national spotlight

Gov. Cuomo’s big fix for evaluations bucks national trend

Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s plans for education are making waves across New York state — and raising eyebrows outside of it.

Cuomo’s proposal to amend the state’s new teacher evaluation system by boosting the role of state test scores has earned the expected criticism of the city and state teachers unions. But others, including some staunch proponents of other Cuomo-backed education policies, also say the governor appears increasingly out of touch.

“What we’re seeing all over the country is an acknowledgment that we’ve gone way too fast on the teacher evaluation front,” said Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a right-leaning education policy think tank. “Everybody’s moving in the opposite direction.”

Those shifts have largely reduced the role that state test scores play in measuring teacher performance. In Washington, D.C., state test scores dropped from 50 percent to 35 percent of evaluations two years ago to give schools more flexibility to choose their own assessments and out of concerns that test scores alone offered an incomplete picture of student achievement. In Wisconsin, teachers have been given broad discretion in choosing how student performance was factored into their evaluations.

Meanwhile, Cuomo’s vision for teacher evaluations would require state test scores to carry more than twice as much weight as they must now.

Under the state’s evaluation law, 60 percent of a teacher’s rating comes from observations by administrators and the remaining 40 percent comes from a combination of state tests and assessments chosen by each district, whose scores are crunched to determine student growth. Cuomo would require growth on state tests alone to count for 50 percent of an evaluation, eliminating the ability for districts to choose their own assessments — something Cuomo said has led to over-testing and inflated scores.

Andy Smarick, who helped implement New Jersey’s evaluations as deputy education commissioner from 2010 to 2012, said Cuomo’s proposal resembled what many other states adopted in 2009 and 2010 in response to the Obama administration’s Race to the Top grants. Those grants prompted New York and other states to create teacher evaluation systems to qualify for hundreds of millions in new federal funding.

“What’s remarkable about this is that Cuomo is the only one I know of who’s swimming upstream on this, whereas other states as backing off,” said Smarick.

Cuomo’s proposal, which will be subject to negotiations with the legislature, would represent the most extensive changes to New York’s evaluation system since it was first overhauled four years ago. To make the new system a reality, he’s threatened to pull funding, brokered a deal between Michael Bloomberg and city teachers union president Michael Mulgrew, and imposed a plan on New York City in 2013 after Bloomberg and Mulgrew again failed to come to an agreement.

Now, evaluations have become his signature education policy.

“Everyone will tell you nationwide, the key to education reform is a teacher evaluation system,” Cuomo said in his speech last week.

Cuomo says his changes are designed to correct a still-broken system that hasn’t shown it does a better job of distinguishing good teachers from bad ones than the one it replaced. Last year, the vast majority of teachers statewide were rated in the two highest categories out of four.

“From what I read, the governor is trying to improve the system so that it encourages evaluators to do a better job of differentiating,” said Dan Weisberg, a vice president at TNTP, an organization that has pushed for more rigorous evaluations with higher stakes.

But Cuomo’s plan is also facing criticism for what it leaves out. Most of the state’s teachers are rated in large part based on test scores of subjects and students that they do not teach because there is no state test for their students or subject area. That leaves districts and schools to decide how physical education, arts, and foreign language teachers, among others, will be measured. New York City has filled those gaps by using schoolwide scores on math and English tests, and in some cases using city-created tests in other subjects.

Cuomo’s plan glosses over the issue, saying only that “a student growth measure” would be required for those teachers.

“What do you do with the 80 percent of teachers where there are not statewide tests that can give you comparable and reliable results?” said Rotherham, who praised Cuomo’s overall education agenda. “That’s what states have been grappling with.”

That work is now underway in some New York districts. New York City is planning paid focus groups that would take place between February and June, asking 100 teachers about performance assessments for teachers of non-tested subjects or special-needs students, according to a project description posted online.

