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. 

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.