trouble in paradise

Union official warns that new evals could be 'doomed for failure'

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
UFT Secretary Michael Mendel, at right, told Department of Education officials in an angry email that the union is unhappy about the way some schools are preparing for the likelihood of new evaluations.

Intimidating and inappropriate practices in some city schools that are preparing for a new teacher rating system could undermine the system before it goes into effect, a top union official has warned.

In an email sent Friday to Chancellor Dennis Walcott and his top deputies at the Department of Education, UFT Secretary Michael Mendel wrote that the union had recently received a spate of complaints about surprise observations by teams of administrators that seemed designed to make teachers uncomfortable.

“We have been told, increasingly over the last couple of days by our members from all parts of the city, that the DOE’s roll out of a new evaluation system has been a disaster and that it  has created a terrible atmosphere of fear around both the new evaluation system and the Danielson protocols,” Mendel wrote in the email, whose subject line was “I’m very Frustrated.”

Walcott’s email address was misspelled, so he did not get the message, according to a department spokeswoman. But the email came through for other top deputy chancellors. This afternoon, Mendel said he had not yet received any response.

The email, which the union described as “blistering” in a message to leaders at each school, is not the first that Mendel has sent in anger during the long lead-up to new evaluations. In October 2011, Mendel sent a similarly scathing email after the union received reports that some principals were using the Danielson model to observe teachers, even thought the union had not agreed to the change.

The current dustup also centers around observations. Mendel wrote that large groups of administrators have visited teachers’ classrooms without warning, made unreasonable demands, and then given scathing feedback. In an interview today, he said much of the criticism the teachers received had focused on minutiae such as the way they entered their lessons into a planning book.

Mendel said the reports had come from across the city, with more than a dozen complaints arriving after his email to the city. In one Brooklyn district, the union had received complaints from 11 schools, he said, and the report from another school was that all teachers had been told that their lesson plans were completed unsatisfactorily.

If principals had told the teachers that they would be observed and discussed the experience with them in a collaborative effort to prepare for new evaluations, the union would have had no objection, Mendel said today. “But if they do it this way where teachers are feeling intimidated, harassed, scared, put off — is it a good thing?” he said. “No. It is it a terrible thing, because it is turning them against the evaluation system.”

According to a decree by Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s, districts that do not agree with their teachers unions on new evaluations by Jan. 17, 2013, will risk losing an increase in state school aid. For New York City, not reaching a deal would mean forgoing about $250 million in state aid. Both union and city officials say they are committed to working to reach an agreement in time.

“Our staff quite frankly have been having constructive discussions,” Walcott said last week. “I’m always an optimist so we’ll see what happens.”

A department spokeswoman said today that Mendel’s letter had not weakened the department’s resolve. “Mr. Mendel is more focused on internal union politics than on the important work of finalizing a deal,” said the spokeswoman, Erin Hughes. “Even through these cheap shots, we remain committed to reaching an evaluation agreement.”

But Mendel’s letter suggested that an agreement would be unlikely to end disputes over how city teachers are evaluated.

“I believe even if we reach an agreement, the present structure of the DOE and the past practice since Sept 2011 demonstrate that you cannot and will not roll it out successfully,” he wrote, adding that the current “network” structure has muddied lines of accountability for principals.

“I would suggest we sit and talk about a proper roll out,” Mendel wrote. “If this continues the new evaluation system is doomed for failure.”

Mendel’s complete letter to the department officials is below:

Titled: I’m very Frustrated.

We have been told, increasingly over the last couple of days by our members from all parts of the city, that the DOE’s roll out of a new evaluation system has been a disaster and that it  has created a terrible atmosphere of fear around both the new evaluation system and the Danielson protocols.

In many parts of the city teachers are being told that the new evaluation system is a done deal. In some cases they are being told that starting in Jan. there will no longer be pre and post observations. In many places 8 or nine administrators are working into a teacher’s room without warning, writing notes in the back of the room and leaving.

We have Network people and Talent Coaches saying things that are just wrong as well as intimidating. It’s going on all over the city so please don’t ask me for specifics. It’s so pervasive that specifics become meaningless. As you all know we have had to give you pieces of evidence that Principals wanted to put  in the file in violation of the contract. To your credit you did stop this when we brought it to you attention. Unfortunately the damage has already been done by the mere fact that the Principal put on the bottom of these observations “for the file”.

