an objective measure

As new teacher evaluation system looms, Tisch defends need for state tests

Catherine Nolan, speaking to Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch (right) and Regent Kathleen Cashin.

As state education officials have been tasked with crafting a new teacher evaluation system, Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch on Tuesday continued to defend the need for a state test as a necessary measure to address longstanding inequities.

State test results “scream to anyone who looks at them carefully for the needs of access and opportunity for students living in our high-needs districts,” she said. “We need an objective measure and that objective measure is a state test.”

One week before schools will start to administer the state’s annual reading exam, Tisch took issue with the motives of those supporting the movement to opt students out of taking the tests and blamed high levels of student stress on “angry rhetoric” coming from adults.

“I truly believe that if the adults in the situation and in the room start to work with each other — calm down a little bit — I think the stress levels would be greatly diminished,” she said on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show Tuesday.

Tisch has spoken out against the opt-out movement before, calling it a “terrible mistake,” but her comments Tuesday went a step further by calling out Karen Magee, president of New York State United Teachers, for openly urging parents to “opt out.”

While city teachers union leaders have avoided making similar statements, Tisch cautioned against the possible implications of endorsing the movement for the purpose of parent choice.

If the teachers union comes out in support of opting out of annual state tests, “as Karen Magee at NYSUT has,” Tisch said, “I would say… if it’s parents’ rights, let’s put it all on the table. Let’s not just pick one thing and say, ‘We want parents to have a choice there.’”

“Why don’t we talk about parents whose kids don’t have a choice other than to go to a failing school or to have a teacher that hasn’t been effective or prepared effectively?”

Tisch also warned that a mass opt-out of the state tests could result in New York moving away from its own locally-designed exams and be forced to adopt the Common Core-aligned tests created by one of two groups of states.

“In order for us to be able to have a viable state test, we need a viable number of students in every district showing up to be tested,” she said.

Last year, tens of thousands of students across New York sat out the state exams, as did more than 1,900 in the city — a tiny fraction of the 410,000 students who took the tests, but a 450 percent increase over the previous year.

State test scores will continue to play a prominent role in how a teacher is rated, which will also take into account at least one observation by the teacher’s principal, and one observation from an “independent” evaluator.

Under the budget agreement, the ratings will also be tied to teacher tenure eligibility and be used to make it easier to fire a teacher who repeatedly earns “ineffective” ratings.

“Not one teacher in this state has yet been let go, to the best of my knowledge, because of anything having to do with evaluations,” Tisch said.

But Tisch reiterated that “nowhere in the new law” does it require that 50 percent of a teacher’s overall rating must be based on student growth on state standardized tests, which is the measure that Gov. Andrew Cuomo was hoping to achieve.

matrix_cb
Final ratings under a new default evaluation system will be determined by matching ratings from testing and observation subcomponents according to the matrix above.

The governor and legislative leaders are “all over the map” when it comes to the new rating system, Tisch said. “They are looking to us to bring a grown up’s perspective to a very complicated issue… This has been set up so no matter who we disappoint, it’s our fault.”

The state education commissioner (for now, a vacant position) and Tisch have been tasked with settling the details of the new scoring system by the end of June — though they require approval from the full 17-member board.

And while the governor’s office has been referring to the state education department’s role in developing the evaluation system as “purely administrative,” Tisch said the budget language provides an “enormous opportunity” to speak with teachers, principals, superintendents and parents about “where we’ve been” and “where we need to go.”

“I hope that the state education department will be able to become the table of reason to manage this in an appropriate way, so that educators feel good about it, parents are informed about it, and the system is allowed to go on and put all of this noise and nonsense behind them,” she said.

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strike vote looming

Denver district, board members frame teacher contract negotiations as debate over values

PHOTO: Eric Gorski/Chalkbeat
Denver school board members get the latest on negotiations that have hit a turning point.

With time running out to strike a deal with the teachers union, Denver school district officials in a special board meeting Wednesday portrayed the unresolved issues in contract negotiations as a clash over values.

The hastily called meeting was primarily a briefing for school board members from the district’s chief negotiators and Superintendent Susana Cordova. But it was also a chance for the district — and a board that generally supports its positions — to seize the narrative.

Cordova framed the district’s stance as honoring core district values, including getting teachers into hard-to-staff jobs and high-poverty schools, and keeping them there.

Under negotiation is the district’s pay-for-performance system, called ProComp. It offers teachers a base salary and allows them to earn bonuses and incentives for things like high student test scores or working in a hard-to-fill position. The union would like to take some incentive money and put it toward higher base pay to lift the salaries of all teachers.

The district’s general counsel, Michelle Berge, on Wednesday said the union wants to take $10 million being used now to incentivize teaching in high-poverty schools and spread the money around “like peanut butter.”

Talks hit a sticking point Tuesday, with the union insisting the district embrace a salary table with its preferred structure for paying teachers by “steps” corresponding to a teacher’s experience and “lanes” representing education. 

