Citing "abuses," teachers union says it is wearying on eval talks

The teachers union is threatening to curb its efforts toward new teacher evaluations if the Department of Education doesn’t remind principals again that the old evaluation system is still in place.

The threat comes at the end of an angry letter sent by UFT Secretary Michael Mendel sent to the DOE yesterday. In the letter, Mendel says that UFT members report some principals are preparing to use the Danielson Framework, an evaluation model that the DOE favors, to rate teachers — even though the union hasn’t agreed to the change.

City officials dispute the charge, saying that Danielson is being used only in ways that the union has approved: in most schools, to give teachers information to help them improve. The model is being used to rate teachers only in 33 “persistently low-achieving” schools where the city and UFT agreed to new evaluations in order to land federal school improvement funds, the officials say.

But despite a joint reminder from the UFT, DOE, and principals union last month, the union is charging that some principals still haven’t gotten the message that the Danielson rubric shouldn’t be used to rate teachers. At a meeting for members of the UFT’s governing body last night, UFT officials said they had obtained documents showing that some networks, the groups that support principals, had devised evaluation checklists based on Danielson’s criteria, according to a union member who was there. The officials did not share the documents, the union member said.

Mendel told GothamSchools that teachers have reported getting official reprimands based on Danielson-influenced observations and that many administrators do not seem to have had adequate training before starting to test the new model.

Mendel said the union won’t break state law and pull out of negotiations altogether. But he said confusion and the sense that some principals are pushing Danielson prematurely have made the union less willing to collaborate with the DOE.

“If they don’t stop the abuses we will only talk to them formally about the things we are supposed to talk about,” he said. “We won’t partake in joint ventures that we think will be bad for our children and our teachers.”

In the letter, Mendel signaled that a window of opportunity to hammer out an evaluations deal, seen as key to winning education funds from the Obama administration, was closing.

“Any potential for a fair evaluation system based on a growth and development model has been corrupted and the concept is perceived very poorly in the schools,” he wrote. “While we have been involved with the administration in joint training for teachers in the PLA schools regarding Danielson, and discussions regarding the pilot schools, we cannot continue this work if you cannot bring this situation under control.”

A DOE spokesman, Matt Mittenthal, said the department would investigate cases where principals might be using Danielson inappropriately.

“If there are specific cases where principals took it upon themselves to use the framework for teacher evaluations, we will address them. But thus far the UFT has only shared one such example, with its school name hidden,” he said. “At the same time, it’s bizarre that the teachers union is so upset about the notion that teachers might receive more detailed and thoughtful feedback.”

Mendel’s full letter is below.

As you know on September 20, 2011, Chancellor Walcott and Michael Mulgrew, joined by CSA President Ernest Logan, sent a joint letter to teachers and principals that talked about preliminary work in building a foundation for a possible new evaluation system. The letter clearly stated that there would be no changes to the current evaluation system.

Unfortunately, many schools are ignoring this directive. We continue to receive reports from the field about schools outside the PLA agreement that are training people to use the Charlotte Danielson’s framework as a legal compliance evidence gathering mechanism for the 3020a process.

Consequently, we are asking the DOE to immediately CEASE efforts to implement changes in our evaluation system and send ALL principals a directive instructing them that – with exception of Transformation/Restart schools — they are NOT to implement any changes in the current evaluation system.

It is critical that we go from an evaluation system that does not support teachers to one that becomes a professional growth and development model. That is why we went to Albany to develop and implement legislation that gives us the framework to make these changes. It is an approach that will move our school system forward.

All that hard work is being put in jeopardy by the DOE’s actions. The intent and spirit of all of Danielson’s work is based upon trust, support and engagement, and it is imperative that approach is the focus of our work.

Whoever made the decision that schools outside of the PLA schools should be changing our present evaluation system by “practicing something new” clearly abused the DOE’s authority. The idea was to test this and learn from the pilot schools, not the whole system.

