First Person

Some thoughts on teacher effectiveness

Vinny Badolato is vice president of public affairs at the Colorado League of Charter Schools.

I finished Steven Brill’s popular (infamous?) book about the school reform drama, “Class Struggle,” about a month ago.  No, I don’t plan on offering my take on the narrative.  Enough bytes have already been expended on that.  But even though I finished it and have read several other books since, one small, virtually inconsequential paragraph continues to resonate with me.

Brill describes a major frustration Eva Moskowitz, the brilliant creator of the Success Charter Network in NYC, experienced as a student at Stuyvesant High School:

Stuyvesant is New York’s star high school, from which an outsize portion of students, like Moskowiz, cruise into the Ivy League.  But to Moskowitz, many, if not most, of the teachers were anything but stars.  She thought half of the teachers were incompetent and vividly remembers math and science classes where “the students, who were all gifted, literally carried the class.  The teachers were cruising on the students’ talent,” she says.  “I remember one of the kids taught the rest of us physics, while the teacher sat there drunk . . . It was easy to be a teacher there.”

This stuck with me because, as a Stuyvesant alum myself (who did not go onto the Ivy Leagues), I totally agree.  I don’t think any of my teachers were drunk in class, but my high school memories are also littered with teacher experiences that demonstrate either severe incompetence or gross neglect.  Either way, I can’t think of any way to justify why these individuals were allowed to be instructing in any classroom.

The not-so-sterling example of “Mr. P.”

Let’s take Mr. P, for example.  I was “lucky” to be assigned to Mr. P’s geometry class both semesters my freshman year. The class format was supposed to consist of sitting down in our seats, solving the warm-up problems already on the board individually, working them out as a class, and then the day’s instruction. Seems straight forward enough. But I say “supposed to” because class rarely proceeded that way.

Typically, the board was blank and Mr. P was in his seat when we walked in. Mr. P would proceed to write a few problems on the board as he chatted with students, after class had started, a process that usually took 15-20 minutes of a 50 minute class. The rest of the class would be engaged in anything but geometry during this time, usually conversing in small groups or catching up on homework from other classes (since homework was virtually non-existent in Mr. P’s class). He would then sit in his chair and continue with student conversations. Maybe we would get to the problems, usually we wouldn’t.  Rarely were we ever actually taught anything geometric. And so went my entire year of high school geometry.

One would think that our lack of learning would be made evident when our test scores on class assessments and the Regents exam (NY’s standardized test) where revealed, but this was Stuyvesant.  Practically every student cared immensely about those Regents scores since these were used for college admissions, so we all independently studied for that exam and most of us aced it.  And I can’t say for sure, but I doubt our classroom assessments were ever reviewed outside of Mr. P’s class.  So, in terms of pure student performance, Mr. P was a star.

The flip-side of weighing test scores too heavily in evaluation

Now this is not to say that every – or even most, as Eva states – teachers at Stuyvesant were bad; the majority of my teachers were actual stars.  But, this blast from my past does offer insight in regard to two aspects of teacher effectiveness that I believe are essential.  The first concerns the accuracy of weighting standardized tests too heavily in effectiveness scores, but not for the reason usually presented by those who oppose that measure.

Beyond the common argument that an effective teacher may get a poor rating due to low student performance on a standardized test for any of the myriad of reasons people cite, we also need to consider the case of a lousy teacher being rated effective when clearly he is not.  If we judged Mr. P’s effectiveness as a teacher either solely or too heavily on his student’s performance, then he would likely be considered highly effective when it is obvious he was not.  Falling into the trap of relying too heavily on student performance to measure teacher effectiveness distorts that effectiveness rating and can quickly lead to an ineffective evaluation system with no buy-in.

That’s why I am glad that a robust evaluation system which takes multiple measures of effectiveness into account is being developed by Colorado. Evaluating teacher performance using multiple measures – along with student performance – will allow for a richer and more accurate assessment of teacher effectiveness.

The key is getting these multiple measures and the structure of the system right.  That means a system that is fair, transparent, timely and, importantly, consistent to allow for comparisons within and across districts. And from the looks of the draft rules, I believe that we are moving firmly in that direction.

Adding sharper teeth to effectiveness-based employment decisions

The second essential component is a little more controversial. Employment decisions should be closely coupled to a teacher’s effectiveness.  In my mind that means more than the potential loss of tenure.  It should have more teeth and also include the gamut of personnel decisions: hiring, assignment, continued employment, transfer and termination.  And with a robust and balanced evaluation system in place, these employment decisions can and should be made in a rapid and timely fashion.

Colorado is not going down that route now, but here’s hoping that one day we will.  Because every school year that an ineffective teacher is allowed to remain in the classroom means another group of kids is cheated out of learning opportunities.

