Promising Practices

At one Queens high school, the video club is for teachers

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Teachers at Queens Metropolitan High School watched math teacher Michelle Varuzza's taped lesson during an after-school peer evaluation club.

Michelle Varuzza, an 11th and 12th-grade math teacher at Queens Metropolitan High School, sat on the edge of a student desk after school last week and prepared her colleagues for what they were about to see.

“It’s one of the first lessons of trigonometry, and they’re pretty scared of trigonometry to begin with,” she said in the no-nonsense tone familiar to her students. “So it’s kind of like pulling teeth a little bit.”

Varuzza and five other teachers (three math and two English) were there for a weekly “video club,” where teachers watch a recording of a colleague’s lesson and give feedback. They meet every Monday afternoon during mandatory “professional work” sessions at their school.

Since a state teacher-evaluation law went into effect in the city last year, the teachers have gotten used to being observed and rated more often by administrators. But to the educators at Queens Metropolitan, who started the video club last spring, classroom feedback is most helpful when it’s from teacher to teacher with no ratings attached.

“If you’re there for evaluative purposes, people kind of shut down for feedback,” said ninth-grade English teacher Chris Fazio, who had recorded Varuzza’s lesson earlier that day on his iPhone. “This is an alternative to that, where there are zero stakes.”

After club members watch their colleague's lesson, they give "warm" and "cool" feedback.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
After club members watch their colleague’s lesson, they give “warm” and “cool” feedback.

The club isn’t centered on any one strategy or subject area, which is why teachers from across grades and departments are invited — a rarity in many high schools. That’s also why 10th-grade English teacher Ramsey Ess said to Varuzza before the video started, “I have an embarrassing question: Trig covers what?”

After Varuzza explained that the lesson was an introduction to reference angles, which are used in trigonometry to calculate the function values of other angles, she left the room and the video started. (The club asks observed teachers to leave while the others watch the video so they aren’t tempted to explain their actions.)

In the video, Varuzza briskly demonstrated how to find the angles, then led the class through practice problems. The camera followed her as if she were the star of a reality-TV show, panning from her at the board to students quietly taking notes and trailing her when she zigzagged between their desks.

The teachers in the club jotted down notes as they watched the video on the classroom’s electronic whiteboard. After 10 minutes, Fazio stopped the video and asked the teachers to translate their observations into “warm” and “cool” feedback.

“Warm feedback being the things that Michelle’s doing well that if she did more of she’d get a lot more out of the class,” Fazio explained to the teachers, “and the cool feedback being opportunities for her to improve.”

Before the club existed, educators at the school got reviews of their teaching in a couple ways: Through the new evaluation system, and when teachers occasionally observe colleagues in their departments. The club, however, was meant to address shortcomings with both of those systems.

The video recordings can be stopped and replayed in a way that live observations cannot and, unlike the peer visits, no administrators are present when teachers share their feedback. (Principal Gregory Dutton said in an interview, “I know nothing about what’s going on in the teacher video club.”) In contrast to the evaluations, feedback in the club does not include scores and it comes from fellow teachers, who know firsthand how hard it can be to pull off a great lesson.

“There’s no gotcha mentality here,” said 10th and 11th-grade math teacher Katie Anskat.

After the teachers wrote down their thoughts that afternoon, they shared them aloud while Fazio transcribed their comments in a document for Varuzza to see when she returned.

For the warm reviews, they agreed that Varuzza clearly explained complicated topics and that she moved her class seamlessly from demonstration to practice problems — though the English teachers suggested that she give different parts of her lessons labels, like “stop and jot” or “turn and talk,” the way they do.

“You English people come up with such fancy names,” said Nicole Coqueran, a 9th-grade math teacher.

Math teacher Michelle Varuzza (center) got feedback from her colleagues on a trigonometry lesson she taught earlier that day.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Math teacher Michelle Varuzza (center) got feedback from her colleagues on a trigonometry lesson she taught earlier that day.

For their cold feedback, they suggested that Varuzza ask more open-ended questions so that students grapple with the theories behind the procedures, and that she get students to help explain the concepts to one another. For each recommendation, they cited the relevant part of a rubric that teachers are rated on in the evaluation system, and they gave a timeframe — either two weeks or two months — for her to try to make the changes.

