untested

Instead of telling teachers apart, new evals lump some together

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Teachers attended training sessions about the city’s new teacher evaluation system over the summer, but some features of the system – including how teachers whose students don’t take state tests would have their student growth measured — were not decided until the school year began last week.

A Bronx performing arts school’s dance instructor will be judged on students’ English exam scores. Physical education teachers at a transfer school in Brooklyn are going to teach Olympic history lessons to prepare students for the history tests that will help determine their ratings. And teachers in Queens are putting the fate of their evaluations into a final exam that they don’t teach, but yields high pass rates.

The scenarios are not unusual — across the city this year, thousands of teachers will be rated in large part based on test scores of subjects and students that they do not teach.

Rather, the scenarios are examples of how schools have tried to comply with a new teacher evaluation system that must factor student performance into final ratings. They also represent how the original purpose of the evaluations, to differentiate teachers’ effectiveness, has been squeezed by restrictive state laws, limited resources, and a tight timeline for implementation.

“It’s insane to me that 40 percent of my evaluation is going to be based on someone else’s work,” said Jason Zanitsch, a high school drama teacher who will share the same “student growth” score with colleagues in his school this year.

An incomplete evaluation system, implemented rapidly

Sixty percent of teachers’ ratings this year will come from observations by administrators. The state’s evaluation law mandates that the remaining 40 percent come from a combination of state tests and assessments chosen by each district, whose scores are all crunched to determine student growth.

But neither kind of test exists for Zanitsch and other drama teachers, at least this year. They are among the thousands of city teachers for whom the state has not approved any way to measure student learning. They include librarians, 5,000 physical education and arts teachers, and others who teach foreign languages, health, and career education.

New York City principals had until the first day of school last week to choose from a menu of limited options, first made available in early August, for evaluating their teachers on student growth. Principals and teachers told GothamSchools that their schools have picked a “default” option in which all teachers — even core subject teachers — will receive the same score cobbled together from all of the state tests taken in the school.

“What we are advising most of our schools and principals this year is since the principal’s rating is based on how their school collectively is doing, just take the default, especially since it means the minimum of extra work and testing for everyone,” said a person who works in a network with many high schools.

The arrangement has drawn a lawsuit in Florida and criticism from dozens of city principals who last week pledged not to help execute it. But in lieu of state-approved assessments for all subjects, officials say rating teachers by their colleagues’ scores is the best option available until more credible alternatives can be developed.

“If the legislature had wanted us to be fully compliant at the outset, they would have put in place a massive funding program to support assessments to support every single subject,” said Shael Polakow-Suransky, the Department of Education’s chief academic officer. “But they decided to have a statewide evaluation system in place and then to build it from there.”

Looking on the bright side

Some principals and teachers say the arrangement could have benefits.

“It absolutely encourages collaboration,” said Vinnie Zarillo, a social studies teacher at Brownsville Academy High School whose students’ scores will influence the school’s physical education teachers’ ratings as well as his own. He said he is already talking to his colleagues about how to add lessons to P.E. classes about athletics’ role in world history.

Theatre Arts Production Company Principal Ron Link, whose teachers will be rated using results from the English Regents, said the school-wide approach meshed with how teachers already worked together on the school’s end-of-year theater productions. But Link also wondered if eventually it could lead the curriculum to narrow.

“Is it teaching to the test? I don’t know,” Link said. “I think we’re lucky here at TAPCO because we were already doing the infusion part with arts teachers working with the English and the social studies teacher on the production.”

Concerns about testing’s role

But the silver lining doesn’t sit well with everyone who has been told to look for it.

“I want my art teacher to teach students to make and analyze art. I don’t want them to teach mathematical modeling. That’s why I have a great algebra teacher,” said a Brooklyn high school principal, who asked to remain anonymous because she did not want to criticize the evaluation system publicly. The principal added, “The best that I can see coming out of this is that no harm is done.”

