Evaluating Evaluations

Appeal process in new evaluation plan shifts weight from student scores, for some

PHOTO: Sarah Darville

Imagine this: You’re a gym teacher at a struggling high school. Because of the way teacher evaluations were implemented in your school, 40 percent of your rating is based on test scores in a subject you don’t teach and from students who aren’t yours. And the students do poorly. Even when your principal says you’re doing well, or exceptionally well, in classroom observations, state law says that an “ineffective” for student learning means you’re stamped with an overall “ineffective” rating.

City and union officials said they had thousands of teachers like this one in mind when they agreed to a new appeal process as part of their contract agreement. Beginning this year, the process makes it easy for an “ineffective” rating to be boosted if it’s based on test scores of subjects and students that the teacher does not teach—as long a supervisor gives the teacher higher marks.

The new process isn’t protection for the sake of protection, local officials say. “It’s an appeal to address a particular problem that exists as a result of a lack of assessments,” said UFT Special Representative Amy Arundell.

But the new appeal process will also benefit thousands of math, English and other core subject teachers who receive “ineffective” ratings based on their own students’ academic growth. And shifting the weight of some teacher evaluations away from student performance metrics could make it controversial with state officials, who must approve the evaluation proposal.

core tenet of the state’s evaluation law is flunking teachers whose students show no academic growth. That’s an idea Gov. Andrew Cuomo and State Education Commissioner John King have fiercely defended over the years.

“If we’re serious about supporting excellence in teaching, we can’t have an evaluation system that permits a teacher who scores a zero on student achievement to receive a positive rating,” King said in 2011 in response to a legal challenge from the state teachers union to modify the role of state tests in evaluations.

The use of standardized test scores in teacher evaluations has garnered plenty of criticism, but the scores are preferred by officials because they are seen as a tougher standard than principal observations. Last year, for instance, just 1 percent of teachers across the state received an overall “ineffective” rating, though 6 percent of a subgroup of teachers were rated “ineffective” based solely on standardized test scores.

Research into the reliability of any one measure for teacher evaluations is mixed, with new studies casting doubt on both observations and value-added measures.

The deal has provided more ammunition for the union’s critics, who say it’s another way to weaken teacher accountability.

“Removing objective measures of student achievement undermines the intent of teacher evaluations, which we know was Mike Mulgrew’s goal in the first place,” said StudentsFirstNY Jenny Sedlis said. “Any professional needs an honest assessment of what’s working and what’s not in order to develop and improve.”

The problem with that critique, teachers say, is that the city hasn’t offered an “honest assessment” for many types of educators, including 5,000 physical education and arts teachers, librarians, and others who teach foreign language, health and career education—even though they’re evaluated like the rest of their colleagues.

“I’m being measured largely on kids I don’t even teach this year,” said Tara Brancato, a high school music teacher in the Bronx who, along with the rest of the school’s art department, will be evaluated based on how all students in the school do on their English Regents exams.

The city and union plan to improve assessment options in non-tested subjects, but Arundell said a safeguard is needed until fewer schools use learning measures that don’t relate to the work of some teachers.

“There’s an acknowledgement that there is a lack of authenticity to a person’s rating if you’re going to evaluate both on students you do not teach and subjects you do not teach,” Arundell said.

Brancato and other teachers who could be affected said the change was a welcome step toward addressing what they say has been a neglected part of teacher evaluations.

“They really are taking into consideration all teachers in the system,” said Jason Zanitsch, a high school drama teacher at the High School for Public Service in Brooklyn. “It’s far from perfect, but it’s definitely a step forward.”

Still, there are assessments available to evaluate many of the core subject teachers who will also qualify for appeals. Partially to prevent an onslaught of new tests, many schools opted to rate all teachers using a “group” measure, which gives an entire school’s staff—including math and English teachers—the same rating for the piece of the evaluation based on student performance on state tests. Having a “group” measure factor in to your evaluation qualifies a teacher for the new appeal process.

City officials said they were unable to calculate the number teachers who are being rated on “group” measures this year. But they said they anticipated that only a small percentage would use the appeal process, because the combination of receiving the lowest rating for student learning and an “effective” or “highly effective” rating by a supervisor is rare.

For those who do end up with that combination, the odds of a negative rating being boosted are in a teacher’s favor. The appeal process includes the presumption of a higher rating, meaning the burden of proof needed to uphold the original “ineffective” rating would fall on the city.

A separate appeal process would also be set up for teachers rated “highly effective” on student learning measures, but who earn an overall “ineffective” because of a principal’s observation. In that case, the UFT can choose which cases to appeal to an arbitration panel of three teachers.

Now, the deal must get a final sign-off from Commissioner John King. The city is supposed to submit a draft of its proposal to King by Thursday. A spokesman for the State Education Department declined to comment on the plan.

Department of Education officials said they believe the city’s proposed plan complied with state evaluation laws and regulations. In a statement, a spokeswoman said the agreement “focuses on raising student achievement in ways we’ve never been able to do before.”

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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.