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. 

First Person

I’m a Florida teacher in the era of school shootings. This is the terrifying reality of my classroom during a lockdown drill.

Outside of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

“Remember,” I tell the children, looking them in the eyes in the darkened classroom. “Remember to keep the scissors open. They’ll stab better that way.”

My students, the target demographic for many a Disney Channel sitcom, laugh nervously at me as they try to go back to their conversations. I stare at the talkative tweens huddling in a corner and sigh.

“Seriously, class,” I say in the tone that teachers use to make goosebumps rise. As they turn back to me with nervous laughter, I hold up that much-maligned classroom tool, the metal scissor that’s completely ineffective at cutting paper. “If a gunman breaks in, I’ll be in the opposite corner with the utility knife.” Said tool is in my hand, and more often used to cut cardboard for projects. All the blood it’s hitherto tasted has been accidental. “If I distract him and you can’t get out, we have to rush him.” I don’t mention that my classroom is basically an inescapable choke point. It is the barrel. We are the fish.

They lapse into silence, sitting between the wires under the corner computer tables. I return to my corner, sidestepping a pile of marbles I’ve poured out as a first line of defense, staring at the classroom door. It’s been two hours of this interminable lockdown. This can’t be a drill, but no information will be forthcoming until it’s all over.

I wonder if I really believe these actions would do anything, or am I just perpetrating upon my students and myself the 21st century version of those old “Duck and Cover” posters.

We wait.

The lockdown eventually ends. I file it away in the back of my head like the others. Scissors are handed back with apathy, as if we were just cutting out paper continents for a plate tectonics lab. The tool and marbles go back into the engineering closet. And then, this Wednesday, the unreal urge to arm myself in my classroom comes back. A live feed on the television shows students streaming out of Marjory Stoneman Douglas, a high school just a short drive away. I wonder whether the teachers in its classrooms have passed out scissors.

*

The weapons. It’s not a subject we teachers enjoy bringing up. You’d have an easier time starting a discussion on religion or politics in the teacher’s lounge then asking how we all prepare for the darkness of the lockdown. Do you try to make everyone cower, maybe rely on prayer? Perhaps you always try to convince yourself it’s a drill. Maybe you just assume that, if a gun comes through the door, your ticket is well and truly up. Whatever token preparation you make, if at all, once belonged only to the secret corners of your own soul.

In the aftermath of Parkland, teachers across the nation are starting to speak. The experience of being isolated, uninformed, and responsible for the lives of dozens of children is now universal to our profession, whether because of actual emergencies or planned drills. You don’t usually learn which is which until at least an hour and sometimes not until afterwards. In both cases, the struggle to control the dread and keep wearing the mask of bravery for your students is the same.

And you need a weapon.

I’ve heard of everything from broken chair legs lying around that never seem to be thrown away to metal baseball bats provided by administration. One teacher from another district dealt with it by always keeping a screwdriver on her desk. “For construction projects,” she told students. She taught English.

There’s always talk, half-jokingly (and less than that, lately) from people who want teachers armed. I have a friend in a position that far outranks my own whose resignation letter is ready for the day teachers are allowed to carry guns in the classroom.

I mean, we’ve all known teachers who’ve had their cell phones stolen by students …

*

Years earlier, I am in the same corner. I am more naïve, the most soul-shaking of American massacres still yet to come. The corner is a mess of cardboard boxes gathered for class projects, and one of them is big enough for several students to crawl inside.

One girl is crying, her friend hugging her as she shakes. She’s a sensitive girl; a religious disagreement between her friends having once brought her to tears. “How can they be so cruel to each other?” She asked me after one had said that Catholics didn’t count as Christians.

I frown. It’s really my fault. An offhand comment on how the kids needed to quiet down because I’m not ready to die pushed her too far. Seriously rolling mortality around in her head, she wanted nothing more than to call her family. None of them are allowed to touch their cell phones, however, and the reasoning makes sense to me. The last thing we need is a mob of terrified parents pouring onto campus if someone’s looking to pad their body count.

She has to go to the bathroom, and there are no good options.

I sit with her, trying to comfort her, wondering what the occasion is. Is there a shooter? Maybe a rumor has circulated online. Possibly there’s just a fleeing criminal with a gun at large and headed into our area. Keeping watch with a room full of potential hostages, I wonder if I can risk letting her crawl through the inner building corridors until she reaches a teacher’s bathroom. We wait together.

It seemed different when I was a teen. In those brighter pre-Columbine times, the idea of a school shooting was unreal to me, just the plot of that one Richard Bachman book that never seemed to show up in used book stores. I hadn’t known back then that Bachman (really Stephen King) had it pulled from circulation after it’d been found in a real school shooter’s locker.