What’s more, the lack of training of both administrators and teaching staff has created many problems. Three days of training for Principals and two days for teachers is not anywhere near enough to do this properly.

As a result of the DOE’s poor instructions and these other factors, any potential for a fair evaluation system based on a growth and development model has been corrupted and the concept is perceived very poorly in the schools.

While we have been involved with the administration in joint training for teachers in the PLA schools regarding Danielson, and discussions regarding the pilot schools, we cannot continue this work if you cannot bring this situation under control.

I need your response to this situation immediately.

Michael Mendel
UFT Secretary/Executive Assistant to the President

after douglas

Betsy DeVos avoids questions on discrimination as school safety debates reach Congress

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos prepares to testify at a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing on the department's FY2019 budget. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos fielded some hostile questions on school safety and racial discrimination as she defended the Trump administration’s budget proposal in a House committee hearing on Tuesday.

The tone for the hearing was set early by ranking Democrat Rep. Rosa DeLauro, who called aspects DeVos’s prepared remarks “misleading and cynical” before the secretary had spoken. Even the Republican subcommittee chair, Rep. Tom Cole, expressed some skepticism, saying he was “concerned about the administration continuing to request cuts that Congress has rejected.”

During nearly two hours of questioning, DeVos stuck to familiar talking points and largely side-stepped the tougher queries from Democrats, even as many interrupted her.

For instance, when Rep. Barbara Lee, a Democrat from Texas, complained about proposed spending cuts and asked, “Isn’t it your job to ensure that schools aren’t executing harsher punishments for the same behavior because [students] are black or brown?” DeVos responded by saying that students of color would benefit from expanded school choice programs.

Lee responded: “You still haven’t talked about the issue in public schools as it relates to black and brown students and the high disparity rates as it relates to suspensions and expulsions. Is race a factor? Do you believe that or not?” (Recent research in Louisiana found that black students receive longer suspensions than white students involved in the same fights, though the difference was very small.)

Again, DeVos did not reply directly.

“There is no place for discrimination and there is no tolerance for discrimination, and we will continue to uphold that,” she said. “I’m very proud of the record of the Office of Civil Rights in continuing to address issues that arise to that level.”

Lee responded that the administration has proposed cuts to that office; DeVos said the reduction was modest — less than 1 percent — and that “they are able to do more with less.”

The specific policy decision that DeVos faces is the future of a directive issued in 2014 by the Obama administration designed to push school districts to reduce racial disparities in suspensions and expulsions. Conservatives and some teachers have pushed DeVos to rescind this guidance, while civil rights groups have said it is crucial for ensuring black and Hispanic students are not discriminated against.

That was a focus of another hearing in the House on Tuesday precipitated by the shooting last month at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican, falsely claimed in his opening statement that Broward County Public Schools rewrote its discipline policy based on the federal guidance — an idea that has percolated through conservative media for weeks and been promoted by other lawmakers, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Utah Sen. Mike Lee. In fact, the Broward County rules were put into place in 2013, before the Obama administration guidance was issued.

The Manhattan Institute’s Max Eden, a leading critic of Obama administration’s guidance, acknowledged in his own testimony that the Broward policy predated these rules. But he suggested that policies like Broward’s and the Obama administration’s guidance have made schools less safe.

“Faced with pressure to get the numbers down, the easiest path is to simply not address, or to not record, troubling, even violent, behavior,” he said.

Kristen Harper, a director with research group Child Trends and a former Obama administration official, disagreed. “To put it simply, neither the purpose nor the letter of the federal school discipline guidance restrict the authority of school personnel to remove a child who is threatening student safety,” she said.

There is little, if any, specific evidence linking Broward County’s policies to how Stoneman Douglas shooter Nicholas Cruz was dealt with. There’s also limited evidence about whether reducing suspensions makes schools less safe.