The use of state tests for teacher evaluations was also discussed at a meeting last week with parents and teachers of District 75 schools, which serve students with severe disabilities.

“We need to be held accountable, but the measures that we’re putting our students through are really not appropriate,” superintendent Gary Hecht said. “It’s really detrimental to some of our students.”

At Kappa International High School in the Bronx, Tara Brancato’s music philosophy students spend a lot of time listening to music from different parts of the world and different time periods. Her end-of-year assessment includes a series of music prompts where students have to construct an argument about the pieces’ historical and cultural roots.

The student growth portion of her state evaluation, meanwhile, comes from how well her entire school’s students do on their English Regents exams.

“You obviously have to see what the kids have learned, but I feel as though we get way more out of the observations,” Brancato said.

Educators 4 Excellence, a teacher advocacy group, has called for student surveys and peer evaluations to be used to help evaluate teachers in non-tested subjects. Executive Director Jonathan Schleifer said he also worried that Cuomo’s proposal would undermine the role played by classroom observations.

“We think principals play an important part in evaluations,” Schleifer said. “What we’ve heard from teachers is that the best parts are the feedback and support that results from observations and we’d hate to see that go.”

Teacher evaluations are central to many of the other changes Cuomo is looking to make. He also proposed restricting tenure eligibility to teachers rated “effective” or “highly effective” for five years in a row, and for teachers to be eligible for $20,000 “master teacher” bonuses if they earn the highest rating.

Brancato noted that those kinds of new consequences and rewards would make it more difficult to accept her own less-than-precise evaluations.

“In a couple of years if they say that only ‘highly effective’ teachers can apply to be master teachers and I’m still being rated on English tests that are knocking me down to ‘effective,'” she said, “then that’s going to sting a lot more.”

Correction: A previous version misidentified Andy Smarick. 

student teaching

Building a teacher pipeline: How one Aurora school has become a training ground for aspiring teachers

Paraprofessional Sonia Guzman, a student of a teaching program, works with students at Elkhart Elementary School in Aurora. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Students at Aurora’s Elkhart Elementary School are getting assistance from three aspiring teachers helping out in classrooms this year, part of a new partnership aimed at building a bigger and more diverse teacher pipeline.

The teachers-to-be, students at the University of Northern Colorado’s Center for Urban Education, get training and a paid job while they’re in college. Elkhart principal Ron Schumacher gets paraprofessionals with long-term goals and a possibility that they’ll be better prepared to be Aurora teachers.

For Schumacher, it’s part of a plan to not only help his school, but also others in Aurora Public Schools increase teacher retention.

“Because of the nature of our school demographics, it’s a coin flip with a new teacher,” Schumacher said. “If I lose 50 percent of my teachers over time, I’m being highly inefficient. If these ladies know what they’re getting into and I can have them prepared to be a more effective first-year teacher, there’s more likelihood that I’ll keep them in my school in the long term.”

Elkhart has about 590 students enrolled this year. According to state data from last year, more than 95 percent of the students who attend the school qualify for subsidized lunches, a measure of poverty. The school, which operates with an International Baccalaureate program, has outperformed the district average on some state tests.

The three paraprofessionals hired by the school this year are part of the teaching program at UNC’s Lowry campus, which has long required students to work in a school for the four years they work on their degree.

Students get paid for their work in schools, allowing them to earn some money while going to college. Students from the program had worked in Aurora schools in the past, but not usually three students at once at the same school, and not as part of a formal partnership.

The teaching program has a high number of students of color and first-generation college students, which Rosanne Fulton, the program director, said is another draw for partnering with schools in the metro area.

Schumacher said every principal and education leader has the responsibility to help expose students to more teachers who can relate to them.

One of this year’s paraprofessionals is Andy Washington, an 18-year-old who attended Elkhart for a few years when she was a child.

“Getting to know the kids on a personal level, I thought I was going to be scared, but they’re cool,” Washington said.

