examining gaps

At-risk students in some big Colorado districts have a better chance of having an effective teacher than others

PHOTO: Denver Post file

While at-risk students statewide were less likely to have teachers rated effective or higher in the 2014-15 school year, the gaps between the percentage of effective teachers in high-poverty and low-poverty and high-minority and low-minority schools varied greatly by district.

In Denver Public Schools, the state’s largest school district, the gaps were even wider than state averages, according to data released this week.

Students in the second-largest district, Jefferson County, experienced the opposite: Kids in high-poverty and high-minority schools were actually more likely to have an effective teacher.

And in Douglas County, large gaps that showed poor students at a significant disadvantage in terms of teacher effectiveness were attributable in part to the fact that the wealthy district has so few high-poverty schools and so many low-poverty schools.

The data was released nearly seven years after state lawmakers adopted a landmark teacher and principal evaluation system. The 2014-15 school year was the first year it was fully in effect. Under the law, the state must look at the number of effective educators in schools that serve varying levels of low-income students, students of color and English language learners.

To calculate those gaps, the state education department ranked every school in Colorado from highest to lowest by the percentage of students in each of those three groups.

The state then broke each of those lists into four quartiles and compared the percentages of effective teachers in schools in the highest and lowest quartiles for each district.

The gaps in Denver were bigger than statewide averages.

For example, in DPS schools with high proportions of English language learners, 62 percent of teachers were rated effective or higher, the data show. In schools with low proportions of English language learners, 89 percent of teachers were effective or better.

That’s a 27 percentage-point gap. Statewide, the gap was 8 percentage points.

The numbers were almost exactly the same for DPS schools with high and low proportions of students of color: 63 percent versus 89 percent, respectively.

And in DPS schools with high proportions of students living in poverty, 64 percent of teachers were rated effective or higher. In low-poverty schools, 84 percent were effective or better.

DPS uses its own teacher evaluation system, which meets Colorado requirements but is different than the state-developed system most school districts use. Denver also had a high percentage of teachers show up in state data as “not rated” in 2014-15 for a variety of reasons related to attrition, new hires and the large number of charter schools in DPS.

But while DPS officials said they’re still digging into whether the state’s gap analysis lines up with the district’s own number-crunching, they acknowledged that DPS is “not satisfied where we are” when it comes to teacher effectiveness gaps.

“One of the things we have been focused on is getting our strongest teachers to come to and stay in some of our highest needs schools,” said Sarah Almy, the district’s executive director of talent management. “…One of the challenges — and one of factors in that gap — is that we, as many districts do, struggle to retain teachers in our highest needs schools and consequently wind up with a greater proportion of new teachers in those schools.”

New teachers are more likely to be rated “partially effective” — as opposed to “effective” or “highly effective” — than veteran teachers, Almy said. DPS has been trying to attract more effective teachers to high-needs schools by offering them financial incentives, she said. This year, the district is also focusing on increasing teacher retention in those schools.

In neighboring Jefferson County, state data show 90 percent of teachers in schools that serve the county’s poorest students were rated effective or higher. At the same time, 82 percent of teachers in the county’s wealthiest schools earned one of the top two ratings.

Similar inverse gaps existed in schools that serve high and low proportions of English language learners and students of color.

Todd Engels, Jeffco’s executive director of educator effectiveness, said the district is studying the data but noted it could be difficult to draw any conclusions given how old it is.

“We’re thankful that we have some great teachers in those high-needs schools,” he said.

One possible reason for the reverse gap, Engels said, is that a dozen of the district’s highest poverty schools have been involved in a national pay-for-performance study known as Strat Comp to test new ways to pay teachers and identify what helps them become better instructors.

Teachers in the study were evaluated by both school administrators and trained peer evaluators that worked across multiple schools. Some teachers received bonuses up to $15,000 tied to their evaluations, while others received stipends. All teachers received a higher starting salary.

