added complexity

Proposal to refine state's "value-added" formula elicits concerns

ALBANY — A dozen new factors could be tossed into the state’s formula for measuring how much teachers have boosted their students’ state scores, according to a proposal that is dividing state education policy makers.

The state’s teacher evaluation law, passed in 2010, requires student performance to count in teacher ratings. Currently, the state calculates “growth scores” that count for a fifth of teachers’ overall ratings. But the law allows the state to increase the weight of its score to a quarter of teachers’ ratings once officials adopt a more complex “value-added” model for assessing teacher impact.

Both models are based on the principle that comparing students’ actual test scores with their predicted scores can show the impact their teachers had on their learning. The question is what variables to use when predicting scores so that teachers whose students have greater needs are not at a disadvantage.

The current growth model considers and controls for four basic characteristics: previous test scores, students with disabilities, students living in poverty, and students who are still learning English.

At Monday’s Board of Regents meeting, state education officials said they had come up with a value-added formula that includes 12 other factors, including students’ previous test scores in other subjects and whether they are overage for their grade. The officials want to adopt the new formula for use starting this year in districts that have teacher evaluation agreements. (New York City is one of a few districts that do not yet.)

The proposed value-added formula would also control for the first time for classroom variables, such as class size and the proportion of students with high needs.

The added factors represent an attempt to distinguish more precisely between students who share the same characteristics that are controlled for in the current growth model. Right now, the state’s formula treats students with special needs as all presenting the same challenge to teachers, for example, but the proposed formula would give a different weight to the scores of students with severe disabilities.

“All those variables are there to further refine similar students,” said Amy McIntosh, a senior fellow for the Regents Research Fund who oversees teacher evaluations, of the value added formula.

The Regents must approve the proposed formula before the State Education Department can use it to calculate this year’s ratings for math and English teachers in grades 4-8, who make up about 17 percent of teachers statewide.

At this week’s meeting, discussion of the value-added formula was unusually contentious. It came halfway through the state’s first round of tougher tests, which have drawn fire from those who think the scores should not be used in high-stakes decisions such as teacher evaluations.

The plan drew swift resistance from several Regents, including two from New York City, who have been critical of using student test scores in teacher evaluations in the first place. They said making the state’s measurement of teacher impact on student test scores more complex would not address some of the issues surrounding the value-added approach, which include year-to-year instability and a requirement for some teachers to score low.

“I have no confidence that this is going to give us what we’re looking for and that teachers will be evaluated fairly,” said Westchester County’s Harry Phillips.

Phillips and Roger Tilles, of Long Island, both urged the state to shelve the growth models or treat them as a low-stakes pilot for now.

A vote is scheduled at next month’s Regents meeting, where Commissioner John King and Chancellor Merryl Tisch promised to bring an updated proposal that would at least in part address the concerns raised. But King reiterated his support for using the value-added model, citing research from the Gates Foundation’s Measures of Effective Teaching study that compared several approaches to factoring student performance into teacher ratings.

“This approach has been used all throughout the country, quite extensively,” King said. “The methodology that we’re using is very similar to what’s been used and studied extensively.”

King said the state convened its own advisory group that included teachers, principals, and district officials from across the state On technical matters, it also consulted an advisory group of eight researchers from around the country, including Jonah Rockoff and Douglas Staiger, two economists who studied New York City’s value-added data.

At times, the advisory groups’ recommendations were at odds, state officials said. The state’s Regents advisory group recommended weighing students’ gender when calculating teachers’ impact, King said, but the technical advisors recommended against doing so. Gender is not a factor in the proposed value-added formula.

The composition of the technical advisory group drew criticism from several Regents. The Bronx’s Betty Rosa pointed out that all eight researchers in the group are men. And Kathy Cashin of Brooklyn said the group lacked a different kind of diversity.

“How do you have a panel with one point of view?” Cashin said, referring to the fact that the researchers’ work begins with an assumption that it is possible to isolate teachers’ contributions to student learning.

