on tape

For 20 percent of city teachers, observations come after a film screening

A video still shot of Danielle Lerro's English language arts class at I.S. 303 in the South Bronx. Lerro and Assistant Principal Monica Brady will be discussing how video can enhance the classroom observation process at a Feb. 25 event hosted by Chalkbeat New York and New America NYC.

As one of just two people certified to do classroom observations at I.S. 303, Assistant Principal Monica Brady’s workload is getting pretty backed up.

She and the principal together must observe the South Bronx middle school’s 29 teachers 174 times as part of their new teacher evaluation plans.

“I’m fairly behind on getting mine all done,” Brady said. “There’s just not enough hours in the day.”

But Brady has a plan to catch up. All of the teachers at I.S. 303 allowed administrators to film their lessons, so she can watch the tapes later rather than see them teach in person.

It’s a tool that 20 percent of city teachers opted into this year, the first under new evaluation rules that require many more observations than in the past. Brady and Danielle Lerro, one of her teachers, will be discussing how they use video in observations at a panel discussion that we’re co-hosting Feb. 25 with New America NYC. (RSVP for a free seat here.)

New York City is one of just 10 districts in the state to offer the video option for teachers, according to the State Education Department. City officials said one in five teachers authorized their administrators to film their classes.

The option was made available in the city’s evaluation plan imposed last year by State Education Commissioner John King, who has encouraged the use of video as a way to provide good feedback to teachers about their instruction. State law requires subjective measures such as observations to count for 60 percent of each teacher’s evaluation, and King required city administrators to rate teachers on all 22 elements of the Danielson Framework for Teaching.

King also gave teachers a choice between having one pre-announced period-length observation and three shorter ones, or at least six shorter and less formal observations.

At I.S. 303, all teachers chose the second option. But they soon saw that pulling it off would be logistically complicated.

“We realized it was really impossible to expect them to get into the classroom six times over the course of the year,” said Lerro, an eighth-grade English language arts teacher.

The United Federation of Teachers supports the observation-by-video option as long as teachers sign off on it beforehand. The union also prefers that teachers give consent when their classes are used to provide feedback, not inform an observation.

Brady and Lerro said using video as part of classroom observations, even for high-stakes evaluative purposes, is promising for more reasons than just saving time. I.S. 303 has taped dozens of hours of instruction in recent years to help teachers reflect on their own work and improve.

“When you’re viewing yourself, that can be really helpful,” Lerro said.

Brady said she’s able to pick up on more, because she can watch the tapes multiple times and notice different aspects of the class and the teacher’s instruction each time.

And having an objective record of a class is helpful when administrators and teachers debrief afterwards, she said, because their impressions of the class can often differ.

“You and I can see things very differently,” Brady said of how real-time perceptions inside a classroom differ. One person could see evidence of high engagement, something that the Danielson Framework demands, in a class where students eagerly raise their hands and shout out answers, she said. But another person might see the same class and think that the teacher struggled with classroom management.

Lerro said one reason that using video has worked at I.S. 303 is because teachers and administrators have a strong relationship already. And she said that since the school had been using video for its professional development for years, opting into using it for high-stakes teacher evaluations was not a big concern.

“People felt comfortable because they felt real trust with the administration,” Lerro said. “They know that the evaluations are being used to really make us better.”

And Brady said the time-saving appeal of using video instead of observing classes in person does result in some loss. “The best of both worlds,” she said, would be if administrators were present in the classroom for the observation and taped it at the same time, enabling both the administrator and teacher to use the footage to confirm or revise their first impressions about how the lesson went.

And Brady said video can be limiting for another reason: While videotaped lessons allow observers to see clearly what the teacher is doing, the camera’s placement in the back of the classroom makes it hard to tell how students are reacting.

“You can’t see if they’re having an ‘Aha!’ moment,” she said.

