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

What I learned about the limits of school choice in New York City from a mother whose child uses a wheelchair

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

As a researcher interested in the ways online platforms impact learning and educational decision-making, I’ve been trying to understand how New York City parents get the information to make a crucial decision: where to send their children to school.

So for the past six months, I’ve been asking local parents about the data they used to choose among the system’s 1700 or so schools.

I’ve heard all sorts of stories about the factors parents weigh when picking schools. Beyond the usual considerations like test scores and art programs, they also consider the logistics of commuting from the Bronx to the East Village with two children in tow, whether the school can accommodate parents and children who are still learning English, and how much money the parent-teacher association raises to supplement the school’s budget.

But for some families, the choice process begins and ends with the question: Is the building fully accessible?

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act requires public buildings constructed after 1992 to be fully accessible to people in wheelchairs. However, most New York City public school buildings were constructed prior to that law, and high construction costs have limited the number of new, fully accessible buildings.

As a result, a shocking 83 percent of New York City schools have been found non-compliant with the ADA, according to a two-year federal Department of Justice investigation whose findings the city Department of Education largely disputes. Recently, the city’s Office of Space Management has begun surveying buildings for full accessibility, but more work remains to be done.

One parent’s struggle to find a school suitable for her son, who has a physical disability but no cognitive issues, illustrates what a major role accessibility plays in some families’ decision-making.

Melanie Rivera is the mother of two and a native New Yorker living in Ditmas Park in Brooklyn’s District 22 who shared her story with me — and gave me permission to share it with others. Here is what she told me, in her own words:

My son Gabriel is seven years old. He was born with a condition called arthrogryposis, which affects the development of his joints. His hips, knees, and feet are affected and he has joint contractures, so his legs don’t bend and straighten the way most people’s do. In order to get around, he uses a combination of crutches and a wheelchair.

Before I had my differently-abled son, I was working in a preschool for children with special needs. The kids I worked with had cognitive developmental disabilities.

Despite my professional experience, I was overwhelmed when it was my turn to help my child with different abilities navigate the public school system. I can only imagine the students falling by the wayside because their parents don’t have that background.

When I was completing my son’s kindergarten application, I couldn’t even consider the academics of the school. My main priority was to tour the schools and assess their level of accessibility.

There are only a couple of ADA-accessible schools in my district, and there was no way of indicating on my son’s kindergarten application that he needed one. When we got the admissions results, he was assigned to his zoned school – which is not accessible.

I entered lengthy and extensive mediation to get him into an ADA-accessible school. At that point, I knew I would just have to take what I could get. For families whose children have special needs, “school choice” can ring hollow.

The process of finding any accessible school was a challenge. The DOE website allows families to search for ADA-accessible schools. But the site describes most schools as “partially accessible,” leaving it up to parents to call each school and say, “What do you mean by this?”

When I called the schools and asked, “Are you a barrier-free school?” the staff in the office didn’t know what the term meant. They might reply, “Oh yeah, we have a ramp.” I’d have to press further: “But can you get to the office? Can you get to every floor in the building?” The response was often, “Oh, I don’t know.”

Even the office staff didn’t know. But for my son’s sake, I needed to know.

Gabriel deserves the full range of academic and social experiences. So every day I make sure he’s learning in the least-restrictive environment — from the classroom, to phys ed, to field trips.

I believe the Department of Education also wants to make schools accessible and to place students with different abilities in settings where they’ll flourish, but the current system is not equipped to follow through on those good intentions. While I see gradual changes, I still know that if I don’t find the best placement for my son the system definitely won’t.

At the school level, administrators should know the details of their own school’s accessibility. Teachers should learn to include children with different abilities in their classrooms. Such a commitment means recognizing the value of inclusivity — not viewing accessibility as something ADA says you must do.

Before I had Gabriel, I never thought about accessibility. I never looked at street cutouts or thought about how to enter a store with steps. We’re probably all guilty of perpetuating exclusion at one point or another.

Recognizing that will allow us to change the status quo. It will allow every individual with a physical disability to fully participate in the public school system.

Claire Fontaine is a researcher at Data & Society, a research institute in New York City focused on social, cultural, and ethical issues arising from technological development. Kinjal Dave is a research assistant at Data & Society. You can read more about their project, which seeks to better understand the ways in which diverse New York City parents draw on school performance data, online dashboards, and school review websites when researching schools for their children.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.