outlier

Actually, N.Y. did okay one city school's teacher evaluation plan

Staten Island's John W. Lavelle Preparatory Charter School is the only school in the city and the only charter school in the state with a state-approved teacher evaluation plan.

In the aftermath of New York City’s failed teacher evaluation negotiations, a small detail has gone unnoticed: There actually is one city school with a state-approved teacher evaluation system.

Surprised?

“We were surprised, too,” said Ken Byalin, president of John W. Lavelle Preparatory Charter School, a Staten Island secondary school with an emphasis on serving students with emotional challenges.

“When we saw there were no approved plans by charter schools, we thought, ‘Oh my god, what are we doing?’” Byalin said. “We were out in front in a way we hadn’t expected to be.”

Though alone among charter schools, Lavelle is hardly the only school in the state to beat the city Department of Education to creating a teacher evaluation system: More than 700 districts did. But as the smallest school in the state to write a system in line with the state’s requirements, Lavelle offers a unique look inside what teacher evaluation requires.

Even with just 37 teachers and fewer than 300 students, no unions to contend with, and practice assessing teacher quality that predated the state’s 2010 evaluation law, Lavelle’s top staff nevertheless worked nonstop for nearly a week to hammer out a plan that would pass muster with state education officials. And they are already planning to revisit their work this summer.

Hashing out an evaluation plan

Byalin said the school chose to meet the state’s Jan. 17 deadline, even though the deadline did not apply to charter schools, because of the prospect of federal support for its teacher training efforts. The state had awarded the school a $16,500 “Strengthening Teacher and Leader Effectiveness” grant from its federal Race to the Top funds, but made cashing the check contingent on having an approved evaluation plan in place.

As they began planning to design a system that followed the state’s rules, Lavelle administrators had a distinct advantage: Unlike most school districts, including New York City, the school had been evaluating teachers based on a variety of measures, including student performance, for years. Since it opened in 2009, Lavelle had been testing students and observing teachers in ways that would allow the school to meet the state’s requirements relatively easily. The school began tightening those practices earlier this year, when it joined a project led by the nonprofit CEI-PEA to help charter schools develop performance pay systems.

“This is just data in a different calculation,” Chris Zilinski, an eighth-grade teacher who has been at the school since shortly after it opened, said about the new evaluation system.

“What we tried to do is to keep [the state evaluation plan] as consistent as we could with what we’ve been doing, and refining and building on that,” Byalin said. Even so, he said, as the state’s deadline approached, the school had “probably three or four people working around the clock the last four or five days to get it done.”

For the 40 percent of evaluations that must be based on student performance, the school selected state-approved tests produced by private vendors to measure student growth in science, social studies, and high school academic subjects that do not have state exams. Physical education, art, and Spanish teachers will be graded according to the entire student body’s improvement on state math and reading tests.

Sixty percent of each teacher’s rating — the full amount allowed for measures other than student performance — will come from his or her score in an observation conducted according to the Danielson Framework, the same model the city plans to use whenever it does adopt new evaluations.

Like most districts across the state, Lavelle submitted a plan that would only cover one year — an arrangement that Mayor Bloomberg pilloried last month as a “sham” meant to dilute the power of an agreement. Bloomberg rejected a teacher evaluation deal for the city because of a two-year “sunset” that he said the city teachers union was demanding. “If the agreement sunset in two years, the whole thing would be a joke,” Bloomberg said at the time.

At Lavelle, administrators and teachers said they wrote the plan to apply only to this year because they expect the evaluation system will need to evolve as the school adds new grades each year and officials learn from each round of ratings.

“We will see and teachers will see which of the [assessments the school selected] seems fair and which seem to be completely distorting,” Byalin said. “The plan that we submit for next year will be informed by what happens this year.”

Teachers’ voice

Of course, unlike the city Department of Education, administrators at Lavelle — whose teachers are not represented by a union — did not have to get teachers’ signoff before submitting an evaluation plan to the state. But Byalin said they worked to get teachers comfortable with the new system anyway. He cited both altruistic and pragmatic reasons.

“Part of the reason this feels safe here and doesn’t in some of the bigger [school] systems is that just like everything we do, it’s bottom up,” he said. “The advantage that we have is the ability to hear each person. While it’s a lot of work for us, it doesn’t have the same kind of cost that it does when you’re bringing together a huge bureaucracy.”

The evaluation system has already changed because of input from teachers, according to Zilinski, the eighth-grade teacher. Last year, the school used a set of nationally normed assessments called the Measures of Student Progress, but he said, “I don’t think our teachers were as happy with that as they could be.”

After looking at other assessments, teachers determined that tests produced by Scantron, which are also online and nationally normed, better reflected their goals for their students, Zilinski said. Now, the school is using Scantron assessments in all high school courses that do not have state Regents exams.

“It’s great to be able to say what assessments to base this on,” he said. “That’s a high level of teacher input.”

But Zilinski said he thought there was still room for Lavelle’s evaluation system to improve, for example by reflecting more than just what happens inside individual classrooms. Teachers run a variety of elective programs, such as mock trial, choral performance, and sports journalism, but excellence in those areas would not influence a teacher’s score under the school’s evaluation system.

