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In final hours of teacher eval talks, what they might be thinking

During the last year, Mayor Bloomberg repeatedly accused the United Federation of Teachers of trying to prevent a new teacher evaluation system from being adopted. At the same time, the union repeatedly questioned whether Bloomberg himself was committed to making a deal on evaluations.

Who was right? As the union and city prepare to emerge from the negotiating room for the last time, we don’t yet know. But what is clear is that each side has strong reasons to make a deal — and strong reasons to let negotiations fail. And our analysis of the incentives at play at the bargaining table suggests that Department of Education officials and the mayor might not always see eye to eye on evaluations.

Here’s why it would make sense for the UFT to leave a deal on the table:

  • Fears about some elements of the evaluation system, particularly its use of volatile “value-added” measures, and perceived abuses by the Department of Education have conspired to turn many teachers off of new evaluations. Some of them are so distressed that they are questioning whether the union’s leadership is making choices that are good for teachers. Union leaders rejected a call by a minority party for a resolution that would require all members to ratify any deal that the UFT struck, but especially with his own election set for just a few months from now, UFT President Michael Mulgrew knows he has to recognize the criticism. His refusal to negotiate until the city hashed out an implementation plan and the union’s call for a mediator this week could appease angry union members, but declining to make a deal at all might satisfy them more.
  • Bloomberg has made no bones about wanting to sign off on an evaluation system that allows weak teachers to be fired. Negotiators working for a mayor with a softer attitude about teachers might push for a different evaluation system. The city is likely to get such a mayor in just a year — and the union’s position would be even stronger if the candidate it endorses occupies City Hall when a new evaluation system is adopted.
  • Another reason to wait until 2014 is that it makes sense for the union to negotiate a deal in conjunction with a new contract, the first time that new evaluations legally must be adopted. A broader set of negotiations could allow the union to extract concessions from the city in exchange for linking test scores to teacher ratings and putting more pressure on teachers to improve. The city said the union has already asked for a limit on school closures and for “economic credits” toward a new contract, but it has argued that those requests are illegal outside of contract negotiations.
  • No one really knows what will happen under a new evaluation system. More teachers could get low ratings, leading to poor public opinion of teachers and forcing the union into defending teachers who score low under a system the union itself agreed to.

On the other hand, the union has many, many reasons to make a deal:

  • The current evaluation system is also completely arbitrary: Principals can issue unsatisfactory ratings for a wide array of reasons and show only minimal evidence. A new system would be more clear, understandable, and transparent — making retaliatory ratings less likely and inappropriately low ratings easier to contest.
  • And uncertainty about the impact of a new evaluation system could cut the other way, too: An untested system — particularly one that the union helped create — could result in good reviews for more teachers.
  • The union knows that most teachers want to be good at their jobs. The current evaluation system does not include any mechanism for helping teachers get better, and principals aren’t held accountable for providing support. Those features have to be built into the new system.
  • Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that the union also understands that teachers would be better off, on balance, if some weak teachers are ushered out of the classroom. The union would have more cover for making unpopular concessions if it strikes a deal under Bloomberg than under a future mayor who might be more union-friendly.
  • It’s also possible, though not probable, that the next mayor could be even less willing to play nice with the union. Now that Joe Lhota is on the scene, the prospect of a Democratic mayor in 2014 is less certain than it was a month ago. Even though insiders and polls both see him as a long shot, Lhota could push rhetoric in the race for City Hall rightward and harden other candidates’ lines toward the union.
  • Gov. Andrew Cuomo really, really wants every school district to adopt new teacher evaluations by the deadline he set — and almost all have. Blocking an evaluation deal in New York City would anger Cuomo just in time for the start of the legislative and budget season, when the union has its own agenda it would like to see supported.
  • If the governor makes good on his threat to withhold school aid from districts without evaluation systems, the city could face an education budget gap larger than in almost any other year since the economic recession started. Last-minute budget deals have averted teacher layoffs in the past, but there’s no assurance that the same thing would happen this time, particularly if there’s a perception that the shortfall is the teachers’ fault.
  • And attacks on the union until now would pale in comparison to those sure to be unleashed if teacher evaluation negotiations fail again.
  • Finally, union officials are shrewd, and they know that officials at the Department of Education have an incentive to reach a deal now, while Bloomberg is still in office. More on this in the next section.

