Making the grade

New data show more than half of NYC teachers judged, in part, by test scores they don’t directly affect

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

Just over half of New York City teachers were evaluated in the 2015–16 school year, in part, by tests in subjects or of students they didn’t teach, according to data obtained by Chalkbeat through a public records request.

At 53 percent of city teachers, it’s significant number, but substantially lower than in previous years, possibly thanks to a moratorium placed on using state tests, instituted mid-year.

That figure also highlights a key tension in evaluating all teachers by student achievement, even teachers who work with young students or in subjects like physical education. Being judged by other teachers’ students or subjects has long annoyed some educators and relieved others, who otherwise might have had to administer additional tests.

Supporters say evaluating teachers by group measures — often school-wide scores on standardized tests — helps create a sense of shared mission in a school. But the approach could also push teachers away from working in struggling schools.

“The key point around school-wide measures is that this could serve as a strong disincentive for these teachers in non-tested grades and subjects to stay in lower-performing schools,” said Matthew Steinberg at the University of Pennsylvania, who has studied teacher evaluation systems.

Will Mantell, a spokesperson for the New York City Department of Education, defended the district’s approach.

“Selecting school-wide [or] grade-wide … measures may better measure educators’ practice and support professional development,” he said. “For example, it makes sense for a social studies teacher who emphasizes writing in her classroom to be evaluated partially on an assessment of students’ ELA skills.”

New York’s evaluation system has gone through a number of substantial changes since it was first codified in state law in 2012, part of a nationwide push to connect teacher performance to student test scores, spurred by federal incentives.

Student assessments have comprised anywhere from 40 percent of the evaluation to essentially 50 percent, under a matrix system pushed by Governor Andrew Cuomo in 2015. Most recently, New York stopped using grades 3-8 English and math state tests as part of the system, but teachers must continue to be judged based on some assessment.

States across the country have struggled to evaluate teachers in traditionally non-tested grades and subjects. New York City has created a number of exams — known as performance assessments — in non-tested areas and given schools significant flexibility in which measures are used to judge their teachers.

In the 2015-16 school year, 53 percent of teachers were evaluated by a group metric, meaning one not focused on their subject or students. In the two previous years, the number was much higher — around 85 percent. It’s not clear why there was a substantial drop, but a spokesperson for the city’s education department notes that 2015-16 was an “outlier” due to the moratorium on state tests, instituted mid-year.

In all three years, most teachers were also evaluated by at least one individualized measure targeted to teachers’ grade, subject and students.

Data for the most recent school year are not yet available.

It’s also not clear what percentage of a teacher’s rating was based on group measures, and Mantell said this “varies from teacher to teacher.”

The United Federation of Teachers has pushed to give schools more individual options, including the use of more “authentic” assessments, not based on multiple choice questions.

“Right now, we don’t have enough options, which is why our most recent agreement with the DOE seeks to build more authentic assessments for additional grades and subjects,” said Michael Mulgrew, president of the UFT in a statement.

Group measures offer an alternative to creating exams for each teacher in every grade and subject, which can lead to a proliferation of new tests, though in New York City teachers have often been judged by both group and individual metrics.

The challenge of evaluating teachers in traditionally untested areas is not unique to New York, and a number of states have embraced group or school-wide approaches. An analysis of 32 states, conducted by Steinberg, found that the average teacher in a non-tested grade or subject had about 7 percent of his or her evaluation based on school-wide achievement measures, though this averaged together substantial variation from place to place. Teachers in Tennessee and Florida have sued (unsuccessfully), arguing that it is unfair to evaluate them based on students they didn’t teach.

A more popular option, used in some districts in New York, has been student-learning objectives, in which teachers set goals for students often based on classroom exams. This approach has been praised for helping teachers set specific goals, but criticized as burdensome and easy to manipulate.

Research has found that using school-wide measures of performance tends to bring teachers closer to average performance. An analysis by the Brookings Institution showed that these group measures pulled down ratings of teachers with higher individual ratings at low-performing schools.

Detroit Story Booth

Why one woman thinks special education reform can’t happen in isolation

PHOTO: Colin Maloney
Sharon Kelso, student advocate from Detroit

When Sharon Kelso’s kids and grandkids were still in school, they’d come home and hear the same question from her almost every day: “How was your day in school?” One day, a little over a decade ago, Kelso’s grandson gave a troubling answer. He felt violated when security guards at his school conducted a mass search of students’ personal belongings.