“The administration is saying it is teamwork and we are all in this together, but I don’t feel comfortable being graded based on how the other teachers in my school [are] preparing students for their tests,” a forensic science teacher told GothamSchools.  The teacher, who said her evaluation will be partially based on her students’ Living Environment Regents exam scores, requested anonymity because she feared retribution.

Department officials concede that the situation is far from ideal but say it’s the best they could have done under the state’s timeline for implementing the new evaluation law. Polakow-Suransky suggested that teachers could find solace in the fact that the city did not introduce more required tests, as some had worried that the new evaluation system would do. But he also noted that several schools are piloting arts assessments funded by federal grants and signaled that schools could have the option to add tests in the future.

“We’re not going to go out and invent a bunch of multiple choice-tests for gym classes. It’s a waste of time,” he said. “We are working hard to develop new assessments that would be useful” for teachers.

Lumping teachers together, instead of telling them apart

For now, educators are pondering the implications of an arrangement that groups teachers together rather than distinguishes their effectiveness individually.

“If you have two or three really not-so-great teachers and you take the default, all those teachers are going to get effective or highly effective,” the network official said. “On the flip side, if your school does badly overall on the Regents this year, some really good teachers are going to get screwed.”

Some principals say they tried to mitigate against those possibilities by hinging teachers’ ratings on their colleagues whose students have done well in the past.

“I’m going to try to game it in little ways, [to] tie it to where we think we’re going to get some good performance,” said the Brooklyn high school principal.

“We picked based on past performance,” said Moses Ojeda, principal of Thomas Edison Career and Technical Education High School, where many teachers work in technology subjects.

But those choices, designed to protect teachers, lead to questions about the meaningfulness of the ratings that the new evaluation system will produce.

One teacher who will be rated based on his own students’ scores said the fact that exams in his subject would factor into the scores of his colleagues who teach other subjects would cause him to question all of their ratings. “If you create a system which will work only if administrators don’t follow the rules, it’s a bad system,” he said.

Hold Harmless

BREAKING: ‘Pass this bill!’ Tennessee House tells Senate to hold teachers harmless on TNReady test

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
The Tennessee House of Representatives is in its final week of the 2018 legislative session.

Tennessee lawmakers were in a standoff Wednesday on legislation that would yank this year’s standardized test scores from teacher evaluations after days of problems administering the TNReady assessment this spring.

Concerned that last week’s legislation to shield students, teachers, and schools didn’t go far enough, the House unanimously approved an 11th-hour bill to hold teachers harmless from this year’s scores.

The Senate, meanwhile, had yet to take up the measure by early evening, grinding the legislature to a halt.

To make their point, the House was holding the state’s $37.5 billion budget hostage again in the last hours of the 2018 General Assembly, targeted for adjournment on the same day.

Representatives used a similar tactic last week when they waited until an agreement was forged with the Senate and Gov. Bill Haslam before approving the state’s spending plan. This week, they had yet to send the budget to the governor, the last official business before lawmakers can return home to campaign during an election year.

“If you don’t understand — from the school district to the superintendents — that we want our teachers held harmless, then I’m sorry, you’re tone-deaf,” said Rep. Eddie Smith, a Knoxville Republican who led the charge.

“This body wants them held harmless,” he said to applause in the House.

“To my Senate colleagues … ,” he added, “pass this bill!”

Lawmakers have been inundated with phone calls and emails from teachers and parents angry about the most recent bungles with TNReady. The upheaval began last week when technical problems erupted on the online version. At one point, the state Department of Education and its testing company, Questar, blamed some of the glitches on a cyber attack.

TNReady is now in the second of a three-week testing window, with serious problems cropping up during at least four of those days, including on Wednesday when an overnight software upgrade by Questar affected online rosters for high schoolers.

Last week, the legislature voted to reduce the impact of TNReady scores for students, teachers, and schools. However, instead of removing the test results from teacher evaluations, the legislation merely prevented local districts from using the scores for any decisions related to hiring, firing, or compensating teachers.

That bill was carefully drafted as Tennessee sought to keep its school accountability plan in compliance with a federal education law requiring states to include student performance in their teacher evaluation model.

