calculus book

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.

First Person

I’m a principal who thinks personalized learning shouldn’t be a debate.

PHOTO: Lisa Epstein
Lisa Epstein, principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary, supports personalized learning

This is the first in what we hope will be a tradition of thoughtful opinion pieces—of all viewpoints—published by Chalkbeat Chicago. Have an idea? Send it to cburke@chalkbeat.org

As personalized learning takes hold throughout the city, Chicago teachers are wondering why a term so appealing has drawn so much criticism.

Until a few years ago, the school that I lead, Richard H. Lee Elementary on the Southwest Side, was on a path toward failing far too many of our students. We crafted curriculum and identified interventions to address gaps in achievement and the shifting sands of accountability. Our teachers were hardworking and committed. But our work seemed woefully disconnected from the demands we knew our students would face once they made the leap to postsecondary education.

We worried that our students were ill-equipped for today’s world of work and tomorrow’s jobs. Yet, we taught using the same model through which we’d been taught: textbook-based direct instruction.

How could we expect our learners to apply new knowledge to evolving facts, without creating opportunities for exploration? Where would they learn to chart their own paths, if we didn’t allow for agency at school? Why should our students engage with content that was disconnected from their experiences, values, and community?

We’ve read articles about a debate over personalized learning centered on Silicon Valley’s “takeover” of our schools. We hear that Trojan Horse technologies are coming for our jobs. But in our school, personalized learning has meant developing lessons informed by the cultural heritage and interests of our students. It has meant providing opportunities to pursue independent projects, and differentiating curriculum, instruction, and assessment to enable our students to progress at their own pace. It has reflected a paradigm shift that is bottom-up and teacher led.

And in a move that might have once seemed incomprehensible, it has meant getting rid of textbooks altogether. We’re not alone.

We are among hundreds of Chicago educators who would welcome critics to visit one of the 120 city schools implementing new models for learning – with and without technology. Because, as it turns out, Chicago is fast becoming a hub for personalized learning. And, it is no coincidence that our academic growth rates are also among the highest in the nation.

Before personalized learning, we designed our classrooms around the educator. Decisions were made based on how educators preferred to teach, where they wanted students to sit, and what subjects they wanted to cover.

Personalized learning looks different in every classroom, but the common thread is that we now make decisions looking at the student. We ask them how they learn best and what subjects strike their passions. We use small group instruction and individual coaching sessions to provide each student with lesson plans tailored to their needs and strengths. We’re reimagining how we use physical space, and the layout of our classrooms. We worry less about students talking with their friends; instead, we ask whether collaboration and socialization will help them learn.

Our emphasis on growth shows in the way students approach each school day. I have, for example, developed a mentorship relationship with one of our middle school students who, despite being diligent and bright, always ended the year with average grades. Last year, when she entered our personalized learning program for eighth grade, I saw her outlook change. She was determined to finish the year with all As.

More than that, she was determined to show that she could master anything her teachers put in front of her. She started coming to me with graded assignments. We’d talk about where she could improve and what skills she should focus on. She was pragmatic about challenges and so proud of her successes. At the end of the year she finished with straight As—and she still wanted more. She wanted to get A-pluses next year. Her outlook had changed from one of complacence to one oriented towards growth.

Rather than undermining the potential of great teachers, personalized learning is creating opportunities for collaboration as teachers band together to leverage team-teaching and capitalize on their strengths and passions. For some classrooms, this means offering units and lessons based on the interests and backgrounds of the class. For a couple of classrooms, it meant literally knocking down walls to combine classes from multiple grade-levels into a single room that offers each student maximum choice over how they learn. For every classroom, it means allowing students to work at their own pace, because teaching to the middle will always fail to push some while leaving others behind.

For many teachers, this change sounded daunting at first. For years, I watched one of my teachers – a woman who thrives off of structure and runs a tight ship – become less and less engaged in her profession. By the time we made the switch to personalized learning, I thought she might be done. We were both worried about whether she would be able to adjust to the flexibility of the new model. But she devised a way to maintain order in her classroom while still providing autonomy. She’s found that trusting students with the responsibility to be engaged and efficient is both more effective and far more rewarding than trying to force them into their roles. She now says that she would never go back to the traditional classroom structure, and has rediscovered her love for teaching. The difference is night and day.

