up for discussion

In evaluation talks, some not-quite-sticking points remain open

For months, city and union officials have been expressing optimism about reaching a deal on new teacher evaluations by a state deadline in January — with some road bumps, of course. But what is keeping the two sides from reaching an agreement has not been clear.

That has started to change in the last week, as Department of Education officials have spoken publicly on multiple occasions about sticky issues that are still being worked out. The issues include how often observations should take place, what the observations should focus on, and when to schedule hearings of teachers who want to appeal low ratings.

Union officials have declined to comment on open issues, saying that they did not want to discuss negotiations while they are ongoing. But a top official said that no issue would be considered fully closed until the entire evaluation system is set.

David Weiner, the deputy chancellor in charge of teacher quality, stressed that the issues were “not sticking points” when he spoke with teachers at an event last week hosted by the advocacy group Educators 4 Excellence, which supports new evaluations. Department officials made the same assurance Wednesday morning after a panel discussion about teacher evaluations held at the Manhattan Institute, the politically conservative think thank.

Instead, they said, the issues are simply very complicated to resolve.

Though some of the evaluation system is set by state law, the city and the teachers union must negotiate many major points. For example, state law says that 60 percent of teachers’ ratings must be based on “subjective measures,” with at least half of that going to observations by principals. But exactly how the 60 percent is broken down and how the observations should be structured is up for discussion.

The city and the union also have yet to agree on several components of the observation process, including how often observations should take place and the procedure required to document them, city officials said Wednesday.

Currently, a single formal observation is used to generate teachers’ ratings, and the process must include a pre-observation, where the teacher and observer set expectations, and a post-observation to discuss what happened during the observed lesson.

Now, the state is requiring that principals observe each teacher multiple times, at least once without letting him know ahead of time. Weiner said last week that the parameter left much open to debate.

“We’re trying to figure out what seems appropriate,” he told the teachers, before launching into a litany of options. “Should you have five a year of that pre-observation, observation, post-observation? Should there be two pre-observation, observation, post-observation? Should we eliminate the pre-observation and the post-observation and just make it an ongoing cycle of unannounced visits? Should the observations be shorter — should [observers] come in for 15 minutes at a time?”

City and union officials would not say what they hoped would be included in the final agreement. But Micah Lasher, a former top Bloomberg lobbyist who is now pushing for new evaluations as the head of StudentsFirstNY, said last week that their broad positions are easily predictable.

“Generally speaking, the position of the administration is going to be, you know, they want to give principals as much latitude to do more observations with less bureaucracy,” Lasher said. “And I think generally speaking the position of the union is going to be that teachers should have as much notice as possible about those observations and that principals should have a lot of process that they should have to go through both before and after.”

Other questions are less cut and dry. One issue, Weiner told the teachers last week, is that the state requires districts that use the Danielson Rubric for observations, as New York City is planning, must assess teachers on all 22 of the rubric’s “competencies” — or behaviors and skill sets they are supposed to demonstrate.

“That seems like a lot, especially like in year one,” he said, noting that the city’s pilot Danielson program asked teachers to focus on just six important competencies. He suggested that the department and union are discussing phasing the competencies in over time. “Should we start with three and then six and then nine? Is that too slow? Should we start with 10 and then 20? And we’re really actually struggling with this.”

Soliciting feedback last week, Weiner got a wide range of responses from members of Educators 4 Excellence, even though the group is a proponent of more complex evaluation systems. A 15-year veteran said teachers at different points in their careers should be assessed on different skill sets. Another teacher suggested that teachers be allowed to document some competencies outside of observations. A third teacher said she has found it useful to focus on two or three goals at a time. One teacher said her school rendered an observation rubric “meaningless” by focusing on all of its competencies, but yet another educator said looking at all 22 competencies enables her school, a Promise Academy Charter School, to plan effective training sessions for the entire staff.

Another issue under discussion is one that seemed to have been settled months ago: The process for appealing low ratings. The appeals process sunk a smaller-scale evaluations deal a year ago, so when Gov. Andrew Cuomo launched a full-court offensive to get districts to adopt new evaluation systems, he got the city and union to strike a proactive agreement on the issue. Now, an appeals process for New York City teachers only is written into state law, to go into effect when an evaluation system is agreed upon.

But even within that process, which allows the union to appeal up to 13 percent of “ineffective” ratings, there remain some undecided issues. When the appeals hearings will take place and how the department and union will jointly select an impartial third hearing officer are still up for discussion, city officials told reporters.

And officials are signaling that even if an evaluation system is put into place, some elements might still be up in the air.

For 82 percent of city teachers who do teach a tested grade or subject, the city must decide how to assess their student growth over time. Weiner said the city had piloted 12 different options and teachers had not liked using computerized testing or the assessments the city already makes available to them. But he said other options, including compiling portfolios to show students’ growth and setting individual goals for each student, were more popular.

“We are probably going to allow some flexibility in this area for schools and teachers to work on this,” he said.

Transparency Tracker

‘No secret agreements’: Newarkers demand details of district-charter enrollment deal

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

This week, the Newark school board approved a lengthy legal agreement spelling out the details of the enrollment system that thousands of Newark families will use to apply to schools for the coming year.