Another paraprofessional, 20-year-old Sonia Guzman, said kids are opening up to them.

“They ask you what college is like,” Guzman said.

Schumacher said there are challenges to hiring the students, including figuring out how to make use of the students during the morning or early afternoon while being able to release them before school is done for the day so they can make it to their college classes.

Schumacher said he and his district director are working to figure out the best ways to work around those problems so they can share lessons learned with other Aurora principals.

“We’re using some people differently and tapping into volunteers a little differently, but if it’s a priority for you, there are ways of accommodating their schedules,” he said.

At Elkhart, full-time interventionists work with students in kindergarten through third grade who need extra help learning to read.

But the school doesn’t have the budget to hire the same professionals to work with older students. The three student paraprofessionals are helping bridge that gap, learning from the interventionists so they can work with fourth and fifth grade students.

Recently, the three started getting groups of students that they pull out during class to give them extra work on reading skills.

One exercise they worked on with fourth grade students recently was helping them identify if words had an “oi” or “oy” spelling based on their sounds. Students sounded out their syllables and used flashcards to group similar words.

Districts across the country have looked at similar approaches to help attract and prepare teachers for their own schools. In Denver, bond money voters approved last year is helping pay to expand a program this year where paraprofessionals can apply for a one-year program to become teachers while they continue working.

In the partnership at Elkhart, students paraprofessionals take longer than that, but in their first and second year are already learning how to write lessons during their afternoon classes and then working with teachers at the school to deliver the lessons and then reflect on how well they worked. Students say the model helps them feel supported.

“It’s really helping me to become more confident,” said Stephanie Richards, 26, the third paraprofessional. “I know I’m a lot more prepared.”

Schumacher said the model could also work in the future with students from other teaching schools or programs. It’s a small but important part, he said, toward helping larger efforts to attract and retain teachers, and also diversify the ranks.

“You’re doing something for the next generation of folks coming in,” he said.

surprise!

Teachers in Millington and Knoxville just won the Oscar awards of education

PHOTO: Milken Family Foundation
Millington English teacher Katherine Watkins reacts after learning that she is the recipient of a 2017 Milken Educator Award.

Two Tennessee teachers were surprised during school assemblies Thursday with a prestigious national teaching award, $25,000 checks, and a visit from the state’s education chief.

Katherine Watkins teaches high school English in Millington Municipal Schools in Shelby County. She serves as the English department chair and professional learning community coordinator at Millington Central High School. She is also a trained jazz pianist, published poet, and STEM teacher by summer.

PHOTO: Milken Family Foundation
Paula Franklin learns she is among the recipients.

Paula Franklin teaches Advanced Placement government at West High School in Knoxville. Since she took on the course, its enrollment has doubled, and 82 percent of her students pass with an average score that exceeds the national average.

The teachers are two of 45 educators being honored nationally with this year’s Milken Educator Awards from the Milken Family Foundation. The award includes a no-strings-attached check for $25,000.

“It is an honor to celebrate two exceptional Tennessee educators today on each end of the state,” said Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, who attended each assembly. “Paula Franklin and Katherine Watkins should be proud of the work they have done to build positive relationships with students and prepare them with the knowledge and skills to be successful in college and the workforce.”

Foundation chairman Lowell Milken was present to present the awards, which have been given to thousands of teachers since 1987.

PHOTO: Milken Family Foundation
Students gather around Millington teacher Katherine Watkins as she receives a check as part of her Milken Educator Award.

The Milken awards process starts with recommendations from sources that the foundation won’t identify. Names are then reviewed by committees appointed by state departments of education, and their recommendations are vetted by the foundation, which picks the winners.

Last year, Chattanooga elementary school teacher Katie Baker was Tennessee’s sole winner.

In all, 66 Tennessee educators have been recognized by the Milken Foundation and received a total of $1.6 million since the program began in the state in 1992.

You can learn more about the Milken Educator Awards here.