Exiting

Tennessee schools chief Candice McQueen leaving for job at national education nonprofit

PHOTO: TN.Gov

Tennessee’s education chief is leaving state government to lead a nonprofit organization focused on attracting, developing, and keeping high-quality educators.

Candice McQueen, 44, will step down in early January to become the CEO of National Institute for Excellence in Teaching.

Gov. Bill Haslam, whose administration will end on Jan. 19, announced the impending departure of his education commissioner on Thursday.

He plans to name an interim commissioner, according to an email from McQueen to her staff at the education department.

“While I am excited about this new opportunity, it is hard to leave this team,” she wrote. “You are laser-focused on doing the right thing for Tennessee’s students every single day – and I take heart in knowing you will continue this good work in the months and years to come. I look forward to continuing to support your work even as I move into this new role with NIET.”

A former teacher and university dean, McQueen has been one of Haslam’s highest-profile cabinet members since joining the administration in 2015 to replace Kevin Huffman, a lawyer who was an executive at Teach For America.

Her tenure has been highlighted by overhauling the state’s requirements for student learning, increasing transparency about how Tennessee students are doing, and launching a major initiative to improve reading skills in a state that struggles with literacy.

But much of the good work has been overshadowed by repeated technical failures in Tennessee’s switch to a computerized standardized test — even forcing McQueen to cancel testing for most students in her second year at the helm. The assessment program continued to struggle this spring, marred by days of technical glitches.

Haslam, who has consistently praised McQueen’s leadership throughout the rocky testing ride, said Tennessee’s education system has improved under her watch.

“Candice has worked relentlessly since day one for Tennessee’s students and teachers, and under her leadership, Tennessee earned its first ‘A’ rating for the standards and the rigor of the state’s assessment after receiving an ‘F’ rating a decade ago,” Haslam said in a statement. “Candice has raised the bar for both teachers and students across the state, enabling them to rise to their greatest potential. I am grateful for her service.”

McQueen said being education commissioner has been “the honor of a lifetime” and that her new job will allow her to “continue to be an advocate for Tennessee’s teachers and work to make sure every child is in a class led by an excellent teacher every day.”

At the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching, she’ll work with states, districts, and schools to improve the effectiveness of teachers and will operate out of the organization’s new office in Nashville. The institute’s work impacts more than 250,000 educators and 2.5 million students.

“Candice McQueen understands that highly effective teachers can truly transform the lives of our children, our classrooms, our communities and our futures,” said Lowell Milken, chairman of the institute, which has existing offices in Phoenix, Washington, D.C., and Santa Monica, Calif.

In an interview with Chalkbeat, McQueen said numerous organizations had approached her about jobs this year as Tennessee prepared to transition to a new administration under Gov.-elect Bill Lee. She called leading the institute “an extraordinary opportunity that I felt was a great fit” because of its focus on supporting, leading, and compensating teachers.

“It’s work that I believe is the heart and soul of student improvement,” she said.

McQueen’s entire career has focused on strengthening teacher effectiveness and support systems for teachers. Before joining Haslam’s administration, the Tennessee native was an award-winning teacher; then faculty member, department chair, and dean of Lipscomb University’s College of Education in Nashville. As dean from 2008 to 2015, Lipscomb became one of the highest-rated teacher preparation programs in Tennessee and the nation. There, McQueen also doubled the size and reach of the college’s graduate programs with new master’s degrees and certificates, the university’s first doctoral program, and additional online and off-campus offerings.

As Haslam’s education commissioner the last four years, McQueen stayed the course on Tennessee’s 2010 overhaul of K-12 education, which was highlighted by raising academic standards; measuring student improvement through testing; and holding students, teachers, schools, and districts accountable for the results.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Candice McQueen has been commissioner of education for Republican Gov. Bill Haslam since 2015.

One of the plan’s most controversial components was teacher evaluations that are tied to student growth on state tests — a strategy that McQueen has stood by and credited in part for Tennessee’s gains on national tests.

