By the numbers

91 percent of city teachers rated effective or higher in first round of new evaluations

PHOTO: Jackie Schechter

Updated, 2:15 p.m. — Far fewer New York City teachers received the highest possible rating on last year’s evaluations than teachers in the rest of the state, according to numbers released Tuesday by state officials.

Of the 62,184 city teachers evaluated in the 2013-14 school year, 9.2 percent earned a “highly effective” rating, though nearly 60 percent of teachers outside the city earned that distinction. Still, 91 percent of city teachers earned one of the top two ratings, with 82 percent of city teachers rated “effective,” 7 percent rated “developing,” and 1.2 percent rated “ineffective,” the lowest possible rating.

Outside of New York City, the numbers skewed toward the higher ratings: Only 2 percent of teachers in the rest of the state were rated developing and less than 1 percent were rated ineffective. Those numbers indicated that the city’s evaluation system was more reliable than the ones negotiated in other districts, state education officials said, not that fewer top teachers were working in New York City schools.

“Our teachers are not getting feedback about their relative strengths and weaknesses,” said Assistant Commissioner Julia Rafal-Baer, referring to the large numbers of teachers in other districts rated highly effective.

The data offers a first glimpse of how the new evaluations — the result of a years-long legislative fight and a contentious dispute between city and union officials — played out in New York City, which debuted the new method in the 2013-14 school year. This is the second year of data for the rest of the state.

The high number of teachers earning the highest ratings sets the stage for another push to change the evaluations, something that Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said he wants to see this year. It’s also likely to be fodder for advocates like Campbell Brown and Mona Davids, who are suing the state over laws they say make it too difficult to remove ineffective teachers.

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PHOTO: NYSED

“The ratings show there’s much more work to do to strengthen the evaluation system,” Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch said in a statement. “We look forward to working with the Governor, Legislature, NYSUT, and other education stakeholders to strengthen the evaluation law in the coming legislative session to make it a more effective a tool for professional development.”

New York City’s evaluation system is different from those in place in the rest of the state in large part because it was imposed by State Education Commissioner John King after the city and the teachers union were unable to negotiate a plan. Rafal-Baer noted that the plan’s differences from other districts resulted in “significant principal control” and the option to allow teachers and teachers to use video in their observations.

Under the state’s new system, determined by a law passed in 2010, teacher ratings in New York come from three components. Sixty percent of the evaluation comes mostly from classroom observations, 20 percent comes from student learning measures determined by the state, and 20 percent is based on student learning measures determined by the district.

The city’s scoring system set a higher bar for what scores were needed to receive effective and highly effective ratings. For instance, more students needed to hit learning goals for their teachers to be highly rated under the city’s plan.

“A well-developed evaluation system – with four, much more nuanced ratings, instead of only two – helps us identify and provide specific support to struggling teachers, as well as identify those who do not belong in the classroom,” Chancellor Carmen Fariña said in a statement.

The system’s four possible ratings were meant to better distinguish teacher quality, and its supporters said that the evaluations would help resolve the disconnect between teachers’ almost uniformly high ratings and the low number of students who graduate high school prepared for college-level work.

The evaluations’ proponents also said they would also help districts root out the lowest-performing teachers by allowing districts to use ratings to fire or deny job protections. In recent years, supporters have begun to say that the new evaluations are better used to spur teacher improvement.

But as the state simultaneously transitioned to Common Core-aligned tests that factored into some teacher evaluations, lawmakers created a “safety net” to ensure teachers could not lose their jobs or be denied tenure for low student scores. (Gov. Andrew Cuomo still hasn’t signed that legislation.)

Statewide, the distribution of ratings is similar to data from the 2012-13 school year, which the state did not release until this August. In total, 94 percent of teachers and 92 percent of principals earned one of the top two ratings that year.

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.