catching up

What we know about the evaluation plan that will hit on Saturday

When State Education Commissioner John King sets New York City’s teacher evaluation system on Saturday, it will have been a while — three years and three weeks, to be precise — since legislators first set out the parameters.

The basic shape of what lawmakers signed off on in May 2010 hasn’t changed: 40 percent of ratings will be based on student growth, with half of the section coming from the state’s calculation and the other half from a locally determined calculation. The other 60 percent will come from “subjective measures,” including but not limited to in-class observations. All classroom teachers will get ratings on a four-tiered system, and districts can move to fire teachers who score “ineffective” for two straight years.

But three years of jousting over the specifics have added up. In that time, city and teachers union officials have sat down to negotiate and stormed away, multiple times; legislators have revisited their work, adding new stringencies; principals and teachers have prepared for implementation. What King announces tomorrow will reflect all of those changes — as well as the arguments that the Department of Education and the teachers and principals unions included in pitches to him this month.

Because King has only about 24 hours to publish the evaluation system after hearing the final presentation, made by the Council on School Supervisors and Administrators this morning, it seems reasonable to assume that he is focusing his efforts on areas where the parties have failed to agree in the past. Here’s a refresher on what we’re likely to see on Saturday — and what we’re not.

What we will definitely see:

  • Test scores count. The state produces growth scores, which attempt to isolate a teacher’s impact on student growth, for teachers in tested grades and subjects. By law, those scores have to count for 20 percent of ratings for teachers who have them, and if the Board of Regents approves a more sophisticated “value-added” algorithm, that weight will increase to 25 percent. For the three years that teacher evaluations have been under debate, the reliability of value-added models has continued to draw a significant amount of debate. While those questions haven’t been resolved, King won’t consider them when writing New York City’s plan. Growth and value-added models are in the law and not up for discussion.
  • Student Learning Objectives. For the 82 percent of teachers who do not work in tested grades or subjects, the state’s strategy for calculating student growth is to use Student Learning Objectives, in which teachers and principals set goals for each student and then measure how many get there by the end of the year. Other districts around the state used SLOs this year, but the city hasn’t trained educators yet about how to use them.
  • The appeals process that was written into state law in 2012. In a quixotic effort to move the city’s evaluations process along, Gov. Andrew Cuomo convinced the city and union to agree to an appeals process back in February 2012. Mayor Bloomberg especially made clear that he never liked the process, but it’s part of the law and scheduled to kick in as soon as the city has a teacher evaluation plan. Some related issues, such as when appeals hearings would take place and how the department and union would jointly select an impartial third hearing officer, were still unresolved late last year.

What we can probably count on:

  • The Danielson Framework. This rubric for assessing instruction is a favorite of the UFT because of its capacity for improving teacher practice, and the Department of Education went along with it early on. Both the city and union have invested serious time, money, and energy into preparing principals and teachers for Danielson, and there’s no reason that King would want to shake this issue up.
  • No expiration date. Mayor Bloomberg blamed the UFT’s insistence on a “sunset clause” when he spiked a deal in January. The State Education Department approved hundreds of evaluation plans with limited terms, but under pressure from Cuomo, legislators revised the law this year to say that districts cannot let their evaluation systems expire. That means no expiration date in the city’s plan. But look out for language that says the system can be replaced with a lawful agreement between the city and the UFT in the future. The conversation won’t reopen automatically, but it could easily be reopened if, for example, the UFT and a new mayor want to revisit the evaluation system at the same time as they negotiate a new contract.
  • State tests kept to a minimum. Under the law, districts can cut state test scores in different ways to come up with the second 20 percent of teachers’ ratings, and many districts have. But the UFT said all along that it would resist additional weight for state test scores, and department officials never argued publicly with them. In fact, last fall, when a deal looked likely, the department started paying teachers to develop “performance-based assessments” that would measure students’ improvement over time. Those assessments, which usually take the form of an in-class assignment, would introduce new issues for teachers and students, but the possibility of being penalized — or rewarded – twice for the same scores isn’t one of them.

