2011-2012 progress report (part 1)

On teacher quality, city has so far fulfilled few of last year's vows

Chancellor Dennis Walcott made several policy promises during a May 2012 speech to ABNY.

In the 2011-2012 school year, Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Dennis Walcott vowed to push forward an array of policy changes — from the way teachers are hired and fired to the ways schools prepare boys of color for graduation and college. So how did they do?

We’ve rounded up all of last year’s policy promises and checked up on the city’s progress on each. Today, we’re looking at proposals to bolster teacher quality, a longtime pet issue for the Bloomberg administration.

We found that the city has fulfilled one promise completely, to create a new Teaching Fellows program just for middle schools, but several others fell off the radar or were pushed to the margins by ongoing negotiations over new teacher evaluations. Each promise is in bold, followed by an explanation of how far the city has come toward meeting it.

In future posts, we’ll tally the city’s progress on creating new schools, engaging parents, helping high-needs students, and improving middle schools.

  • The city will adopt new teacher evaluations that adhere to the state’s new evaluation law.  (When: Many times)
    Anyone who hasn’t been living under a rock should know the answer: not yet, despite one close call and a helping hand from Gov. Andrew Cuomo. City and union officials are meeting regularly to negotiate an evaluation deal, this time in hopes of meeting the state’s January deadline. They say they are “optimistic” and “hopeful” they’ll reach an agreement in time to qualify for state funds.
  • Teachers with top ratings on teacher evaluations will get a $20,000 pay raise. (Bloomberg’s State of the City speech, January 2012)
    The city still has not adopted new teacher evaluations, so the proposal is moot. But the teachers union, a longtime opponent of individual merit pay, quickly passed a resolution opposing it, so its future prospects are not bright.
  • The city will repay up to $25,000 in student loans of teachers who are in the top of their college classes. (State of the City)
    With student debt at an all-time high, the teachers union has said it’s interested in this idea, but city-union relations have been so bad that it hasn’t advanced. Even so, the city recruited new teachers this year with the possibility of loan forgiveness. “More details on this opportunity will be available shortly,” the city’s recruitment website has read for months.
  • The city will give a retirement incentive to teachers who have spent more than a year without a permanent position. (Walcott’s ABNY speech, May 2012)
    The union is on board with the proposal — and said it had suggested the idea for dealing with the costly Absent Teacher Reserve years ago, when city officials favored a more punitive approach. Negotiations are underway but so far have yet to yield a buyout option. Union officials say one could still come this fall, and some members of the reserve pool are factoring the possibility into their job hunts.
  • The city will block elementary school students from being taught for two consecutive years by a classroom teacher rated “unsatisfactory.” (ABNY)
    Walcott said the policy would be a fallback option in case teacher evaluations were not in place this fall. They aren’t, so this policy should have kicked into effect this month. But asked shortly after school began whether the department had followed through with the plan, Walcott said a system is in the works to help schools execute it, but he could give no specifics. The change would not affect many students or teachers: The only students who would have been barred from being placed in a U-rated teachers’ class this year were the 4,000 students who had any of the 217 U-rated teachers last year.
  • The city will move to fire all teachers who get two consecutive unsatisfactory ratings. (ABNY)
    The city has always had the right to remove teachers with double U-ratings but has rarely used it, union officials said. The shift would apply to few people, although the number of teachers with two consecutive U-ratings nearly grew slightly between 2011 and 2012. The new policy would only apply to the teachers who were U-rated  for incompetence, as opposed to poor attendance or other factors. Some of them have already left the system, but many remain. UPDATED: Officials said the department plans to start the process of removing 250 teachers from the classroom over the coming school year, though not all will be removed at once.
  • A “new class” of Teaching Fellows will get training to work only in middle schools. (Walcott’s middle school speech, September 2011)
    Of the 900 new Teaching Fellows the city selected this year, 100 were picked to join a brand-new “apprenticeship” program just for middle schools, the Bronx Middle School Classroom Apprenticeship. From March until May, they worked in groups alongside existing teachers in Bronx middle schools while getting special training on how to tackle the unique issues that middle schools face.

study says...