In addition to changing the formula for measuring student growth in teachers’ ratings, the State Education Department has also proposed introducing a growth measurement for high school principals, based on their students’ Regents exam pass rates.

And the department also wants to change the way that transient and chronically absent students are counted, an issue that has divided some school districts as they craft their education evaluation systems.

Last year, 16 percent of students statewide weren’t counted in growth models because they were not enrolled in a single school for the entire year. This year, students who enter just before the halfway point will be counted, meaning that the scores of an addition 150,000 students — who often have high needs — would count in teachers’ ratings.

Students with low attendance will also be counted, but only by the same rate at which they attended school, according to the proposal.

The description of the State Education Department’s advisory groups has been clarified since this story was originally published.

Here’s the slide from the State Education Department’s PowerPoint presentation that shows the new factors that could become part of the state’s value-added teacher evaluation formula. The full presentation is below.
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help wanted

What a dearth of teachers means for a school in a one-stoplight Colorado town

Retired English teacher Peggy Allen, center, speaks with Otis Principal Michelle Patterson, left, and Superintendent Kendra Anderson at Mama's, the town's lone restaurant. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

OTIS — Late last spring, after five of her two dozen teachers resigned with no replacements in sight, Superintendent Kendra Anderson reassured her school’s anxious principal that everything would be fine.

Then she walked the 25 feet between their two offices, sat down at her desk and said to herself: “Oh, crap.”

Anderson remembered a time — and not that long ago — when she could pick out a six-year veteran from a pile of resumes whenever she had an unexpected teaching vacancy.

“I don’t have that luxury anymore,” she said this summer, recalling the desperate situation she was in to replace a fourth of the teaching staff of the rural K-12 school in just a few months.

Anderson’s urgent need for teachers for her 230 students — half of them living in poverty in this one-stoplight Colorado town on the Eastern Plains — offers a window into how rural schools like hers are grappling with a dearth of teachers.

Otis’s challenges to keep and attract teachers are felt across the state. Low taxes make it nearly impossible to offer a competitive salary; one retired Otis teacher suggested she could make more money waiting tables. Increased regulations and unfunded mandates from the state have made the work nearly unbearable, educators say. And the school’s distance from the Front Range keep some urban solutions such as long-term substitutes or Teach For America corps out of their classrooms.

On the ground, the biggest challenge for superintendents like Anderson is the need to protect students from the most damaging impacts of the shortage, even as many of them would benefit from more resources, not fewer.

“The one thing that keeps me up at night is how we go years with some of our rural schools not having a math teacher,” said Robert Mitchell, the former director of educator preparation at the department of higher education. “These kids out here deserve the same opportunity as the kids in Boulder Valley. It’s not acceptable that we have vacancies and zero people apply.”

The problem is so pronounced that state education officials, at the legislature’s behest, fanned out across Colorado this summer — including a stop in Otis — to examine ways to turn around a shortage that is most severe in the state’s rural areas.

A plan informed by this statewide tour, which was recently completed, is due to state legislators by December.

Michelle Murphy, executive director of the Colorado Rural Schools Alliance, discusses the teacher shortage at the state’s town hall at the Otis school. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

No overflow

“Everything has to change” whenever a teacher leaves, Michelle Patterson, Otis’s principal said. The ripple effects, especially in areas with small staffs, are significant.

When the school’s agriculture teacher left this spring, administrators had to find a new teacher to take over his class sponsorship duties, which included helping students raise money for projects and providing them with emotional support through high school.

No one knew which conferences to register the Future Farmers of America club for, or which hotels to stay at when they went.

The district also had to hire a new bus driver, because the retired teacher, a 21-year veteran, had done that, too.

“It’s more than just that instruction for that content area that leaves us,” Superintendent Anderson said. “It’s the relationship with the students they developed over time. It’s the training we’ve given them that’s lost.”

The teacher shortage is both an old and new problem for rural schools.