Eden pointed to a study in Philadelphia showing that the city’s ban on suspensions coincided with a drop in test scores and attendance in some schools. But those results are difficult to interpret because the prohibition was not fully implemented in many schools. He also cited surveys of teachers expressing concerns about safety in the classroom including in Oklahoma CityFresno, California; and Buffalo, New York.

On the other hand, a recent study found that after Chicago modestly reduced suspensions for the most severe behaviors, student test scores and attendance jumped without any decline in how safe students felt.

DeVos is now set to consider the repeal of those policies on the Trump administration’s school safety committee, which she will chair.

On Tuesday, DeVos said the committee’s first meeting would take place “within the next few weeks.” Its members will be four Cabinet secretaries: DeVos herself, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, and Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen.

Town Hall

Hopson promises more flexibility as Memphis school leaders clear the air with teachers on new curriculum

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson answers questions from Memphis teachers at a town hall hosted by United Education Association of Shelby County on Monday.

The Shelby County Schools superintendent told passionate teachers at a union town hall Monday that they can expect more flexibility in how they teach the district’s newest curriculums.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the teachers who score highest on their evaluations should not feel like they need to read from a script to meet district requirements, although he didn’t have an immediate answer to how that would work.

Teacher frustrations were reaching a boiling point on district curriculums introduced this school year. Although the state requirements have changed several times over the last eight years, this change was particularly bothersome to teachers because they feel they are teaching to a “script.”

“Teachers have to be given the autonomy,” Hopson said. Although he cited the need for the district to have some control as teachers are learning, “at the end of the day, if you’re a level 4 or level 5 teacher, and you know your students, there needs to be some flexibility.”

Vocal teachers at the meeting cited check-ins from central office staff as evidence of the overreach.

“I keep hearing people say it’s supplemental but we have people coming into my room making sure we’re following it to a T,” said Amy Dixon a teacher at Snowden School. “We’re expected to follow it … like a script.”

The 90-minute meeting sponsored by the United Education Association of Shelby County drew a crowd of about 100 people to talk about curriculum and what Hopson called “a culture of fear” throughout the district of making a mistake.

Hopson said his team is still working on how to strike the right balance between creativity and continuity across nearly 150 district-run schools because so many students move during the school year.

He reassured despondent teachers he would come up with a plan to meet the needs of teachers and keep curriculums consistent. He said some continuity is needed across schools because many students move a lot during the school year.

“We know we got to make sure that I’m coming from Binghampton and going over to Whitehaven it’s got to be at least somewhat aligned,” he said. “I wish we were a stable, middle-class, not the poorest city in the country, then we wouldn’t have a lot of these issues.”

Ever since Tennessee’s largest district began phasing in parts of an English curriculum called Expeditionary Learning, teachers have complained of being micromanaged, instead of being able to tailor content for their students. The same goes for the new math curriculum Eureka Math.

The district’s changes are meant to line it up with the state. Tennessee’s new language arts and math standards replaced the Common Core curriculum, but in fact, did not deviate much when the final version was released last fall. This is the third change in eight years to state education requirements.

Still, Shelby County Schools cannot fully switch to the new curriculums until they are approved by the Tennessee State Board of Education. District leaders hope both curriculums, which received high marks from a national group that measures curriculum alignment to Common Core, will be added when textbooks are vetted for the 2019-20 school year.

Some urged educators to not think of the new curriculums as “scripts,” and admitted to poorly communicating the changes to teachers.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Pam Harris-Giles

“It’s not an expectation that we stand in front of our children and read off a piece of paper,” said Pam Harris-Giles, one of the district’s instructional support directors, who helps coordinate curriculum training and professional development.

Fredricka Vaughn, a teacher at Kirby High School, said that won’t be easy without clear communication of what flexibility will look like for high-performing teachers.

“If you don’t want us to use the word script, then bring back the autonomy,” she said.

Hopson stressed that the state’s largest school district could be a model for public education if everyone can work together to make the new curriculums work.

“It’s going to take work, hard work, everyone aligned from the top, everyone rowing in the same direction.”