Evaluation tweak

Evaluation flexibility bill passes first test

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier/ Chalkbeat TN
Kenneth Woods and his daughters Breanna Rosser (r) and Taylor Woods (r) reviewed 12 powerful words with sixth grade language arts teacher Patricia Hervey.

A measure that would give school districts one year of flexibility in use of student growth data to evaluate teachers was passed 4-2 Wednesday by the Senate Education Committee.

Supporters of the measure, which would apply to evaluations in the 2014-15 school year, say it’s necessary because of data gaps that will created by the transition to new state achievement tests. Those new tests will be given in the spring of 2015.

“It will be very hard for us to get reliable data in the early summer [of 2015] for evaluation purposes,” sponsor Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, told the committee.

The discussion over Senate Bill 14-165 provided a glimpse at how the political ground has started to shift since the evaluation law, Senate Bill 10-191, passed four years ago with strong Republican support. Two committee Republicans voted against the bill, and some GOP lawmakers this session have been critical of other elements of Colorado’s education reforms, especially statewide testing.

A key element of the SB 10-191 evaluation system requires that half of evaluations be based on student academic growth. (Growth is measured not just by student performance on statewide tests but also by results of classroom, school and district tests. Districts have wide latitude in choosing those tests. Fewer than a third of teachers in Colorado teach subjects covered by statewide exams.) The other half of evaluation is based on a supervisor’s rating of a teacher’s “professional practice.”

District evaluation systems that conform to state requirements were rolled out in every district this school year. But ineffective and partially effective evaluations received at the end of this year won’t count against teachers’ possible loss of non-probationary status.

Evaluation systems are supposed to be fully implemented in 2014-15 under SB 10-191, including the provision that two consecutive years of low evaluation ratings lead to loss of non-probationary status.

Under SB 14-165, schools still would be required to calculate student growth data for teachers. But individual districts could decide how much weight to assign to student growth. A district could keep the original 50-50 formula, or it could decide to base teacher evaluations solely on professional practice and assign no weight to student growth. That provision would be in effect for only a year, and low ratings, no matter how they’re derived, would count against loss of non-probationary status.

The problem is that results from the new 2015 CMAS tests (including the PARCC online tests) won’t be ready until late in the year or early in 2016. That’s because of the need to calibrate and norm the results. That’s too late to use in evaluations that are supposed to be done at the end of previous school year.

Second, because calculation of student academic growth requires at least two years of results, that can’t be done until after 2015-16 test results are available.

The data gap problem also affects the state’s district and school accountability system. A separate measure, House Bill 14-1182, addresses that problem and has passed both houses (see story).

Johnston said the bill also would give districts extra time to refine the student growth part of their evaluation systems. “We have some districts that are ready to go; we have some that are behind.”

Witness Jill Hawley, associate education commissioner, said, “It gives them time to continue practicing on the growth side.” (CDE doesn’t have a formal position on the bill.)

Kerrie Dallman, president of the Colorado Education Association, testified that the “overwhelming message” from CEA members “is that their districts are not ready to use student growth in teacher evaluations next year.”

Representatives of the Colorado Children’s Campaign, Democrats for Education Reform and the Colorado Association of School Boards also spoke in favor of the bill.

Natalie Adams, a Jefferson County parent activist, also supported the bill but had no praise for SB 10-191. “There has been a lot of very bad [education] legislation passed in Colorado, and this is one of the worst.”

Republican committee members also were critical.

Sen. Vicki Marble, R-Fort Collins, proposed an amendment that would have given school districts permanent flexibility in whether to use growth data in evaluations (thereby blowing up a key element of SB 10-191).

Sen. Scott Renfroe, R-Greeley, liked that idea, saying, “This gets it back to local control … instead of us sitting in Denver deciding what needs to be done.”

But Aurora Democratic Sen. Nancy Todd, who was chairing the meeting, ruled Marble’s amendment out of order, saying it didn’t fit under the bill’s title.

The four committee Democrats voted to send the bill to the Senate floor, with Marble and Renfroe voting no. Sen. Mark Scheffel, R-Parker, was excused and didn’t attend the hearing.

