course correction

Nixing new tests, districts overhaul teacher evaluation plans

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Chancellor Dennis Walcott spoke to city educators about new teacher evaluations over the summer. Across the state, districts are revising their evaluation plans, often as a reaction to the testing required by their first stabs at adopting the state’s rules.

Nearly 20 percent of school districts across the state have changed their teacher evaluation plans since adoption — with an increasing number cutting back on tests associated with evaluations.

Since January, the State Education Department has approved revised plans for more than 130 districts out of nearly 700 statewide, according to a spokesman. More than half of the changes have come this school year, and more districts are in the process of revising their plans ahead of a March deadline, the spokesman said.

The state isn’t yet tallying how plans have been altered, but a review of plans posted online reveals that while some of the changes are only minor wording tweaks, many others reflect a trend toward nixing tests. Interviews with teachers, union officials, and district officials from across the state confirm the trend.

The state’s new teacher evaluation rules require that 40 percent of teachers’ annual ratings be based on their students’ performance. Many districts initially opted to test students at the beginning and end of the year to measure student growth, in addition to administering state reading and math tests. But now, having experienced the burden of testing all students in all subjects, some are taking advantage of a provision in the rules to increase the weight of state reading and math test scores.

Their changes, which local teachers unions must accept, roll back a major compromise about how student growth is measured. They also portend possible teacher evaluation changes for New York City, where the testing burden has been lighter but has still garnered criticism from parents, educators, and Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio.

“Contagious” changes

In most districts across the state, one of the first results of new teacher evaluation systems last year affected students most of all.

“They came to school and took a bunch of tests,” said Adele Bovard, superintendent of the 9,000-student Webster Central School District outside Rochester. “It was a tough way to start off the school year for our students.”

Bovard estimated that the district developed more than 100 new tests for its 2012-2013 evaluations. Other districts developed dozens of their own tests or shelled out local funds to buy tests from third-party vendors.

This year, Webster did away with all of its new tests. “We are a much happier district because of this change,” Bovard told lawmakers earlier this year.

The changes sought by upstate districts have been contagious. Bovard was invited to present Webster’s new model to the teachers union in nearby Rochester, a school district of 30,000 students. Union President Adam Urbanski liked the model so much that he signed off on the changes in the middle of this school year.

“It didn’t take a lot of convincing,” Urbanski said of the new plan, which was approved Nov. 22. “Because at the very least, no matter how it worked out, teachers and students were spared needless testing.”

Unintended consequences of local control

The new tests were either bought or developed in order to comply with the state’s teacher evaluation law, which mandates that one measure of student growth is set by the state and another is set locally. The distinction was once a major source of disagreement between the New York State United Teachers union and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who wanted the state to retain control of how student learning was measured in evaluations. NYSUT successfully argued in court that some local control would lead to a stronger evaluation system, leading to the current arrangement.

The union wanted assessments that educators tend to prefer, such as portfolios, to count for the local portion of the evaluations. But to accommodate a tight implementation schedule, many districts simply bought or developed tests for each grade and subject.

“I’m not going to lie, a lot of us took the easy way out and took the third-party test provider because there was a very tight timeline,” said Patrick Michel, who runs a group of 15 small school districts outside Albany.

After a year of giving the tests a try, however, districts are saying they were a mistake — at least for now. “Last year we got lots of feedback around there being too much standardized testing for the local part of evaluations,” said Michel, whose districts began cutting out tests this school year.

“You don’t know what you don’t know,” said Anita Murphy, Rochester’s deputy superintendent.

An increased role for state tests

To replace the tests, many districts are turning to a provision in the evaluation law that allows districts to use state test scores for the local growth measure as long as the scores are used in a different way from the state’s measure.

For example, the rules allow districts to evaluate groups of teachers based on the performance of all students in the school on either the math or English state tests. In order to set student benchmarks at the beginning of the year, the rules also allow districts to swap out pre-assessments for “historical data,” which is compiled from academic results in previous school years. State tests at the end of the year then may take the place of post-assessments.

The trend back toward a reliance on state tests has some of Cuomo’s allies crowing that the governor was right all along to argue that student growth should be measured according to state tests.

“Sometimes it turns out the grass under your feet was actually greener than you thought,” said Joe Williams, executive director of Democrats for Education Reform.

Williams said the state union could very easily help schools in districts that haven’t cut back on testing by agreeing to allow state test scores to count more. “If NYSUT wants fewer tests they should encourage it through bargaining,” he said.

NYSUT spokesman Carl Korn called the criticism “incredibly disingenuous” and said it is up to local unions to negotiate the kinds of changes they want to see in their districts.

“We’ve always said our locals are autonomous,” Korn said, adding, “We’ve always supported authentic assessments as better indicators of student growth than standardized bubble tests.”