When Varuzza came back in the room, they shared their advice with her and she thanked them. After the club, she said her colleagues’ observations are often more helpful than administrators’, who sometimes seem to fixate on matters outside of her control.

“We’re here to focus on the teacher as an instructor,” she said, “not whether four students walked in late.”

The club is looking to recruit more members, said English teacher Heather DeFlorio Asciolla, who created it last year with history teacher Frank Swetten at the suggestion of their school-support network, CFN 403. Some teachers are deterred, however, because the evaluation system has convinced them that “whenever someone observes you, there’s a rating attached,” she said.

But the club can be a powerful tool for those who participate, she added. Last year, 95 percent of her students passed her class, compared to 81 percent the year before the club started.

“I truly believe,” she said, “it’s because my colleagues looked at my instruction, gave me ideas, and I took it back to the classroom.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story said teacher Heather DeFlorio Asciolla referred to an increase in students passing a Regents exam, not her English class.

Votes are in

Memphis educators vote to begin negotiations on new contract with district

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
A teacher training last year on Expeditionary Learning, a new curriculum for English language arts introduced in Shelby County Schools in 2017.

Shelby County Schools teachers have decided it’s time to go back to the bargaining table with district officials to hammer out a new agreement.

Sixty percent of the district’s 7,000 educators, or more than 4,300, voted to allow the two teacher groups that represent them to start negotiating with district officials about pay, insurance, and working conditions. That’s well above the 51 percent that was legally required to begin talks.

It will be the first time the groups have negotiated with the Memphis school district since 2015, and the first since the city’s teacher group split into two. Last year’s organizing efforts didn’t get enough votes to begin negotiations, known as “collaborative conferencing” in Tennessee.

The last agreement, or memorandum of understanding, expired in March. The memorandums are legally binding and can cover such things as salaries, grievance procedures, insurance, and working conditions. But under state law, the agreements can’t address evaluations or personnel decisions such as layoffs or tenure.

Tikeila Rucker, president of the United Education Association of Shelby County, said she hopes talks with the district start by February. She says that it could take up to a year to reach an agreement, although she’s hopeful that it will be sooner.

“We’re creating a survey now to share with the teachers throughout the district so we’ll know what things teachers want to see,” Rucker said. They’ll ask teachers for input on items that can be negotiated, including wages, insurance, grievance procedures, and working conditions.

From earlier teacher feedback, Rucker said educators are concerned about rising insurance costs, and classroom conditions such as class size. They also want raises based on years of service restored, as well as extra pay for advanced degrees, she said.

Dorsey Hopson, Shelby County Schools superintendent, has tried for several years to implement a merit pay system for teachers based on evaluations that include student test scores. That would mean only teachers with high evaluation scores would be eligible for raises. But because of numerous testing problems, Hopson hasn’t yet done that. Instead, for the last three years, all educators have received 3 percent raises.

Keith Williams, executive director of Memphis-Shelby County Education Association, said the salary increases that teachers have received in recent years amounted to bonuses and so-called cost-of-living increases that haven’t kept pace with the cost of living.

“We need to have continuity of pay and a way to predict our earnings,” he said in advocating for the return of step pay increases.

Additionally, he said teachers want to restore time for daily planning periods. And they want a “quality curriculum” that they’re trained to teach and is ready to go on the first day of school.

Teachers have complained that the English curriculum, Expeditionary Learning, doesn’t allow them to tailor content for their students. The new math curriculum, Eureka Math, had a bumpy rollout. Some materials arrived late, teacher training was behind schedule, and for some, the program didn’t start until 12 weeks into the school year.

Williams believes negotiations may start in January and is hopeful that a new three-year contract will be in place by April. Meanwhile, he plans regular updates with teachers to allow them to have input.

Union leaders are waiting for the official certified vote numbers that are expected to be released Tuesday. Williams said that almost 60 percent of the teachers supported his group. That means they’ll have more seats at the negotiating table.

But once negotiations begin, Rucker said, “the two associations will work as one team to advocate and collaborate on behalf of teachers.”


Tennessee schools chief Candice McQueen leaving for job at national education nonprofit


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.

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.