“We’ve had a teacher shortage in rural Colorado since the 1970s,” said Michelle Murphy, executive director of the Colorado Rural Schools Alliance. “But we used to be able to get overflow from the metro area. Now, there’s no overflow.”

Since 2010, there’s been a 24 percent drop in graduates from the traditional teacher prep programs at the state’s colleges and universities. There’s also been a 23 percent drop in enrollment to those programs.

Alternative programs, such as residency programs, have seen a 40 percent increase in enrollment. However, those programs produce far fewer teachers than traditional programs and can’t keep up with demand. According to the state department of education, the state’s public schools employ more than 53,000 teachers.

The shortage is not evenly distributed across all classrooms. Math and science teachers are in short supply: Only 192 college students in 2016 graduated with credentials to teach those subjects. The same year, 751 students left with a degree to teach elementary school.

Officials believe a variety of factors are contributing to the shortage. The profession perceives that it is undervalued, and the pay in many communities does not cover basic costs of living. And as poverty rises, the scope of the job is expanding; students are coming to school with more trauma that educators must mitigate before they can even begin to teach phonics or subtraction.

Rural schools face additional challenges attracting new teachers away from urban centers.

Housing is in short supply — so much so that some school districts are building their own housing for teachers.

And while the cost of living might seem lower in rural areas, “gas, groceries and health insurance all are more expensive,” Anderson said. “We travel a long way to the grocery store, to work. The nearest Walmart is 50 miles away.”

It can also be lonely, especially for recent college graduates without any family nearby.

Caitlin Evans is Otis’s new high school English teacher. She sits in her barren classroom before the start of the school year. Evans was issued an emergency license so she could teach. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

A tale of two Otis teachers

Peggy Allen was one of the five Otis teachers to leave the classroom this spring.

Allen, who taught English, began her career in Otis as a secretary. After 17 years of running the school district’s office, she went to college to become a teacher.

“I loved teaching,” she said as she finished her lunch in Mama’s, Otis’s single restaurant, which also serves as its de facto town square. “You build a personal relationship with everyone at the school and in town. Everybody knows your business — and needs. We take care of each other.”

But after 12 years in the classroom, the 65-year-old decided to retire.

“I saw younger people with vigor and energy, and I thought: ‘I don’t have that anymore,’” she said.

Increased state regulations also became a burden. “I didn’t love jumping through all the hoops,” she said.

To find a replacement for Allen, Anderson reached out to a national network of principals and school officials she’s built through the years.

One woman who Anderson met at a conference several years ago had a daughter, Caitlin Evans, who had moved to a town 40 miles east of Otis. Evans, 33, had been teaching at Morgan Community College and was interested in switching to high schoolers.

Evans grew up in Brighton, a blue collar suburb of Denver. After high school, she enrolled at the University of Colorado. She remembers feeling far behind some of her fellow freshmen who attended East Coast prep schools.

Evans was excited about better preparing rural students for college to compete with their urban peers.

“If I can be a bridge for them, that’s a good thing,” she said.

But Evans had a newborn and no teaching license. So Anderson went to work helping her find childcare and working with state education officials to issue Evans an emergency license.

The state this year has issued 30 emergency licenses, which allow individuals to teach without meeting some state requirements.

State Rep. Jim Wilson, a Salida Republican, earlier this year sponsored a bill that would have allowed rural school districts like Otis to waive out of the state’s licensing practices all together. It was an idea that was backed by the Rural School Alliance but faced staunch opposition from the state’s teachers union. That opposition forced Wilson to spike his own bill.

Licensing reform, an issue that has vexed lawmakers and the governor alike, is likely to come up as the state education and higher education departments move forward with their plan to curb the shortage. But Superintendent Anderson is wary.

“I don’t want to give the perception that it’s easier to be a teacher than any other profession,” she said.

Otis school leaders were able to fill all of their vacancies, in part because Evans was issued an emergency license. However, it’s only good for one academic year. Anderson is already worrying about how to keep Evans in the classroom next year.