“Right now my understanding is that the performance is based on numbers,” Zilinski said. “Those intangibles — I absolutely do believe they should factor in.”

Byalin, the charter school’s president, said future versions of the evaluation system are likely to grant credit for teacher leadership. (The state funding will let the school get help from Wagner College to figure out the best way to assess leadership.) He also said the school would likely add peer review to the subjective measures that influence teachers’ ratings and would carefully scrutinize the results to make sure that having many students with special needs does not put teachers at a disadvantage.

The biggest change on the horizon for the school isn’t about what goes into teacher ratings, but how they are used. As part of the latest cohort in CEI-PEA’s performance pay project, Lavelle will soon begin basing all raises are based on performance, rather than years of service. It’s a paradigm that Zilinski says all teachers buy in to before they join the staff.

“This is our culture, so what we’re doing in adopting [new teacher evaluations] is tweaking the method, not introducing new values,” Byalin said.

An early adopter among charter schools?

Whether other charter schools will follow Lavelle’s lead and submit teacher evaluation plans to the state is not clear. Like Lavelle, many other charter schools lack teachers unions, test students regularly, and aim to reward high-performing educators.

But the charter sector has so far resisted efforts by state education officials to get its schools to submit teacher evaluation plans. In December, charter school advocates urged school leaders not to fulfill a state request for teacher performance data.

That could change as the state makes more Race to the Top money available only to schools with teacher evaluation systems in place. Harvey Newman, co-director of CEI-PEA’s charter school performance pay project, said he has encouraged participating charter schools to use the state’s teacher evaluation requirements as a guide so that they can easily gain state approval when they want it.

“You’re going to have this requirement, whether it’s this year or next year or the next year,” Newman said he tells charter schools that are considering joining CEI-PEA’s Teacher Incentive Fund program. “Only now we’ll help you through the process.”

And more than money is at stake for charter schools to develop teacher evaluation systems that meets the state’s requirements, Byalin said.

“For charters to sit outside of this is going to become very, very difficult,” he said. “Part of the premise of charters is transparency and accountability. Either they’re going to have to do this system, or they’re going to have to come up with an alternative and justify why they are doing it that way.”

hiring crisis

Want ideas for easing Illinois’ teacher shortage? Ask a teacher.

PHOTO: Beau Lark / Getty Images

West Prairie High School is feeling the teacher shortage acutely.

The school — in a town of 58 people in downstate Illinois — hasn’t had a family and consumer science teacher for eight years, a business teacher for four years, or a health teacher for two years. The vacancies are among the state’s 1,400 teaching jobs that remained unfilled last school year.

To alleviate a growing teacher shortage, Illinois needs to raise salaries and provide more flexible pathways to the teaching profession, several teachers have urged the Illinois State Board of Education.  

“If we want top candidates in our classrooms, we must compensate them as such,” said Corinne Biswell, a teacher at West Prairie High School in Sciota.

Teachers, especially those in the rural districts most hurt by teacher shortages, welcomed the board’s broad-brush recommendations to address the problem. The board adopted seven proposals, which came with no funding or concrete plans, on Wednesday. It does not have the authority to raise teacher pay, which is negotiated by school districts and teacher unions.

“I appreciate that ISBE is looking for creative ways not only to approve our supply of teachers, but looking at the retention issues as well,” said Biswell, who favored the recommendations.

Goals the board approved include smoothing the pathway to teaching, providing more career advancement, and improving teacher licensing, training and mentorship.

However,  teachers attending the monthly meeting  disagreed over a proposal to eliminate a basic skills test for some would-be teachers and to adjust the entrance test to help more midcareer candidates enter the profession.

Biswell and other teachers warned that some of the recommendations, such as dropping the test of basic skills for some candidates,  could have unintended consequences.

Biswell urged the state board to change credentialing reviews to help unconventional candidates enter teaching. When issuing a teaching credential the state should look at a candidate’s work and college grades, and a mix of skills, she said, and also consider adjusting the basic-skills test that many midcareer candidates take — and currently fail to pass.

She told the board a warning story of teacher licensing gone wrong. When a vocational education teacher failed to pass the teacher-entry tests, he instead filed for a provisional certification. That meant he ended up in the classroom without enough experience.

“We are effectively denying candidates student teaching experiences and then hiring them anyway simply because we do not have any other choice,”  said Biswell, who is a fellow with Teach Plus, a nonprofit that works to bring teacher voices into education policy.

But other teachers want to make sure that credentialing stays as rigorous as possible. In the experience of Lisa Love, a Teach Plus fellow who teaches at Hawthorne Scholastic Academy, a public school in Chicago, too many new teachers don’t know what they are in for. “Being able to be an effective classroom teacher requires a lot of practice and knowledge and education that you can bring to the table in the classroom,” Love said. “Unprepared teachers are more likely to leave the classroom.”

Over the years, she has seen that attrition.

