First Person

Toward An Equity Framework For Teacher Evaluations

As tomorrow’s deadline looms for the New York City Department of Education and the United Federation of Teachers to reach an agreement on a new teacher evaluation system, much of the debate has focused on what the specific terms mean for teachers and for the millions of dollars the city schools stand to lose if a deal is not crafted in time.

These storylines are all dramatic. But both sides are missing a major issue: whether and how a new teacher evaluation system would advance educational equity and opportunity for the city’s over one million students.

Even after over a decade of mayoral control, the education landscape in New York City remains uneven and opportunities inequitable. A number of studies and reports, some initiated by the DOE itself, have illustrated the large and persistent gaps in attainment and opportunity faced by African-American and Latino students compared to their white peers. Disparities in the use of school discipline policies that push children out of school, along with inequitable access to rigorous curriculum and special schools and programs, help to drive these gaps. But a growing body of research indicates that the students who perform most poorly and who suffer the harshest forms of school discipline tend to have less access to great teachers, as measured across multiple criteria. So regardless of whether the DOE and UFT reach an agreement by the deadline, the new evaluation system will not mean anything unless it addresses the inequitable distribution of human capital — in other words, unequal access to high-quality, fully prepared, and effective teachers.

Fortunately, it’s not too late to address this issue. The following are three key principles for an equity-focused teacher evaluation system:

1. Evaluation data should inform the placement/distribution of teachers.

Too often students are relegated to schools that are set up to fail because they are under-resourced, both in terms of fiscal and human capital. Some schools and classrooms have too many novice or ineffective teachers; others have more experienced high-quality educators. That’s no way to run a school system; and it is unfair to students, teachers and well-intentioned school leaders alike.

The UFT has indicated that discussions regarding the teacher evaluation system should be linked to the union contract negotiations; and the DOE has implied that it is gravely concerned about equity and the quality of teaching. But both sides now have an opportunity to make these aspirations real. With the data produced by a robust teacher evaluation system, schools and districts can identify trends regarding which groups of students are served best by which teachers. The data produced by an evaluation system should be used to inform teacher assignment and transfer policies, with the explicit goal of ensuring that the students with the highest needs are taught by the best teachers.

Using evaluation results in this way first requires a sound evaluation system, something that has eluded the city to date. And any proposal to use evaluation results in this way would certainly mark a dramatic departure from current practice that could be potentially disruptive for both the city and the union if not responsibly executed. But it would be a mistake for them to squander the opportunity to use new information in new ways to boost equity.

2. Comprehensive evaluations should look to broad measures of teacher competency and effectiveness, without unduly relying on standardized test scores as a shortcut.

Although the New York State law sets some parameters for teacher evaluation systems, negotiation of additional terms by the DOE and UFT could lead to additional weight being placed on standardized test scores. This would be a mistake. Abundant research and a decade of experience under the No Child Left Behind Act have shown that placing too much emphasis on standardized test scores can produce negative results, encouraging schools to narrow curriculum by “teaching to the test” and creating perverse incentives to push out students whose test performance may threaten schools’ or teachers’ evaluation results. And some systems, like the DOE’s previous and now-abandoned test-driven system, produce flawed data that actually masks the inequities that are painfully apparent to anyone who visits classrooms in the city’s schools. Under that experiment, the DOE actually presumed lower rates of achievement for black, Latino, and poor students; therefore, even mediocre results and even minimal gains in test scores seemed like real growth.

An equity-based evaluation system could change this by providing more and better information about teachers than simply their students’ test scores. Such a comprehensive set of measures would include multiple, varied demonstrations of student learning and teacher practice, along with classroom observations of teacher performance by instructional leaders, and peer reviews. Student and family surveys have also been shown to be highly correlated with teacher practice; these instruments should be incorporated into teacher evaluations as well. Including these broad measures, with the proper weight given to each, would more comprehensively assess teachers and would also place the onus on school district leadership to ensure that every school and every classroom had truly well-rounded educators, not simply teach-to-the-test drones.

3. Evaluations should be used as learning tools, not just ways to fire teachers.

If equity is the true goal, evaluations should be used proactively to help teachers improve the quality of instruction, not simply to fire them. Failing to invest in improvement means kicking the can down the road, and another lost generation of students, while school officials offer the illusion of progress.

We simply do not have enough high-quality teachers to waste potential; and we do not have time to start from scratch each year with the constant churn of teachers that destabilizes schools. Rather, we should invest in the development of educators, especially those who work in high-needs schools, serve populations of students living in concentrated poverty, or serve populations with more extensive learning needs, so that those who do have potential have the supports they need to become excellent. And each teacher should receive professional development that targets areas identified as in need of improvement.

