fariña's fix

Fariña to state officials: Cuomo’s evaluation plan needs changes

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
State Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch (left) and city schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s new evaluation law could mean more city teachers will earn a top rating, not fewer, city officials warned the state last month.

According to an analysis conducted by the city Department of Education, the state’s new evaluation system is “drastically more” skewed toward awarding teachers the top rating when compared to the system New York City has used for the past two years. In a 14-page letter sent to state education officials on April 27, Chancellor Carmen Fariña wrote that the “matrix” included in the law should be changed to correct the positive bias — one of a number of pointed recommendations offered by the city.

The letter, which the department kept under wraps for weeks, was sent as the state began the process of finalizing a new evaluation system for New York’s teachers and principals. Lengthy and detailed, it shows that city officials have been working behind the scenes to make the case for preserving much of the city’s current evaluation system while avoiding public criticism of the law as the city navigates a contentious legislative session.

The letter’s most surprising takeaway is that, in New York City, Cuomo may be about to exacerbate the problem he sought to fix through his new evaluation law. Cuomo complained for months leading up to this year’s state budget that the current evaluation system was flawed because it was too easy for teachers to receive a good rating. Last year, 9.2 percent of city teachers received the top rating of highly effective, compared to 58 percent of teachers outside of the city.

Under the new legislation, evaluations will be are based on two main components: student performance and classroom observations. Teachers can earn a highly effective rating by earning that rating on one component and an effective rating on the second. (Here’s how ratings from the two categories get combined into a single rating in the state’s new matrix.)

But Fariña argued that teachers should only be eligible for a highly effective rating if they earn that on both main components.

“This change would also eliminate the extremely strong bias toward highly effective that the currently specified matrix unintentionally introduces,” Fariña wrote.

The city Department of Education's proposal to change the state's evaluation matrix, from its letter. The yellow boxes indicate the city's changes, which would ensure that only two "highly effective" subscores could result in an overall "highly effective" rating.
The city Department of Education’s proposal to change the state’s evaluation matrix, from its letter. The yellow boxes indicate the city’s changes, which would ensure that only two “highly effective” subscores could result in an overall “highly effective” rating.

Meanwhile, she said, the state should also take a hard look at the quality of the tests that will play such a significant role in the evaluations.

The city “does not feel confident that they fully capture student achievement growth,” Fariña said.

The State Education Department did not respond to questions about the city’s feedback, and the governor’s office declined to comment.

The letter is among dozens of documents and more than 3,000 emails sent to the State Education Department in the weeks after the legislature passed the controversial evaluation changes in April. After the law left many of the details of the new system to be decided by state officials, the education department requested feedback from districts, teachers, principals, parents, and other education groups about the design of the new evaluation system. That process culminated in a much-touted summit earlier this month, and most of the feedback was posted to the state’s website.

The city declined to share its recommendations, which were not posted online, though they were part of the public feedback process. A spokeswoman said the department was “entirely focused” on creating its evaluation system. State officials released the documents on Friday after requests from Chalkbeat.

On Monday, state officials are expected to unveil their own recommendations for the evaluation system, with final regulations to be approved no earlier than mid-June. Under the current law, districts have until Nov. 15 to implement their new evaluation systems, a timeline Fariña called “unrealistic and potentially detrimental” to a successful rollout of the new system.

The city is particularly concerned about the outside evaluators required by the new law, the letter shows. One way to comply with the regulation that every teacher be observed by someone who works outside of their building would be to hire least 320 full-time independent evaluators — an “extremely expensive” proposition given that the city already employs 900 operational and instructional support staff people.

To avoid that, the city is recommending that principals, assistant principals, and top-rated teachers be allowed to become certified evaluators for teachers at other schools, in addition to retired teachers, university faculty, superintendents, and superintendents’ staff members. The department is also asking for the state to allow the city to experiment with using outside evaluators for only a subset of teachers in the system’s first year.

The outside evaluation should count for between 5 and 20 percent of a teacher’s observation score, the city said, in line with the city teachers union’s suggestion that principals’ evaluations remain paramount.

The United Federation of Teachers, in its own advocacy letter, asked state officials to eliminate the “group measures” that allowed teachers of non-tested subjects like art to have their student performance scores calculated using students and subjects they didn’t teach. The city said that tactic should remain, along with another method that would restrict those calculations to a teacher’s own students, until more appropriate assessments became available.

Among the department’s other recommendations were to allow the use of student surveys as a “significant factor” in evaluations, something that would also require a law change. The city has piloted student surveys over the past two years, rolling them out in all schools this year.

Read the city’s entire letter below:

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.