In new study of school-district effectiveness, New York City falls just below national average

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder

Each year, state test scores offer a snapshot of how much New York City students have learned. But they say little about how the city’s schools stack up against other districts’, in part because the raw scores largely reflect student demographics — wealthier districts tend to have higher scores.

Now, a major new analysis of several years of test scores from across the country provides a better way to judge and compare districts: Instead of looking at a single moment, it shows how well school systems help students grow their skills over time.

Based on that measure, New York City falls just below the middle of the pack: In the five years from third to eighth grade, its students collectively make about 4.6 grade levels of progress — landing New York in the 35th percentile of districts nationally. By contrast, Chicago students advance the equivalent of six grades within those five years, giving the district one of the highest growth rates in the country.

Still, New York is slightly above average when compared to other large districts with many students from low-income families. And it trounces the state’s other urban districts — including Yonkers, Syracuse, and Rochester, which have some of the nation’s worst growth rates.

“Among big poor districts, it’s better than average,” said Sean Reardon, the Stanford University researcher who conducted the analysis. “In the grand scheme, it’s pretty middle-of-the-road.”

Reardon’s analysis — based on 300 million standardized tests taken by students across more than 11,000 school districts from 2009 to 2015 — is the largest of its kind. It looks both at student proficiency on third-grade math and English tests (that is, what share of students earned a score deemed “proficient”) and student growth between grades three and eight (how much their scores improved over time). Reardon’s research was supported by several foundations, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which also provides funding to Chalkbeat.

The analysis controls for the differences in tests across states and over time by converting scores into a common scale that measures growth in grade levels, making it possible to compare nearly every district in the country to one another. (It excludes New York’s scores from 2015 and some grades in 2014 because of the high number of students who boycotted the state tests those years. However, each district’s five-year growth rates is actually an average of its year-over-year growth, so Reardon was still able to calculate a five-year rate for New York.)

Experts generally prefer growth rates over proficiency as a way to evaluate school quality, since growth measures the progress students make in school rather than where they started. Even if a district enrolls many poor students who are less likely than their affluent peers to hit the “proficiency” benchmark, its schools can still help them advance at a rate comparable to or even better than schools filled with wealthier students.

“Growth is way better than achievement,” said Douglas Ready, an education and public policy professor at Teachers College, Columbia University. “We know low-income students start school behind — the question is what do school districts do with the kids they get?”

New York’s growth rate falls just below the national median of 4.8 grade levels. Among big districts, its students made gains similar to those in Dallas and Detroit, and greater than students in Los Angeles, Miami, and Indianapolis.

By contrast, Rochester ranks rock-bottom nationally. In that high-poverty district, where the median income among families with children in the public schools is $26,000, students advanced about three grade levels in five years. Yonkers’ $48,000 median income is much higher, yet its schools barely do better, with students moving just 3.5 grade levels. (Among New York City public-school parents, the median income is $42,000.)

Reardon emphasized that test scores provide an important but incomplete picture of student learning, and growth rates are an imperfect measure of school effectiveness since factors outside of the classroom also influence how much students learn over time.

Still, he argued that officials who rate schools and parents who choose them would do much better to look at a school’s growth rate over its average test scores. In fact, he said, a focus on growth rates could theoretically drive down socioeconomic segregation since higher-income parents might be willing to enroll their children in schools with many poor students and low overall test scores if the schools nonetheless had outstanding growth rates.

Ready, however, pointed out that even when schools and districts are highly effective at helping students make progress, they are still unlikely to close the yawning achievement gaps that separate most poor and wealthier students from the time they start school. Reardon came to the same conclusion.

“The large gaps in students’ academic skills between low- and higher-[socioeconomic status] districts are so large,” Reardon’s analysis says, “that even the highest growth rate in the country would be insufficient to close even half of the gap by eighth grade.”

