outlier

Actually, N.Y. did okay one city school's teacher evaluation plan

Staten Island's John W. Lavelle Preparatory Charter School is the only school in the city and the only charter school in the state with a state-approved teacher evaluation plan.

In the aftermath of New York City’s failed teacher evaluation negotiations, a small detail has gone unnoticed: There actually is one city school with a state-approved teacher evaluation system.

Surprised?

“We were surprised, too,” said Ken Byalin, president of John W. Lavelle Preparatory Charter School, a Staten Island secondary school with an emphasis on serving students with emotional challenges.

“When we saw there were no approved plans by charter schools, we thought, ‘Oh my god, what are we doing?’” Byalin said. “We were out in front in a way we hadn’t expected to be.”

Though alone among charter schools, Lavelle is hardly the only school in the state to beat the city Department of Education to creating a teacher evaluation system: More than 700 districts did. But as the smallest school in the state to write a system in line with the state’s requirements, Lavelle offers a unique look inside what teacher evaluation requires.

Even with just 37 teachers and fewer than 300 students, no unions to contend with, and practice assessing teacher quality that predated the state’s 2010 evaluation law, Lavelle’s top staff nevertheless worked nonstop for nearly a week to hammer out a plan that would pass muster with state education officials. And they are already planning to revisit their work this summer.

Hashing out an evaluation plan

Byalin said the school chose to meet the state’s Jan. 17 deadline, even though the deadline did not apply to charter schools, because of the prospect of federal support for its teacher training efforts. The state had awarded the school a $16,500 “Strengthening Teacher and Leader Effectiveness” grant from its federal Race to the Top funds, but made cashing the check contingent on having an approved evaluation plan in place.

As they began planning to design a system that followed the state’s rules, Lavelle administrators had a distinct advantage: Unlike most school districts, including New York City, the school had been evaluating teachers based on a variety of measures, including student performance, for years. Since it opened in 2009, Lavelle had been testing students and observing teachers in ways that would allow the school to meet the state’s requirements relatively easily. The school began tightening those practices earlier this year, when it joined a project led by the nonprofit CEI-PEA to help charter schools develop performance pay systems.

“This is just data in a different calculation,” Chris Zilinski, an eighth-grade teacher who has been at the school since shortly after it opened, said about the new evaluation system.

“What we tried to do is to keep [the state evaluation plan] as consistent as we could with what we’ve been doing, and refining and building on that,” Byalin said. Even so, he said, as the state’s deadline approached, the school had “probably three or four people working around the clock the last four or five days to get it done.”

For the 40 percent of evaluations that must be based on student performance, the school selected state-approved tests produced by private vendors to measure student growth in science, social studies, and high school academic subjects that do not have state exams. Physical education, art, and Spanish teachers will be graded according to the entire student body’s improvement on state math and reading tests.

Sixty percent of each teacher’s rating — the full amount allowed for measures other than student performance — will come from his or her score in an observation conducted according to the Danielson Framework, the same model the city plans to use whenever it does adopt new evaluations.

Like most districts across the state, Lavelle submitted a plan that would only cover one year — an arrangement that Mayor Bloomberg pilloried last month as a “sham” meant to dilute the power of an agreement. Bloomberg rejected a teacher evaluation deal for the city because of a two-year “sunset” that he said the city teachers union was demanding. “If the agreement sunset in two years, the whole thing would be a joke,” Bloomberg said at the time.

At Lavelle, administrators and teachers said they wrote the plan to apply only to this year because they expect the evaluation system will need to evolve as the school adds new grades each year and officials learn from each round of ratings.

“We will see and teachers will see which of the [assessments the school selected] seems fair and which seem to be completely distorting,” Byalin said. “The plan that we submit for next year will be informed by what happens this year.”

Teachers’ voice

Of course, unlike the city Department of Education, administrators at Lavelle — whose teachers are not represented by a union — did not have to get teachers’ signoff before submitting an evaluation plan to the state. But Byalin said they worked to get teachers comfortable with the new system anyway. He cited both altruistic and pragmatic reasons.

“Part of the reason this feels safe here and doesn’t in some of the bigger [school] systems is that just like everything we do, it’s bottom up,” he said. “The advantage that we have is the ability to hear each person. While it’s a lot of work for us, it doesn’t have the same kind of cost that it does when you’re bringing together a huge bureaucracy.”

The evaluation system has already changed because of input from teachers, according to Zilinski, the eighth-grade teacher. Last year, the school used a set of nationally normed assessments called the Measures of Student Progress, but he said, “I don’t think our teachers were as happy with that as they could be.”