A smaller shift for New York City

In New York City, the testing burden is less extreme than some other districts’. When State Education Commissioner John King imposed a plan for city schools in June, nearly a year after other districts had begun implementing their plans, his rules provided more ways to measure student learning than just tests.

On top of that, the city has taken steps to shield schools from being required to administer a new set of tests while they focus on other parts of implementation. City officials had wanted to make locally developed tests part of a menu of options for schools, but withheld some when they realized that King would require them in certain instances.  (That decision has had consequences of its own.)

Some performance assessments are being used and their administration, however constrained, are still causing headaches. Schools recently wrapped up grading the tests tied to the assessments, which have stirred high-profile protests  and boycotts from parentsteachers and students.

“The biggest issue is that the testing is an arduous process,” said Gary Nusser, an assistant principal at M.S. 88 in Brooklyn, whose 1,200 students each took two pre-assessments each this year, one in science and one in social studies.

Even as they have sought to reduce tests, current officials have also defended using “pre-tests” as part of the performance assessment process.

“Yes, students do the pre-[assessments] and the post-[assessments] and that’s part of something that you do for evaluating teachers,” Chancellor Dennis Walcott said last week at City Council hearing on testing policies. “There’s nothing wrong with that.”

Nusser said the Department of Education regularly asks him for feedback about the evaluations, and he said he hopes the scoring issues are considered in any future changes.

That’s a distinct possibility. De Blasio has said he wants to “put the standardized testing machine in reverse,” and further changes to reduce testing related to teacher evaluations could be on the table when he takes office next month. UFT President Michael Mulgrew said recently that one of his first priorities after de Blasio becomes mayor is renegotiating the city’s evaluation system — just hours after praising a group of schools that administer almost no state tests at all.

Human Resources

A minimum salary for Colorado teachers? State officials may ask lawmakers to consider it.

A teacher reads to her students at the Cole Arts and Science Academy in Denver. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

As part of a broad plan to increase the volume of high-quality teachers in Colorado, state officials are considering asking lawmakers to take the bold step of establishing a minimum teacher salary requirement tied to the cost of living.

Officials from the state departments of education and higher education are finalizing a list of recommendations to address challenges to Colorado’s teacher workforce. Pressing for the legislation on teacher salaries is one of dozens of recommendations included in a draft report.

The report, assembled at the request of the legislature, also proposes a marketing campaign and scholarships to attract new teachers to rural areas.

Representatives from the Colorado Department of Education said they would not discuss the recommendations until they’re final. However, the department earlier this month briefed the State Board of Education on their proposed recommendations in advance of the Dec. 1 deadline for it to be finalized.

The impending report — based on thousands of responses from educators, students and other Colorado residents in online surveys and town halls across the state — is a sort of first step for the state legislature to tackle a problem years in the making. Since 2010, Colorado has seen a 24 percent drop in the number of college students graduating from the state’s traditional teacher colleges. There’s also been a 23 percent drop in enrollment in those programs.

Residency programs, which place graduate students in a classroom for a full year with an experienced teacher, and other alternative licensure programs have seen a 40 percent increase in enrollment. But those programs produce far fewer teachers and can’t keep up with demand.

Colorado faces a shortage of teachers in certain subjects, regions and schools, and circumstances vary. 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.

And rural schools have had an especially hard time finding and keeping teachers.

Here’s a look at what the state departments are considering recommending, based on the presentation from education department officials to the state board:

Provide more and better training to new — and veteran — teachers.

Colorado schools are already required to offer some sort of induction program for new teachers. This training, which lasts between two and three years, is supposed to supplement what they learned during college.

For the last two years, the state education department has been pushing school districts to update their programs. The recommendations in the report could kick things up a notch.

The education departments are asking for updated induction requirements to be written into statute and more money to be provided to districts to pay for the training.

The draft report also calls for more more sustained training for veteran teachers, including competitive grant programs.

An additional suggestion is to create a program to train teachers expressly to teach in rural classrooms.

Increase teacher compensation and benefits.

This will be a hard pill to swallow. According to the presentation to the state board, the education departments want to call on lawmakers to set a minimum salary for teachers based on the school district’s cost of living.

The presentation to the board lacked specifics on how lawmakers and school districts could accomplish this. One board member, Colorado Springs Republican Steve Durham, called it a “mistake” to include such a recommendation.

Keeping up with the rising cost of living is a challenge. A new report shows new teachers in the state’s three largest school districts couldn’t afford to rent a one-bedroom apartment.

“We hope the report itself is going to talk a lot the cost of living — that’s what we heard from our stakeholders across the field,” Colleen O’Neil, the education department’s executive director of educator talent told the state board. “They literally were not able to meet the cost of living because their salaries did not compensate them fairly enough to find housing.”

Other suggestions the report might highlight to improve teacher compensation include loan forgiveness, housing incentives and creating a differentiated pay scale for teachers — something teachers unions staunchly oppose.

Help schools better plan for hiring and send teachers where they’re needed.

