gates keeper

Support wanes for teacher ratings based on Common Core tests

New York is finding itself increasingly isolated in its effort to continue using tests tied to Common Core standards for teacher evaluations.

On Tuesday, a senior executive with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation said the organization agrees that test scores shouldn’t be used for “high-stakes decisions on teacher evaluation or student promotion for the next two years”—adding a significant dose of national criticism to the growing scrutiny of New York’s teacher evaluation plans. Though the state isn’t mentioned by name, the message applies directly to New York, which has simultaneously rolled out new Common Core-aligned state tests and a new teacher evaluation system.

For more than a year, Education Commissioner John King has rebuffed calls to lower the stakes for teachers as the state adopted the new, tougher standards. New York’s fast pace stands in contrast to that of other states, including Kentucky, Colorado, Louisiana and Maryland, whose deliberation is specifically praised in the letter by Vicki Phillips, the director of the foundation’s College Ready initiative.

“Each of these states is taking a different approach, but they all are listening to teachers, and they are all taking steps to align their approach with what teachers need to make the standards succeed,” Phillips wrote.

Phillips represents a powerful voice in national education policy debate, and one that typically backs King’s aggressive agenda. Through its research and advocacy, the Gates Foundation has poured millions of dollars into a nationwide effort to encourage states to overhaul their evaluation laws and develop new systems that factor in student test data.

The Gates Foundation isn’t alone in its decision to temporarily back away from using Common Core-aligned tests to rate teachers. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has in recent weeks acknowledged the concerns long raised by teachers tasked with implementing the standards.

Teachers unions say schools haven’t been prepared to teach to the new standards that are reflected in the tests, which require more critical thinking and a deeper understanding of numeric operations. And the state not released Common Core curriculum as often as districts had expected, adding to the challenges.

“Flawed Common Core implementation has severely damaged confidence in the accuracy of evaluations,” Cuomo said last month, according to Newsday. “I believe we must work diligently to remedy that situation with a legislative solution this session.”

Phillips echoed those concerns in her letter.

“No evaluation system will work unless teachers believe it is fair and reliable, and it’s very hard to be fair in a time of transition,” Phillips wrote.

The added pressure makes changes to the state’s teacher evaluation law increasingly likely. But the legislative session ends in a week—and it’s unclear if there is enough political will in the State Senate to tackle teacher evaluations in such a short period of time.

New York has already taken a number of steps to delay the impacts of new standards and tests. For instance, test scores can’t be included on student transcripts or used by schools as primary factors when it comes to admissions or grade promotion decisions.

Teachers argue that they should get the same kind of protection that students get.

“If the tests shouldn’t be used to penalize kids — and they shouldn’t be — it’s only fair to extend that to teacher,” said Karen McGee, president of the New York State United Teachers, which today launched a $200,000 advertising blitz to make that argument to lawmakers.

In response, state education officials have emphasized that state tests still count for less than half of a teacher’s evaluation. And King said that few teachers, if any, will be negatively impacted by evaluations until 2015, more than five years after the state adopted the Common Core standards and passed the teacher evaluation law.

“I think we struck the right balance in the law we developed in 2010,” King said in an interview last month.

Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch warned that changing the law to reduce the role that testing plays in a teacher’s evaluation could cost the state money. New York received nearly $700 million in federal funding to change its teacher evaluation law in 2010.

“I have not heard anything that indicates to me that the state of New York is willing to walk away from that federal grant,” Tisch said last month.

But there is little evidence that the state would be risking that money if it does opt not to use Common Core tests on evaluations. Last year, Education Secretary Arne Duncan told some states that they could wait until 2016 to evaluate teachers using Common Core-aligned state tests.

The bigger question is how student performance would be factored into teacher evaluations for the next two years if Common Core state tests can’t count. The law currently requires 40 percent of a teacher’s evaluation be based on student learning measures and if state tests can’t count, officials will have to come up with a different measure to take their place.

A spokesman for NYSUT said that piece of legislation was still under discussion.

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.

surprise!

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.