small size big problems

For rural districts, unexpected challenges in new evaluation system

Lauren Kelso, Mountain Valley's principal, and Corey Doss, the superintendent, in the district's main office.

As districts across Colorado roll out new state-mandated educator evaluations systems, rural districts are discovering challenges that few of their larger counterparts face.

Even in the small number of rural districts that piloted the program two years ago, administrators are still grappling with everything from how to rate teachers who teach multiple grade levels in one classroom to glitchy computer systems in districts with little tech support.

And in some rural districts with fewer than 200 students, administrative staff and teachers often play more than one role, which leads to obstacles that rural officials say weren’t accounted for when the evaluation law was written.

“When legislation comes down the pipe, schools like this don’t get thought about,” said Corey Doss, superintendent of the San Luis Valley’s Mountain Valley School District, which was one of 27 districts that began piloting the new evaluation system two years ago.

Doss wanted a head start on the program and to make sure that rural districts had a voice in providing feedback on the challenges. ”I wanted to make sure this district was on the right track,” he said.

Time burdens and technical glitches

Even in a district with two years’ practice under its belt, Doss found that the requirements of the law can overwhelm staff time.

“It’s great but it’s time-consuming,” said Doss, who oversees a staff that includes a single principal, a bookkeeper and a technology director in addition to teachers and facilities workers.

When the pilot first began, Doss split the work of evaluating teachers with his principal, Laura Kelso, but found that the load was too heavy with the rest of his responsibilities. So Kelso took on the task of evaluating the district’s teachers herself, a move that forced her last week to hire a substitute to oversee the school while she spent several days meeting with teachers.

In Mountain Valley, the evaluations have further sucked up staff time because of technical glitches in the system the district uses to manage all of the associated data and reports, BloomBoard.

Though the program has been praised by Bill Gates and other education advocates, Mountain Valley administrators say it is riddled with problems and the training they received was insufficient.

For example, teachers are supposed to score themselves using the same rubric as the evaluator. Those scores should then appear side by side in BloomBoard. But that’s not what’s happening.

“It is currently taking me two hours per teacher to do mid-term evaluation reviews because scores from me aren’t showing up,” said Kelso. The teacher should be able to look at both his or her own self-evaluation and Kelso’s side by side; instead, Kelso has to sit down with each teacher and go through the rubric score by score.

Additionally, the trainer who taught them how to use BloomBoard taught them incorrectly, so Kelso spent several hours fixing her inadvertent errors.

And Kelso says it’s not surprising that the trainer made mistakes. “It changes all the time,” she said, so new problems in the software keep arising.

Since Mountain Valley began using BloomBoard, the state has moved away from it. But that’s of little comfort to Mountain Valley officials, who already have their data loaded into it and can’t change systems.

Complexity pies

When the legislature passed the new educator effectiveness law in 2009, it laid out general requirements for what pieces must go into an evaluation, including classroom observations, proficiency and growth scores on both state and classroom tests.

Districts were then charged with working out exactly how much each element should factor in to a teacher’s evaluation. That process is happening for the first time this year, as the new system’s full rollout goes into effect.

The complex mandates of the new evaluation system are a particular challenge for small districts where the responsibility for designing and implementing the new system falls on a single person.

In Moffat Consolidated School District, like Mountain Valley, a single principal oversees a K-12 campus and doesn’t have any administrative support like she might in other districts. That means that many smaller tasks end up on her plate.

“There is no data person to pull the numbers,” said Kirk Banghart, Moffat’s superintendent.

Designing the breakdown of test scores–or “pies” as Kelso calls them — is especially difficult in places like Moffat or Mountain Valley, where a single teacher either teaches a single subject across as many six grade levels or a single grade level across a bunch of subject.

For example, Mountain Valley’s high school social studies teacher taught three grades but until this spring, none were tested. As a result, the test portion of that teacher’s evaluation came from math and literacy scores for those students.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, some teachers teach multiple grades, all of them tested. Balancing exactly how much of each category of testing should go into a teacher’s evaluation is a statistical challenge for principals like Kelso.

That means Kelso and Moffat’s principal, Michelle Hashbarger, must develop individual breakdowns for what goes into the testing portion of each teacher’s evaluation. Teachers have a say, as well, and Kelso plans to sit down with each teacher to discuss what their breakdown will look like, within the constraints of the law.

Banghart also said that with small classes, just a few students can skew the results for a teacher.

“It would take four or five years to get to enough students [for statistical power]”, he said.

For Kelso, the evaluation process is uncovering philosophical differences between her and her teaching staff about how they should be rated-questions that are being raised across the state.

“Teachers are feeling it’s really unfair,” Kelso said.

For example, her music teacher will see math and literacy scores from her students in her evaluations, despite the fact that she doesn’t teach those subjects. But Kelso believes the skills students learn in music do affect her students’ math scores.

“To me, the math in her content area could play an even bigger role for students,” Kelso said. “That’s a philosophical conversation we need to have.”