One short-term solution the state is considering recommending is allocating more resources to help schools plan for teacher turnover. This includes providing incentives for teachers to notify school leaders about their plans to leave the classroom earlier.

The education departments are also suggesting the state increase the number of programs that can help teachers get licensed in more than one subject at a time. Other ideas include offering scholarships to potential teachers to complete licensing requirements for content areas that are lacking viable candidates — likely math and science — and providing transportation and technology stipends for rural teachers.

Make the teaching profession more attractive.

Teachers “feel they’re not treated like professionals,” O’Neil told the board. So the education departments want the legislature to allow them to partner with private entities to launch a marketing campaign to lift the profile of teaching as a career in the state.

The education departments also hope the legislature considers creating more opportunities for middle and high school students to consider teaching as a viable career path. This could include reinvigorating the state’s Educators Rising program, a program for high school students interested in teaching.

student teaching

Building a teacher pipeline: How one Aurora school has become a training ground for aspiring teachers

Paraprofessional Sonia Guzman, a student of a teaching program, works with students at Elkhart Elementary School in Aurora. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Students at Aurora’s Elkhart Elementary School are getting assistance from three aspiring teachers helping out in classrooms this year, part of a new partnership aimed at building a bigger and more diverse teacher pipeline.

The teachers-to-be, students at the University of Northern Colorado’s Center for Urban Education, get training and a paid job while they’re in college. Elkhart principal Ron Schumacher gets paraprofessionals with long-term goals and a possibility that they’ll be better prepared to be Aurora teachers.

For Schumacher, it’s part of a plan to not only help his school, but also others in Aurora Public Schools increase teacher retention.

“Because of the nature of our school demographics, it’s a coin flip with a new teacher,” Schumacher said. “If I lose 50 percent of my teachers over time, I’m being highly inefficient. If these ladies know what they’re getting into and I can have them prepared to be a more effective first-year teacher, there’s more likelihood that I’ll keep them in my school in the long term.”

Elkhart has about 590 students enrolled this year. According to state data from last year, more than 95 percent of the students who attend the school qualify for subsidized lunches, a measure of poverty. The school, which operates with an International Baccalaureate program, has outperformed the district average on some state tests.

The three paraprofessionals hired by the school this year are part of the teaching program at UNC’s Lowry campus, which has long required students to work in a school for the four years they work on their degree.

Students get paid for their work in schools, allowing them to earn some money while going to college. Students from the program had worked in Aurora schools in the past, but not usually three students at once at the same school, and not as part of a formal partnership.

The teaching program has a high number of students of color and first-generation college students, which Rosanne Fulton, the program director, said is another draw for partnering with schools in the metro area.

Schumacher said every principal and education leader has the responsibility to help expose students to more teachers who can relate to them.

One of this year’s paraprofessionals is Andy Washington, an 18-year-old who attended Elkhart for a few years when she was a child.

“Getting to know the kids on a personal level, I thought I was going to be scared, but they’re cool,” Washington said.

Another paraprofessional, 20-year-old Sonia Guzman, said kids are opening up to them.

“They ask you what college is like,” Guzman said.

Schumacher said there are challenges to hiring the students, including figuring out how to make use of the students during the morning or early afternoon while being able to release them before school is done for the day so they can make it to their college classes.

Schumacher said he and his district director are working to figure out the best ways to work around those problems so they can share lessons learned with other Aurora principals.

“We’re using some people differently and tapping into volunteers a little differently, but if it’s a priority for you, there are ways of accommodating their schedules,” he said.

At Elkhart, full-time interventionists work with students in kindergarten through third grade who need extra help learning to read.

But the school doesn’t have the budget to hire the same professionals to work with older students. The three student paraprofessionals are helping bridge that gap, learning from the interventionists so they can work with fourth and fifth grade students.

Recently, the three started getting groups of students that they pull out during class to give them extra work on reading skills.

One exercise they worked on with fourth grade students recently was helping them identify if words had an “oi” or “oy” spelling based on their sounds. Students sounded out their syllables and used flashcards to group similar words.

Districts across the country have looked at similar approaches to help attract and prepare teachers for their own schools. In Denver, bond money voters approved last year is helping pay to expand a program this year where paraprofessionals can apply for a one-year program to become teachers while they continue working.

In the partnership at Elkhart, students paraprofessionals take longer than that, but in their first and second year are already learning how to write lessons during their afternoon classes and then working with teachers at the school to deliver the lessons and then reflect on how well they worked. Students say the model helps them feel supported.

“It’s really helping me to become more confident,” said Stephanie Richards, 26, the third paraprofessional. “I know I’m a lot more prepared.”

Schumacher said the model could also work in the future with students from other teaching schools or programs. It’s a small but important part, he said, toward helping larger efforts to attract and retain teachers, and also diversify the ranks.

“You’re doing something for the next generation of folks coming in,” he said.