5 lessons from Chalkbeat's event on teacher evaluations by video

The panel discussion I moderated on Tuesday evening focused on two video clips of classroom teaching that together lasted just over four minutes. Those four minutes fueled an hourlong discussion about how teachers are getting observed, especially now that New York City is implementing a teacher evaluation system that requires principals to spend far more time inside classrooms than ever before.

Our first two guests, a teacher and assistant principal from a middle school in the South Bronx, discussed quirks of the Danielson Framework, the way a subtle classroom command can derail a lesson and when technology trumps person. A policy analyst with New America NYC, Chalkbeat’s co-host for the event, then joined to offer a perspective on efforts to improve teacher quality around the country. An active online chat for the duration of the event added extra insight.

A summary of the event is below. If you missed it, we taped saved a live broadcast, which you can see (if not always hear) in its entirety here.

1. Danielson sometimes sets too high a bar for teachers 

Even a perfect teacher would have a hard time matching up to the hypothetical classroom educators described in Danielson’s rubric. In Danielson’s ideal, students of “highly effective” teachers finish work early and ask for more, offer one another feedback on writing samples, and seamlessly transition from one activity to another.

“Is ‘Mr. Holland’s Opus’ possible every time you walk into the class?” asked I.S. 3o3 Assistant Principal Monica Brady, one of the panelists, referring to the movie about the inspirational music teacher. “Is it going to happen every moment of that amazing class?”

Brady said teachers having their best days on the job would have trouble aspiring to some Danielson exemplars.

“There are things about it that are nutso,” she said. “Kids can’t have choice every time they walk into a room.”

2. “Fist-to-Five” and other strategies for student-led grouping don’t always work

As a result of Danielson’s unreasonably lofty standards, educators say it can sometimes be smarter not to reach for them at all. That’s tough for ambitious teachers like Danielle Lerro, the I.S. 303 English teacher on the panel. She studied the rubric and knew what it took to be rated “highly effective” for each component.

In the first video shown, Lerro asked students to show their level of understanding of text they had just read, using fingers on one hand, with a fist being a low level and five being high. She used “fist-to-five” and left it up to them to partner with each other based on shared comfort with the material, a practice that is a “highly effective” way to assess instruction in real time, according to Danielson.

But leaving the decision up to students can be “deceptive,” Brady said, especially in a classroom with many high-needs students who might throw up more fingers than they should.

“Fist-to-five is great, but you need to be able to select sometimes who you know is getting it and who’s not,” Brady said she told Lerro.

In the next video, taken several months later, Lerro listed students before the class who she knew would need extra help and worked with them on a similar activity.

“In an ideal world, [students grouping themselves] would happen all the time,” Lerro said. “But in the world we live in it can’t happen all the time.”

3. It’s all about the school

Classroom observations are yet another instance where policy can make sense in theory but fail in implementation. That was a takeaway from some who joined the event’s conversation online.

A teacher on Twitter said that what is constructive in some schools can be destructive and punitive in others.

Maisie McAdoo, an official with the city teachers union, agreed. “A lot depends on administrators getting this right and too many use the rubrics against teachers,” she responded.

Brady acknowledged the concern during the panel. She said observations are not a “gotcha” technique at I.S. 303, noting that she’ll sometimes cancel a planned observation if she realizes early on that students are especially unruly or the teacher is having an abnormally rough day. If she wanted to use Danielson against a teacher, she said she probably could.

“In the same way that it’s setting a standard, it’s also a standard that’s really easy to fudge,” she said. “It’s really easy to use to get someone.”

4. Observation by video can sometimes trump the real thing 

The limitations of using video as a proxy for an actual observer are easy to imagine. One is that video can miss a student’s reaction when a lesson starts to click for him. Another, New America’s Laura Bornfreund said, is that administrators who watch the video later on in their office might not be fully focused, or “guilty of multitasking.”

But Lerro said she recently picked up on an unanticipated advantage. Most administrators are respected authority figures in their schools. So when they pop into classrooms for observations, it often alters the behavior of the class, an externality that could mask a teacher’s weakness in classroom management.

Lerro said Brady was a good example. Students are always on their best behavior when they know Brady is near, Lerro said, so Brady gets the most realistic view into the classroom when she’s watching tape.

5. Educators want unlikely changes to their evaluation plans

When asked to name the one thing they want to see changed in the city’s teacher evaluation system, Brady and Lerro offered some revisions that might never come.

Brady said she worried about the pace at which the system was being imposed on schools. “For me it’s the speed,” Brady said. She said she was worried that the evaluations could breed distrust among teachers and administrators.

Lerro said that she had little confidence in calculations of teachers’ impact on students’ growth on state tests, a method known as “value-added.” Value-added scores calculated by the city starting in 2007 rarely matched up to a teacher’s actual quality, she said.

“They were all over the map based on what I know about good teaching,” Lerro said. “There was no correlation from what I saw.”

Her anecdotal experience matches what studies of the scores have verified. The city abandoned the scores two years ago, but state law requires that 20 percent of a teacher’s 2013-2014 rating be based on a value-added score determined by the state. Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s strident defense of the state’s evaluation law this year suggests that the formula is unlikely to be changed anytime soon.


