Tuesday, November 12, 2013

NYS Teacher Eval Part 3- A Teaching Rubric, For Better or Worse

The use of a teacher rubric is the part of our new evaluation system for which I have the most support. I like using a teacher rubric to grow as a professional. In my school it has allowed me to clarify many aspects of my practice, set goals with a coach, and be more directed in my work to become a better teacher. That said, the developers of all teacher rubrics say that they are meant for professional development purposes, not purely evaluation purposes (most especially with regard to punishment).

In terms of teaching rubrics, I prefer Kim Marshall's rubric, which has yet to leave me thinking, "The teacher I'm visiting at this moment seems to have fallen off this rubric. Did they fall onto another rubric?" The ideas on it are concise, applicable, and helpful in thinking about one’s practice.

New York State chose a rubric developed by Charlotte Danielson, but then truncated it in a sort of awkward fashion that leaves me thinking the question listed above. As I move through the criteria for good teaching on the Danielson, I find teachers landing often between a two and a three on the four-point scale. It’s not just because I cannot decide which one to assign, but because the descriptors in both boxes do not accurately describe the classroom at all. What is more, Charlotte Danielson has gone along with New York State in using her rubric for both professional development and punitive measures, even though she is a critic of the latter. I imagine the money and perhaps the idea that if the state is going to use one anyway they might as well use hers may have played some role in that decision.

Moving forward on that point, the Marshall rubric is free. FREE. It boggles my mind that in an age where tons of software and resources are free and every politician says that education is underfunded, but also causing states to go bankrupt, that any system would then pay millions of dollars unnecessarily for anything. I strikes me as very similar to our department spending untold amounts of money on things like Microsoft Office, when there are extremely good alternatives that are entirely free of cost.

Even with these missteps in this part of the evaluation system, I’m happy that the teacher rubric makes up sixty percent of my evaluation. I know that many teachers are apprehensive about the increased number of visits from administrators and actually having to talk to their bosses. The divide is apparent between schools where teachers trust and respect their principal and those that do not. I feel lucky to work in the former. Even with that uncertainty, it's a good thing that we're moving forward with this reform.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

NYS Teacher Eval Part 2 – “Locally” Selected Assessment Measures

In addition to twenty percent of my evaluation being based on a state exam (see the first post in this series), another twenty percent is based on a measure of student learning that is designed by local education professionals. To be clear, "local" in this case means New York City, a place with a population four times that of my home state and a population density almost a thousand times as dense (more than 1,000 if you sub Hoboken for Staten Island). Local, community-based measures are in this case standardized exams created by the city. They are yet another set of tests my students have to take, adding four more testing days to a schedule riddled with state exams and in-house interim assessments, which can actually be valuable learning tools. Those exams can be very helpful simply because they truly are a local measure of learning.

Given the approach and the total lack of oversight, the validity of these exams in the first round and year is entirely shot. Teachers received no training on how to score them and simply did their best. The exams for history are essentially Document-Based Questions, which are a slew of documents followed by an essay on a topic related to those documents. These have been on the New York State Regents (exit exams) for decades, but the questions for documents and structure of grading for the new local measures exams are entirely different. Because of that, many students focused on the document analysis questions rather than the essay. When scoring them, we found that on the high school exams the essay is effectively the only part of the task that actually got the students points, so a ton of students who spent half or more of the testing period on the documents, assuming they would be getting “some” credit, were very, very wrong. Many of them received zeroes or near zeroes on the exam.

While statistically that will work in favor of teachers come this spring, the overall effects on staff and students was rather demoralizing. Because the work our school already has in place, many of our students have taken the equivalent of ten standardized exams in the first marking period. That hasn’t exactly made them excited to learn. In fact, the excitement that comes along with starting a new year- even for the most troubled students- was all but beaten out of them in the first few weeks of the year as they took test after test they knew they were failing. And this on the back of a spring when the majority of middle school students failed the math and ELA exams that were newly realigned to the Common Core State Standards so as to be more rigorous. If given the option next year, I’ll choose fewer exams for my students, even if my evaluation is put in jeopardy by putting all of my eggs in two baskets. For a staff exhausted by administering and grading exams and students exhausted and frustrated considerably by the same, I think it’s the only ethical thing to do.

