licensed to teach, the officials said.

The teacher who participated in the pilot last year said the lack of formal observations and support might have been for the best, because he said during the year he encountered some capricious principals and was sometimes placed in jobs outside his license area.

“One principal didn’t believe in ATRs, so he had me sit with a teacher all day long,” the teacher said. “You could be an elementary teacher and still be put in a seventh-grade class.”

student teaching

Building a teacher pipeline: How one Aurora school has become a training ground for aspiring teachers

Paraprofessional Sonia Guzman, a student of a teaching program, works with students at Elkhart Elementary School in Aurora. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Students at Aurora’s Elkhart Elementary School are getting assistance from three aspiring teachers helping out in classrooms this year, part of a new partnership aimed at building a bigger and more diverse teacher pipeline.

The teachers-to-be, students at the University of Northern Colorado’s Center for Urban Education, get training and a paid job while they’re in college. Elkhart principal Ron Schumacher gets paraprofessionals with long-term goals and a possibility that they’ll be better prepared to be Aurora teachers.

For Schumacher, it’s part of a plan to not only help his school, but also others in Aurora Public Schools increase teacher retention.

“Because of the nature of our school demographics, it’s a coin flip with a new teacher,” Schumacher said. “If I lose 50 percent of my teachers over time, I’m being highly inefficient. If these ladies know what they’re getting into and I can have them prepared to be a more effective first-year teacher, there’s more likelihood that I’ll keep them in my school in the long term.”

Elkhart has about 590 students enrolled this year. According to state data from last year, more than 95 percent of the students who attend the school qualify for subsidized lunches, a measure of poverty. The school, which operates with an International Baccalaureate program, has outperformed the district average on some state tests.

The three paraprofessionals hired by the school this year are part of the teaching program at UNC’s Lowry campus, which has long required students to work in a school for the four years they work on their degree.

Students get paid for their work in schools, allowing them to earn some money while going to college. Students from the program had worked in Aurora schools in the past, but not usually three students at once at the same school, and not as part of a formal partnership.

The teaching program has a high number of students of color and first-generation college students, which Rosanne Fulton, the program director, said is another draw for partnering with schools in the metro area.

Schumacher said every principal and education leader has the responsibility to help expose students to more teachers who can relate to them.

One of this year’s paraprofessionals is Andy Washington, an 18-year-old who attended Elkhart for a few years when she was a child.

“Getting to know the kids on a personal level, I thought I was going to be scared, but they’re cool,” Washington said.

Another paraprofessional, 20-year-old Sonia Guzman, said kids are opening up to them.

“They ask you what college is like,” Guzman said.

Schumacher said there are challenges to hiring the students, including figuring out how to make use of the students during the morning or early afternoon while being able to release them before school is done for the day so they can make it to their college classes.

Schumacher said he and his district director are working to figure out the best ways to work around those problems so they can share lessons learned with other Aurora principals.

“We’re using some people differently and tapping into volunteers a little differently, but if it’s a priority for you, there are ways of accommodating their schedules,” he said.

At Elkhart, full-time interventionists work with students in kindergarten through third grade who need extra help learning to read.

But the school doesn’t have the budget to hire the same professionals to work with older students. The three student paraprofessionals are helping bridge that gap, learning from the interventionists so they can work with fourth and fifth grade students.

Recently, the three started getting groups of students that they pull out during class to give them extra work on reading skills.

One exercise they worked on with fourth grade students recently was helping them identify if words had an “oi” or “oy” spelling based on their sounds. Students sounded out their syllables and used flashcards to group similar words.

Districts across the country have looked at similar approaches to help attract and prepare teachers for their own schools. In Denver, bond money voters approved last year is helping pay to expand a program this year where paraprofessionals can apply for a one-year program to become teachers while they continue working.

In the partnership at Elkhart, students paraprofessionals take longer than that, but in their first and second year are already learning how to write lessons during their afternoon classes and then working with teachers at the school to deliver the lessons and then reflect on how well they worked. Students say the model helps them feel supported.

“It’s really helping me to become more confident,” said Stephanie Richards, 26, the third paraprofessional. “I know I’m a lot more prepared.”

Schumacher said the model could also work in the future with students from other teaching schools or programs. It’s a small but important part, he said, toward helping larger efforts to attract and retain teachers, and also diversify the ranks.

“You’re doing something for the next generation of folks coming in,” he said.

surprise!

Teachers in Millington and Knoxville just won the Oscar awards of education

PHOTO: Milken Family Foundation
Millington English teacher Katherine Watkins reacts after learning that she is the recipient of a 2017 Milken Educator Award.

Two Tennessee teachers were surprised during school assemblies Thursday with a prestigious national teaching award, $25,000 checks, and a visit from the state’s education chief.

Katherine Watkins teaches high school English in Millington Municipal Schools in Shelby County. She serves as the English department chair and professional learning community coordinator at Millington Central High School. She is also a trained jazz pianist, published poet, and STEM teacher by summer.

PHOTO: Milken Family Foundation
Paula Franklin learns she is among the recipients.

Paula Franklin teaches Advanced Placement government at West High School in Knoxville. Since she took on the course, its enrollment has doubled, and 82 percent of her students pass with an average score that exceeds the national average.

The teachers are two of 45 educators being honored nationally with this year’s Milken Educator Awards from the Milken Family Foundation. The award includes a no-strings-attached check for $25,000.

“It is an honor to celebrate two exceptional Tennessee educators today on each end of the state,” said Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, who attended each assembly. “Paula Franklin and Katherine Watkins should be proud of the work they have done to build positive relationships with students and prepare them with the knowledge and skills to be successful in college and the workforce.”

Foundation chairman Lowell Milken was present to present the awards, which have been given to thousands of teachers since 1987.

PHOTO: Milken Family Foundation
Students gather around Millington teacher Katherine Watkins as she receives a check as part of her Milken Educator Award.

The Milken awards process starts with recommendations from sources that the foundation won’t identify. Names are then reviewed by committees appointed by state departments of education, and their recommendations are vetted by the foundation, which picks the winners.

Last year, Chattanooga elementary school teacher Katie Baker was Tennessee’s sole winner.

In all, 66 Tennessee educators have been recognized by the Milken Foundation and received a total of $1.6 million since the program began in the state in 1992.

You can learn more about the Milken Educator Awards here.