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

student teaching

Building a teacher pipeline: How one Aurora school has become a training ground for aspiring teachers

Paraprofessional Sonia Guzman, a student of a teaching program, works with students at Elkhart Elementary School in Aurora. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Students at Aurora’s Elkhart Elementary School are getting assistance from three aspiring teachers helping out in classrooms this year, part of a new partnership aimed at building a bigger and more diverse teacher pipeline.

The teachers-to-be, students at the University of Northern Colorado’s Center for Urban Education, get training and a paid job while they’re in college. Elkhart principal Ron Schumacher gets paraprofessionals with long-term goals and a possibility that they’ll be better prepared to be Aurora teachers.

For Schumacher, it’s part of a plan to not only help his school, but also others in Aurora Public Schools increase teacher retention.

“Because of the nature of our school demographics, it’s a coin flip with a new teacher,” Schumacher said. “If I lose 50 percent of my teachers over time, I’m being highly inefficient. If these ladies know what they’re getting into and I can have them prepared to be a more effective first-year teacher, there’s more likelihood that I’ll keep them in my school in the long term.”

Elkhart has about 590 students enrolled this year. According to state data from last year, more than 95 percent of the students who attend the school qualify for subsidized lunches, a measure of poverty. The school, which operates with an International Baccalaureate program, has outperformed the district average on some state tests.

The three paraprofessionals hired by the school this year are part of the teaching program at UNC’s Lowry campus, which has long required students to work in a school for the four years they work on their degree.

Students get paid for their work in schools, allowing them to earn some money while going to college. Students from the program had worked in Aurora schools in the past, but not usually three students at once at the same school, and not as part of a formal partnership.

The teaching program has a high number of students of color and first-generation college students, which Rosanne Fulton, the program director, said is another draw for partnering with schools in the metro area.

Schumacher said every principal and education leader has the responsibility to help expose students to more teachers who can relate to them.

One of this year’s paraprofessionals is Andy Washington, an 18-year-old who attended Elkhart for a few years when she was a child.

“Getting to know the kids on a personal level, I thought I was going to be scared, but they’re cool,” Washington said.

Another paraprofessional, 20-year-old Sonia Guzman, said kids are opening up to them.

“They ask you what college is like,” Guzman said.

Schumacher said there are challenges to hiring the students, including figuring out how to make use of the students during the morning or early afternoon while being able to release them before school is done for the day so they can make it to their college classes.

Schumacher said he and his district director are working to figure out the best ways to work around those problems so they can share lessons learned with other Aurora principals.

“We’re using some people differently and tapping into volunteers a little differently, but if it’s a priority for you, there are ways of accommodating their schedules,” he said.

At Elkhart, full-time interventionists work with students in kindergarten through third grade who need extra help learning to read.

But the school doesn’t have the budget to hire the same professionals to work with older students. The three student paraprofessionals are helping bridge that gap, learning from the interventionists so they can work with fourth and fifth grade students.

Recently, the three started getting groups of students that they pull out during class to give them extra work on reading skills.

One exercise they worked on with fourth grade students recently was helping them identify if words had an “oi” or “oy” spelling based on their sounds. Students sounded out their syllables and used flashcards to group similar words.

Districts across the country have looked at similar approaches to help attract and prepare teachers for their own schools. In Denver, bond money voters approved last year is helping pay to expand a program this year where paraprofessionals can apply for a one-year program to become teachers while they continue working.

In the partnership at Elkhart, students paraprofessionals take longer than that, but in their first and second year are already learning how to write lessons during their afternoon classes and then working with teachers at the school to deliver the lessons and then reflect on how well they worked. Students say the model helps them feel supported.

“It’s really helping me to become more confident,” said Stephanie Richards, 26, the third paraprofessional. “I know I’m a lot more prepared.”

Schumacher said the model could also work in the future with students from other teaching schools or programs. It’s a small but important part, he said, toward helping larger efforts to attract and retain teachers, and also diversify the ranks.

“You’re doing something for the next generation of folks coming in,” he said.


Teachers in Millington and Knoxville just won the Oscar awards of education

PHOTO: Milken Family Foundation
Millington English teacher Katherine Watkins reacts after learning that she is the recipient of a 2017 Milken Educator Award.

Two Tennessee teachers were surprised during school assemblies Thursday with a prestigious national teaching award, $25,000 checks, and a visit from the state’s education chief.

Katherine Watkins teaches high school English in Millington Municipal Schools in Shelby County. She serves as the English department chair and professional learning community coordinator at Millington Central High School. She is also a trained jazz pianist, published poet, and STEM teacher by summer.

PHOTO: Milken Family Foundation
Paula Franklin learns she is among the recipients.

Paula Franklin teaches Advanced Placement government at West High School in Knoxville. Since she took on the course, its enrollment has doubled, and 82 percent of her students pass with an average score that exceeds the national average.

The teachers are two of 45 educators being honored nationally with this year’s Milken Educator Awards from the Milken Family Foundation. The award includes a no-strings-attached check for $25,000.

“It is an honor to celebrate two exceptional Tennessee educators today on each end of the state,” said Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, who attended each assembly. “Paula Franklin and Katherine Watkins should be proud of the work they have done to build positive relationships with students and prepare them with the knowledge and skills to be successful in college and the workforce.”

Foundation chairman Lowell Milken was present to present the awards, which have been given to thousands of teachers since 1987.

PHOTO: Milken Family Foundation
Students gather around Millington teacher Katherine Watkins as she receives a check as part of her Milken Educator Award.

The Milken awards process starts with recommendations from sources that the foundation won’t identify. Names are then reviewed by committees appointed by state departments of education, and their recommendations are vetted by the foundation, which picks the winners.

Last year, Chattanooga elementary school teacher Katie Baker was Tennessee’s sole winner.

In all, 66 Tennessee educators have been recognized by the Milken Foundation and received a total of $1.6 million since the program began in the state in 1992.

You can learn more about the Milken Educator Awards here.