In response to the analysis, New York City education department officials pointed to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a standardized test taken by a representative sample of students in each state and certain districts, including New York. Only one other district among the country’s 10 largest cities performed better in reading and math than New York, which had the highest share of low-income students reach the proficient level on the reading test.

“Our schools are the strongest they’ve ever been, with record-high graduation and college enrollment rates, and improving state test scores,” said the district’s spokesman, Will Mantell.

boosting literacy

A new Memphis nonprofit sees training teachers in dyslexia therapy as key to closing literacy gap for all

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Memphis Delta Preparatory charter school is one of four schools working with ALLMemphis to develop stronger literacy curriculum.

A new nonprofit organization says educators must be better trained to recognize and teach students with learning disorders like dyslexia if they are to raise reading proficiency throughout Memphis.

Michelle Gaines and Krista L. Johnson founded ALLMemphis in June to boost overall reading comprehension and fill a gap they see in local classrooms — the lack of training for teachers in approaches proven to help students with dyslexia, a disorder from which many Memphis students are likely struggling.

The pair now work, for free, with about 500 students in four Memphis elementary charter schools and have trained 29 educators.

About one in five children in Tennessee are dyslexic, but until last year, early screenings weren’t required in local schools. Students with dyslexia have difficulty recognizing words and sounds and spelling, but can learn how to read with a specific multisensory approach that combines touch, sound and sight.

But even when the disorder is caught early, schools often don’t have the proper training or tools to address it. Gaines and Johnson say their organization can change that and even benefit students who aren’t dyslexic.

Specifically, ALLMemphis trains teachers in the Orton-Gillingham multi-sensory approach to reading that is common in dyslexia therapy but is rarely a part of public school curriculum in Tennessee.

“This approach is the gold standard when it comes to dyslexia therapy, but we believe it can benefit children’s reading ability regardless whether or not they are dyslexic,” Johnson said. “Our mission is to impact the third-grade reading crisis, and we believe this can do it.” 

PHOTO: Darius Williams
Krista L. Johnson

The latest data shows that two out of three Memphis third-graders aren’t reading on grade level. Shelby County Schools officials have set a goal of to have 90 percent of students reading on grade level by 2025.

ALLMemphis trained teachers and coaches in Orton-Gillingham over the summer and works with the educators throughout the year. Gaines and Johnson also work with individual students in the classrooms. The organization will be tracking student data throughout the year, and the initial results are encouraging.

While working for the Bodine School in Memphis, a private school that serves students with dyslexia, Gaines and Johnson piloted their teacher-training model at KIPP Memphis Collegiate Elementary for the last two years. They left Bodine to form ALLMemphis in June and brought on Megan Weinstein shortly after to oversee data evaluation.

Johnson said ALLMemphis will work with their current four schools for the next three years, with hopes of adding new schools every year. Eventually, the plan is to charge schools a minimal fee.

Gaines said the initial data after two years showed that KIPP students who worked with ALLMemphis showed more growth overall on MAP score data than their peers, especially in first and fourth grades.

PHOTO: Darius Williams
Michelle Gaines

“What’s so exciting is that the data shows this can work in an urban, whole-class setting,” Gaines said. “We know that as we grow, we want to continue offering supports that are relevant to teachers. We write and give teachers lesson plans and we work with coaches on assessments. The point is for our program to be an asset, not a burden.”

Catherine Norman, a teacher at KIPP Collegiate, said the training changed the way she thought about literacy and armed her with strong lesson plans, too.

“What I appreciate most about Orton-Gillingham is that it incorporates lots of different learning styles in one lesson,” Norman said. “The training is really expensive when a teacher does it on their own, but the fact they (ALLMemphis) have trained every K-3 teacher at our school is crazy in a good way. It makes me really excited because it provides a lot of opportunities that our kids wouldn’t get otherwise.”  

Schools currently working with ALLMemphis are KIPP Memphis Academy Elementary, Collegiate Elementary and Preparatory Elementary and Memphis Delta Preparatory.