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.”

after douglas

Betsy DeVos avoids questions on discrimination as school safety debates reach Congress

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos prepares to testify at a House Appropriations Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies Subcommittee hearing in Rayburn Building on the department's FY2019 budget on March 20, 2018. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos fielded some hostile questions on school safety and racial discrimination as she defended the Trump administration’s budget proposal in a House committee hearing on Tuesday.

The tone for the hearing was set early by ranking Democrat Rep. Rosa DeLauro, who called aspects DeVos’s prepared remarks “misleading and cynical” before the secretary had spoken. Even the Republican subcommittee chair, Rep. Tom Cole, expressed some skepticism, saying he was “concerned about the administration continuing to request cuts that Congress has rejected.”

During nearly two hours of questioning, DeVos stuck to familiar talking points and largely side-stepped the tougher queries from Democrats, even as many interrupted her.

For instance, when Rep. Barbara Lee, a Democrat from Texas, complained about proposed spending cuts and asked, “Isn’t it your job to ensure that schools aren’t executing harsher punishments for the same behavior because [students] are black or brown?” DeVos responded by saying that students of color would benefit from expanded school choice programs.

Lee responded: “You still haven’t talked about the issue in public schools as it relates to black and brown students and the high disparity rates as it relates to suspensions and expulsions. Is race a factor? Do you believe that or not?” (Recent research in Louisiana found that black students receive longer suspensions than white students involved in the same fights, though the difference was very small.)

Again, DeVos did not reply directly.

“There is no place for discrimination and there is no tolerance for discrimination, and we will continue to uphold that,” she said. “I’m very proud of the record of the Office of Civil Rights in continuing to address issues that arise to that level.”

Lee responded that the administration has proposed cuts to that office; DeVos said the reduction was modest — less than 1 percent — and that “they are able to do more with less.”

The specific policy decision that DeVos faces is the future of a directive issued in 2014 by the Obama administration designed to push school districts to reduce racial disparities in suspensions and expulsions. Conservatives and some teachers have pushed DeVos to rescind this guidance, while civil rights groups have said it is crucial for ensuring black and Hispanic students are not discriminated against.

That was a focus of another hearing in the House on Tuesday precipitated by the shooting last month at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican, falsely claimed in his opening statement that Broward County Public Schools rewrote its discipline policy based on the federal guidance — an idea that has percolated through conservative media for weeks and been promoted by other lawmakers, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Utah Sen. Mike Lee. In fact, the Broward County rules were put into place in 2013, before the Obama administration guidance was issued.

The Manhattan Institute’s Max Eden, a leading critic of Obama administration’s guidance, acknowledged in his own testimony that the Broward policy predated these rules. But he suggested that policies like Broward’s and the Obama administration’s guidance have made schools less safe.

“Faced with pressure to get the numbers down, the easiest path is to simply not address, or to not record, troubling, even violent, behavior,” he said.

Kristen Harper, a director with research group Child Trends and a former Obama administration official, disagreed. “To put it simply, neither the purpose nor the letter of the federal school discipline guidance restrict the authority of school personnel to remove a child who is threatening student safety,” she said.

There is little, if any, specific evidence linking Broward County’s policies to how Stoneman Douglas shooter Nicholas Cruz was dealt with. There’s also limited evidence about whether reducing suspensions makes schools less safe.

Eden pointed to a study in Philadelphia showing that the city’s ban on suspensions coincided with a drop in test scores and attendance in some schools. But those results are difficult to interpret because the prohibition was not fully implemented in many schools. He also cited surveys of teachers expressing concerns about safety in the classroom including in Oklahoma CityFresno, California; and Buffalo, New York.

On the other hand, a recent study found that after Chicago modestly reduced suspensions for the most severe behaviors, student test scores and attendance jumped without any decline in how safe students felt.

DeVos is now set to consider the repeal of those policies on the Trump administration’s school safety committee, which she will chair.

On Tuesday, DeVos said the committee’s first meeting would take place “within the next few weeks.” Its members will be four Cabinet secretaries: DeVos herself, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, and Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen.

Town Hall

Hopson promises more flexibility as Memphis school leaders clear the air with teachers on new curriculum

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson answers questions from Memphis teachers at a town hall hosted by United Education Association of Shelby County on Monday.

The Shelby County Schools superintendent told passionate teachers at a union town hall Monday that they can expect more flexibility in how they teach the district’s newest curriculums.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the teachers who score highest on their evaluations should not feel like they need to read from a script to meet district requirements, although he didn’t have an immediate answer to how that would work.

Teacher frustrations were reaching a boiling point on district curriculums introduced this school year. Although the state requirements have changed several times over the last eight years, this change was particularly bothersome to teachers because they feel they are teaching to a “script.”

“Teachers have to be given the autonomy,” Hopson said. Although he cited the need for the district to have some control as teachers are learning, “at the end of the day, if you’re a level 4 or level 5 teacher, and you know your students, there needs to be some flexibility.”

Vocal teachers at the meeting cited check-ins from central office staff as evidence of the overreach.

“I keep hearing people say it’s supplemental but we have people coming into my room making sure we’re following it to a T,” said Amy Dixon a teacher at Snowden School. “We’re expected to follow it … like a script.”

The 90-minute meeting sponsored by the United Education Association of Shelby County drew a crowd of about 100 people to talk about curriculum and what Hopson called “a culture of fear” throughout the district of making a mistake.

Hopson said his team is still working on how to strike the right balance between creativity and continuity across nearly 150 district-run schools because so many students move during the school year.

He reassured despondent teachers he would come up with a plan to meet the needs of teachers and keep curriculums consistent. He said some continuity is needed across schools because many students move a lot during the school year.

“We know we got to make sure that I’m coming from Binghampton and going over to Whitehaven it’s got to be at least somewhat aligned,” he said. “I wish we were a stable, middle-class, not the poorest city in the country, then we wouldn’t have a lot of these issues.”

Ever since Tennessee’s largest district began phasing in parts of an English curriculum called Expeditionary Learning, teachers have complained of being micromanaged, instead of being able to tailor content for their students. The same goes for the new math curriculum Eureka Math.

The district’s changes are meant to line it up with the state. Tennessee’s new language arts and math standards replaced the Common Core curriculum, but in fact, did not deviate much when the final version was released last fall. This is the third change in eight years to state education requirements.

Still, Shelby County Schools cannot fully switch to the new curriculums until they are approved by the Tennessee State Board of Education. District leaders hope both curriculums, which received high marks from a national group that measures curriculum alignment to Common Core, will be added when textbooks are vetted for the 2019-20 school year.

Some urged educators to not think of the new curriculums as “scripts,” and admitted to poorly communicating the changes to teachers.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Pam Harris-Giles

“It’s not an expectation that we stand in front of our children and read off a piece of paper,” said Pam Harris-Giles, one of the district’s instructional support directors, who helps coordinate curriculum training and professional development.

Fredricka Vaughn, a teacher at Kirby High School, said that won’t be easy without clear communication of what flexibility will look like for high-performing teachers.

“If you don’t want us to use the word script, then bring back the autonomy,” she said.

Hopson stressed that the state’s largest school district could be a model for public education if everyone can work together to make the new curriculums work.

“It’s going to take work, hard work, everyone aligned from the top, everyone rowing in the same direction.”