After looking at other assessments, teachers determined that tests produced by Scantron, which are also online and nationally normed, better reflected their goals for their students, Zilinski said. Now, the school is using Scantron assessments in all high school courses that do not have state Regents exams.

“It’s great to be able to say what assessments to base this on,” he said. “That’s a high level of teacher input.”

But Zilinski said he thought there was still room for Lavelle’s evaluation system to improve, for example by reflecting more than just what happens inside individual classrooms. Teachers run a variety of elective programs, such as mock trial, choral performance, and sports journalism, but excellence in those areas would not influence a teacher’s score under the school’s evaluation system.

“Right now my understanding is that the performance is based on numbers,” Zilinski said. “Those intangibles — I absolutely do believe they should factor in.”

Byalin, the charter school’s president, said future versions of the evaluation system are likely to grant credit for teacher leadership. (The state funding will let the school get help from Wagner College to figure out the best way to assess leadership.) He also said the school would likely add peer review to the subjective measures that influence teachers’ ratings and would carefully scrutinize the results to make sure that having many students with special needs does not put teachers at a disadvantage.

The biggest change on the horizon for the school isn’t about what goes into teacher ratings, but how they are used. As part of the latest cohort in CEI-PEA’s performance pay project, Lavelle will soon begin basing all raises are based on performance, rather than years of service. It’s a paradigm that Zilinski says all teachers buy in to before they join the staff.

“This is our culture, so what we’re doing in adopting [new teacher evaluations] is tweaking the method, not introducing new values,” Byalin said.

An early adopter among charter schools?

Whether other charter schools will follow Lavelle’s lead and submit teacher evaluation plans to the state is not clear. Like Lavelle, many other charter schools lack teachers unions, test students regularly, and aim to reward high-performing educators.

But the charter sector has so far resisted efforts by state education officials to get its schools to submit teacher evaluation plans. In December, charter school advocates urged school leaders not to fulfill a state request for teacher performance data.

That could change as the state makes more Race to the Top money available only to schools with teacher evaluation systems in place. Harvey Newman, co-director of CEI-PEA’s charter school performance pay project, said he has encouraged participating charter schools to use the state’s teacher evaluation requirements as a guide so that they can easily gain state approval when they want it.

“You’re going to have this requirement, whether it’s this year or next year or the next year,” Newman said he tells charter schools that are considering joining CEI-PEA’s Teacher Incentive Fund program. “Only now we’ll help you through the process.”

And more than money is at stake for charter schools to develop teacher evaluation systems that meets the state’s requirements, Byalin said.

“For charters to sit outside of this is going to become very, very difficult,” he said. “Part of the premise of charters is transparency and accountability. Either they’re going to have to do this system, or they’re going to have to come up with an alternative and justify why they are doing it that way.”

First Person

How football prepared me for my first year of teaching (but maybe not the second)

Football brought me to Memphis, and Memphis brought me to teaching.

That’s how, last August, I found myself the solo teacher for seventh grade science at a KIPP middle school in North Memphis that hadn’t had a teacher in that role make it to May in four years.

I completed and even enjoyed that year of teaching, despite its challenges. And while I don’t think my years of high school and college football gave me every tool or personality trait I needed to do that, the experience helped.

First, football taught me to perform when I was not at 100 percent. One of my former coaches used to ask ailing players, “Are you hurt, or are you injured?” in an attempt to parse the words of high schoolers. Hurt was a bruise; injured was a break. I learned to play with bruises.

I found myself asking the hurt or injured question one early morning in February, when I woke up with a throbbing headache. I was hurt, not injured. I made it in.

But physical ailments aren’t the only ones that can sideline a teacher. Teachers have bad days. Frankly, teachers can have bad weeks or months. The same can go for football players. All-star quarterbacks throw interceptions, and gutsy linebackers miss tackles.

The same coach used to tell me, “The only play that matters is the next play.” I found that true last year, too. I couldn’t go back and change the way I unduly reprimanded a student any more than a wide receiver can get another shot at catching a dropped pass.

Some days, though, you “learn” more than you bargained for. In football, those days may be when you feel like you probably should have never tried to play. Those days you drop every ball that comes your way, you forget where you’re supposed to be on every play, and you wonder if the knitting club has any openings.

