Future of Teaching

In Jeffco, a school where teacher evaluations are a team effort

When North Arvada Middle School started an overhaul of its teacher evaluations three years ago, Barbara Aswege could not have been more opposed.

“I was the dragon lady,” said Aswege, who teaches social studies. She objected to observations, ignored feedback and fought the school administration every step of the way.

But as the end of the year approached, she noticed something: her teaching hadn’t improved, at all.

“I wasn’t getting anywhere,” she said. So she started to reconsider her position, asking for books to read over the summer.

Aswege’s attitude adjustment is one that state and district official hope to see replicated across the state with the rollout of Senate Bill 191, which governs how teachers and other school staff are evaluated. That law, which went into full effect this year, mandates more frequent classroom observations intended to assess teachers’ practices on an extensive list of standards and the inclusion of student test scores in year-end evaluations. While proponents say the law is intended to help teachers improve, many districts have struggled to provide teachers with the additional help and training needed to get better.

But at North Arvada, teachers get evaluated frequently, but they also receive lots of support, including regular meetings with a trainer and a team of teachers who help each other with curriculum and instruction.

The primary goal, says North Arvada’s principal Dana Ellis, is to help teachers get better if they can.

“If you don’t have a structure and system built in a school, teachers don’t have much of a chance,” said Ellis.

As part of a Jefferson County School District pilot, teams of teachers at North Arvada set goals for student learning that they feel are reasonable, take more time to plan their teaching and receive far more support and feedback than in a more traditional system. In return, they are expected to deliver on the goals they set or they risk losing out on a year-end bonus of up to $15,000.

While the impact on student learning is still unclear, Aswege and other North Arvada teachers say the overhaul drove a radical shift in the way they teach. On a recent afternoon, two years after Aswege’s vocal protests began to peter out, she welcomed three observers into her room to give notes on a lesson plan that required students to give each other feedback on their writing.

“I’m constantly begging them to come in my room,” Aswege said. Ellis and a team of trained former teachers observe individual teachers at the school as many as 20 times in a semester.

After teachers get observed, they follow up with conversations with coaches and master teachers on how to respond to the criticism they receive. In Aswege’s case, that meant coming up with a way to teach students how to give feedback by modeling it herself and videotaping particularly successful conversations between students.

Barbara Aswege works through the feedback she received with her master teacher, Shareen Connors.
Barbara Aswege works through the feedback she received with her master teacher, Shareen Connors.

In addition to changing the way individual teachers teach, the program has also driven a change in the way teachers and administrators spend their time. Ellis and her team have overhauled the daily workings of the school to create more time for teachers to work together, to plan ahead for instruction and reflect on their teaching. And administrators are asked place spending time in classrooms and supporting teachers at the very top of their priorities.

On a recent Thursday afternoon, Ellis rearranged the school day so groups of teachers could plan for next school year. A group of language arts teachers were in the midst of mapping out exactly what students should learn next year — and how to measure whether their students learned it. Across the building, the math team reflected on the successes and failings of that school year.

Ellis said that planning time is all in service of the law’s first objective: helping teachers become better at instruction. In order to improve, teachers need an environment where they can try new things and see if they succeed or fail — and bouncing ideas of their peers is big part of that.

In spite of the school staff’s enthusiasm for the changes at North Arvada, they aren’t likely to go statewide anytime soon. For one, the pilot was funded through a federal grant that runs out next year and schools like North Arvada aren’t yet sure how they will continue their work after it does.

For another, the district’s preliminary findings indicate that the program’s success still depends on the person in the principal’s chair. At schools where leadership was weak, a preliminary report found teachers were less likely to seek out ways to improve and to report that the team collaborations were useful.

And the end goal — improvements in student performance — has not yet been achieved. While district officials caution it may still be too early tell, the district has not seen a significant impact on student achievement.

Still, it has given principals like Ellis a way to quickly assess whether a teacher is up for the challenge and make informed decisions about hiring and firing — also a key objective of the new evaluation system’s architects.

That has proved the more contested half of the law. In neighboring Denver Public Schools, teachers say elements of the law have been used to punish those who speak out to administrators and push out more experienced teachers. The Denver teachers’ union filed suit to have that provision eliminated from the law.

So far, that controversy doesn’t exist in Jeffco. But teachers have felt the effect of the system in other ways, especially those who did not receive their anticipated bonus.

“It’s been a mental shift for some schools,” said Ashley Kelley, one of the pilot’s trained observers. “If you’re not making growth, you’re not going to get that payout.”

But Ellis said that the new system helps her lay out very clear about the expectations for her teachers from the day they walk in the door.

Ellis said she puts teachers entering the school or switching classrooms on what she calls a “steep learning curve,” with intensive supports along the way. She expects to see results within a matter of months. For example, a teacher whose students had made only incremental progress on their learning goals for months on end was dismissed mid-year. The teacher replacement? She saw a ten percent jump in just three months.

“If you have a marginal or better teacher, they can handle it,” Ellis said. “Marginal or worse, they can’t.”

Gold standard teachers

Tennessee adds nationally certified teachers but continues to trail in the South

PHOTO: Ruma Kumar/Chalkbeat

Twenty Tennessee educators have earned a national certification that’s considered the profession’s highest mark of achievement, although the state continues to lag in the South in growing that community.

The state Department of Education on Tuesday released the list of new educators designated as National Board Certified Teachers.

