another round

New York wants to overhaul its teacher evaluations — again. Here’s a guide to the brewing battle.

PHOTO: Kyle Taubken

State policymakers recently dipped their toes into one of New York’s most politically charged education issues: teacher evaluations.

At a meeting this month, state education department officials outlined plans to revamp the unpopular teacher-rating system, which was essentially put on hold more than two years ago. Shortly after, the state teachers union called for faster action setting the stage for a new round of evaluation debates.

To help explain the brewing debate, Chalkbeat has created a guide to the current evaluations, how they came to be, and what might be in store for them.

Here’s what you need to know:

How do New York’s teacher evaluations work now?

Teachers are evaluated based on two components: students’ academic improvement and principals’ observation of their teaching.

Every district creates its own state-approved evaluation plan that spells out how they will measure student learning. In 2015, state policymakers temporarily banned the use of grades 3-8 math and English state tests in evaluations.

In New York City, teams of educators at each school pick from a menu of assessments called “Measures of Student Learning.” Among the options are developed essay-based tasks and “running records,” where students are assessed as they read increasingly difficult texts. They can also choose to include the results of science tests or high-school graduation exams. (Certain teachers — such as those who teach physical education — are evaluated based partly on their students’ scores in other subjects.)

Teachers receive one score based on how much students improved academically, and another based on principals’ ratings. The combined scores are translated into one of four ratings, ranging from “highly effective” to “ineffective.”

Teacher evaluations must still be a factor in tenure decisions and three “ineffective” ratings can trigger a teacher’s firing.

What are the outcomes of the current system?

Nearly 97 percent of New York City teachers earned the top two ratings of either “effective” or “highly effective” in the 2016-17 school year, according to preliminary numbers presented by the city teachers union president at a meeting in October. That is an increase from the previous year when 93 percent of teachers earned one of those ratings.

How did we get here?

Until 2010, teachers were rated either “satisfactory” and “unsatisfactory,” and individual districts and principals were given latitude to determine how those ratings were assigned.

But in order to win a federal “Race to the Top” grant that year, New York adopted a new evaluation system that factored in students’ standardized test scores — a move strongly opposed by many teachers, who consider the tests an unreliable measure of their performance. The new system was based on a 100-point scale that allotted 20 points to state tests, 20 points to local tests, and 60 points to principal observations.

The battle lines were redrawn again in 2015, when state lawmakers led by Gov. Andrew Cuomo sought to make it tougher for teachers to earn high ratings. The new system allowed for as much as half of a teacher’s rating to be based on test scores.

But that plan was never fully implemented. Following a wave of protests in which one in five New York families boycotted the state tests, officials backed away from several controversial education policies.

In late 2015, the state’s Board of Regents approved a four-year freeze on the most contentious aspect of the teacher evaluation law: the use of students’ scores on the grades 3-8 math and English tests. They later allowed districts to avoid having independent observers rate teachers — another unpopular provision in the original law.

Why is the state looking to overhaul the system now?

Over the past few years, state policymakers have revised New York’s learning standards and the annual exams that students take. Now, they are turning to the evaluation system.

The moratorium on the use of certain test scores in teacher evaluations expires after next school year, so the clock is ticking for state education officials to come up with a new system. They have said they hope to have a new system ready for the 2019-2020 school year — but they also floated the idea of extending the moratorium in order to give themselves more time.

What could change?

Everything is up for debate.

First, state policymakers must decide whether to create a single statewide evaluation system or let local school districts craft their own, as the state teachers union is urging.

Second, they must decide what to put in the evaluations. Should they include test scores, principal observations, or other measures? If they allow tests, they must determine which kinds to use and how much to weigh student scores.

However, they may run up against some obstacles. Besides the relatively short timeline, major changes to the evaluation system could require state lawmakers to revise the underlying legislation. And any new student-learning measures they hope to use could prove costly to develop.

Who are the key players and what do they want?

State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia has made it clear she wants to oversee a careful redesign process that will involve teachers and could lead to a revamped, statewide evaluation system. “This isn’t going to be a fast process,” Elia said during a legislative hearing at the end of January.

State teachers union officials have called for a much quicker process that results in local school districts crafting their own evaluations — a move that could eliminate the use of test scores. “First and foremost, the teachers that we represent believe that the time to fix [teacher evaluation] is this year,” said Jolene DiBrango, executive vice president of the New York State United Teachers, after the state outlined its plan earlier this month. Since then, union officials have said they want to work collaboratively with the education department.

