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.”

Votes are in

Memphis educators vote to begin negotiations on new contract with district

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
A teacher training last year on Expeditionary Learning, a new curriculum for English language arts introduced in Shelby County Schools in 2017.

Shelby County Schools teachers have decided it’s time to go back to the bargaining table with district officials to hammer out a new agreement.

Sixty percent of the district’s 7,000 educators, or more than 4,300, voted to allow the two teacher groups that represent them to start negotiating with district officials about pay, insurance, and working conditions. That’s well above the 51 percent that was legally required to begin talks.

It will be the first time the groups have negotiated with the Memphis school district since 2015, and the first since the city’s teacher group split into two. Last year’s organizing efforts didn’t get enough votes to begin negotiations, known as “collaborative conferencing” in Tennessee.

The last agreement, or memorandum of understanding, expired in March. The memorandums are legally binding and can cover such things as salaries, grievance procedures, insurance, and working conditions. But under state law, the agreements can’t address evaluations or personnel decisions such as layoffs or tenure.

Tikeila Rucker, president of the United Education Association of Shelby County, said she hopes talks with the district start by February. She says that it could take up to a year to reach an agreement, although she’s hopeful that it will be sooner.

“We’re creating a survey now to share with the teachers throughout the district so we’ll know what things teachers want to see,” Rucker said. They’ll ask teachers for input on items that can be negotiated, including wages, insurance, grievance procedures, and working conditions.

From earlier teacher feedback, Rucker said educators are concerned about rising insurance costs, and classroom conditions such as class size. They also want raises based on years of service restored, as well as extra pay for advanced degrees, she said.

Dorsey Hopson, Shelby County Schools superintendent, has tried for several years to implement a merit pay system for teachers based on evaluations that include student test scores. That would mean only teachers with high evaluation scores would be eligible for raises. But because of numerous testing problems, Hopson hasn’t yet done that. Instead, for the last three years, all educators have received 3 percent raises.

Keith Williams, executive director of Memphis-Shelby County Education Association, said the salary increases that teachers have received in recent years amounted to bonuses and so-called cost-of-living increases that haven’t kept pace with the cost of living.

“We need to have continuity of pay and a way to predict our earnings,” he said in advocating for the return of step pay increases.

Additionally, he said teachers want to restore time for daily planning periods. And they want a “quality curriculum” that they’re trained to teach and is ready to go on the first day of school.

Teachers have complained that the English curriculum, Expeditionary Learning, doesn’t allow them to tailor content for their students. The new math curriculum, Eureka Math, had a bumpy rollout. Some materials arrived late, teacher training was behind schedule, and for some, the program didn’t start until 12 weeks into the school year.

Williams believes negotiations may start in January and is hopeful that a new three-year contract will be in place by April. Meanwhile, he plans regular updates with teachers to allow them to have input.

Union leaders are waiting for the official certified vote numbers that are expected to be released Tuesday. Williams said that almost 60 percent of the teachers supported his group. That means they’ll have more seats at the negotiating table.

But once negotiations begin, Rucker said, “the two associations will work as one team to advocate and collaborate on behalf of teachers.”

Transparency Tracker

‘No secret agreements’: Newarkers demand details of district-charter enrollment deal

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

This week, the Newark school board approved a lengthy legal agreement spelling out the details of the enrollment system that thousands of Newark families will use to apply to schools for the coming year.

Didn’t hear about it? You’re not alone.

The board OK’d the deal at a hastily arranged meeting Monday that few people in the community knew about or attended. State rules require that any changes to the district’s enrollment system “be publicly and transparently articulated before adoption.”

It’s unclear whether any changes were made — which would have triggered the transparency rules — because the board did not publicly discuss the details of the deal before voting, and the district has not made the agreement public.

Deborah Smith-Gregory, the president of the Newark NAACP, who attended Monday’s meeting, said she was disappointed that the board did not reveal any specifics about this year’s enrollment deal. Now that the district is back under local control after decades of state rule, she said, the elected board must commit to greater transparency.

“They have to do things differently,” she said. “They have to keep in mind that they’re a public entity — and they’re accountable to the community.”