Kelso, a Cass Tech grad, felt compelled to act. Eventually, she became the plaintiff in two cases which outlawed unreasonable mass searches of students in Detroit’s main district.

Fast forward to August, when her three great-nephews lost both their mother and father in the space of a week and Kelso became their guardian. Today, she asks them the same question she has asked two generations of Detroit students: “How was your day in school?”

The answers she receives still deeply inform her advocacy work.

Watch the full video here:

– Colin Maloney

First Person

Why the phrase ‘with fidelity’ is an affront to good teaching

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

“With fidelity” are some of the most damaging words in education.

Districts spend a ton of money paying people to pick out massively expensive, packaged curriculums, as if every one of a thousand classrooms needs the exact same things. Then officials say, over and over again, that they must be implemented “with fidelity.” What they mean is that teachers better not do anything that would serve their students’ specific needs.

When that curriculum does nothing to increase student achievement, it is not blamed. The district person who found it and purchased it is never blamed. Nope. They say, “Well, the teachers must not have been implementing it with fidelity.”

It keeps happening because admitting that schools are messy and students are human and teaching is both creative and artistic would also mean you have to trust teachers and let them have some power. Also, there are some really crappy teachers out there, and programs for everyone are often meant to push that worst-case-scenario line a little higher.

And if everyone’s doing just what they’re supposed to, we’ll get such good, clean numbers, and isn’t that worth a few thousand more dollars?

I was talking with a friend recently, a teacher at an urban school on the East Coast. He had been called to task by his principal for splitting his kids into groups to offer differentiated math instruction based on students’ needs. “But,” the principal said, “did the pacing guide say to differentiate? You need to trust the system.”

I understand the desire to find out if a curriculum “works.” But I don’t trust anyone who can say “trust the system” without vomiting. Not when the system is so much worse than anything teachers would put together.

Last year, my old district implemented Reading Plus, an online reading program that forces students to read at a pace determined by their scores. The trainers promised, literally promised us, that there wasn’t a single reading selection anywhere in the program that could be considered offensive to anyone. God knows I never learned anything from a book that made me feel uncomfortable!

Oh, and students were supposed to use this program — forced-paced reading of benign material followed by multiple-choice questions and more forced-pace reading — for 90 minutes a week. We heard a lot about fidelity when the program did almost nothing for students (and, I believe quite strongly, did far worse than encouraging independent reading of high-interest books for 90 minutes a week would have done).

At the end of that year, I was handed copies of next year’s great adventure in fidelity. I’m not in that district any longer, but the whole district was all switching over to SpringBoard, another curriculum, in language arts classes. On came the emails about implementing with fidelity and getting everyone on the same page. We were promised flexibility, you know, so long as we also stuck to the pacing guide of the workbook.

I gave it a look, I did, because only idiots turn down potential tools. But man, it seemed custom-built to keep thinking — especially any creative, critical thought from either students or teachers — to a bare minimum.

I just got an email from two students from last year. They said hi, told me they missed creative writing class, and said they hated SpringBoard, the “evil twin of Reading Plus.”

That district ran out of money and had to cut teachers (including me) at the end of the year. But if they hadn’t, I don’t think I would have lasted long if forced to teach from a pacing guide. I’m a good teacher. Good teachers love to be challenged and supported. They take feedback well, but man do we hate mandates for stuff we know isn’t best for the kids in our room.

Because, from inside a classroom full of dynamic, chaotic brilliance;

from a classroom where that kid just shared that thing that broke all of our hearts;

from a classroom where that other kid figured out that idea they’ve been working on for weeks;

from that classroom where that other kid, who doesn’t know enough of the language, hides how hard he works to keep up and still misses things;

and from that classroom where one kid isn’t sure if they trust you yet, and that other kid trusts you too much, too easily, because their bar had been set too low after years of teachers that didn’t care enough;

from inside that classroom, it’s impossible to trust that anyone else has a better idea than I do about what my students need to do for our next 50 minutes.

Tom Rademacher is a teacher living in Minneapolis who was named Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year in 2014. His book, “It Won’t Be Easy: An Exceedingly Honest (and Slightly Unprofessional) Love Letter to Teaching,” was published in April. He can be found on Twitter @mrtomrad and writes on misterrad.tumblr.com, where this post first appeared.