Teachers in Millington and Knoxville just won the Oscar awards of education

PHOTO: Milken Family Foundation
Millington English teacher Katherine Watkins reacts after learning that she is the recipient of a 2017 Milken Educator Award.

Two Tennessee teachers were surprised during school assemblies Thursday with a prestigious national teaching award, $25,000 checks, and a visit from the state’s education chief.

Katherine Watkins teaches high school English in Millington Municipal Schools in Shelby County. She serves as the English department chair and professional learning community coordinator at Millington Central High School. She is also a trained jazz pianist, published poet, and STEM teacher by summer.

PHOTO: Milken Family Foundation
Paula Franklin learns she is among the recipients.

Paula Franklin teaches Advanced Placement government at West High School in Knoxville. Since she took on the course, its enrollment has doubled, and 82 percent of her students pass with an average score that exceeds the national average.

The teachers are two of 45 educators being honored nationally with this year’s Milken Educator Awards from the Milken Family Foundation. The award includes a no-strings-attached check for $25,000.

“It is an honor to celebrate two exceptional Tennessee educators today on each end of the state,” said Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, who attended each assembly. “Paula Franklin and Katherine Watkins should be proud of the work they have done to build positive relationships with students and prepare them with the knowledge and skills to be successful in college and the workforce.”

Foundation chairman Lowell Milken was present to present the awards, which have been given to thousands of teachers since 1987.

PHOTO: Milken Family Foundation
Students gather around Millington teacher Katherine Watkins as she receives a check as part of her Milken Educator Award.

The Milken awards process starts with recommendations from sources that the foundation won’t identify. Names are then reviewed by committees appointed by state departments of education, and their recommendations are vetted by the foundation, which picks the winners.

Last year, Chattanooga elementary school teacher Katie Baker was Tennessee’s sole winner.

In all, 66 Tennessee educators have been recognized by the Milken Foundation and received a total of $1.6 million since the program began in the state in 1992.

You can learn more about the Milken Educator Awards here.

Colorado Vote 2018

Polis campaign releases education plan, including new promise about teacher raises

Congressman Jared Polis meets with teachers, parents and students at the Academy of Urban Learning in Denver after announcing his gubernatorial campaign. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Congressman Jared Polis, one of several Democrats running for governor, released an education plan for the state Wednesday that includes new details on tackling teacher shortages and better preparing high school students for work.

The Boulder Democrat wants to help school districts build affordable housing for teachers, increase teacher pay and make sure that “100 percent of Colorado’s school districts are able to offer dual and concurrent enrollment programs through an associate’s degree or professional certification, and work to boost enrollment in them.”

The education plan includes the congressman’s initial campaign promise to deliver free and universal preschool and kindergarten.

“Part of my frustration is that politicians have been talking about preschool and kindergarten for decades,” Polis said in an interview with Chalkbeat. “It’s time to stop talking … and actually do it.”

Big questions remain, however, about how Colorado would pay for Polis’s plans.

Free universal preschool and kindergarten would cost hundreds of millions of tax dollars the state does not have. Polis has acknowledged that voters will need to approve a tax increase to secure the funding necessary — and voters rejected Colorado’s last big statewide ask to fund education initiatives.

His additional promises, especially providing schools with more money to pay teachers, only adds to the price tag for his education plan. The campaign did not release any projections of how much his teacher pay raise proposal would cost.

“If a teacher can’t afford to live in the community they work in, that is not going to be an attractive profession,” he said. “We need to do a better job in Colorado making sure teachers are rewarded for their hard work.”

Other components to Polis’s plan includes providing student loan relief for teachers who commit to serving in high-need and rural areas, increasing teacher training and building and renovating more.

Polis is the latest Democrat to roll out an education platform.

Former state Sen. Michael Johnston released more details earlier this week about his campaign promise for tuition-free community college and job training.

Johnston’s campaign estimates that the initiative would cost about $47 million annually. The campaign provided specifics on how the state would pay for it: by combining existing federal grants and state scholarships, revenue from online sales tax, and state workforce development funding. Savings from volunteer hours put in by tuition recipients also are factored in.

Former state Treasurer Cary Kennedy released her education plan last month.

Like Polis, Kennedy is calling for teacher raises. She wants the state’s average salary to be closer to the national average. The former state treasurer also wants to expand preschool and job training for high school students. A key piece of Kennedy’s proposal to pay for her initiatives: reforming the state’s tax laws to generate more revenue.

Other Democrats running to replace Gov. John Hickenlooper, who is term-limited, include Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne and businessman Noel Ginsburg.

The Republican field to replace Hickenlooper, a Democrat, is also crowded. Attorney General Cynthia Coffman announced earlier this month that she’s running. Other leading Republican candidates include former Congressman Tom Tancredo, state Treasurer Walker Stapleton, and businessmen Doug Robinson and Victor Mitchell. George Brauchler, district attorney for the 18th Judicial District, dropped out of the race to instead run for attorney general.