No price sticker, no vote

Senate Education took testimony on Senate Bill 14-167 Wednesday but delayed a vote because the bill’s “fiscal note” hadn’t been prepared. (A fiscal note is a formal estimate by legislative staff of what a measure will cost.)

The bill is sponsored by freshman Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, D-Thornton, and would create a pilot program under which two groups of alternative education campuses would receive extra funding to develop programs to improve the graduation rates and overall success of their students.

Alternative campuses are schools that serve at least 95 percent students defined as at-risk. Those schools have a special definition of at-risk, including students who’ve been expelled or suspending multiple times, students with criminal records or gang involvement, homeless students and students who have far fewer high school credits than they should for theie age. Such school typically serve high-school age and older students.

There are 81 such campuses in the state, and their dropout rates typically are higher and their graduation rates lower than the state as a whole.

Although the fiscal note hasn’t been written, Zenzinger had an informal analysis done that puts the bill’s price tag at $1.2 million.

Given that the Senate will be tied up next week considering the 2014-15 state budget bill, Zenzinger’s bill may not come up for committee consideration for two weeks. That could put it at the back of line of spending bills being considered this year.

Get more information about alternative campuses on this CDE page, and see the current list of such schools here. Read the bill text here.

How I Lead

Meditation and Mindfulness: How a Harlem principal solves conflict in her community

Dawn DeCosta, the principal of Thurgood Marshall Academy Lower School

Here, in a series we call “How I Lead,” we feature principals and assistant principals who have been recognized for their work. You can see other pieces in the series here.

Dawn DeCosta, Thurgood Marshall Academy Lower School’s principal of seven years, never pictured herself leading a school. Originally a fine arts major and art teacher, she was inspired to be a community leader when she took a summer leadership course at Columbia University’s Teacher College. The program helped her widen her impact to outside the classroom by teaching her how to find personal self awareness and mindfulness. For the past four years she has taught the students, teachers, and parents in her school’s community how to solve conflict constructively through the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence’s RULER program — a social-emotional learning program that brings together many of the tools that she learned at Columbia. While describing these new practices and techniques, DeCosta reflected on the specific impact they have had on her community.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

What is the Yale RULER program?

It’s more of a process, not a script or curriculum. An approach that has these four anchors: the mood meter, the charter, the meta-moment, and the blueprint. We use the mood meter to describe feelings, because a lot of times we’ll just hear “I feel happy” or “I feel sad.” You want them to be able to better pinpoint how they feel, and the mood meter is a square with these quadrants that are different colors and show how much energy a student has at a given moment and how pleasant they’re feeling. The charter is an agreement to the class. It replaces “don’t hit, don’t kick” with “how do we want to feel, what are we going to do to feel that way, what will we do if we have a conflict.” The meta-moment are six steps on how to deal with a stressful situation, and the blueprint is a plan to serve a longer-term conflict between two people- to solve an ongoing conflict that we need a plan for, that’s not just in the moment. We integrate all four components throughout the day, throughout the week, throughout the year.

What changes did you make to it to make it work for your community, and what are the specific strategies you use?

We do it with teachers, students, staff, and supplement it with a culturally relevant approach. We have 100 percent black and brown children, so this means using culturally relevant texts, since we want students learning about leaders and artists who look like them. We want them to see models of excellence in themselves and see success too in themselves in order to combat some of the negative images they see in the media or even in their neighborhoods. This is a beautiful place but there’s also a lot going on in terms of poverty and violence, which have an impact on their lives, how they feel, how they live, how they see things. We’ve incorporated meditation, mindfulness, brain breaks, yoga, and arts into our curriculum. We’ve put all the different pieces together to tap into what makes kids want to go to school and makes them love to be here. We want to use these in every grade, so that we give students a common language and kids can move from one grade to the next easily. Student ownership is a big piece, because what happens when the teachers aren’t there? Do you know how to use this in less structured environments, at home with your siblings at home?

How do you make sure vulnerable students are getting emotional support and give time for that reflection and self growth but also provide a rigorous education that meets your school’s standards?