What is more, local measures should truly reflect the culture and expectations for learning in each community. To say communities in the South Bronx are the same as those in the Financial District or East New York or Park Slope in Brooklyn strikes me as naive (not to say that any of them have low expectations for their kids). What is more, the current administration has worked for a decade to empower small schools to find a niche to teach to, whether that is teaching kids about theater or web technologies or the trades or careers in film. By making a “local measure” that disregards all of that, the state and the city have disregarded much of the work whole communities have done for the past ten years and before. Schools should be able to create their own assessments that reflect the values of their communities and those measures should be handed up to the districts for approval. That is, of course, if the state and city really value local measures.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

1 Take on NYS Teacher Evaluation: Installment One

There are a lot of mixed feelings about the new teacher evaluation system that New York State has put into place. Overall, I agree with changing the evaluation system, as the old U(nsatisfactory)/S(atisfactory) system was not one that helped me improve as a teacher, so much as helped to promote an idea that, on paper, I was doing “just fine.” Luckily for me I‘ve been receiving helpful, constructive feedback on my practice throughout my teaching career and so used that to gauge my level of performance, rather than a simple thumbs up or thumbs down. That said, the new system has a large number of flaws.

While I initially intended to write a short list of the things I personally (and thousands of others) have experienced as a result of the new teacher evaluation system in New York, it quickly grew into several sections. For that reason, I'll be splitting this post into several installments.

Part 1 of this Evaluative Mess- Attachment to a State Exam
Twenty percent of my evaluation this year will be based on a state exam in another subject. The agreed upon "most-sensical" exam for me is the eighth grade English exam. While I recognize the connection between history and reading and writing, as well as the possibility of the requirement to encourage cross-curricular work, my attachment to another teacher's state exam seems unfortunate. Our Measures of Student Learning (MOSL) team actually could have attached me to another exam. Had our math teacher been a seasoned veteran with good scores (she’s a hardworking first-year teacher, yet unproven in the world of state exams), I would have insisted on being attached to her scores, even though I do little in my class to improve math scores.  

While I agree that in some cases value-added data is an acceptable form for input for a fraction of a teacher’s evaluation, I do not think this applies to me. My curriculum is not based on the 8th grade ELA state curriculum, it merely supports it. What is more, most studies on value-added data show that you need a minimum of three years of data on a teacher who is teaching the exact same subject before the data even approaches value. In a school where we value the work our grade level-team does, and if the idea here is at all to push cross-curricular work between teachers, I would think that the three-year stretch might also be affected by teacher turn-over in other roles on my team. For instance, in the past six years we’ve had seven ELA teachers (first they were running from the kids, while lately they’ve used success on our team to make career moves up the ladder). That turnover must affect the value of scores over time not just on the test I’m attached to, but in my class, where I strive to structure the skill sequence based on what the students are doing in ELA.

A final thought I’ll state here on the connection between ELA and history is that this is still another slight to history curricula, bringing the number of instructional minutes in my content area further in the direction of being seen as an “extra” part of what students do in school, adding also to concern that civic values have gone by the wayside. At the very least, it's playing into an obsession to raise reading rates through unnatural means while sacrificing (in many cases) nearly all early instruction on how people interact systemically, how governments are formed, how communities operate in a healthy manner, etc. If the establishment of public school was meant to prepare the populace to be healthy, active citizens, removing history instruction in K-8 education is not likely going to help with that aim.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Gotham Schools Article: More Unannounced Observations

I thought this article wasn't half bad:

   Why We Chose More Unannounced Observations

The debate on evaluation has been fairly consuming for most teachers as the school year has started this year. It would be nice if the work we do with students could be our focus instead.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

My Team's Teacher Turnover

During a conversation this summer with an administrator I know, she revealed that after having done her job for a decade, some of the people who have been in her social circle for a long while are surprised that she is still doing this work. Given the teacher turnover and the critics of everything in the world of education, I have to admit it’s impressive to see a veteran principal of a decade in such a position, but it’s also fairly disheartening to think that we as a nation subscribe so completely to the idea that if someone devotes their life to one pursuit, profession, or job that it’s somehow quaint, ill-advised or simply silly. The idea seems to be applied to the teaching profession more than many others as more and more teachers are using a couple years in the classroom as a stepping stone into “real” careers. From my perspective, people should be hoping for solid school communities to stay in place for the long term, not faining confusion or actually entering a state of discombobulation when presented with an individual who simply wants his or her school to be the best for kids in a community and so intends to see that goal through to fruition. The turnover of educators in school communities is certainly a hurdle to such a pursuit.