Farm equipment sit outside the Otis school, which is sandwiched between a Baptist church and a wheat farm. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

“We just need the resources”

More than 40 people showed up to the Otis school, which sits between a Baptist church and a corn, wheat and millet farm, for the state’s town hall on the teacher shortage.

In the audience were several members of the Otis community, including two school board members. There were executives from Denver-based education nonprofits. Educators from other Eastern Plains communities such as a principal from Julesburg and teachers from Yuma also attended.

State officials pleaded with the audience to focus on solutions — especially low-cost solutions. That doesn’t mean salary increases are off the table, the state officials said. It just means that everyone knows that teachers in the low tax state of Colorado could make a lot more money yet still trail far behind national average salaries.

This school year will be the first Otis teachers see a pay increase since the Great Recession. The starting salary will be $31,666. The average salary for an Otis teacher is $36,468, administrators said. And the highest paid teacher, a long time veteran, earns $46,258.

Part of the reason why the school district was able to afford the raises out of its $3.4 million budget was because of a rare savings in health care costs.

Anderson called it a gamble.

As the town hall began to wind down, Shea Smith, the Otis guidance counselor, snuck out and returned to her office, where she was preparing for the first day of school.

She and another teacher, Tenaly Bleak, reflected on the intersection of the teacher shortage and the changing demographics of their students.

As it becomes increasingly expensive to live along the Front Range, families are seeking low-cost housing on the plains. Since 2011, the school’s free or reduced-price lunch rate, a measure of poverty, has nearly doubled to 56 percent. Last year, the school enrolled its first homeless student. And there’s a good chance the school will need to hire a second special education teacher because a few new students with special needs enrolled this summer.

Smith, who has been in the Otis school for nine years, remembers the last time the school tried to hire a special education teacher. The job remained vacant for three years until the school’s leadership decided to take the job posting down and just do without.

As poverty has risen in Otis, teachers have taken on another role: caretaker.

“Somedays, the most you can do is love them and feed them and make them feel safe, and hope you can get a little reading in, and a little math in,” Smith said.

It’s unclear how student performance has shifted as poverty has increased in Otis. Poor students historically do not score as highly as their more affluent peers. Not enough Otis students are taking the state’s test for the state education department to report the results and provide a quality rating. 

The role poverty is playing in the classroom and the stress it has put on educators has been highlighted by Education Commissioner Katy Anthes.

Teachers are reporting to the department that “they’re spending more time on management and organization and meeting the basic needs of students than they ever have before,” Anthes told the State Board of Education at its August meeting.

So what can the state do to keep teachers from fleeing Otis and other rural school districts?

Bleak said more support would go a long way. For instance, she suggested, establishing a special fund for school supplies and candy that teachers can hand out would save her $100 a month, she guessed.

“We care,” she said. “We want to do the best job possible. We just need the resources.”

An intersection in Otis, Colorado. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

that was weird

The D.C. school system had a pitch-perfect response after John Oliver made #DCPublicSchools trend on Twitter

Public education got some unexpected attention Sunday night when John Oliver asked viewers watching the Emmys to make #DCPublicSchools trend on Twitter.

Oliver had been inspired by comedian Dave Chappelle, who shouted out the school system he attended before he announced an award winner. Within a minute of Oliver’s request, the hashtag was officially trending.

Most of the tweets had nothing to do with schools in Washington, D.C.

Here are a few that did, starting with this pitch-perfect one from the official D.C. Public Schools account:

Oliver’s surreal challenge was far from the first time that the late-show host has made education a centerpiece of his comedy — over time, he has pilloried standardized testing, school segregation, and charter schools.

Nor was it the first education hashtag to take center stage at an awards show: #PublicSchoolProud, which emerged as a response to new U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, got a shoutout during the Oscars in February.

And it also is not the first time this year that D.C. schools have gotten a surprise burst of attention. The Oscars were just a week after DeVos drew fire for criticizing the teachers she met during her first school visit as secretary — to a D.C. public school.