The work that we are doing is ensuring that the kids have academic improvement and success. Because they feel cared for and comfortable, ultimately students feel successful, and when you feel successful you will apply yourself more. Right now, learning is rigorous. It’s not what it was 10 years ago. So we ask kids to think very deeply to be critical thinkers. The text that they have to read is more rigorous, ones that require problem solving (and) for kids to think for themselves. And so that by itself is taxing. And that kind of work can be really stressful. A lot of the work we’ve done is around test anxiety. We want kids to know that this is just a piece of information, you need to know where you’re doing well, where you’re struggling so that they can address areas of challenge with a little more positivity. But we see the effects of it in our academic performance.

How have you measured the success of the program?

When I first became principal it wasn’t like we were having emergencies necessarily, but we were putting out a lot of fires. Kids were just coming in with issues, getting into fights, things like that. We also wanted to bring in more of the parents, because there were some that we wanted to be more engaged. We have seen an increase in test scores, but I use personal growth stories as my data–that’s how I know that this works. When I have those success stories, when I see students that really needed it, use it and feel a change, that is the data. We didn’t actually see real, big changes until last year, when we were three years into using this new style of learning. There’s always work to be done, it’s an ongoing thing.

In your own words, what is emotional intelligence and why is it important to have?

To me, it means that you are aware of what you may be feeling at a certain moment and of how your feelings impact interactions with others. It’s about how self aware you are, how are you thinking about what you’re going to say or do before you do it, and about how you show compassion for others who are also thinking and feeling just like you. It’s about how you listen to others, how you see and recognize what others are giving you, and how you support others. We’ve been told that all we can do is control ourselves, and that we’re not responsible for other people. But I think through emotional intelligence, we are responsible for how we make people feel.

In what ways do you help take this learning outside of the classroom?

We send home activities for students to do with their families, for over vacation. It will be like, “check in with your family members on their moods for the week and on how everybody is feeling this week,” or “what was one time when you and your parents had a conflict and what did you do well or not do well.” We keep finding the means to engage the parents at home with it by having them come in and do stress relief workshops. I have students ask, “Can I have a mood meter for my mom? I think it will help her because she feels really stressed.” So that home/school piece is a really important part of what makes everything successful. We’re all supporting the kids, we’re raising them together.

In what other ways, do you help the parents learn as well, and what does that look like?

We trained a group of parent leaders in RULER, who helped us train other parents. Parents like hearing from other parents, so we wanted to make sure that it was presented to them as something they could relate to. I think that sometimes as educators we are guilty of using a lot of acronyms and indigestible words when we’re talking to families, and what we’ve decided to do is breaking it down to talking about how do they deal with stress. Kind of how we brought it to the parents is that we brought to the kids strategies on how to deal with stress. We did some yoga with them, breathing techniques, and then we just started talking to them about what kinds of emotion they go through in a day. They talk about getting kids ready, making trains, dealing with family members, and really getting out what they were dealing with as parents–all that stuff that nobody really asked them about before. Honestly, they were the most receptive group. I think talking to each other, in a place where we’re all supporting each other, creates that space that we need.

Describe a specific instance or an anecdote that you think is reflective of the changes that have happened since you have implemented these new practices. How did you see the impact?

A boy came to us in the second grade, and he had been on a safety transfer, which means that he had been in a situation that may not be safe for a child. They’re either in violent conflict with others, or they’re being bullied, or something’s happening where they need to be removed from where they are. At first we had a lot of emotional difficulties and poor relationships with his teachers, and even though he was only six or seven he had been suspended several times. His family had also shut down from the school connection because since they were constantly hearing negative information. The principal basically said “Look, there’s nothing you can do with him. It’s just too much, he’s violent, he bites, it’s just too much.” But he came to the school, and just through engaging him through some of the new practices he was able to self regulate. It impacted his focus and changed his ability to relate to others. The changes didn’t make him perfect or change who he is, but it gave him some tools to be successful and work with others. Once he had love and compassion and felt accepted in our community, all of those behaviors just disappeared. His family became more supportive and trusting and he graduated last year.