The biggest change, though, is in the relationships between students and teachers. Gone is the traditional, authority-to-subordinate dynamic; instead, students see their teachers as mentors with whom they have a unique and individual connection, separate from the rest of the class. Students are actively involved in designing their learning plans, and are constantly challenged to articulate the skills they want to build and the steps that they must take to get there. They look up to their teachers, they respect their teachers, and, perhaps most important, they know their teachers respect them.

Along the way, we’ve found that students respond favorably when adults treat them as individuals. When teachers make important decisions for them, they see learning as a passive exercise. But, when you make it clear that their needs and opinions will shape each school day, they become invested in the outcome.

As our students take ownership over their learning, they earn autonomy, which means they know their teachers trust them. They see growth as the goal, so they no longer finish assignments just to be done; they finish assignments to get better. And it shows in their attendance rates – and test scores.

Lisa Epstein is the principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary School, a public school in Chicago’s West Lawn neighborhood serving 860 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Richard H. Lee Elementary School serves 860 students, not 760 students.

first steps

Superintendent León secures leadership team, navigates evolving relationship with board

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Superintendent Roger León at Tuesday's school board meeting.

As Newark’s new superintendent prepares for the coming academic year, the school board approved the final members of his leadership team Tuesday and began piecing together a roadmap to guide his work.

The board confirmed three assistant superintendents chosen by Superintendent Roger León: Jose Fuentes, the principal of First Avenue School in the North Ward; Sandra Rodriguez, a Hoboken principal who previously oversaw Newark Public Schools’ early childhood office; and Mario Santos, principal of East Side High School in the East Ward. They join three other assistant superintendents León selected for his team, along with a deputy superintendent, chief of staff, and several other officials.

The three assistant superintendents confirmed Tuesday had first come before the board in June, but at that time none of them secured enough votes to be approved. During last month’s meeting, the board assented to several of León’s leadership picks and to his decision to remove many people from the district’s central office, but it also blocked him from ousting several people.

This week, Board Chair Josephine Garcia declined to comment on the board’s reversal, and León did not respond to a request for comment.

What is clear is that the board and León are still navigating their relationship.

In February, the board regained local control of the district 22 years after the state seized control of the district due to poor performance and mismanagement. The return to local control put the board back in charge of setting district policy and hiring the superintendent, who previously answered only to the state. Still, the superintendent, not the board, is responsible for overseeing the district’s day-to-day operations.

During a board discussion Tuesday, Garcia hinted at that delicate balance of power.

“Now that we’re board members, we want to make sure that, of course, yes, we’re going to have input and implementation,” but that they don’t overstep their authority, she said.

Under state rules, the board is expected to develop district goals and policies, which the superintendent is responsible for acting on. But León — a former principal who spent the past decade serving as an assistant superintendent — has his own vision for the district, which he hopes to convince the board to support, he said in a recent interview on NJTV.

“It’s my responsibility as the new superintendent of schools to compel them to assist the district moving in the direction that I see as appropriate,” he said.

Another matter still being ironed out by the board and superintendent is communication.

León did not notify the full board before moving to force out 31 district officials and administrators, which upset some members. And he told charter school leaders in a closed-door meeting that he plans to keep intact the single enrollment system for district and charter schools — a controversial policy the board is still reviewing.

The district has yet to make a formal announcement about the staff shake-up, including the appointment of León’s new leadership team. And when the board voted on the new assistant superintendents Tuesday, it used only the appointed officials’ initials — not their full names. However, board member Leah Owens stated the officials’ full names when casting her vote.

The full names, titles and salaries of public employees are a matter of public record under state law.

Earlier, board member Yambeli Gomez had proposed improved communication as a goal for the board.

“Not only communication within the board and with the superintendent,” she said, “but also communication with the public in a way that’s more organized.”

The board spent much of Tuesday’s meeting brainstorming priorities for the district.

Members offered a grab bag of ideas, which were written on poster paper. Under the heading “student achievement,” they listed literacy, absenteeism, civics courses, vocational programs, and teacher quality, among other topics. Under other “focus areas,” members suggested classroom materials, parent involvement, and the arts.

Before the school year begins in September, León is tasked with shaping the ideas on that poster paper into specific goals and an action plan.

After the meeting, education activist Wilhelmina Holder said she hopes the board will focus its attention on a few key priorities.

“There was too much of a laundry list,” she said.