The Department of Education? Isn’t that the same as City Hall?

Yes and no. While Bloomberg controls the Department of Education right now, it will continue to exist after he leaves office. That gives officials there a slightly different set of incentives around teacher evaluation talks.

  • When a new mayor takes over the department a year from now, his or her first act is likely to be installing new leadership to push department policy in a new direction. The most obvious reason for department officials to want an agreement is that this might well be their last chance to influence teacher evaluations in the city.
  • But reaching a deal could also prove a lifeline for remaining in the position. As the end of Bloomberg’s term nears, officials in the department are expected to depart for other districts or the private sector. But all signs suggest that some near the top are angling to stay on, throwing themselves into less confrontational policies that are unlikely to yield benefits during the rest of Bloomberg’s term and could even cause a short-term dip in test scores and graduation rates. If the officials show that they can play well with the UFT, a new mayor might be willing to keep them around and let them see the policy changes through.
  • And officials who want to stay on have an added incentive to get a deal done. If a system isn’t adopted now, it will be under a new administration when the city and union negotiate a new contract. A system crafted under those circumstances, again, is likely to be softer than one agreed upon now, so if the officials really want the teacher evaluations they’ve been touting, this is their chance to get them.

Department officials have little incentive to let talks fall through:

  • If there’s any reason for them to walk away without an agreement, it’s that the training, supervision, and development that various components of an evaluation system would take are daunting. The city has not sent principals to state trainings on assessing teachers in non-tested grades and subjects the way other districts have, for example. But the department has invested time, energy, and money in preparing for other elements of new evaluations, and it’s hard to imagine officials being happy to shut or slow that all down.

Bloomberg might not be as bothered by a failure at the bargaining table:

  • The mayor has never kept his disdain for the state’s teacher evaluation law a secret. He sought a more aggressive strategy last year because he said the new law would not lead to more teachers getting fired, and he redoubled that strategy even after he agreed to an appeals process for new evaluations, seemingly resolving a major point of contention between the city and union. He has said repeatedly — even today, just before the state’s deadline —that he will not sign off on an evaluation plan that is not “really evaluate,” or show that some teachers are low-performing.
  • No matter how stringent the agreed-upon evaluation system is, no teacher will be fired because of it under Bloomberg’s watch. Knowing that could make him less interested in being part of putting a new teacher evaluation system on the books.
  • There’s also one big upside to letting a deal fall through: The mayor would get to renew his campaign against the UFT, which he has sometimes seemed to take pleasure in characterizing as a special interest group that does not put children first.
  • And in the last month, for tragic reasons, it has become likely that gun control will be Bloomberg’s enduring legacy. That makes an education win less crucial in his last year as mayor.

But the reasons for Bloomberg to make a deal are powerful, too:

  • After campaigning to be an education mayor, Bloomberg’s education legacy is still not settled, and the specter of lower test scores this spring poses a new threat. Nailing down a new teacher evaluation system would be a coup and allow Bloomberg to leave office with the city firmly at the vanguard of education reform.
  • It could also help him after he leaves office in other ways. Making a deal could put Bloomberg in favor with Cuomo, a potentially significant thing since they both have ambitions beyond their current office.
  • And finally, $250 million is a heck of a lot of money. Bloomberg might be on his way out, but he still has to balance one more budget. Filling an enormous gap would be logistically difficult and politically unpleasant, because some services would almost certainly be cut in the process.

So what’s the bottom line? The union has a lot of reasons to make a deal, but the costs could be high. And Bloomberg has more reasons to let the deadline pass, but the incentives he does have are mighty. We’ll know in the next 24 hours which ideas will win out.

churning not learning

New research shows just how much losing a teacher midyear hurts students

PHOTO: Cyrus McCrimmon/Denver Post
Brown International Academy teacher Kate Tynan-Ridgeway works with a student.

The consequences of teacher churn were apparent to Esperanza Vazquez, a mother of two from New York City.

I had an experience with my son where he had a new teacher every week in math,” she told Chalkbeat recently. “That doesn’t help students.”

Now new research backs up Vazquez’s experience, documenting for perhaps the first time the steep consequences for students after teachers leave a classroom in middle of the school year.