Football taught me how to drown out these thoughts of inadequacy with positive visualization and by staying focused on concrete goals. As my coach used to tell us after a particularly good play, or a particularly bad one: “Never too high, never too low.” Just as the bad days will soon be washed away in the unrelenting tide of the school year, so will the good ones.

Retaining any sense of perspective on the school year was hard, and there’s no easy fix to an extended period of self-pity or frustration at a string of bad days. My goals were to help kids learn to appreciate science, and to be an adult that students felt they could go to for support. Keeping them at the front of my mind was the best help I could find.

On that note, I have a confession to make. Before my first year of teaching, I was one of those people who didn’t truly understand how difficult teaching was. The reality of how many hours teachers spend outside of school putting their lessons together never crossed my mind. The fact that planning units ahead for my students felt like scouting out my opponents didn’t make the long hours any easier. That first month of teaching was a shock to my system, and the only solution was to put my head down and go, the way I had been taught to do.

Football also left me with some loose ends. The sport taught me next to nothing about patience or about the virtues of benevolence; it never pays to be gentle on the gridiron. Football also didn’t teach me anything about working with people you don’t agree with. On a football team, everyone is united under the same cause: winning.

The parallels I discovered also raise a few uncomfortable questions. I decided to pursue an advanced degree instead of continuing to teach a second year. Does football truly inform teaching as a career, then, or just that first year? A main tenet of football is to never quit. Did I violate that by switching career paths?

Pushing past pain, and centering most hours of one’s life around one goal, can be difficult principles to build a life around. They were also valuable to me when I needed them most.

And regardless of whether football continues to be popular among young people, I hope that parents still find ways to give their kids a chance to compete — a chance to win, and more importantly, to lose.

Having to do that time and time again made me able to accept struggle in life, and it made me a better learner. I think it made me a better teacher, too.

Evan Tucker is a former teacher at KIPP Memphis Academy Middle. He is now pursuing a master’s degree in ecology. 

Miseducation

In Colorado’s high-poverty schools, many teachers are just starting their careers

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles/Chalkbeat
A first-grade student reads in Spanish in a biliteracy classroom at Dupont Elementary in Adams 14.

This story is part of a partnership between Chalkbeat and the nonprofit investigative news organization ProPublica. Using federal data from Miseducation, an interactive database built by ProPublica, we are publishing a series of stories exploring inequities in education at the local level.

Koli Jamerson’s residency program gave her tools that she uses every day as a teacher, ideas for developing engaging lessons and for working with English language learners.

But it didn’t teach her how to help a student who explodes in anger because the police were at her house the night before on a domestic violence call or who cries all day because she doesn’t know where she’ll sleep that night.

Jamerson, now in her third year of teaching first grade at Altura Elementary in the Aurora school district, is still standing. She remains committed to her profession in large part due to the help of veteran teachers on her team, who provided advice as she found her footing those first couple of years.

“It helps keep things in perspective,” Jamerson said of her conversations with more experienced educators. “Otherwise, I would have been talking to a bunch of other teachers who were also drowning, and we would have drowned together.”

It’s getting hard for new teachers in Colorado to find those support systems, since the percentage of Colorado’s teachers in their first or second year in the classroom is among the highest in the nation. In 2015-16, the most recent year for which federal data is available, 17 percent of Colorado teachers were new to the classroom, compared with 12 percent nationally. Only Tennessee, Arizona, and Washington, D.C., rank higher. As recently as 2011, less than 11 percent of Colorado’s teachers were new to the classroom.

This information comes from a new interactive database from the investigative news organization ProPublica. It draws on data collected by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights and for the first time allows parents to easily search their school and district and compare it with others in the region. 

The rates of inexperienced teachers are even higher in certain rural districts and in districts where lots of students come from low-income families and face more challenges. Those districts also often have high numbers of students of color. In contrast, whiter, more affluent suburban districts tend to have low rates of inexperienced teachers.

And those numbers have significant ramifications for Colorado’s students: New teachers can bring energy and innovation to the classroom, and some, especially those with support and guidance, manage to thrive early on. But students with inexperienced teachers tend to have lower test scores on average, according to numerous studies, and new teachers often get lower scores in classroom management from their principals.

Most teachers will readily admit it takes several years to get your bearings in a profession for which no amount of classroom learning can fully prepare you.

“In reality, you get second grade one time, you get third grade one time, as a kid,” said David Singer, founder of Denver’s University Prep charter network, which has shown impressive test results even with plenty of relatively inexperienced teachers. “You deserve an excellent educator.”