Since 2011, Tennessee has seen record-high graduation rates, college-going rates, and ACT scores and steadily moved up in state rankings on the Nation’s Report Card.

Several new studies say Tennessee teachers are getting better under the evaluation system, although other research paints a less encouraging picture.

Her choice to lead the national teaching institute quickly garnered praise from education leaders across the country.

“The students of Tennessee have benefited from Candice McQueen’s leadership, including bold efforts to ensure students have access to advanced career pathways to lead to success in college and careers, and a solid foundation in reading,” said Carissa Moffat Miller, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers.

Louisiana Education Superintendent John White said McQueen brings ideal skills to her new job.

“She is not just a veteran educator who has worked in higher education and K-12 education alike, but she is also a visionary leader with a unique understanding of both quality classroom teaching and the systems necessary to make quality teaching possible for millions of students,” White said.

Read more reaction to the news of McQueen’s planned exit.

reading science

Reading instruction is big news these days. Teachers, share your thoughts with us!

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

Lately, lots of people are talking about reading. Specifically, how it’s taught (or not) in America’s schools.

Much of the credit is due to American Public Media reporter Emily Hanford. In September, she took an in-depth look at what’s wrong with reading instruction in the nation’s classrooms and how explicit, systematic phonics instruction could help.

The crux of the issue is this: In the 1980s and 1990s, the “whole language” approach to teaching reading took hold, relying on the idea that learning to read is a natural process that could be helped along by surrounding kids with good books. At many schools, phonics was out.

In time, many educators brought small doses of phonics back into their lessons, adopting an approach called “balanced literacy.” The problem is, neither whole language nor balanced literacy is based on science, Hanford explained.

Her work on the subject — an audio documentary called Hard Words, a follow-up Q&A for parents, and an opinion piece in the New York Times — has spawned much discussion on social media and elsewhere.

A Maine educator explained in her piece for the Hechinger Report why she agrees that explicit phonics instruction is important but doesn’t think “balanced literacy” should be thrown out. A Minnesota reporter examined the divide in her state over how much phonics should be included in reading lessons and how it should be delivered.

In a roundtable discussion on reading last spring, Stephanie Finn, a literacy coach in the West Genesee Central School District in upstate New York, described the moment she became disillusioned with the whole language approach. It was while reading a story with her young daughter.

“The story was about gymnastics and she had a lot of background knowledge about gymnastics. She loved gymnastics. She knew the word ‘gymnastics,’ and ‘balance beam’ and ‘flexible’ and she got to the girl’s name and the girl’s name was Kate, and she didn’t know what to do,” said Finn. “I thought ‘Holy cow, she cannot decode this simple word. We have a problem.’”

In an opinion piece in Education Week, Susan Pimentel, co-founder of StandardsWork, provides three recommendations to help educators promote reading proficiency. Besides not confining kids to “just-right” books where they already know most words, she says teachers should increase students’ access to knowledge-building subjects like science and social studies. Finally, she writes, “Let quality English/language arts curriculum do some of the heavy lifting. Poor-quality curriculum is at the root of reading problems in many schools.”

Meanwhile, some current and former educators are asking teacher prep program leaders to explain the dearth of science-based lessons on reading instruction.

An Arkansas teacher wrote in a letter to her former dean on Facebook, “while I feel like most of my teacher preparation was very good, I can say I was totally unprepared to teach reading, especially to the struggling readers that I had at the beginning of my career in my resource classroom.”

Former elementary school teacher Robert Pondiscio, a senior fellow and vice president for external affairs at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, wrote to his former dean, “I’m grateful for the professional credential … But if there’s anything one might expect an advanced degree in elementary education to include, it would be teaching reading. It wasn’t part of my program.”

Teachers, now we’d like to hear from you. What resonates with you about the recent news coverage on reading instruction? What doesn’t? Share your perspective by filling out this brief survey.