First Person

Voices: Dougco evals should follow state pilot

Douglas County high school teacher and union member Traci Mumm says district leaders are rushing development of Dougco’s own teacher evaluation criteria instead of following the state’s lead.

In an apparent rush to once again be “innovative,” Douglas County School District has found a way to further distance teachers.

Dougco Superintendent Elizabeth Celania-Fagen
PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Dougco Superintendent Liz Fagen addresses the school board in this <em>EdNews</em> file photo.

Superintendent Liz Fagen would like for the nation to look at our school district and marvel at the great “cutting edge” things happening here. Yet, in our hurry to amaze and impress, we have once again alienated and ignored the people who make their way into the classroom every day and do the actual work of education.

Senate Bill 10-191 requires districts to have a new teacher evaluation in place by the 2013-14 school year. Although teacher evaluations have always existed, the law requires that these new evaluations measure teachers according to principal’s judgment and student performance. The Colorado Department of Education is working on a version that will be made available to any Colorado district, and will work with these districts to understand and pilot these new tools. Of course, districts are welcome to create their own evaluations as long as they meet or exceed the state’s version.

The transition to this new system is the cause of growing anxiety in schools across the state as teachers and administrators work to find a balanced and reasonable approach to handling this change. In Douglas County, though, the top-down approach and frantic implementation of an incomplete evaluation is causing waves of trepidation in our schools.

Twenty-seven school districts have chosen to pilot the state’s evaluation this year in preparation for next year’s required implementation. Littleton Public Schools is piloting the state evaluation as is and says on its website that after much research, teachers and administrators found the Colorado model to be “a fairly good match with LPS priorities, which are to improve teaching and learning in all of our schools.”  Cherry Creek Schools is also working with the state to pilot a version of its evaluation.

Dougco creates its own teacher eval

Douglas County, however, has spent considerable time, effort, and money writing its own model and has decided to implement it this year in a high stakes, high anxiety rollout. Teachers came to school in the fall understanding that, unlike other districts, DCSD has decided to run the new evaluation, even though it is incomplete and seemingly incomprehensible.  Further, teachers’ pay will be tied to the documents that make up CITE 2.0 (CITE stands for Continuous Improvement of Teacher Effectiveness).  As other districts ease their employees into a completely new system, Douglas County has hurriedly marched us into the undiscovered country.

In a recent public forum, Christian Cutter, assistant superintendent of elementary education, touted the fact that the district spent $65,000 to hire an education consulting group, Teaching & Learning Solutions, to train administrators this summer to use new evaluation tools. It is admirable that the district chose to hire a group committed to helping building administrators learn to evaluate teachers in a consistent manner. Having a consistent evaluation process guarantees that a teacher at ThunderRidge High School is scored the same way as a teacher at Sierra Middle School. According to Cutter, the group [TLS] “facilitated a five day training for evaluators” to get them up to speed in preparation for the upcoming year’s CITE 2.0 rollout. He continued that the training was “imperative so that evaluators can use whatever tool with fidelity.” His description of what happened in those five days would lead a casual listener to believe that the district is concerned that evaluators know the process so that they can accurately measure teacher performance on CITE 2.0.

However, in its final report dated October 2012, TLS recommends that the district proceed slowly because “consistency between observers [administrators] is of great importance” and “only 31 of 145 observers scored within a statistically acceptable range.”  Additionally, the report warned that “data from multiple calibration assessments is needed before TLS can recommend that the scores from the observers are reliable enough to be used in a formal, high-stakes manner.”  In other words, administrators did not pass the calibration test. And, before the district proceeds with high-stakes evaluation (like tying evaluation to compensation), principals and teachers need more training.

Because we’ve all been in school, we believe that we know who the great teachers are and who the bad teachers are. If it were that easy, we would not be in this mess. It’s not that easy. An accurate and appropriate teacher evaluation is complicated and takes time to design and implement. There are too many people affected by the process to hurry and not get it right.

Yet, here we are. Teachers’ pay is tied to an evaluation that is unfinished and premature. Administrators cannot effectively evaluate teachers because their training is sporadic and incomplete. Other districts are still in pilot-mode, but, because DCSD is “innovative,” we are marching forward regardless of buy-in, collaboration and complete understanding from teachers and principals.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.