Other than some sour memories, having Mr. P for geometry did not negatively affect me.  But that doesn’t mean we should accept allowing ineffective teachers to continue reaching kids in any classroom.

We as a state and society have to build the collective will to ensure that teacher effectiveness is paramount in public education. That means recognizing and rewarding highly effective teachers, as well as removing chronically ineffective teachers from the classroom.  Doing otherwise is unjust, unfair, and just plain wrong.

First Person

I’m a Florida teacher in the era of school shootings. This is the terrifying reality of my classroom during a lockdown drill.

Outside of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

“Remember,” I tell the children, looking them in the eyes in the darkened classroom. “Remember to keep the scissors open. They’ll stab better that way.”

My students, the target demographic for many a Disney Channel sitcom, laugh nervously at me as they try to go back to their conversations. I stare at the talkative tweens huddling in a corner and sigh.

“Seriously, class,” I say in the tone that teachers use to make goosebumps rise. As they turn back to me with nervous laughter, I hold up that much-maligned classroom tool, the metal scissor that’s completely ineffective at cutting paper. “If a gunman breaks in, I’ll be in the opposite corner with the utility knife.” Said tool is in my hand, and more often used to cut cardboard for projects. All the blood it’s hitherto tasted has been accidental. “If I distract him and you can’t get out, we have to rush him.” I don’t mention that my classroom is basically an inescapable choke point. It is the barrel. We are the fish.

They lapse into silence, sitting between the wires under the corner computer tables. I return to my corner, sidestepping a pile of marbles I’ve poured out as a first line of defense, staring at the classroom door. It’s been two hours of this interminable lockdown. This can’t be a drill, but no information will be forthcoming until it’s all over.

I wonder if I really believe these actions would do anything, or am I just perpetrating upon my students and myself the 21st century version of those old “Duck and Cover” posters.

We wait.

The lockdown eventually ends. I file it away in the back of my head like the others. Scissors are handed back with apathy, as if we were just cutting out paper continents for a plate tectonics lab. The tool and marbles go back into the engineering closet. And then, this Wednesday, the unreal urge to arm myself in my classroom comes back. A live feed on the television shows students streaming out of Marjory Stoneman Douglas, a high school just a short drive away. I wonder whether the teachers in its classrooms have passed out scissors.

*

The weapons. It’s not a subject we teachers enjoy bringing up. You’d have an easier time starting a discussion on religion or politics in the teacher’s lounge then asking how we all prepare for the darkness of the lockdown. Do you try to make everyone cower, maybe rely on prayer? Perhaps you always try to convince yourself it’s a drill. Maybe you just assume that, if a gun comes through the door, your ticket is well and truly up. Whatever token preparation you make, if at all, once belonged only to the secret corners of your own soul.

In the aftermath of Parkland, teachers across the nation are starting to speak. The experience of being isolated, uninformed, and responsible for the lives of dozens of children is now universal to our profession, whether because of actual emergencies or planned drills. You don’t usually learn which is which until at least an hour and sometimes not until afterwards. In both cases, the struggle to control the dread and keep wearing the mask of bravery for your students is the same.

And you need a weapon.

I’ve heard of everything from broken chair legs lying around that never seem to be thrown away to metal baseball bats provided by administration. One teacher from another district dealt with it by always keeping a screwdriver on her desk. “For construction projects,” she told students. She taught English.

There’s always talk, half-jokingly (and less than that, lately) from people who want teachers armed. I have a friend in a position that far outranks my own whose resignation letter is ready for the day teachers are allowed to carry guns in the classroom.

I mean, we’ve all known teachers who’ve had their cell phones stolen by students …

*

Years earlier, I am in the same corner. I am more naïve, the most soul-shaking of American massacres still yet to come. The corner is a mess of cardboard boxes gathered for class projects, and one of them is big enough for several students to crawl inside.

One girl is crying, her friend hugging her as she shakes. She’s a sensitive girl; a religious disagreement between her friends having once brought her to tears. “How can they be so cruel to each other?” She asked me after one had said that Catholics didn’t count as Christians.

I frown. It’s really my fault. An offhand comment on how the kids needed to quiet down because I’m not ready to die pushed her too far. Seriously rolling mortality around in her head, she wanted nothing more than to call her family. None of them are allowed to touch their cell phones, however, and the reasoning makes sense to me. The last thing we need is a mob of terrified parents pouring onto campus if someone’s looking to pad their body count.

She has to go to the bathroom, and there are no good options.

I sit with her, trying to comfort her, wondering what the occasion is. Is there a shooter? Maybe a rumor has circulated online. Possibly there’s just a fleeing criminal with a gun at large and headed into our area. Keeping watch with a room full of potential hostages, I wonder if I can risk letting her crawl through the inner building corridors until she reaches a teacher’s bathroom. We wait together.

It seemed different when I was a teen. In those brighter pre-Columbine times, the idea of a school shooting was unreal to me, just the plot of that one Richard Bachman book that never seemed to show up in used book stores. I hadn’t known back then that Bachman (really Stephen King) had it pulled from circulation after it’d been found in a real school shooter’s locker.

Back then my high school had plenty of bomb threats, but they were a joke. We’d all march out around the flagpole, sitting laughably close to the school, and enjoy the break. Inevitably, we’d all learn that the threat had been called in by a student in the grip of “senioritis,” a seemingly incurable disease that removes the victim’s desire to work. We’d sit and chat and smile and never for a second consider that any of us could be in physical danger. The only threat we faced while waiting was boredom.

*

Today, in our new era of mass shootings, the school districts do what they can, trying to plan comprehensively for a situation too insane to grasp. Law enforcement officials lecture the faculty yearly, giving well-rehearsed speeches on procedures while including a litany of horrors meant to teach by example.

At this level, we can only react to the horrors of the world. The power to alter things is given to legislators and representatives who’ve been entrusted with the responsibility to govern wisely while listening to the will of the people. It’s they who can change the facts on the ground, enact new laws, and examine existing regulations. They can work toward a world where a lockdown is no longer needed for a preteen to grapple with gut-churning fear.

We’re still waiting.

K.T. Katzmann is a teacher in Broward County, Florida. This piece first appeared on The Trace, a nonprofit news site focused on gun violence.

First Person

What we’ve learned from leading schools in Denver’s Luminary network — and how we’ve used our financial freedom

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Cole Arts and Science Academy Principal Jennifer Jackson sits with students at a school meeting in November 2015.

First Person is a standing feature where guest contributors write about pressing issues in public education. Want to contribute? More details here

Three years ago, we were among a group of Denver principals who began meeting to tackle an important question: How could we use Colorado’s innovation schools law to take our schools to the next level?

As leaders of innovation schools, we already had the ability to make our own choices around the curriculum, length of school day, and staffing at our campuses. But some of us concluded that by joining forces as an independent network, we could do even more. From those early meetings, the Luminary Learning Network, Denver’s first school innovation zone, was born.

Now, our day-to-day operations are managed by an independent nonprofit, but we’re still ultimately answerable to Denver Public Schools and its board. This arrangement allows us to operate with many of the freedoms of charter schools while remaining within the DPS fold.

Our four-school network is now in its second year trying this new structure. Already, we have learned some valuable lessons.

One is that having more control over our school budget dollars is a powerful way to target our greatest needs. At Cole Arts & Science Academy, we recognized that we could serve our scholars more effectively and thoughtfully if we had more tools for dealing with children experiencing trauma. The budget flexibility provided by the Luminary Learning Network meant we were able to provide staff members with more than 40 hours of specially targeted professional development.

In post-training surveys, 98 percent of our staff members reported the training was effective, and many said it has helped them better manage behavioral issues in the classroom. Since the training, the number of student behavior incidents leading to office referrals has decreased from 545 incidents in 2016 to 54 in 2017.

At Denver Green School, we’ve hired a full-time school psychologist to help meet our students’ social-emotional learning goals. She has proved to be an invaluable resource for our school – a piece we were missing before without even realizing how important it could be. With a full-time person on board, we have been able to employ proactive moves like group and individual counseling, none of which we could do before with only a part-time social worker or school psychologist.

Both of us have also found that having our own executive coaches has helped us grow as school leaders. Having a coach who knows you and your school well allows you to be more open, honest, and vulnerable. This leads to greater professional growth and more effective leadership.

Another lesson: scale matters. As a network, we have developed our own school review process – non-punitive site visits where each school community receives honest, targeted feedback from a team of respected peers. Our teachers participate in a single cross-school teacher council to share common challenges and explore solutions. And because we’re a network of just four schools, both the teacher council and the school reviews are small-scale, educator-driven, and uniquely useful to our schools and our students. (We discuss this more in a recently published case study.)

Finally, the ability to opt out of some district services has freed us from many meetings that used to take us out of our buildings frequently. Having more time to visit classrooms and walk the halls helps us keep our fingers on the pulse of our schools, to support teachers, and to increase student achievement.

We’ve also had to make trade-offs. As part of the district, we still pay for some things (like sports programs) our specific schools don’t use. And since we’re building a new structure, it’s not always clear how all of the pieces fit together best.

But 18 months into the Luminary Learning Network experiment, we are convinced we have devised a strategy that can make a real difference for students, educators, and school leaders.

Watch our results. We are confident that over the next couple of years, they will prove our case.

Jennifer Jackson is the principal of Cole Arts & Science Academy, which serves students from early childhood to grade five with a focus on the arts, science, and literacy. Frank Coyne is a lead partner at Denver Green School, which serves students from early childhood to grade eight with a focus on sustainability.