The finding comes in a trio of new studies focusing on North Carolina. Together, they suggest that ill effects of teacher turnover identified in previous research may be driven largely by midyear departures; that those consequences extend even to students in the same grade whose teachers stay on; and that midyear turnover may be more common than previously thought, especially in schools serving more students of color and those from low-income families.

“While it is possible for turnover to be beneficial for school systems, an extensive body of research points to the ways that teacher turnover disrupts … the continuity of a child’s learning experiences, particularly in underserved schools,” write researchers Gary Henry of Vanderbilt and Christopher Redding of the University of Florida in one of the papers.

Henry and Redding’s three studies — two of which were published earlier this year in peer-reviewed journals, with the other is set to be published in coming weeks — home in on the rarely studied phenomenon of midyear teacher turnover.

Using recent data from North Carolina, two of the papers focus on the prevalence of the phenomenon. Annually 4.6 percent of teachers in the state departed midyear; among teachers in their first three years the rate jumped to 6 percent. The number was higher in schools deemed “underserved,” meaning they had more students of color and students in poverty, as well as lower test scores and fewer resources. Turnover was lower when principals were rated as more effective by teachers. It was higher among teachers who were less effective, those eligible for retirement benefits, and high school and middle school teachers.

Roughly a quarter of all teacher turnover in the state occurred in the middle of the school year.

The third study uses data from 2008 to 2014 to examine the consequences of midyear teacher attrition on elementary and middle school students’ test scores. In both math and English, students saw drops in learning as a result, controlling for a number of other factors. The decline in math scores was nearly as large as the difference in performance between an average teacher and an excellent one — a difference that has motivated dramatic policy changes in many places.

Impacts were smaller in English and in middle school, but also consistently negative. Students in the same grade level, but not class, of teachers were also harmed, but again less so.

The negative results are consistent with research on the effects of hiring teachers after the school year starts, in some ways a mirror image of the phenomenon.

The paper suggests three things that might explain the results: disruption in classrooms where teachers leave, instability in a school where teachers are exiting midyear, and less effective teachers replacing those who depart. The study suggests the first two theories seem to be clearly at play, since it was relatively ineffective teachers who were particularly likely to leave.

“When multiple teachers exit a school during the year, it can become increasingly difficult for teachers to maintain a work environment with a high degree of collaboration,” the researchers say.

The study did reach some surprising results: Students of color, students in poverty and students with lower prior test scores, generally did not suffer more as a result of midyear turnover; if anything, they suffered less in English. It may be that their schools were better prepared for midyear exits since they happen more frequently; it could also be that those students were simply “not well served by the teacher who departed,” the paper hypothesizes.

Another counterintuitive result: Unlike midyear turnover, departure of teachers at the end of the school year did not lead to declines in student learning, and even led to small benefits in some cases. That’s surprising in light of past research — and conventional wisdom — suggesting that teacher turnover harms students. (Prior studies generally have not distinguished between midyear and end-of-year turnover.)

The latest research does come with a key caveat: Test scores might be lower in classes where teachers leave midyear for other reasons — perhaps a particularly disruptive class causes both a teacher to quit and students to learn less in school. The authors attempt to account for this by comparing how the same student did in years when their teacher does not turnover.

The studies also look at just a single state, so it’s unclear whether the results would look similar elsewhere.

The researchers point out that some churn is inevitable, even healthy. “Many of the personal factors driving within-year teacher turnover are unlikely to be amenable to change: a teacher takes time in the middle of the school year for parental leave; a veteran teacher retires midyear; a beginning teacher leaves a few months into the school year after realizing teaching is a poor occupational fit,” write Henry and Redding. Indeed, female teachers between the ages of 26 and 40 years old were particularly likely to exit mid-year, indicating that parental leave plays a significant role in the results.

But the studies collectively conclude that students could benefit from combating midyear departures — although the best way to do that is not clear.

In Detroit, some schools have adopted a crude — and some would say cruel — approach, imposing financial penalties for teachers who left midyear. Studies focusing on turnover in general have found that higher pay, better working conditions, and more effective principals can make a difference.

At the same, time Henry and Redding argue that policymakers ought to make extensive efforts to avoid midyear teacher turnover when possible. For instance, they point out that information from teacher evaluation systems, including “value-added” test scores measures, aren’t always available until after the school year has begun. Finalizing those results before classes are underway could decrease midyear exits, they speculate.