What we just won’t know until Saturday:

  • The role of student surveys. Factoring student surveys into teacher ratings has a wide array of supporters, from the Gates Foundation to student advocates. The Department of Education seemed interested in the idea. But UFT officials signaled that allowing student surveys could be a line they would not cross. Where King will fall on the issue is unclear.
  • How teachers whose students don’t take state tests will be measured. Again, the district was quietly working on performance assessments late last year. But it was also working on other possibilities, Department of Education officials said at the time. Other districts have used off-the-shelf third-party assessments or developed their own, and some districts opted to use school-wide growth scores for all teachers in a school, even if their students took no tests. Any of those options are possible here, and what King chooses is crucial to determining just how satisfied or dissatisfied the city or unions will be.
  • Whether principals will have to talk to teachers before rating them. This was a key sticking point throughout much of the last round of negotiations: The UFT’s position is that conversations should be required as a matter of professional development, but the city wanted a minimum of bureaucracy to gum up evaluations. There’s no way for King to split the difference here, so where he falls is likely to be interpreted as a solid win by the party he sides with.
  • How observations will be structured. Back in December, a top Department of Education official who was involved in evaluation talks said details about the structure of required observations remained unresolved. “We’re trying to figure out what seems appropriate,” the official said. “Should you have five a year of that pre-observation, observation, post-observation? Should there be two pre-observation, observation, post-observation? Should we eliminate the pre-observation and the post-observation and just make it an ongoing cycle of unannounced visits? Should the observations be shorter — should [observers] come in for 15 minutes at a time?” What got almost-decided in January, if anything, has never been made public.

Check back on Saturday afternoon, when we’ll report exactly how King’s plan answers these questions.

after douglas

Betsy DeVos avoids questions on discrimination as school safety debates reach Congress

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos prepares to testify at a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing on the department's FY2019 budget. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos fielded some hostile questions on school safety and racial discrimination as she defended the Trump administration’s budget proposal in a House committee hearing on Tuesday.

The tone for the hearing was set early by ranking Democrat Rep. Rosa DeLauro, who called aspects DeVos’s prepared remarks “misleading and cynical” before the secretary had spoken. Even the Republican subcommittee chair, Rep. Tom Cole, expressed some skepticism, saying he was “concerned about the administration continuing to request cuts that Congress has rejected.”

During nearly two hours of questioning, DeVos stuck to familiar talking points and largely side-stepped the tougher queries from Democrats, even as many interrupted her.

For instance, when Rep. Barbara Lee, a Democrat from Texas, complained about proposed spending cuts and asked, “Isn’t it your job to ensure that schools aren’t executing harsher punishments for the same behavior because [students] are black or brown?” DeVos responded by saying that students of color would benefit from expanded school choice programs.

Lee responded: “You still haven’t talked about the issue in public schools as it relates to black and brown students and the high disparity rates as it relates to suspensions and expulsions. Is race a factor? Do you believe that or not?” (Recent research in Louisiana found that black students receive longer suspensions than white students involved in the same fights, though the difference was very small.)

Again, DeVos did not reply directly.

“There is no place for discrimination and there is no tolerance for discrimination, and we will continue to uphold that,” she said. “I’m very proud of the record of the Office of Civil Rights in continuing to address issues that arise to that level.”

Lee responded that the administration has proposed cuts to that office; DeVos said the reduction was modest — less than 1 percent — and that “they are able to do more with less.”

The specific policy decision that DeVos faces is the future of a directive issued in 2014 by the Obama administration designed to push school districts to reduce racial disparities in suspensions and expulsions. Conservatives and some teachers have pushed DeVos to rescind this guidance, while civil rights groups have said it is crucial for ensuring black and Hispanic students are not discriminated against.

That was a focus of another hearing in the House on Tuesday precipitated by the shooting last month at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican, falsely claimed in his opening statement that Broward County Public Schools rewrote its discipline policy based on the federal guidance — an idea that has percolated through conservative media for weeks and been promoted by other lawmakers, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Utah Sen. Mike Lee. In fact, the Broward County rules were put into place in 2013, before the Obama administration guidance was issued.

The Manhattan Institute’s Max Eden, a leading critic of Obama administration’s guidance, acknowledged in his own testimony that the Broward policy predated these rules. But he suggested that policies like Broward’s and the Obama administration’s guidance have made schools less safe.

“Faced with pressure to get the numbers down, the easiest path is to simply not address, or to not record, troubling, even violent, behavior,” he said.

Kristen Harper, a director with research group Child Trends and a former Obama administration official, disagreed. “To put it simply, neither the purpose nor the letter of the federal school discipline guidance restrict the authority of school personnel to remove a child who is threatening student safety,” she said.

