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.

after douglas

Betsy DeVos avoids questions on discrimination as school safety debates reach Congress

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos prepares to testify at a House Appropriations Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies Subcommittee hearing in Rayburn Building on the department's FY2019 budget on March 20, 2018. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos fielded some hostile questions on school safety and racial discrimination as she defended the Trump administration’s budget proposal in a House committee hearing on Tuesday.

The tone for the hearing was set early by ranking Democrat Rep. Rosa DeLauro, who called aspects DeVos’s prepared remarks “misleading and cynical” before the secretary had spoken. Even the Republican subcommittee chair, Rep. Tom Cole, expressed some skepticism, saying he was “concerned about the administration continuing to request cuts that Congress has rejected.”

During nearly two hours of questioning, DeVos stuck to familiar talking points and largely side-stepped the tougher queries from Democrats, even as many interrupted her.

For instance, when Rep. Barbara Lee, a Democrat from Texas, complained about proposed spending cuts and asked, “Isn’t it your job to ensure that schools aren’t executing harsher punishments for the same behavior because [students] are black or brown?” DeVos responded by saying that students of color would benefit from expanded school choice programs.

Lee responded: “You still haven’t talked about the issue in public schools as it relates to black and brown students and the high disparity rates as it relates to suspensions and expulsions. Is race a factor? Do you believe that or not?” (Recent research in Louisiana found that black students receive longer suspensions than white students involved in the same fights, though the difference was very small.)

Again, DeVos did not reply directly.

“There is no place for discrimination and there is no tolerance for discrimination, and we will continue to uphold that,” she said. “I’m very proud of the record of the Office of Civil Rights in continuing to address issues that arise to that level.”

Lee responded that the administration has proposed cuts to that office; DeVos said the reduction was modest — less than 1 percent — and that “they are able to do more with less.”

The specific policy decision that DeVos faces is the future of a directive issued in 2014 by the Obama administration designed to push school districts to reduce racial disparities in suspensions and expulsions. Conservatives and some teachers have pushed DeVos to rescind this guidance, while civil rights groups have said it is crucial for ensuring black and Hispanic students are not discriminated against.

That was a focus of another hearing in the House on Tuesday precipitated by the shooting last month at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican, falsely claimed in his opening statement that Broward County Public Schools rewrote its discipline policy based on the federal guidance — an idea that has percolated through conservative media for weeks and been promoted by other lawmakers, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Utah Sen. Mike Lee. In fact, the Broward County rules were put into place in 2013, before the Obama administration guidance was issued.

The Manhattan Institute’s Max Eden, a leading critic of Obama administration’s guidance, acknowledged in his own testimony that the Broward policy predated these rules. But he suggested that policies like Broward’s and the Obama administration’s guidance have made schools less safe.

“Faced with pressure to get the numbers down, the easiest path is to simply not address, or to not record, troubling, even violent, behavior,” he said.

Kristen Harper, a director with research group Child Trends and a former Obama administration official, disagreed. “To put it simply, neither the purpose nor the letter of the federal school discipline guidance restrict the authority of school personnel to remove a child who is threatening student safety,” she said.

There is little, if any, specific evidence linking Broward County’s policies to how Stoneman Douglas shooter Nicholas Cruz was dealt with. There’s also limited evidence about whether reducing suspensions makes schools less safe.

Eden pointed to a study in Philadelphia showing that the city’s ban on suspensions coincided with a drop in test scores and attendance in some schools. But those results are difficult to interpret because the prohibition was not fully implemented in many schools. He also cited surveys of teachers expressing concerns about safety in the classroom including in Oklahoma CityFresno, California; and Buffalo, New York.

On the other hand, a recent study found that after Chicago modestly reduced suspensions for the most severe behaviors, student test scores and attendance jumped without any decline in how safe students felt.

DeVos is now set to consider the repeal of those policies on the Trump administration’s school safety committee, which she will chair.

On Tuesday, DeVos said the committee’s first meeting would take place “within the next few weeks.” Its members will be four Cabinet secretaries: DeVos herself, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, and Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen.

Town Hall

Hopson promises more flexibility as Memphis school leaders clear the air with teachers on new curriculum

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson answers questions from Memphis teachers at a town hall hosted by United Education Association of Shelby County on Monday.

The Shelby County Schools superintendent told passionate teachers at a union town hall Monday that they can expect more flexibility in how they teach the district’s newest curriculums.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the teachers who score highest on their evaluations should not feel like they need to read from a script to meet district requirements, although he didn’t have an immediate answer to how that would work.

Teacher frustrations were reaching a boiling point on district curriculums introduced this school year. Although the state requirements have changed several times over the last eight years, this change was particularly bothersome to teachers because they feel they are teaching to a “script.”

“Teachers have to be given the autonomy,” Hopson said. Although he cited the need for the district to have some control as teachers are learning, “at the end of the day, if you’re a level 4 or level 5 teacher, and you know your students, there needs to be some flexibility.”

Vocal teachers at the meeting cited check-ins from central office staff as evidence of the overreach.

“I keep hearing people say it’s supplemental but we have people coming into my room making sure we’re following it to a T,” said Amy Dixon a teacher at Snowden School. “We’re expected to follow it … like a script.”

The 90-minute meeting sponsored by the United Education Association of Shelby County drew a crowd of about 100 people to talk about curriculum and what Hopson called “a culture of fear” throughout the district of making a mistake.

Hopson said his team is still working on how to strike the right balance between creativity and continuity across nearly 150 district-run schools because so many students move during the school year.

He reassured despondent teachers he would come up with a plan to meet the needs of teachers and keep curriculums consistent. He said some continuity is needed across schools because many students move a lot during the school year.

“We know we got to make sure that I’m coming from Binghampton and going over to Whitehaven it’s got to be at least somewhat aligned,” he said. “I wish we were a stable, middle-class, not the poorest city in the country, then we wouldn’t have a lot of these issues.”

Ever since Tennessee’s largest district began phasing in parts of an English curriculum called Expeditionary Learning, teachers have complained of being micromanaged, instead of being able to tailor content for their students. The same goes for the new math curriculum Eureka Math.

The district’s changes are meant to line it up with the state. Tennessee’s new language arts and math standards replaced the Common Core curriculum, but in fact, did not deviate much when the final version was released last fall. This is the third change in eight years to state education requirements.

Still, Shelby County Schools cannot fully switch to the new curriculums until they are approved by the Tennessee State Board of Education. District leaders hope both curriculums, which received high marks from a national group that measures curriculum alignment to Common Core, will be added when textbooks are vetted for the 2019-20 school year.

Some urged educators to not think of the new curriculums as “scripts,” and admitted to poorly communicating the changes to teachers.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Pam Harris-Giles

“It’s not an expectation that we stand in front of our children and read off a piece of paper,” said Pam Harris-Giles, one of the district’s instructional support directors, who helps coordinate curriculum training and professional development.

Fredricka Vaughn, a teacher at Kirby High School, said that won’t be easy without clear communication of what flexibility will look like for high-performing teachers.

“If you don’t want us to use the word script, then bring back the autonomy,” she said.

Hopson stressed that the state’s largest school district could be a model for public education if everyone can work together to make the new curriculums work.

“It’s going to take work, hard work, everyone aligned from the top, everyone rowing in the same direction.”