Didn’t hear about it? You’re not alone.

The board OK’d the deal at a hastily arranged meeting Monday that few people in the community knew about or attended. State rules require that any changes to the district’s enrollment system “be publicly and transparently articulated before adoption.”

It’s unclear whether any changes were made — which would have triggered the transparency rules — because the board did not publicly discuss the details of the deal before voting, and the district has not made the agreement public.

Deborah Smith-Gregory, the president of the Newark NAACP, who attended Monday’s meeting, said she was disappointed that the board did not reveal any specifics about this year’s enrollment deal. Now that the district is back under local control after decades of state rule, she said, the elected board must commit to greater transparency.

“They have to do things differently,” she said. “They have to keep in mind that they’re a public entity — and they’re accountable to the community.”

The agreement describes in minute detail the inner workings of the five-year-old enrollment system, called Newark Enrolls, which allows families apply to most district and charter schools using a single application. The district and charter schools that opt into the system must sign the agreement each year.

The Newark Board of Education ratified the deal during a special meeting Monday — when schools and the district’s central office were closed. The meeting was scheduled to accommodate a charter school whose own board planned to vote on the agreement Tuesday. The timeline is tight because the citywide period for applying to schools begins Dec. 3.

The public agenda for Monday’s meeting, which mostly consisted of the board and Superintendent Roger León talking behind closed doors, did not mention the agreement. Just four community members were present for the public portion, when León and a couple board members made general comments about the controversial system, which critics contend funnels students into charter schools.

Then, without any public discussion of the agreement’s details — including a proposed change that León and charter leaders had debated in private — a majority of board members voted to approve it.

John Abeigon, president of the Newark Teachers Union and a fierce critic of charter schools, said both the district and its charter-school partners should disclose the terms of the deal.

“There should be absolute transparency,” he said.

The district’s current leadership is not the first to keep details of the enrollment system under wraps.

León, who began July 1, inherited it from his state-appointed predecessors, Cami Anderson and Christopher Cerf. One of only a handful of systems nationwide that combine district and charter admissions, proponents say it eases the enrollment process for families while helping to more evenly spread high-needs students across schools. Critics say it was designed to steer students and resources into the charter sector.

The system is dictated by the annual agreement between Newark Public Schools and participating charter schools. Apart from the news website NJ Spotlight, which published the agreement when it was first announced in 2013, it does not appear to have been released to the public since then — even as it has doubled in length, filling 20 pages last year.

In 2015, after Anderson touted the agreement at a state legislative hearing, saying it had created “greater equity and consistency” in admissions, several lawmakers asked to see it.

“No one seems to know about it,” said Assemblyman Ralph Caputo during the hearing.

After Anderson resigned, Cerf’s administration continued to renew the agreement each year. In an email, Cerf, who stepped down in February, said, “The document was always publicly available and was frequently discussed publicly.”

But community activists who have long scrutinized the enrollment system said they do not recall the district ever publicizing the agreement.

“I do not remember ever seeing this document, ever seeing it published anywhere, ever seeing it on the [district] website where we could find it, ever even discussing it in a thorough manner,” said Wilhelmina Holder, a longtime activist and critic of the enrollment system. She added that the new administration and school board should release the latest document to the public.

“No secret agreements,” she said. “You voted on it. If you’re discussing it, then why can’t we have a say in it?”

Absent the agreement, families have other ways to learn about Newark Enrolls. The district publishes a thick enrollment guidebook each year with information about every school, and hosts an annual admissions fair. It also maintains an enrollment website featuring a family-friendly video that illustrates how the system works.

But the agreement offers a uniquely detailed look under the system’s hood — and describes features that are not widely known, according to a copy of last year’s agreement that Chalkbeat obtained.

For instance, it alludes to a “third party” that programs the algorithm used to match students with schools based on the terms set forth in the agreement. The district plays “no active role” in the actual assignment of students to schools, the document says.

It also stipulates that the district must send charter schools as many students as they request. In return, charters must admit all students assigned to them — even if that pushes their enrollment above the limit set by the state, according to the 2017 document.

That practice of assigning schools more students than they currently have space for, called “overmatching,” is done to offset attrition that happens as some families inevitably leave the district before the next school year starts. It became a sticking point in recent closed-door negotiations between León’s administration and charter schools.

León wanted to end the practice, despite charter leaders who said it was critical for filling their seats. People in the charter sector said the final agreement still allows overmatching, though León told Chalkbeat that he believes the practice is unnecessary because charters can pull students from their waitlists to replace those who leave.

In an interview after Monday’s vote, León said no major changes were made to this year’s agreement.

Board chair Josephine Garcia, who made no public comments about enrollment during Monday’s meeting, declined to be interviewed immediately afterwards and did not respond to emails later in the week. However, she was overheard saying after the meeting that the district would eventually “rebrand” the enrollment system.

Chalkbeat contacted the district several times after the meeting to request a copy of the agreement. On Thursday evening, an official provided a public-records request form, which Chalkbeat submitted.

As of Friday, the district had not released the document.

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.