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.”

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.