Their addition brings Tennessee’s number of NBCT educators to more than 700, with another 63 pursuing certification. By comparison, Kentucky has 3,600, Virginia 3,400, and Georgia 2,600.

“We know that teachers are the biggest factor in the success of our students, and it is an honor to celebrate educators who are helping their students grow, while serving as an example of what it means to be a lifelong learner,” Commissioner Candice McQueen said in a statement.

Nationally, 5,470 teachers earned the designation in 2016-17, raising the total to more than 118,000 through the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. The certification takes from one to three years to complete and includes a performance-based peer-review process. Successful candidates must demonstrate a proven impact on student learning and achievement.

In Tennessee, at least 36 school districts offer at least one type of incentive for achieving the certification. The most common is a salary bonus.

North Carolina continues to lead the nation in certification, with 616 more teachers gaining the endorsement last month from the Arlington, Va.-based organization.

Earning their certification in Tennessee were:

  • John Bourn, Franklin Special School District
  • Christy Brawner, Shelby County Schools
  • James Campbell, Metro Nashville Public Schools
  • Kimberly Coyle, Sumner County Schools
  • Suzanne Edwards, Williamson County Schools
  • Anastasia Fredericksen, Metro Nashville Public Schools
  • Theresa Fuller, Kingsport City Schools
  • Amber Hartzler, Clarksville-Montgomery County School System
  • Jennifer Helm, Williamson County Schools
  • Deborah Higdon, Franklin Special School District
  • Karen Hummer, Franklin Special School District
  • Heather Meston, Metro Nashville Public Schools
  • Melissa Miller, Franklin Special School District
  • Kelsey Peace, Sumner County Schools
  • Lindsey Pellegrin, Franklin Special School District
  • Andrea Reeder, Williamson County Schools
  • Jordan Sims, Metro Nashville Public Schools
  • Susanna Singleton, Williamson County Schools
  • Melissa Stugart, Metro Nashville Public Schools
  • Drew Wilkerson, Franklin Special School District

To learn more, visit the website of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.


Five takeaways from Chalkbeat’s legislative preview discussion with lawmakers

Colorado lawmakers at Chalkbeat's 2018 legislative preview event. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Less than a week before legislators head back to the state Capitol, four lawmakers who work on education issues shared their thoughts at a forum Thursday morning as they prepare bills to introduce this session.

The event, hosted by Chalkbeat, featured four panelists: state Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat; state Sen. Kevin Priola, a Henderson Republican; state Rep. Barbara McLachlan, a Durango Democrat; and state Rep. Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican.

Here are five quick takeaways from the discussion:

On the teacher shortage issue: No minimum wage for teachers
Legislators lauded the state-prepared report on how the teacher shortage is playing out in Colorado, but said there are still many ways for them to take those suggestions to change laws.

The four panelists discussed how pay, principal leadership, and accountability rules affect teachers.

“Is it absolutely imperative that we evaluate excellent teachers every single year, or not?” Zenzinger asked.

All four panelists said there is no appetite for setting a minimum wage for teachers. There may still be other ways to talk about increasing pay, however.

Lundeen said he would like to see increased flexibility at the school level and a reduction in unfunded mandates that steer money away from teacher pay.

In discussing pension reforms, he also noted that reforming the state’s pension system is important to do soon because while current teachers need a raise, money from the districts is increasingly going to teachers who already retired.

On school funding: Agreement that a lot needs to change, but it’s early in the process
Lawmakers discussed various inequities in the system and McLachlan highlighted disparities for rural communities.

Last year, lawmakers created an interim legislative committee to study how the state funds its schools and recommend changes. Two panelists, Zenzinger and Lundeen, are on the committee.

Zenzinger said that the group is looking at many aspects of school funding, but that she wants to go back to the basics.

“To me it’s a little frustrating we just kind of made an assumption that the base amount is adequate,” she said. “How did we come to that base amount in the first place?”

Lundeen said the discussions first have to be around values.

“We are just now approaching the difficult conversations we need to have around our values,” he said. “What do we care about? Is stability more important than innovation or not?”

On the state’s READ Act: It’s still causing problems
Zenzinger said some teachers who have students flagged for reading problems don’t have help from their schools or districts to better teach students to read.

She said — and McLachlan agreed — that the system needs to be evaluated to see what’s working and what’s not.

“I agree there needs to be tweaks,” Priola said. “We can’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.”

On funding kindergarten: One possible solution would be to decrease funding for some high school students
Priola said a bill he’s working on would increase the amount of money districts get for kindergarten students so they may expand full-day kindergarten classrooms. To make the bill more likely to survive, he said, the bill would not require new money because it would also decrease the amount of funding districts get for high school students if they are no longer attending school full-time.

Schools would still qualify for full funding for students not attending full-time if it’s because they are enrolled in college classes through concurrent enrollment programs, he said.

“That’s our hope to keep the bill revenue neutral, but to provide those structural changes to encourage better outcomes, and discourage outcomes that are, in my opinion and others’, not the best use of our resources,” Priola said.

On accountability: “You can’t legislate everything”
An Aurora high school teacher asked lawmakers how students and parents might be held accountable for test scores. She said, as a teacher, she is held accountable for the test scores of students who sleep during tests because they, or their parents, don’t take the tests seriously.

Lawmakers said that’s an issue of culture that needs to change, but can’t be legislated.

“At the end of the day it still comes down to students and parents caring,” Priola said.

Said Zenzinger: “You can’t legislate everything.”

You can watch a Facebook Live recording of the discussion here: