untested

Instead of telling teachers apart, new evals lump some together

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Teachers attended training sessions about the city’s new teacher evaluation system over the summer, but some features of the system – including how teachers whose students don’t take state tests would have their student growth measured — were not decided until the school year began last week.

A Bronx performing arts school’s dance instructor will be judged on students’ English exam scores. Physical education teachers at a transfer school in Brooklyn are going to teach Olympic history lessons to prepare students for the history tests that will help determine their ratings. And teachers in Queens are putting the fate of their evaluations into a final exam that they don’t teach, but yields high pass rates.

The scenarios are not unusual — across the city this year, thousands of teachers will be rated in large part based on test scores of subjects and students that they do not teach.

Rather, the scenarios are examples of how schools have tried to comply with a new teacher evaluation system that must factor student performance into final ratings. They also represent how the original purpose of the evaluations, to differentiate teachers’ effectiveness, has been squeezed by restrictive state laws, limited resources, and a tight timeline for implementation.

“It’s insane to me that 40 percent of my evaluation is going to be based on someone else’s work,” said Jason Zanitsch, a high school drama teacher who will share the same “student growth” score with colleagues in his school this year.

An incomplete evaluation system, implemented rapidly

Sixty percent of teachers’ ratings this year will come from observations by administrators. The state’s evaluation law mandates that the remaining 40 percent come from a combination of state tests and assessments chosen by each district, whose scores are all crunched to determine student growth.

But neither kind of test exists for Zanitsch and other drama teachers, at least this year. They are among the thousands of city teachers for whom the state has not approved any way to measure student learning. They include librarians, 5,000 physical education and arts teachers, and others who teach foreign languages, health, and career education.

New York City principals had until the first day of school last week to choose from a menu of limited options, first made available in early August, for evaluating their teachers on student growth. Principals and teachers told GothamSchools that their schools have picked a “default” option in which all teachers — even core subject teachers — will receive the same score cobbled together from all of the state tests taken in the school.

“What we are advising most of our schools and principals this year is since the principal’s rating is based on how their school collectively is doing, just take the default, especially since it means the minimum of extra work and testing for everyone,” said a person who works in a network with many high schools.

The arrangement has drawn a lawsuit in Florida and criticism from dozens of city principals who last week pledged not to help execute it. But in lieu of state-approved assessments for all subjects, officials say rating teachers by their colleagues’ scores is the best option available until more credible alternatives can be developed.

“If the legislature had wanted us to be fully compliant at the outset, they would have put in place a massive funding program to support assessments to support every single subject,” said Shael Polakow-Suransky, the Department of Education’s chief academic officer. “But they decided to have a statewide evaluation system in place and then to build it from there.”

Looking on the bright side

Some principals and teachers say the arrangement could have benefits.

“It absolutely encourages collaboration,” said Vinnie Zarillo, a social studies teacher at Brownsville Academy High School whose students’ scores will influence the school’s physical education teachers’ ratings as well as his own. He said he is already talking to his colleagues about how to add lessons to P.E. classes about athletics’ role in world history.

Theatre Arts Production Company Principal Ron Link, whose teachers will be rated using results from the English Regents, said the school-wide approach meshed with how teachers already worked together on the school’s end-of-year theater productions. But Link also wondered if eventually it could lead the curriculum to narrow.

“Is it teaching to the test? I don’t know,” Link said. “I think we’re lucky here at TAPCO because we were already doing the infusion part with arts teachers working with the English and the social studies teacher on the production.”

Concerns about testing’s role

But the silver lining doesn’t sit well with everyone who has been told to look for it.

“I want my art teacher to teach students to make and analyze art. I don’t want them to teach mathematical modeling. That’s why I have a great algebra teacher,” said a Brooklyn high school principal, who asked to remain anonymous because she did not want to criticize the evaluation system publicly. The principal added, “The best that I can see coming out of this is that no harm is done.”

“The administration is saying it is teamwork and we are all in this together, but I don’t feel comfortable being graded based on how the other teachers in my school [are] preparing students for their tests,” a forensic science teacher told GothamSchools.  The teacher, who said her evaluation will be partially based on her students’ Living Environment Regents exam scores, requested anonymity because she feared retribution.

Department officials concede that the situation is far from ideal but say it’s the best they could have done under the state’s timeline for implementing the new evaluation law. Polakow-Suransky suggested that teachers could find solace in the fact that the city did not introduce more required tests, as some had worried that the new evaluation system would do. But he also noted that several schools are piloting arts assessments funded by federal grants and signaled that schools could have the option to add tests in the future.

“We’re not going to go out and invent a bunch of multiple choice-tests for gym classes. It’s a waste of time,” he said. “We are working hard to develop new assessments that would be useful” for teachers.

Lumping teachers together, instead of telling them apart

For now, educators are pondering the implications of an arrangement that groups teachers together rather than distinguishes their effectiveness individually.

“If you have two or three really not-so-great teachers and you take the default, all those teachers are going to get effective or highly effective,” the network official said. “On the flip side, if your school does badly overall on the Regents this year, some really good teachers are going to get screwed.”

Some principals say they tried to mitigate against those possibilities by hinging teachers’ ratings on their colleagues whose students have done well in the past.

“I’m going to try to game it in little ways, [to] tie it to where we think we’re going to get some good performance,” said the Brooklyn high school principal.