I believe even if we reach an agreement, the present structure of the DOE and the past practice since Sept 2011 demonstrate that you cannot and will not roll it out successfully. I do not attach any intentional motives on the DOE’s part. I am speaking from evidence city wide that has transpired. It is obvious to almost anyone involved with the DOE that the Network structure is an operational disaster. And I know that most of you and others in education from outside the DOE know it as well. I also know that it is almost impossible if not totally impossible for you to admit this.

I just want to remind you that we are still 100% committed to the new evaluation system – one that incorporates professional growth throughout a teacher’s career and a fair and honest evaluation process.

What should have happened was Principals telling the staff that we will learn this together in a non threatening way. We might come into your classroom in mass, 8 or 9 of us. We are just coming in to learn. After we leave one of us will go over what we saw or think we saw and see how you feel. Then we will rip up the observation. This is so we can all learn together in a professional atmosphere. We could even say if someone feels so strongly about not having 8 or 9 people come in at one time we would honor that. You get the idea. Learn together in a non threatening way. Unfortunately the opposite is happening in too many places. Anyway I would suggest we sit and talk about a proper roll out.  If this continues the new evaluation system is doomed for failure. And let’s be clear. This failure rests squarely on the DOE’s shoulders. No one else.

Michael Mendel
UFTSecretary/Executive Assistant to the President

the aftermath

What educators, parents, and students are grappling with in the wake of America’s latest school shooting

Kristi Gilroy (right) hugs a young woman at a police check point near the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School where 17 people were killed by a gunman in Parkland, Florida. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

It’s hard to know where to start on days like this.

The shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 people dead on Wednesday has elicited both terror and anger — and raised debates that are far from settled about how to keep American students safe.

Here are a few storylines we noticed as the country again grapples with a tragic school shooting:

1. You’re not wrong to think it: There have been a lot of mass shootings, and many recent ones have been especially deadly.

Data on school shootings specifically, though, is notoriously murky. As the Atlantic recently noted, varying definitions can contribute to either “sensationalizing or oversimplifying a modern trend of mass violence in America that is seemingly becoming more entrenched.”

But by NBC News’ count, 20 people have been killed and more than 30 have been injured in school shootings this year. That’s a lot — and more news organizations are now trying to keep a careful tally.

2. The consequences of traumatic events like the shooting at Stoneman Douglas are likely to be felt for some time.

A number of studies have found that violent and traumatic events in and outside of school do real damage to student learning, as we’ve reported — particularly among students who are already struggling. Here are some resources for teachers who need to talk to their students about trauma.

3. The tragedy is already renewing debates over whether or how to arm teachers.

Education Week gathered some of those calls from politicians Thursday. “Gun-safety advocates say that teachers can’t safely and quickly move from the mindset of teaching to being asked to fire a gun at an active shooter,” the story also notes.

This doesn’t even get at the debate about whether anyone should have access to the kind of gun the shooter used. Students from the district, for their part, told Broward schools chief Robert Runcie Thursday “that the time is due for a conversation on sensible gun control,” the Miami Herald reported.

Whether other technology and infrastructure can help keep students safe is a topic of ongoing discussion in communities across the country. Colorado lawmakers are considering a bill to help schools buy communications systems that would allow them to talk directly to police and other emergency responders. Officials from districts that already use this equipment described them as a way to increase safety without “turning our schools into prisons,” even as they also assured lawmakers that the radios were just as useful for serious playground injuries and broken-down buses as for the much rarer active shooter situations.

In Tennessee, one school district near Nashville announced plans to close schools next Monday to review all safety plans with school staff and local law enforcement.

4. In some places, the shooting is unlikely to change the school safety debate at all.

In New York City, for example, conversations about school safety in recent years have revolved around discipline policies and metal detectors (though police have seized an increasing number of weapons from city schools). There’s little appetite there to arm teachers.

5. But all across America, the shooting and others like it have added a frightening tone to what it means to teach and learn in schools today.

“I know you are waking up this morning to a nightmare,” a former educator wrote in a “love letters to teachers” on Teaching Tolerance. “I know you are frustrated, tired and weary of the news. I know you are wearing your coat of bravery today.”

“I’m so, so angry and I’m having a hard time today looking at my students and not thinking about what happens when it’s my school’s turn,” wrote one commenter on the Badass Teachers Association Facebook group.

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.