Rep. Eddie Smith of Knoxville stands at the podium of the Tennessee House of Representatives on Wednesday as the chamber’s education leaders press for a bill to hold teachers harmless for this year’s TNReady scores.

This week, the House pushed for a “hold harmless bill similar to a 2016 law passed after the failed switch to computerized testing and the eventual cancellation of most of TNReady that school year.

“If the data does not help [teachers], it’s excluded and their evaluation will be based on the observation or the qualitative portion. That’s exactly what we did in 2015-16,” said Rep. John Forgety, the House education committee chairman who helped to shepherd the 2016 law.

This story will be updated.

time off

Language in contract for Aurora teachers changed conversations about walkouts

Colorado educators rally outside the State Capitol. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

The Aurora school district’s contract with its teachers places a cap so that no more than 30 teachers can take personal leave on any given day. This mundane contract provision took on new importance when hundreds of teachers started requesting leave to attend rallies planned for Friday.

Over the weekend, union leaders, board members, and administrators discussed how this would play out. In the end, Aurora Superintendent Rico Munn canceled classes. As of Monday, when the decision was made, about 1,000 teachers had requested the day off. That’s nearly half the district’s teachers.

A letter to staff, clarifying that the leave policy has not been lifted, sheds new light on the behind-the-scenes discussions.

Bruce Wilcox, the president of the teachers union, said Monday that union leaders started many of the discussions Friday, as they sent out a survey to members asking if they were interested in walking out and asking if they would do it without pay. More than 400 teachers responded over the weekend, and of those who responded about half said they were willing to walk out without pay.

“This has been a fluid situation,” Wilcox said. “As an association we in no way want to violate our contract, but we also recognize that individuals believe this is going to be the biggest statement they can make about education funding in their individual careers. This has kind of reached a critical mass.”

Wilcox said union leadership reached out to board members and found that board members would not support disciplining teachers who violated district leave policies.

Board president Marques Ivey said he could only speak for himself, but confirmed that was his opinion.

“That’s definitely my feeling is that I don’t believe personally that anyone wants to see teachers disciplined,” Ivey said.

Munn’s letter clarifies that neither the administration nor the board have the authority to stop the district’s policy or contract from applying to Friday’s walkouts.

“The board has not taken any kind of formal position on anything related to this matter,” Munn’s letter states. “The board cannot change the leave policy or make a one time exemption for this purpose. If the board were to change policy for the express purpose of facilitating attendance at this event, it would be an act of the district using taxpayer dollars to support a political activity,” which is not allowed.

So, what will happen is that the first 30 Aurora teachers who asked for personal leave on Friday may get it as one of their three special leave days earned during the year. Most other teachers who want to take a day off must do so without pay.

Other districts, including in Jeffco, have similar policies, but without the cap on how many teachers can request leave. In Jeffco, teachers only get two days off per year for personal reasons. Those teachers who have already used their two days and choose to walk out this week will also have to take a day without pay.

Aurora’s cap on the number of teachers taking personal leave was added to the contract between the teachers union and the district in 2014.

“I don’t think the language, when it was put in the contract, was ever seen as something that would be used against someone,” Wilcox said. “Both the district and the association wanted to make sure we didn’t have a situation where a school or the district was impacted negatively.”

Wilcox said he isn’t aware of teachers reaching that cap any other time this year, but mentioned that certain social events such as the Broncos parade after their Super Bowl win in 2016 might have been a case where several teachers were requesting a day off.

Although the union was planning to have teachers stage walk-ins, Wilcox said teachers said they felt that was not enough.

“When you have 200 people saying I believe in this that much, to take a day without pay, that’s pretty significant,” Wilcox said.

Board president Ivey said overall he thinks the situation has been handled as well as it could have.

“There’s no handbook on how to deal with this,” Ivey said. “I believe the district and AEA are doing the best they can. I don’t believe the district is against the very fundamental policies that the teachers are marching for.”