The two sides have bargaining sessions scheduled for Thursday and Friday, and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association has pledged to hold a strike vote Saturday if an agreement isn’t reached.

Denver teachers have long said the pay-for-performance system is too complicated and unpredictable.

Cordova acknowledged the two sides are far apart on money. The money on the table for teachers now, she said, “is not enough.” But she said the two sides should reach an agreement, then work together to “fix the core of the problem” — how the state funds schools.

Wednesday’s meeting gave board members a platform as Denver inches closer to what would be its first teachers strike in 25 years.

Board member Jennifer Bacon said a system in which teachers don’t know what they are going to be paid — it can vary from year to year under ProComp — is “crazy.” 

“What are we really negotiating on to make teaching an idolized profession?” said Bacon, one of two board members who often push back against the district’s policies.

Member Happy Haynes said she put a higher priority on rewarding teachers who take hard-to-fill jobs and work in high-poverty schools.

“It isn’t just simply numbers moving around on cells on a spreadsheet,” she said. “There are values that we are articulating here.”

A teachers union representative did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Union President Henry Roman, however, has previously cited values in articulating the union’s stance.

“We know the district has the money to pay teachers a living wage,” Roman said in a statement last week, “and it’s time that they get serious about budgeting their stated values, so that we can have a deal by the 18th and prevent further stress on educators, students, and the community. Any further delay in getting a fair and transparent compensation system will only serve to aggravate the situation.”

On Friday, district officials presented a new proposal that would put an additional $6 million into teacher pay. That’s on top of the additional $17 million the district had already proposed, for a total of $23 million more. Taking into account a previously promised cost-of-living raise, the $23 million would increase teachers’ base pay by 10 percent from this school year to the next on average, district officials said.

Board member Carrie Olson, a former teacher, indicated the school district has more work to do to describe its offer.

“When I sit here, I know it sounds good, but I know that is not translating into the teachers in our schools,” Olson said. “The feeling isn’t, ‘This is a great deal.’”

That doesn’t appear to be lost on district officials. Cordova fielded teacher questions for an hour late Wednesday afternoon during a “telephone town hall” with educators after the district blasted them with robocalls informing them of the opportunity.

Teachers, meanwhile, organized informational community meetings at no fewer than three Denver schools Wednesday afternoon or evening, part of an effort to engage parents, said union vice president Christina Medina. In some cases, school administrators took part in those or previous meetings to discuss implications of a strike and explain the district position, she said.

“No one is more invested than parents,” said Medina, a teacher at Academia Ana Marie Sandoval elementary school in northwest Denver. “So connecting with them is important because they love our kids and we love our kids. It’s making sure we are on the same page. Making sure that teachers stay and we have great teachers in Denver.”

First Person

Why I won’t strike: Denver teachers in high-poverty schools, like me, deserve real bonuses

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

I’m in my eighth year teaching in Denver Public Schools. I have spent my career teaching in Montbello, where a majority of my students qualify for free and reduced lunch. I have a master’s degree in English, and at High Tech Early College, I teach primarily concurrent enrollment classes, for which students receive both high school and college credit.

For the last five years, I have been rated “distinguished,” the district’s highest evaluation rating for teachers. That rating, plus my degree and the fact that I teach at a high-poverty school, means I benefit from many aspects of our current pay system, known as ProComp.

So I’m watching the Denver teacher’s union negotiations for a new pay scale closely. And I’m concerned.

For one, I believe that my distinguished rating reflects my hard-earned successes in the classroom. The union has advocated successfully to end bonuses tied to evaluations under the new contract, which is disappointing. I see that change as funding less effective teachers at the expense of others, and I worry they could drive strong teachers from the district.

But far more important to me are the existing bonuses for teachers who work in high-poverty schools. The union is advocating to shrink bonuses for teachers in Title I schools to $1,500 from $2,500, and redistributing the rest to increase everyone’s base pay.

I can tell you from experience that schools where many students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch — an indicator of poverty — face complex and often painful challenges. We don’t talk enough about how, all over America, most poor kids go to school with poor kids and rich kids go to school with rich kids. That means teachers in schools like mine aren’t working with a few students arriving with challenges — behavior problems, unaddressed trauma, worries about being undocumented, for example — but often entire classes of students who need special attention for those reasons.

If those bonuses keep shrinking, what incentivizes teachers to teach at schools like ours? If it’s the same pay at two schools, what will bring teachers into the places where we need them the most? A sense of vocation and moral purpose, for sure, but that ignores reality. Turnover at my school is relatively high, and evening out teacher pay could make it worse. Students at those schools deserve great teachers who stick around.

To be clear, I love High Tech, and I’m not going anywhere. And I’m not anti-union. All teachers should be compensated for the hard and important work that they do, and I’m excited to see pay rise for everyone. I don’t believe that strong base pay and bonus money for qualified educators are mutually exclusive.

But the union’s stance on high-poverty schools is indefensible. I hope it reconsiders.

Alison Corbett is a teacher at High Tech Early College and was a 2017-18 Teach Plus Colorado Fellow.