Gov. Cuomo has shied away from this issue after pushing for the deeply unpopular 2015 law that tried to toughen evaluations and inflamed the teachers unions. And he does not appear eager to revisit the issue this year as he seeks reelection. His spokeswoman, Abbey Fashouer, told Chalkbeat: “We will revisit the issue at the appropriate time,” and noted that the moratorium will remain in effect until the 2019-20 school year.

State lawmakers have not indicated that overhauling the teacher-evaluation law this year is a top priority.

During a city teachers union event in December, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said he was not sure the state could get to a “final idea” by the end of this year — but that he wanted to “start the dialogue.” The senate majority leader, John Flanagan, did not respond to a request for comment.

“I have not heard any movement on teacher evaluations this year,” said Patricia Fahy, a Democratic assemblymember who represents Albany, in an interview this week. “Normally something about that would be bubbling up already.”

First Person

Staying ‘neutral’ after the Jason Van Dyke verdict was a tough ask of Chicago teachers like me

PHOTO: Joshua Lott/Getty Images
A woman holds a sign outside the courthouse after a murder verdict is handed down in the trial of Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke.

At the beginning of every school year, I introduce myself to my students with a very personal presentation.

I show them pictures of where I grew up, my family, and the students I’ve taught at two other Chicago schools. I’m a human, not a robot, I tell them, earning a couple of laughs with my corny robot impression. At the end, I show them a signed copy of John Lewis’s “March,” the graphic novel that illustrates his experiences as a Civil Rights Movement leader. I talk about seeing Lewis speak at a Chicago Public Schools event years ago, and how he inspired me to speak up when I saw injustice.

In return, I ask my students to introduce themselves. They bring pictures of their lives, families, friends, and travels, and they talk about who they want to become. These presentations help to turn the library and writing center I oversee into a community.

The connection I have with my students isn’t out of the ordinary in Chicago. I’d be hard-pressed to find a teacher in the three very different high schools I’ve taught in and in schools all across the city who didn’t have strong ties to the students they teach. That’s why it felt so problematic that my district, CPS, asked its teachers to remain “neutral” about the Van Dyke case — the trial of a Chicago police officer, Jason Van Dyke, who was convicted of second-degree murder for shooting a Chicago teenager.

Two days before the Van Dyke decision came down, amid warnings that riots could follow a “not guilty” decision, the district sent an email advising teachers about how to handle discussions surrounding the verdict. I applaud the email for its initial statement: “It is critical that educators are prepared and provide space for students should they and their students choose to engage in this critical and timely public issue,” it read.

But in the next paragraph, the district said that teachers “must remain neutral.” The email cited a 2007 Indiana circuit court decision, Mayer v. Monroe County Schools, that ruled that “teachers do not have the constitutional right to introduce their own political views to students, ‘but must stick to the prescribed curriculum.’”

That left me with several questions. First, is an opinion on the Van Dyke trial truly a political view? Many of my students, now juniors and seniors, were just becoming teenagers when they watched the dash-cam video where 16 bullets riddle Laquan McDonald’s 17-year-old body.  The opinion CPS is concerned about me sharing, presumably, is that Van Dyke should face consequences.

I have taught many students like Laquan McDonald, students who have grown up in foster homes, who have failed out of the very school I taught in, whose city literally left them behind. When I saw Laquan McDonald in that video, I saw their faces grimacing on the ground, their bodies writhing. To me, his death, the subsequent cover-up, and the verdict, is personal, not political.

Asking me to “stay neutral” as a white teacher in a classroom full of African-American and Latinx students is asking me to send a message that I am indifferent to their experiences and to have them see me as a stereotype of whiteness. I am on their side. I don’t think there is anything wrong with having them know this. But the message I received implies that my district does.

In the court case evidently used as proof for why staying neutral is mandatory, students asked their teacher whether she ever protested. She told them that she honked her car horn at demonstrators calling for peace at an anti-Iraq War demonstration. The teacher believed she was fired because of this discussion. The court ruled in favor of the school district, stating, “the First Amendment does not entitle primary and secondary teachers, when conducting the education of captive audiences, to cover topics, or advocate viewpoints, that depart from the curriculum adopted by the school system.”

How this applies in my situation is confusing, since every year in my career I have either had the freedom to construct or co-construct curriculum for my classroom. It also reminds me of what Holocaust survivor and award-winning author Elie Wiesel said in his speech when winning the Nobel Peace Prize: “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere.”

Asking teachers to remain neutral when discussing Laquan McDonald teaches my students something I don’t want them ever to learn: that my connections with them, and my pursuit of justice for our shared community, are not my highest priority.