The research was funded by a $32.8 million five-year grant from the federal government. Engels said the district has not yet received the final report on the impact of the investment, but participating schools have been flushed with additional resources and training for teachers and principals.

One of the largest gaps based on poverty in the state was in wealthy, suburban Douglas County. In high-poverty Dougco schools, 42 percent of teachers were rated effective or higher. In low-poverty Dougco schools, 79 percent were effective or higher.

But according to the way the state calculated the gaps, the district had 79 schools in the wealthiest quartile and only three in the poorest quartile. All three are run by the HOPE Online charter organization, a multi-district online school with learning centers along the Front Range.

Britt Wilkenfeld, director of research for educator talent at the Colorado Department of Education, said that because of the exceedingly low number of Dougco schools in the high-poverty quartile, the gap analysis there “might not be as meaningful” as in other districts.

“You’re really just looking at the gap between that school and the rest of the district,” she said.

Douglas County School District officials did not provide responses to Chalkbeat questions by the end of business Tuesday.

Exiting

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

PHOTO: TN.Gov

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.

PHOTO: TN.gov
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.

reading science

Reading instruction is big news these days. Teachers, share your thoughts with us!

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

Lately, lots of people are talking about reading. Specifically, how it’s taught (or not) in America’s schools.

Much of the credit is due to American Public Media reporter Emily Hanford. In September, she took an in-depth look at what’s wrong with reading instruction in the nation’s classrooms and how explicit, systematic phonics instruction could help.

The crux of the issue is this: In the 1980s and 1990s, the “whole language” approach to teaching reading took hold, relying on the idea that learning to read is a natural process that could be helped along by surrounding kids with good books. At many schools, phonics was out.

In time, many educators brought small doses of phonics back into their lessons, adopting an approach called “balanced literacy.” The problem is, neither whole language nor balanced literacy is based on science, Hanford explained.

Her work on the subject — an audio documentary called Hard Words, a follow-up Q&A for parents, and an opinion piece in the New York Times — has spawned much discussion on social media and elsewhere.

A Maine educator explained in her piece for the Hechinger Report why she agrees that explicit phonics instruction is important but doesn’t think “balanced literacy” should be thrown out. A Minnesota reporter examined the divide in her state over how much phonics should be included in reading lessons and how it should be delivered.

In a roundtable discussion on reading last spring, Stephanie Finn, a literacy coach in the West Genesee Central School District in upstate New York, described the moment she became disillusioned with the whole language approach. It was while reading a story with her young daughter.

“The story was about gymnastics and she had a lot of background knowledge about gymnastics. She loved gymnastics. She knew the word ‘gymnastics,’ and ‘balance beam’ and ‘flexible’ and she got to the girl’s name and the girl’s name was Kate, and she didn’t know what to do,” said Finn. “I thought ‘Holy cow, she cannot decode this simple word. We have a problem.’”

In an opinion piece in Education Week, Susan Pimentel, co-founder of StandardsWork, provides three recommendations to help educators promote reading proficiency. Besides not confining kids to “just-right” books where they already know most words, she says teachers should increase students’ access to knowledge-building subjects like science and social studies. Finally, she writes, “Let quality English/language arts curriculum do some of the heavy lifting. Poor-quality curriculum is at the root of reading problems in many schools.”

Meanwhile, some current and former educators are asking teacher prep program leaders to explain the dearth of science-based lessons on reading instruction.

An Arkansas teacher wrote in a letter to her former dean on Facebook, “while I feel like most of my teacher preparation was very good, I can say I was totally unprepared to teach reading, especially to the struggling readers that I had at the beginning of my career in my resource classroom.”

Former elementary school teacher Robert Pondiscio, a senior fellow and vice president for external affairs at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, wrote to his former dean, “I’m grateful for the professional credential … But if there’s anything one might expect an advanced degree in elementary education to include, it would be teaching reading. It wasn’t part of my program.”

Teachers, now we’d like to hear from you. What resonates with you about the recent news coverage on reading instruction? What doesn’t? Share your perspective by filling out this brief survey.