Chalkbeat reviewed more recent state data that follows the typical federal definition of “inexperienced teachers” — teachers with less than three full years of classroom experience — and found that the broad trends remain true and in many cases are even more severe than they appear in the federal data. Statewide, one in four Colorado teachers was classified as inexperienced. Last school year, 31 percent of Denver Public Schools teachers were in their first three years on the job, compared with just 7 percent of teachers in the more affluent Boulder Valley School District.

The Adams 14 district, based in the working-class suburb of Commerce City, is one of the lowest-performing in the state. Last year, 45 percent of teachers there were considered inexperienced, compared with 8 percent in the south suburban Littleton district. 

In districts with so many new teachers, it becomes inevitable that students there will encounter educators who haven’t yet reached their prime.

“When a teacher is new to the profession, as with any profession, they’re not as effective,” said Allison Atteberry, an assistant professor in the research and evaluation methods program at the University of Colorado’s School of Education. “There’s a really steep learning curve in those first years. That can’t really be avoided. But if there are more of those teachers, then more students will be exposed to those teachers. And if you have districts with more at-risk students, that has major equity implications.”

Atteberry said the numbers don’t surprise her, and they reflect a perfect storm in the state’s teacher corps. Colorado has experienced rapid population growth, increasing the demand for teachers, at the same time that experienced teachers are retiring or changing careers. That means more new teachers in Colorado classrooms, even as fewer students are entering teacher preparation programs.

Colorado’s low teacher pay exacerbates retention problems. Colorado ranks 30th for teacher pay, and when those salaries are adjusted for cost of living, it falls to 44th. The competitiveness of its teacher salaries is the lowest in the nation, meaning that people who go into teaching take a bigger salary hit compared to their peers with similar levels of education. Nationally, 1 in 10 teachers will leave the profession after their first year, and many more never reach the five-year mark.

Districts around the state are asking voters to raise taxes this November in part to raise teacher pay. Better pay for educators is also a major part of the campaign for Amendment 73, a $1.6 billion statewide tax increase for schools that appears on the ballot. But Colorado voters have so far been reluctant to raise statewide taxes for schools, and critics say there is no guarantee the money will make it into teachers’ paychecks.

Atteberry said raising pay would help mitigate these trends. Beyond that, there isn’t a lot of solid research on the best ways to keep teachers in the classroom, she said, but coaching and support from other teachers can make a difference. Denver is trying a new program to ease the transition for novice teachers with more time spent observing and learning from veterans before getting sole responsibility for a classroom. But just as with teacher salaries, providing adequate coaching is expensive. And the more newcomers there are, the harder it is provide meaningful support to novices.

Denver metro area inexperienced teachers

DISTRICT Teachers with less than three years experience Students receiving subsidized lunches
Adams 14 45 percent 87.3 percent
Dougco 39 percent 12.4 percent
Sheridan 33 percent 90.4 percent
27J (Brighton) 33 percent 37.7 percent
Denver 31 percent 67.2 percent
Jeffco 31 percent 31.7 percent
Aurora 29 percent 68.7 percent
Englewood 29 percent 66 percent
Westminster 24 percent 81.4 percent
Mapleton 21 percent 60.6 percent
St. Vrain 15 percent 30.6 percent
Adams 12 11 percent 39.9 percent
Cherry Creek 9 percent 30.0 percent
Littleton 8 percent 16.8 percent
Boulder Valley 7 percent 19 percent

Source: Colorado Department of Education, 2017-18 school year

This year, for the first time, Annalee Peterson has her own fifth-grade classroom in Columbia Elementary in Colorado Springs, where a large portion of the students are homeless or face other challenges. Before starting an alternative certification process, she ran reading groups as a paraprofessional in the same building for four years. And years before that, she dropped out of a Teach for America placement in a Newark high school where she felt alone and unsupported.

Peterson said her certification program includes intensive classroom observation and feedback that has been invaluable as she made the transition from para to teacher. She also has a trusting relationship with her building principal, who encouraged her to become a teacher.

“I think every new teacher should have a mentor,” she said. “I see other teachers come in, and they don’t have it.”

Peterson said she also benefits from her school’s skilled full-time counselor, something many Colorado schools don’t have.

“If we have a kid with a fair amount of trauma, and they get triggered, they have someone they can go talk to,” she said. “And that’s a huge help. They are getting their emotional needs met, and when they come back to the classroom, they’re ready to work and ready to focus.”

The Adams 14 school district, which has spent eight years on a state watchlist due to its low-performing schools, has the highest rate of inexperienced teachers in the Denver metro area. The 7,000-student district has experienced a lot of turnover not just at the classroom level, but at the highest tiers of leadership.