There is little, if any, specific evidence linking Broward County’s policies to how Stoneman Douglas shooter Nicholas Cruz was dealt with. There’s also limited evidence about whether reducing suspensions makes schools less safe.

Eden pointed to a study in Philadelphia showing that the city’s ban on suspensions coincided with a drop in test scores and attendance in some schools. But those results are difficult to interpret because the prohibition was not fully implemented in many schools. He also cited surveys of teachers expressing concerns about safety in the classroom including in Oklahoma CityFresno, California; and Buffalo, New York.

On the other hand, a recent study found that after Chicago modestly reduced suspensions for the most severe behaviors, student test scores and attendance jumped without any decline in how safe students felt.

DeVos is now set to consider the repeal of those policies on the Trump administration’s school safety committee, which she will chair.

On Tuesday, DeVos said the committee’s first meeting would take place “within the next few weeks.” Its members will be four Cabinet secretaries: DeVos herself, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, and Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen.

Town Hall

Hopson promises more flexibility as Memphis school leaders clear the air with teachers on new curriculum

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson answers questions from Memphis teachers at a town hall hosted by United Education Association of Shelby County on Monday.

The Shelby County Schools superintendent told passionate teachers at a union town hall Monday that they can expect more flexibility in how they teach the district’s newest curriculums.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the teachers who score highest on their evaluations should not feel like they need to read from a script to meet district requirements, although he didn’t have an immediate answer to how that would work.

Teacher frustrations were reaching a boiling point on district curriculums introduced this school year. Although the state requirements have changed several times over the last eight years, this change was particularly bothersome to teachers because they feel they are teaching to a “script.”

“Teachers have to be given the autonomy,” Hopson said. Although he cited the need for the district to have some control as teachers are learning, “at the end of the day, if you’re a level 4 or level 5 teacher, and you know your students, there needs to be some flexibility.”

Vocal teachers at the meeting cited check-ins from central office staff as evidence of the overreach.

“I keep hearing people say it’s supplemental but we have people coming into my room making sure we’re following it to a T,” said Amy Dixon a teacher at Snowden School. “We’re expected to follow it …like a script.”

The 90-minute meeting sponsored by the United Education Association of Shelby County drew a crowd of about 100 people to talk about curriculum and what Hopson called “a culture of fear” throughout the district of making a mistake.

Hopson said his team is still working on how to strike the right balance between creativity and continuity across nearly 150 district-run schools because so many students move during the school year.

He reassured despondent teachers he would come up with a plan to meet the needs of teachers and keep curriculums consistent. He said some continuity is needed across schools because many students move a lot during the school year.

“We know we got to make sure that I’m coming from Binghampton and going over to Whitehaven it’s got to be at least somewhat aligned,” he said. “I wish we were a stable, middle-class, not the poorest city in the country, then we wouldn’t have a lot of these issues.”

Ever since Tennessee’s largest district began phasing in parts of an English curriculum called Expeditionary Learning, teachers have complained of being micromanaged, instead of being able to tailor content for their students. The same goes for the new math curriculum Eureka Math.

The district’s changes are meant to line it up with the state. Tennessee’s new language arts and math standards replaced the Common Core curriculum, but in fact, did not deviate much when the final version was released last fall. This is the third change in eight years to state education requirements.

Still, Shelby County Schools cannot fully switch to the new curriculums until they are approved by the Tennessee State Board of Education. District leaders hope both curriculums, which received high marks from a national group that measures curriculum alignment to Common Core, will be added when textbooks are vetted for the 2019-20 school year.

Some urged educators to not think of the new curriculums as “scripts,” and admitted to poorly communicating the changes to teachers.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Pam Harris-Giles

“It’s not an expectation that we stand in front of our children and read off a piece of paper,” said Pam Harris-Giles, one of the district’s instructional support directors, who helps coordinate curriculum training and professional development.

Fredricka Vaughn, a teacher at Kirby High School, said that won’t be easy without clear communication of what flexibility will look like for high-performing teachers.

“If you don’t want us to use the word script, then bring back the autonomy,” she said.

Hopson stressed that the state’s largest school district could be a model for public education if everyone can work together to make the new curriculums work.

“It’s going to take work, hard work, everyone aligned from the top, everyone rowing in the same direction.”