staying alive

NYSUT head 'optimistic' a deal on evaluations will beat deadline

Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York’s teachers union are working toward an agreement to keep student scores on Common Core-aligned tests from counting toward a teacher’s evaluation.

But the two sides are still divided over which evaluation years will include those scores, and how long into the future to discount them. There is also disagreement over what, if anything, should replace the part of a teacher’s rating that was based on test scores.

Those issues are on the table as they negotiate a union-backed bill to change the state’s teacher evaluation law, New York State United Teachers President Karen Magee said in a radio interview on Friday. Magee said she was “guardedly optimistic” that a deal would be reached before the legislative session ends next Thursday.

Addressing teacher evaluations is one of the few issues that both Democrats and Republicans seem eager to keep alive as that deadline approaches.

Magee said that the union and officials have found common ground on some of concerns that teachers have been raising for more than a year about the implementation of the evaluations. (For New York City teachers, this has been the first year working under the new evaluation system, but it’s the second year for the rest of the state’s teachers.)

Their debate has centered around whether new, tougher state English and math tests, which have been in place for the last two years, have been a fair way to measure how much students have learned. NYSUT is arguing that scores from the initial years of tests shouldn’t be used because their rollout was mishandled by the State Education Department—one part of a generally rocky transition to the Common Core learning standards.

“We’re saying that the tests are severely flawed, that they be deemed invalid and be tossed out,” Magee said.

Under the current law, tests count for 20 of 100 points that make up a teacher evaluation; they count for another 20 points in many districts. The remaining points are based largely on principal observations.

Magee said the union is focusing only on the points of the rating that are affected by the new tests. And she agreed with Cuomo  that throwing out a teacher’s entire evaluation would be “overkill.”

Cuomo hasn’t publicly stated what role, exactly, the Common Core-aligned tests should play in evaluations. But he said that the law should be tweaked for teachers because of “flaws with the way Common Core was being implemented.”

But there is still some disagreement over when the test scores should matter again in teacher evaluations. Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch said on Thursday that they should count no later than the 2014-15 school year, while NYSUT’s bill, which has passed in the Assembly, would give teachers an additional year without worrying how student scores would affect their evaluations.

Another issue is what, exactly, would replace state test scores if that part of evaluations is discounted.

The NYSUT bill would give teachers a rating based solely on a principal’s observations in some cases. That goes against the state’s Race to the Top promise to measure teachers based on some measure of student learning. An alternative proposal that was being discussed, a union official said, wouldn’t change a teachers’ rating, but would ensure they couldn’t be fired based on multiple years of poor student performance on the Common Core tests.

If the bill passes, the changes won’t affect the majority of teachers in New York. Only about 20 percent of the state’s teachers work in state-tested grades and subjects, though other teachers—whose schools opted for evaluations that reflect schoolwide test score averages—could see changes as well.

The number of teachers that the changes would protect against termination, though, is likely to be small. The state hasn’t released a breakdown of ratings for the 2012-13 school year, but just 6 percent of teachers were rated “ineffective” on that part of their evaluation a year earlier.

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.


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.