Kelso agrees with her teachers that elements of the law are unfair and she hopes to come up with breakdowns that remedy some of the problems. For her brand-new fourth grade math teacher, who will see state test scores from last year’s fourth graders in her evaluation, Kelso is planning to exclude internal growth scores from last year.

Instead, more emphasis will be put on how much the teacher is able to help her current students.

The evolution of the principal

For Kelso, the experience of overseeing the entire process, from designing the pies to observing the teachers, has made her wish for a rethinking of the role of the principal.

“Honestly I think there’s going to have to be some kind of change how administrations look,” Kelso said.

Other San Luis Valley districts with more staff have parceled out the responsibility to more people.

“In one [San Luis Valley] district with a lot more resources, one person designed all the pies,” said Kelso. But here, she’s the one person responsible for coming up with a solution.

Kelso says she fears that the burden on small districts may ultimately prove to be too great.

“The only ones who are going to be successful are [districts] with assistant principals and other admins,” Kelso said. But she’s trying to figure out work arounds for her small district. One good first step, she said, was banding together with two other San Luis Valley districts to hire a consultant to train administrators on the evaluation process.

Officials in both Moffat and Mountain Valley agree that the evaluations have changed the principal’s role.

In Moffat, the law raised questions of whether the person designing how teachers are evaluated should be the one hiring and firing them as well. As a result, Banghart and Hashbarger divided responsibilities — she designs and implements the evaluations and he makes the final call on hiring and firing.

The responsibilities have also limited the time both principals are able to spend providing instructional support to teachers.

For Kelso, who only has a single elementary literacy coach, she’s had to rethink about what kind of help she can provide.

“What’s my responsibility as an administrator to get them the help they need?” Kelso said.

Right now, all she’s had the time to do is get some of her new teachers books to read and talk about.

“I’m either evaluator or coach,” said Kelso. “It’s really hard to do both.”

Struggling Detroit schools

The list of promises is long: Arts, music, robotics, gifted programs and more. Will Detroit schools be able to deliver?

PHOTO: Detroit Public Television
Detroit schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti answers questions at a community meeting in Detroit.

Arts. Music. Robotics. Programs for gifted kids. New computers. New textbooks. Dual enrollment programs that let high school students take college classes. International Baccalaureate. Advanced Placement.

They’re all on the list of things that Detroit schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti told a group of community members assembled in a Brightmoor neighborhood church that he would introduce or expand as soon as next school year.

Vitti didn’t get into the specifics of how the main Detroit district would find the money or partnerships needed to deliver on all of those promises, but they’re part of the plan for the future, he said.

The comments came in a question and answer session last month with students, parents and community members following Vitti’s appearance on Detroit Public Television’s American Black Journal/One Detroit Roadshow. The discussion was recorded at City Covenant Church. DPTV is one of Chalkbeat’s partners in the Detroit Journalism Cooperative.

Vitti has been appearing at community events since taking over the Detroit schools last spring. He is scheduled next week to join officials from two of the city’s major charter school authorizers, Central Michigan University and Grand Valley State University, at a State of the Schools address on October 25.

 

Watch the full Q&A with Vitti below.

Another error

Missing student data means 900 Tennessee teachers could see their growth scores change

PHOTO: TN.gov

Tennessee’s testing problems continue. This time the issue is missing students.

Students’ test scores are used to evaluate teachers, and the failure of a data processing vendor to include scores for thousands of students may have skewed results for some teachers, officials said.

The scores, known as TVAAS, are based on how students improved under a teacher’s watch. The scores affect a teacher’s overall evaluation and in some districts, like Shelby County Schools, determine if a teacher gets a raise.

The error affects 1,700 teachers statewide, or about 9 percent of the 19,000 Tennessee teachers who receive scores. About 900 of those teachers had five or more students missing from their score, which could change their result.

The latest glitch follows a series of mishaps, including test scanning errors, which also affect teacher evaluations. A delay earlier this summer from the Tennessee Department of Education’s testing vendor, Questar, set off a chain of events that resulted in the missing student scores.

To calculate a teacher’s growth score, students and their test scores are assigned to a teacher. About 3 percent of the 1.5 million student-teacher assignments statewide had to be manually submitted in Excel files after Questar experienced software issues and fell behind on releasing raw scores to districts.

RANDA Solutions, a data processing vendor for the state, failed to input all of those Excel files, leading to the teachers’ scores being calculated without their full roster of students, said Sara Gast, a state spokeswoman. The error will not affect school or district TVAAS scores. (District-level TVAAS scores were released in September.)

Gast did not immediately confirm when the state will finalize those teachers’ scores with corrected student rosters. The state sent letters to districts last week informing them of the error and at least one Memphis teacher was told she had more than 80 of her 120 students missing from her score.

In the past, the process for matching students to the right teachers began at the end of the year, “which does not leave much room for adjustments in the case of unexpected delays,” Gast said in an email. The state had already planned to open the process earlier this year. Teachers can begin to verify their rosters next week, she said.