The agreement describes in minute detail the inner workings of the five-year-old enrollment system, called Newark Enrolls, which allows families apply to most district and charter schools using a single application. The district and charter schools that opt into the system must sign the agreement each year.

The Newark Board of Education ratified the deal during a special meeting Monday — when schools and the district’s central office were closed. The meeting was scheduled to accommodate a charter school whose own board planned to vote on the agreement Tuesday. The timeline is tight because the citywide period for applying to schools begins Dec. 3.

The public agenda for Monday’s meeting, which mostly consisted of the board and Superintendent Roger León talking behind closed doors, did not mention the agreement. Just four community members were present for the public portion, when León and a couple board members made general comments about the controversial system, which critics contend funnels students into charter schools.

Then, without any public discussion of the agreement’s details — including a proposed change that León and charter leaders had debated in private — a majority of board members voted to approve it.

John Abeigon, president of the Newark Teachers Union and a fierce critic of charter schools, said both the district and its charter-school partners should disclose the terms of the deal.

“There should be absolute transparency,” he said.

The district’s current leadership is not the first to keep details of the enrollment system under wraps.

León, who began July 1, inherited it from his state-appointed predecessors, Cami Anderson and Christopher Cerf. One of only a handful of systems nationwide that combine district and charter admissions, proponents say it eases the enrollment process for families while helping to more evenly spread high-needs students across schools. Critics say it was designed to steer students and resources into the charter sector.

The system is dictated by the annual agreement between Newark Public Schools and participating charter schools. Apart from the news website NJ Spotlight, which published the agreement when it was first announced in 2013, it does not appear to have been released to the public since then — even as it has doubled in length, filling 20 pages last year.

In 2015, after Anderson touted the agreement at a state legislative hearing, saying it had created “greater equity and consistency” in admissions, several lawmakers asked to see it.

“No one seems to know about it,” said Assemblyman Ralph Caputo during the hearing.

After Anderson resigned, Cerf’s administration continued to renew the agreement each year. In an email, Cerf, who stepped down in February, said, “The document was always publicly available and was frequently discussed publicly.”

But community activists who have long scrutinized the enrollment system said they do not recall the district ever publicizing the agreement.

“I do not remember ever seeing this document, ever seeing it published anywhere, ever seeing it on the [district] website where we could find it, ever even discussing it in a thorough manner,” said Wilhelmina Holder, a longtime activist and critic of the enrollment system. She added that the new administration and school board should release the latest document to the public.

“No secret agreements,” she said. “You voted on it. If you’re discussing it, then why can’t we have a say in it?”

Absent the agreement, families have other ways to learn about Newark Enrolls. The district publishes a thick enrollment guidebook each year with information about every school, and hosts an annual admissions fair. It also maintains an enrollment website featuring a family-friendly video that illustrates how the system works.

But the agreement offers a uniquely detailed look under the system’s hood — and describes features that are not widely known, according to a copy of last year’s agreement that Chalkbeat obtained.

For instance, it alludes to a “third party” that programs the algorithm used to match students with schools based on the terms set forth in the agreement. The district plays “no active role” in the actual assignment of students to schools, the document says.

It also stipulates that the district must send charter schools as many students as they request. In return, charters must admit all students assigned to them — even if that pushes their enrollment above the limit set by the state, according to the 2017 document.

That practice of assigning schools more students than they currently have space for, called “overmatching,” is done to offset attrition that happens as some families inevitably leave the district before the next school year starts. It became a sticking point in recent closed-door negotiations between León’s administration and charter schools.

León wanted to end the practice, despite charter leaders who said it was critical for filling their seats. People in the charter sector said the final agreement still allows overmatching, though León told Chalkbeat that he believes the practice is unnecessary because charters can pull students from their waitlists to replace those who leave.

In an interview after Monday’s vote, León said no major changes were made to this year’s agreement.

Board chair Josephine Garcia, who made no public comments about enrollment during Monday’s meeting, declined to be interviewed immediately afterwards and did not respond to emails later in the week. However, she was overheard saying after the meeting that the district would eventually “rebrand” the enrollment system.

Chalkbeat contacted the district several times after the meeting to request a copy of the agreement. On Thursday evening, an official provided a public-records request form, which Chalkbeat submitted.

As of Friday, the district had not released the document.