“We picked based on past performance,” said Moses Ojeda, principal of Thomas Edison Career and Technical Education High School, where many teachers work in technology subjects.

But those choices, designed to protect teachers, lead to questions about the meaningfulness of the ratings that the new evaluation system will produce.

One teacher who will be rated based on his own students’ scores said the fact that exams in his subject would factor into the scores of his colleagues who teach other subjects would cause him to question all of their ratings. “If you create a system which will work only if administrators don’t follow the rules, it’s a bad system,” he said.

Betsy DeVos

‘Underperformer,’ ‘bully,’ and a ‘mermaid with legs’: NYMag story slams Betsy DeVos

PHOTO: New York Magazine
A drawing of DeVos commissioned by an 8-year-old starts the New York Magazine article.

A new article detailing Betsy DeVos’s first six months as U.S. education secretary concludes that she’s “a mermaid with legs: clumsy, conspicuous, and unable to move forward.”

That’s just one of several brutal critiques of DeVos’s leadership and effectiveness in the New York Magazine story, by Lisa Miller, who has previously covered efforts to overhaul high schools, New York City’s pre-kindergarten push, and the apocalypse. Here are some highlights:

  • Bipartisan befuddlement: The story summarizes the left’s well known opposition to DeVos’s school choice agenda. But her political allies also say she’s making unnecessary mistakes: “Most mystifying to those invested in her success is why DeVos hasn’t found herself some better help.”
  • A friend’s defense: DeVos is “muzzled” by the Trump administration, said her friend and frequent defender Kevin Chavous, a school choice activist.
  • The department reacts: “More often than not press statements are being written by career staff,” a spokesperson told Miller, rejecting claims that politics are trumping policy concerns.
  • D.C. colleagues speak: “When you talk to her, it’s a blank stare,” said Charles Doolittle, who quit the Department of Education in June. A current education department employee says: “It’s not clear that the secretary is making decisions or really capable of understanding the elements of a good decision.”
  • Kids critique: The magazine commissioned six portraits of DeVos drawn by grade-schoolers.
  • Special Olympics flip-flop: DeVos started out saying she was proud to partner with the athletics competition for people with disabilities — and quickly turned to defending a budget that cuts the program’s funding.
  • In conclusion: DeVos is an underperformer,” a “bully” and “ineffective,” Miller found based on her reporting.

We’ve reached out for reaction from DeVos’s team and will update when we hear back.

teachers with borders

Schools near state lines perform worse — and rules discouraging teachers from moving may be to blame

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Want a leg up in school? Don’t attend one near a state border.

That’s the surprising finding of a new study published in the Economics of Education Review. The likely culprit: certification and pension rules that discourage teachers from moving between states, limiting the labor pool on each side of the border.

The peer-reviewed paper focuses on test scores at public middle schools near a state boundary. Eighth-graders attending those schools, the researchers find, perform consistently worse in math than students at non-boundary schools. (The results are negative in reading, too, but smaller and not always statistically significant.)

One reason the findings ought to catch the attention of policymakers across the country: the data comes from 33 states, including big ones like Florida, New York, and Texas.

“We estimate that roughly 670,000 students are enrolled in middle schools nationally that are [considered] ‘intensely affected’ by a state boundary in our study,” the researchers write.

Of course, schools and students are not randomly assigned to be near state boundaries, so the study can’t definitively conclude that boundaries are the cause of lower performance. But the researchers — Dongwoo Kim, Cory Koedel, Shawn Ni, and Michael Podgursky, all of the University of Missouri — control for a number of student characteristics that might affect performance.

And while the study can’t pinpoint why a boundary seems to hurt test scores, the researchers have a theory: “state-specific pension and licensing policies” that discourage teachers from moving between states, likely forcing border schools to draw from a more limited pool of potential teachers.

In some places, those pension rules mean a substantial loss of retirement wealth if teachers move states mid-career. Complicated licensure rules that in some cases require experienced teachers to take certification exams or obtain additional degrees can also make that kind of switch practically difficult. Other research has found that teachers rarely move across state lines, even if they live near a boundary.

Why might that harm performance of schools near state lines?

Say a school in New York City has two science teachers and no math teachers, while a school right across the river in New Jersey has two math teachers and no science teachers. If each school needs exactly one teacher per subject, the solution is easy in theory: the New York City school gets a math teacher and loses a science one, and vice versa for the New Jersey school. But if certification or pension rules prevent that from happening, both schools lose out — and student achievement might suffer.

States aren’t typically eager to change those policies, though, for several reasons.

For one, states that require prospective teachers to clear a high bar to become certified may worry that making it too easy for an out-of-state teacher to receive a license could reduce teacher quality. A study from North Carolina provides some evidence for this argument, showing that teachers trained elsewhere were less effective than teachers trained in-state, though the difference was very small.

Another argument is that limiting teachers’ ability to bring pension money along with them when they move helps states hold on to their educators — even if they are in turn harmed when they can’t recruit teachers from elsewhere.

The latest study suggests that the net impact of those restrictions are negative. Still, the effects on students are quite small, implying that changes to pension and certification policies are unlikely to lead to large improvements in student performance.

But, the study points out, policies that eliminate the harm from attending school near a state line could help hundreds of thousands of students.

“Although the boundary effects are small on a per-student basis, they are spread across a very large population,” the researchers write.