Teach Plus surveyed more than 600 teachers around Illinois about the teacher shortage and how to solve it. The survey found that most teachers wanted a basic skills requirement but also flexibility in meeting it.

The survey also found a divide between current and prospective teachers, as well as rural and urban teachers, on several issues. For example, the majority of current teachers said it wasn’t too difficult to become a teacher, while people trying to enter the profession disagreed. Educators in cities and suburbs didn’t find it too hard to become a teacher, while teachers in rural areas did.

Better pay came up for several teachers interviewed by Chalkbeat.

Illinois legislators passed a bill to set a minimum salary of $40,000 for teachers in Illinois, but Gov. Bruce Rauner vetoed it last summer.

Love noted that she has spent years getting advanced degrees related to teaching. And yet, she said, “I don’t make the salary of a doctor or lawyer but I have the same loans as a doctor or lawyer and the public doesn’t look to me with the same respect.”

But how much do the tests actually measure who might be good at teaching in the classroom? Gina Caneva, a teacher at Lindblom Math and Science Academy, said that written or video tests are very little like the daily work of being an educator. “Being a teacher, you are really out there in the field, you have to respond on your feet,” she said. “These tests don’t equate to the teaching profession.”

Chicago Public Schools is trying to tackle the teacher shortage problem by offering a teacher training program that would offer would-be teachers the chance to get into a classroom and earn a master’s degree in two years.

Some educators also suggest that there are region-specific barriers that could go. Caneva suggests that Chicago get rid of the requirement that teachers live in the city, and instead draw talent from the broader Midwest.

The seven measures the state board passed to improve the teaching force came from Teach Illinois: Strong Teachers, Strong Classrooms, a yearlong partnership between the board and the Joyce Foundation.

First Person

How football prepared me for my first year of teaching (but maybe not the second)

Football brought me to Memphis, and Memphis brought me to teaching.

That’s how, last August, I found myself the solo teacher for seventh grade science at a KIPP middle school in North Memphis that hadn’t had a teacher in that role make it to May in four years.

I completed and even enjoyed that year of teaching, despite its challenges. And while I don’t think my years of high school and college football gave me every tool or personality trait I needed to do that, the experience helped.

First, football taught me to perform when I was not at 100 percent. One of my former coaches used to ask ailing players, “Are you hurt, or are you injured?” in an attempt to parse the words of high schoolers. Hurt was a bruise; injured was a break. I learned to play with bruises.

I found myself asking the hurt or injured question one early morning in February, when I woke up with a throbbing headache. I was hurt, not injured. I made it in.

But physical ailments aren’t the only ones that can sideline a teacher. Teachers have bad days. Frankly, teachers can have bad weeks or months. The same can go for football players. All-star quarterbacks throw interceptions, and gutsy linebackers miss tackles.

The same coach used to tell me, “The only play that matters is the next play.” I found that true last year, too. I couldn’t go back and change the way I unduly reprimanded a student any more than a wide receiver can get another shot at catching a dropped pass.

Some days, though, you “learn” more than you bargained for. In football, those days may be when you feel like you probably should have never tried to play. Those days you drop every ball that comes your way, you forget where you’re supposed to be on every play, and you wonder if the knitting club has any openings.

Football taught me how to drown out these thoughts of inadequacy with positive visualization and by staying focused on concrete goals. As my coach used to tell us after a particularly good play, or a particularly bad one: “Never too high, never too low.” Just as the bad days will soon be washed away in the unrelenting tide of the school year, so will the good ones.

Retaining any sense of perspective on the school year was hard, and there’s no easy fix to an extended period of self-pity or frustration at a string of bad days. My goals were to help kids learn to appreciate science, and to be an adult that students felt they could go to for support. Keeping them at the front of my mind was the best help I could find.

On that note, I have a confession to make. Before my first year of teaching, I was one of those people who didn’t truly understand how difficult teaching was. The reality of how many hours teachers spend outside of school putting their lessons together never crossed my mind. The fact that planning units ahead for my students felt like scouting out my opponents didn’t make the long hours any easier. That first month of teaching was a shock to my system, and the only solution was to put my head down and go, the way I had been taught to do.

Football also left me with some loose ends. The sport taught me next to nothing about patience or about the virtues of benevolence; it never pays to be gentle on the gridiron. Football also didn’t teach me anything about working with people you don’t agree with. On a football team, everyone is united under the same cause: winning.

The parallels I discovered also raise a few uncomfortable questions. I decided to pursue an advanced degree instead of continuing to teach a second year. Does football truly inform teaching as a career, then, or just that first year? A main tenet of football is to never quit. Did I violate that by switching career paths?

Pushing past pain, and centering most hours of one’s life around one goal, can be difficult principles to build a life around. They were also valuable to me when I needed them most.

And regardless of whether football continues to be popular among young people, I hope that parents still find ways to give their kids a chance to compete — a chance to win, and more importantly, to lose.

Having to do that time and time again made me able to accept struggle in life, and it made me a better learner. I think it made me a better teacher, too.

Evan Tucker is a former teacher at KIPP Memphis Academy Middle. He is now pursuing a master’s degree in ecology.