Back then my high school had plenty of bomb threats, but they were a joke. We’d all march out around the flagpole, sitting laughably close to the school, and enjoy the break. Inevitably, we’d all learn that the threat had been called in by a student in the grip of “senioritis,” a seemingly incurable disease that removes the victim’s desire to work. We’d sit and chat and smile and never for a second consider that any of us could be in physical danger. The only threat we faced while waiting was boredom.

*

Today, in our new era of mass shootings, the school districts do what they can, trying to plan comprehensively for a situation too insane to grasp. Law enforcement officials lecture the faculty yearly, giving well-rehearsed speeches on procedures while including a litany of horrors meant to teach by example.

At this level, we can only react to the horrors of the world. The power to alter things is given to legislators and representatives who’ve been entrusted with the responsibility to govern wisely while listening to the will of the people. It’s they who can change the facts on the ground, enact new laws, and examine existing regulations. They can work toward a world where a lockdown is no longer needed for a preteen to grapple with gut-churning fear.

We’re still waiting.

K.T. Katzmann is a teacher in Broward County, Florida. This piece first appeared on The Trace, a nonprofit news site focused on gun violence.

teacher prep

Three of Tennessee’s largest teacher training programs improve on state report card

PHOTO: Nic Garcia

Three of Tennessee’s 10 largest teacher training programs increased their scores on a state report card that seeks to capture how well new teachers are being prepared for the classroom based on state goals.

The University of Tennessee-Knoxville became the first public university to achieve a top score under the State Board of Education’s new grading system, now in its second year. And Middle Tennessee State University and East Tennessee State University also improved their scores.

But most of Tennessee’s 39 programs scored the same in 2017 as in 2016. Those included the University of Memphis and Austin Peay State University.

And more than 40 percent landed in the bottom tiers, including the state’s largest, Tennessee Technological University in Cookeville, along with other sizable ones like the University of Tennessee’s programs in Chattanooga and Martin.

The report card, released on Thursday, is designed to give a snapshot of the effectiveness of the state’s teacher preparation programs, a front-burner issue in Tennessee since a 2016 report said that most of them aren’t adequately equipping teachers to be effective in the classroom. Teacher quality is important because years of research show that teachers matter more to student achievement than any other aspect of schooling.

State officials say the top-tier score by UT-Knoxville is significant — not only because it’s a public school but because it was the state’s sixth largest training program in 2017. “As one of the state’s flagship public institutions, UTK is setting the bar for how to effectively train teachers at scale,” said Sara Heyburn Morrison, executive director of the State Board. She cited the school’s “model internship program” and “close partnerships with local districts.”

In the previous year’s report card, the top scores only went to small nontraditional programs like Memphis Teacher Residency and Teach For America and private universities such as Lipscomb in Nashville and Union in Jackson.

That demographic recently prompted a call to action by Mike Krause, executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission. He told state lawmakers last month that it’s time to put traditional programs at public institutions under a microscope, especially since those colleges and universities produce 90 percent of the state’s new teachers.

“Sometimes an undue amount of discussion happens around alternative new teacher programs like Teach For America or the New Teacher Project …,” he said. “If we’re going to move the needle (on teacher training), it’s going to happen at the campus of a college or university.”

Tennessee has graded programs that train teachers since 2009 but redesigned its report card in 2016 to provide a clearer picture of their effectiveness for stakeholders ranging from aspiring teachers to hiring principals. The criteria includes a program’s ability to recruit a strong, racially diverse group of teachers-in-training; produce teachers for high-need areas such as special education and secondary math and science; and its candidates’ placement and retention in Tennessee public schools. Another metric is how effective those teachers are in classrooms based on their evaluations, including state test scores that show student growth.

Not everybody is satisfied with the report card’s design, though.

“It’s a real challenge to capture in one report the complexity of preparing our candidates to be teachers, especially when you’re comparing very different programs across the state,” said Lisa Zagumny, dean of the College of Education at Tennessee Tech, which increased its points in 2017 but not enough to improve its overall score.

She said Tech got dinged over student growth scores, but that only a third of its graduates went on to teach in tested subjects. “And yet our observation scores are very high,” added Associate Dean Julie Baker. “We know we’re doing something right because our candidates who go on to teach are being scored very high by their principals.”

Racial diversity is another challenge for Tech, which is located in the Upper Cumberland region. “The diversity we serve is rural, first-generation college students who are typically lower socioeconomically,” said Zagumny.

Tennessee is seeking to recruit a more racially diverse teacher force because of research showing the impact of having teachers who represent the student population they are serving. Of candidates who completed Tennessee’s programs in 2016, only 14 percent were people of color, compared with 36 percent of the state’s student population.

Morrison said this year’s report card includes a new “highlights page” in an effort to allow programs to share a narrative about the work they’re doing. 

You can search for schools below, find the new 2017 scores, and compare them with the previous year. A 1 is the lowest performance category and a 4 is the highest. You can sort the list based on performance and size. This is the state’s first report card based on three years of data.