Teaching teachers

Mentors matter: Good teaching really can be passed down to student teachers, new research finds

PHOTO: Jessica Glazer
Janet Lo (left) and Stacey Gong-Zhang attend a training program for pre-K teachers.

Do student teachers learn more when they’re mentored by especially effective teachers?

The answer may seem obvious, but there’s been little research confirming as much. Until now.

Three studies released this year offer real evidence that good teaching can be passed down, in a sense, from mentor teacher to student teacher. In several cases, they find that the performance of the student teachers once they have their own full-time classrooms corresponds to the quality of the teacher they trained under.    

And as many teacher preparation programs face pressure to improve, the findings offer a common-sense prescription: invest in finding the most effective possible teachers to supervise their trainees.

“Taken together, the point is that teachers who are … effective appear to be very promising mentors,” said Matt Ronfeldt, a University of Michigan professor who co-authored all three papers.

One of the studies, published last month in the peer-reviewed journal Educational Researcher, examined thousands of student teachers between 2010 and 2015 who were subsequently hired by a Tennessee public school. (Getting the data to understand this was a multi-year undertaking, since there isn’t a centralized system connecting mentors with their student teachers.)  

It found that teachers tended to be better at raising students’ test scores if their supervising teacher was better than average, too. Similarly, new teachers scored better on classroom observation rubrics when they had been mentored by a teacher who also scored well on that same rubric.

There was no evidence that teachers with more years of experience, all else equal, were more effective as supervisors.

The researchers can’t definitively prove cause and effect, but the results suggest that the mentor teachers are imparting certain specific skills to their student teachers.

The effect was small, though: Having a supervising teacher who did particularly well on their observations or their test scores was comparable to about half the performance leap teachers make between their first and second years in the classroom. That’s not a huge difference, but research has found teachers make their steepest improvement in those years.

A similar study, released in January, focused on about 300 student teachers in Chicago Public Schools who were subsequently hired in the district. Again, the student teachers who had better mentor teachers, as measured by classroom observations, ended up with better observation scores themselves.

Here too, there was no clear benefit of having a more experienced supervisor.

A separate paper, published in April through the research organization CALDER, looked at a single teacher prep program, Tennessee Tech University, which allowed researchers to conduct an experiment with its student teacher placements.

After all of the supervising teachers and schools had been selected, researchers divided them into two categories: those likely to be effective mentors and those less likely to be. This was based on data on the teachers (their performance and years of experience) and the schools (staff retention numbers and student achievement growth). From there, the nearly 200 teachers were randomly assigned, allowing the researchers to conclusively determine whether being in that high-quality group mattered.

It did. The student teachers with better placements reported that their mentor teachers were better instructors, offered more frequent and better coaching, and provided more opportunities for them to practice. This analysis didn’t track the student teachers’ later performance, but they did report that they felt more prepared to teach themselves and to manage their future classrooms.

This study, the researchers conclude, “would make a strong case to school systems that the quality of placements is fundamental to the development of new teachers.”

The set of studies add to a small but growing body of research on the best ways to set teachers up for success. Previous research had linked higher-functioning placement schools to better results for student teachers. Teachers also seem to do better after having student taught at a school with similar demographics as the school where they go on to teach. And concerns that adding a student teacher to a classroom hurts students (by allowing an untrained teacher to take over for a high-performing one) seem mostly unfounded.

The latest findings aren’t especially surprising, but to Ronfeldt they’re still important.

“While that may be a ‘duh’ moment, the reality is that there [are] often assumptions like this in education, and I think having the research evidence to back it up is critical,” he said, pointing out that few states have requirements that mentor teachers have strong evaluation scores. “We can make all sorts of assumptions, as I have for other things, and find out the opposite.”

Want to read more about efforts to improve teacher preparation? See Chalkbeat stories on teacher residencies, a Texas program known as UTeach, the challenges of identifying successful programs, a teacher training program that has embraced “personalized learning,” Denver’s effort to ease the transition into the classroom, and New York City and Memphis programs to recruit more men of color into teaching.