Gina Caneva is a 15-year Chicago Public Schools veteran who works as a teacher-librarian and Writing Center Director at Lindblom Math and Science Academy.  She is a National Board Certified teacher and Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellowship alum. Follow her on Twitter @GinaCaneva.

hiring crisis

Want ideas for easing Illinois’ teacher shortage? Ask a teacher.

PHOTO: Beau Lark / Getty Images

West Prairie High School is feeling the teacher shortage acutely.

The school — in a town of 58 people in downstate Illinois — hasn’t had a family and consumer science teacher for eight years, a business teacher for four years, or a health teacher for two years. The vacancies are among the state’s 1,400 teaching jobs that remained unfilled last school year.

To alleviate a growing teacher shortage, Illinois needs to raise salaries and provide more flexible pathways to the teaching profession, several teachers have urged the Illinois State Board of Education.  

“If we want top candidates in our classrooms, we must compensate them as such,” said Corinne Biswell, a teacher at West Prairie High School in Sciota.

Teachers, especially those in the rural districts most hurt by teacher shortages, welcomed the board’s broad-brush recommendations to address the problem. The board adopted seven proposals, which came with no funding or concrete plans, last week. It does not have the authority to raise teacher pay, which is negotiated by school districts and teacher unions.

“I appreciate that ISBE is looking for creative ways not only to approve our supply of teachers, but looking at the retention issues as well,” said Biswell, who favored the recommendations.

Goals the board approved include smoothing the pathway to teaching, providing more career advancement, and improving teacher licensing, training and mentorship.

However, teachers attending the monthly meeting disagreed over a proposal to eliminate a basic skills test for some would-be teachers and to adjust the entrance test to help more midcareer candidates enter the profession.

Biswell and other teachers warned that some of the recommendations, such as dropping the test of basic skills for some candidates,  could have unintended consequences.

Biswell urged the state board to change credentialing reviews to help unconventional candidates enter teaching. When issuing a teaching credential the state should look at a candidate’s work and college grades, and a mix of skills, she said, and also consider adjusting the basic-skills test that many midcareer candidates take — and currently fail to pass.

She told the board a warning story of teacher licensing gone wrong. When a vocational education teacher failed to pass the teacher-entry tests, he instead filed for a provisional certification. That meant he ended up in the classroom without enough experience.

“We are effectively denying candidates student teaching experiences and then hiring them anyway simply because we do not have any other choice,”  said Biswell, who is a fellow with Teach Plus, a nonprofit that works to bring teacher voices into education policy.

But other teachers want to make sure that credentialing stays as rigorous as possible. In the experience of Lisa Love, a Teach Plus fellow who teaches at Hawthorne Scholastic Academy, a public school in Chicago, too many new teachers don’t know what they are in for. “Being able to be an effective classroom teacher requires a lot of practice and knowledge and education that you can bring to the table in the classroom,” Love said. “Unprepared teachers are more likely to leave the classroom.”

Over the years, she has seen that attrition.

Teach Plus surveyed more than 600 teachers around Illinois about the teacher shortage and how to solve it. The survey found that most teachers wanted a basic skills requirement but also flexibility in meeting it.

The survey also found a divide between current and prospective teachers, as well as rural and urban teachers, on several issues. For example, the majority of current teachers said it wasn’t too difficult to become a teacher, while people trying to enter the profession disagreed. Educators in cities and suburbs didn’t find it too hard to become a teacher, while teachers in rural areas did.

Better pay came up for several teachers interviewed by Chalkbeat.

Illinois legislators passed a bill to set a minimum salary of $40,000 for teachers in Illinois, but Gov. Bruce Rauner vetoed it last summer.

Love noted that she has spent years getting advanced degrees related to teaching. And yet, she said, “I don’t make the salary of a doctor or lawyer but I have the same loans as a doctor or lawyer and the public doesn’t look to me with the same respect.”

But how much do the tests actually measure who might be good at teaching in the classroom? Gina Caneva, a teacher at Lindblom Math and Science Academy, said that written or video tests are very little like the daily work of being an educator. “Being a teacher, you are really out there in the field, you have to respond on your feet,” she said. “These tests don’t equate to the teaching profession.”

Chicago Public Schools is trying to tackle the teacher shortage problem by offering a teacher training program that would offer would-be teachers the chance to get into a classroom and earn a master’s degree in two years.

Some educators also suggest that there are region-specific barriers that could go. Caneva suggests that Chicago get rid of the requirement that teachers live in the city, and instead draw talent from the broader Midwest.

The seven measures the state board passed to improve the teaching force came from Teach Illinois: Strong Teachers, Strong Classrooms, a yearlong partnership between the board and the Joyce Foundation.