With an urgent need to improve school performance, Mark Langston, the district’s new manager of educator effectiveness, tries to put a positive face on the large number of new educators that arrive each year.

“I’d rather have a phenomenal teacher for one year, than a bad teacher for many years,” Langston said. “Strong systems have a nice blend of experience.”

At the same time, he’s trying to improve the support those new teachers receive by making changes to the district’s five-day induction program to better meet their individual needs. The thinking is that a 40-year-old switching careers after running a business for 20 years might need different training from a 22-year-old recent college graduate. He’s also trying to match new teachers with mentors earlier in the school year.

But sometimes there aren’t enough mentors or he’s had to make exceptions to allow less experienced teachers to become mentors.

“They are mentoring each other,” said Barb McDowell, president of the Adams 14 teachers union, who says the churn takes a toll on teacher and student morale. “There are no veteran teachers there to help.”

Kevin Clark, a senior at Adams City High, said he always felt supported by his teachers in the district, but very few of them are still there as he enters his final year.

“For the seniors, it’s been rough,” he said. “We really value our support systems. The new teachers are trying to adjust and get their footing, but just because you send in a batch of new teachers, doesn’t mean everything is fine.”

The Denver schools with the highest percentages of inexperienced teachers in 2015-16 include a number of alternative high schools, high-poverty district-run schools, and charter schools. Some of the charter schools are part of high-performing networks whose students do well on state tests.

One of them is University Prep. The homegrown Denver network has two elementary schools, one of which posted the most academic progress in Colorado on state math tests in 2017. But in 2015, the network had just one school — and 42 percent of the teachers there were in their first or second year of teaching, according to the federal data.

At University Prep, some first-year teachers have taken part in a teacher residency program or in a program that has college students work as paraprofessionals while earning their degrees.

“When you think about that individual exiting their undergraduate [education] having spent four years in a building with master teachers, getting all the supports they need to grow, they’re ready to teach on Day 1,” said Singer, the network’s founder.

PHOTO: Eric Gorski/Chalkbeat
Students at University Prep Elementary’s flagship school in Denver

Even so, the network provides its first-year teachers with extra support, he said, such as real-time coaching in the classroom, opportunities to observe more experienced teachers, and help with how to plan a lesson or conduct a parent-teacher conference.

Atteberry said successful charter schools with high rates of inexperienced teachers may be doing something different in the hiring process, looking for “spark teachers who really want to make a difference.”

The high rates of new teachers at some charter schools raise questions, though, about how sustainable the work environment is, and some of these same “spark” teachers may never intend to make a lifelong career of it and instead move on to other challenges. Asked about turnover, Singer said some University Prep teachers have left to pursue careers in medicine and law.

Denver metro area data show another exception to the trend in Douglas County. It’s an affluent and sprawling district southwest of Denver where just 12 percent of students get subsidized lunches, a proxy for poverty. But in 2015-16, 31 percent of teachers were in their first or second year in the classroom, and in 2017-18, 39 percent had less than three years experience.

Kallie Leyba, president of the Douglas County Federation, the teachers union there, said Douglas used to be a “destination district” that teachers aspired to work for. But political upheaval, the election of a conservative school board that has since been replaced, and a “market rate” pay structure that remains have caused experienced teachers to leave in droves — some for much higher salaries in nearby Cherry Creek schools.

The Douglas County pay scale means that teachers with the same amount of experience might make very different salaries. Leyba herself faced the prospect of a lower ceiling on her salary when her building principal asked her to switch from a first grade to a second grade classroom because first-grade teachers are more in demand.

“Even though I knew this was a crazy system, it really hurt to feel like my value had gone down in the eyes of my principal,” she said.

What could Colorado do to get more of today’s inexperienced teachers to become tomorrow’s veteran educators?

Money is a big part of the answer. As it stands, Colorado teachers can earn significantly more money by moving to another state, and with teacher salaries less competitive here than elsewhere, teachers also look to other professions that offer less stress along with better pay.

“The No. 1 thing we should do is increase the prestige and value of teachers in society, and the way we signal that in our society is through salary and compensation,” Atteberry said. “That has a huge influence on who goes into the profession and on who stays.

“This is not an easy change because it costs a lot of money, and it also requires us to change how we think about teachers, but it is the policy that would be most effective.”

Chalkbeat reporters Melanie Asmar and Yesenia Robles contributed reporting to this story.