“All measures of teachers’ performance, including their value-added scores, should be provided during the summer to allow teachers and administrators to attend to employment decisions without disrupting classes that have already begun,” the researchers conclude.

First Person

Staying ‘neutral’ after the Jason Van Dyke verdict was a tough ask of Chicago teachers like me

PHOTO: Joshua Lott/Getty Images
A woman holds a sign outside the courthouse after a murder verdict is handed down in the trial of Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke.

At the beginning of every school year, I introduce myself to my students with a very personal presentation.

I show them pictures of where I grew up, my family, and the students I’ve taught at two other Chicago schools. I’m a human, not a robot, I tell them, earning a couple of laughs with my corny robot impression. At the end, I show them a signed copy of John Lewis’s “March,” the graphic novel that illustrates his experiences as a Civil Rights Movement leader. I talk about seeing Lewis speak at a Chicago Public Schools event years ago, and how he inspired me to speak up when I saw injustice.

In return, I ask my students to introduce themselves. They bring pictures of their lives, families, friends, and travels, and they talk about who they want to become. These presentations help to turn the library and writing center I oversee into a community.

The connection I have with my students isn’t out of the ordinary in Chicago. I’d be hard-pressed to find a teacher in the three very different high schools I’ve taught in and in schools all across the city who didn’t have strong ties to the students they teach. That’s why it felt so problematic that my district, CPS, asked its teachers to remain “neutral” about the Van Dyke case — the trial of a Chicago police officer, Jason Van Dyke, who was convicted of second-degree murder for shooting a Chicago teenager.

Two days before the Van Dyke decision came down, amid warnings that riots could follow a “not guilty” decision, the district sent an email advising teachers about how to handle discussions surrounding the verdict. I applaud the email for its initial statement: “It is critical that educators are prepared and provide space for students should they and their students choose to engage in this critical and timely public issue,” it read.

But in the next paragraph, the district said that teachers “must remain neutral.” The email cited a 2007 Indiana circuit court decision, Mayer v. Monroe County Schools, that ruled that “teachers do not have the constitutional right to introduce their own political views to students, ‘but must stick to the prescribed curriculum.’”

That left me with several questions. First, is an opinion on the Van Dyke trial truly a political view? Many of my students, now juniors and seniors, were just becoming teenagers when they watched the dash-cam video where 16 bullets riddle Laquan McDonald’s 17-year-old body.  The opinion CPS is concerned about me sharing, presumably, is that Van Dyke should face consequences.

I have taught many students like Laquan McDonald, students who have grown up in foster homes, who have failed out of the very school I taught in, whose city literally left them behind. When I saw Laquan McDonald in that video, I saw their faces grimacing on the ground, their bodies writhing. To me, his death, the subsequent cover-up, and the verdict, is personal, not political.

Asking me to “stay neutral” as a white teacher in a classroom full of African-American and Latinx students is asking me to send a message that I am indifferent to their experiences and to have them see me as a stereotype of whiteness. I am on their side. I don’t think there is anything wrong with having them know this. But the message I received implies that my district does.

In the court case evidently used as proof for why staying neutral is mandatory, students asked their teacher whether she ever protested. She told them that she honked her car horn at demonstrators calling for peace at an anti-Iraq War demonstration. The teacher believed she was fired because of this discussion. The court ruled in favor of the school district, stating, “the First Amendment does not entitle primary and secondary teachers, when conducting the education of captive audiences, to cover topics, or advocate viewpoints, that depart from the curriculum adopted by the school system.”

How this applies in my situation is confusing, since every year in my career I have either had the freedom to construct or co-construct curriculum for my classroom. It also reminds me of what Holocaust survivor and award-winning author Elie Wiesel said in his speech when winning the Nobel Peace Prize: “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere.”

Asking teachers to remain neutral when discussing Laquan McDonald teaches my students something I don’t want them ever to learn: that my connections with them, and my pursuit of justice for our shared community, are not my highest priority.

Gina Caneva is a 15-year Chicago Public Schools veteran who works as a teacher-librarian and Writing Center Director at Lindblom Math and Science Academy.  She is a National Board Certified teacher and Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellowship alum. Follow her on Twitter @GinaCaneva.