The outcome of this debate will have far-reaching implications. So it is important that any evaluation system the two sides agree upon is fair not only to lawmakers and teachers, but also to students. More than securing funding for New York City’s schools, an equity-focused evaluation framework can move the city toward equity in the educational opportunities offered to students. This is, indeed a golden opportunity. Let’s hope both sides take advantage of it.

Damon Hewitt is the director of the Education Practice Group at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

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 Person

I’ve spent years studying the link between SHSAT scores and student success. The test doesn’t tell you as much as you might think.

PHOTO: Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Proponents of New York City’s specialized high school exam, the test the mayor wants to scrap in favor of a new admissions system, defend it as meritocratic. Opponents contend that when used without consideration of school grades or other factors, it’s an inappropriate metric.

One thing that’s been clear for decades about the exam, now used to admit students to eight top high schools, is that it matters a great deal.

Students admitted may not only receive a superior education, but also access to elite colleges and eventually to better employment. That system has also led to an under-representation of Hispanic students, black students, and girls.

As a doctoral student at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York in 2015, and in the years after I received my Ph.D., I have tried to understand how meritocratic the process really is.

First, that requires defining merit. Only New York City defines it as the score on a single test — other cities’ selective high schools use multiple measures, as do top colleges. There are certainly other potential criteria, such as artistic achievement or citizenship.

However, when merit is defined as achievement in school, the question of whether the test is meritocratic is an empirical question that can be answered with data.

To do that, I used SHSAT scores for nearly 28,000 students and school grades for all public school students in the city. (To be clear, the city changed the SHSAT itself somewhat last year; my analysis used scores on the earlier version.)

My analysis makes clear that the SHSAT does measure an ability that contributes to some extent to success in high school. Specifically, a SHSAT score predicts 20 percent of the variability in freshman grade-point average among all public school students who took the exam. Students with extremely high SHSAT scores (greater than 650) generally also had high grades when they reached a specialized school.

However, for the vast majority of students who were admitted with lower SHSAT scores, from 486 to 600, freshman grade point averages ranged widely — from around 50 to 100. That indicates that the SHSAT was a very imprecise predictor of future success for students who scored near the cutoffs.

Course grades earned in the seventh grade, in contrast, predicted 44 percent of the variability in freshman year grades, making it a far better admissions criterion than SHSAT score, at least for students near the score cutoffs.

It’s not surprising that a standardized test does not predict as well as past school performance. The SHSAT represents a two and a half hour sample of a limited range of skills and knowledge. In contrast, middle-school grades reflect a full year of student performance across the full range of academic subjects.

Furthermore, an exam which relies almost exclusively on one method of assessment, multiple choice questions, may fail to measure abilities that are revealed by the variety of assessment methods that go into course grades. Additionally, middle school grades may capture something important that the SHSAT fails to capture: long-term motivation.

Based on his current plan, Mayor de Blasio seems to be pointed in the right direction. His focus on middle school grades and the Discovery Program, which admits students with scores below the cutoff, is well supported by the data.

In the cohort I looked at, five of the eight schools admitted some students with scores below the cutoff. The sample sizes were too small at four of them to make meaningful comparisons with regularly admitted students. But at Brooklyn Technical High School, the performance of the 35 Discovery Program students was equal to that of other students. Freshman year grade point averages for the two groups were essentially identical: 86.6 versus 86.7.

My research leads me to believe that it might be reasonable to admit a certain percentage of the students with extremely high SHSAT scores — over 600, where the exam is a good predictor —and admit the remainder using a combined index of seventh grade GPA and SHSAT scores.

When I used that formula to simulate admissions, diversity increased, somewhat. An additional 40 black students, 209 Hispanic students, and 205 white students would have been admitted, as well as an additional 716 girls. It’s worth pointing out that in my simulation, Asian students would still constitute the largest segment of students (49 percent) and would be admitted in numbers far exceeding their proportion of applicants.

Because middle school grades are better than test scores at predicting high school achievement, their use in the admissions process should not in any way dilute the quality of the admitted class, and could not be seen as discriminating against Asian students.

The success of the Discovery students should allay some of the concerns about the ability of students with SHSAT scores below the cutoffs. There is no guarantee that similar results would be achieved in an expanded Discovery Program. But this finding certainly warrants larger-scale trials.

With consideration of additional criteria, it may be possible to select a group of students who will be more representative of the community the school system serves — and the pool of students who apply — without sacrificing the quality for which New York City’s specialized high schools are so justifiably famous.

Jon Taylor is a research analyst at Hunter College analyzing student success and retention.