This year we’re adding two new teachers to my grade level team. This is not abnormal in the field, but was a surprise to me- one which I decided I would wait to comment on until I’d stopped reeling. Our ELA teacher of one year got a job at a rather famous, progressive and now massive company known originally for its oddly named search engine and our math teacher of two years got a job that will cut her commute in half, thus allowing her more time with her kids. While these were good things for the individuals, they are yet two more examples of teacher turnover- something my school community and the majority of NYC public schools grapple with year in and year out.

The most recent surprise was our math teacher, who is a mother of four (aged roughly from three to fifteen) and who drives two hours each morning to come in from outside of the city. She’s a solid math teacher and wonderful person, but her schedule was honestly untenable and insane. The difficulty of getting a job in her suburb, however, as well as a desire to raise her children in affordable housing in a safe location makes her an example of a large chunk of city teachers who have massive commutes each day. This is an extremely taxing practice. While I know that many of the bridge and tunnel folks spend an ungodly amount of time each day in their cars, the nature of the teaching profession coupled with what I can only image is an equally difficult job of raising four kids makes for a situation that has a half-life.

The only real qualm I had with this departure, other than losing a solid teammate, was that it was by surprise within a month of when school starts, which puts the remaining team in a tough spot. Knowing it was a possibility further out would have allowed us to position ourselves better, look at more candidates, and potentially hire a fantastic, experienced replacement. As it stands, we’ve hired a brand new teacher who, as far as I can tell, has a ton of potential, but whose moxy still stands untested. Even the best of us had a tough time in our first years, which puts strain on a team and the kids, though it does also give more opportunity to mold a teacher to fit the position. I’m optimistic. We’ll see.

My friend the English teacher had been at our school for three years and had been my professional partner-in-crime for one, having taken a bribe from me in the spring of 2012 to move from a special education position to the eighth grade ELA position instead of the open eleventh grade position he was planning to fill. The teacher leaving my team that year had been at our school for just one year, needing to relocate to Brooklyn afterward in order to take care of an elderly grandmother. When I heard she was leaving late that spring, I jumped at a chance to get a bright, hardworking male on the team who would have pull through coaching boys basketball. The fairly expensive bottle of “team” scotch (kept off site, of course) and the fact that my wife had been his mentor also helped to get him on my team.

Given his TFA roots and Ivy League credentials, I did not necessarily expect for him to stick around forever, but I thought we’d have a nice run. Coming back to my post about the difficulty of hiring, the difficulties of pulling people onto my team from within the school community are similar to hiring people onto the staff in general. It’s difficult to blame a youthful guy with his whole life in front of him for switching careers to a far more lucrative, far less taxing pursuit that could open even more lucrative and attractive options in the future. It makes sense. I just wish that education could touch positions like that and that teaching could make more sense for the best and brightest of our citizens. In addition to the pay and difficulty, the job satisfaction of being a teacher is a purely closeted one. With a new teacher evaluation system coming down the pipes and the bashing of teachers improving even from bread and butter status amongst politicians and the media, it’s not surprising that more teachers than ever are looking elsewhere- especially the young TFA folks, Fellows, etc. who are trying to strike out into the world to be branded as successes while still in their twenties.

We have hired a replacement for this gentleman- a veteran teacher who is new to city schools, but who just finished a week of professional development with me and has me convinced that she’ll be an asset to the team. One thing that helped me arrive at this conclusion was her experience and knowledge that changing schools at all is like reliving your first year to a certain degree. She’s also been in the city for a few years working on a doctoral degree, however, and has more than an inkling of what to expect.

In the past five years I’ve worked in the same grade with six different math teachers, six English teachers and two science teachers. Those leaving four and five years ago were not leaving to pursue dreams, but to get out of what they saw as a difficult situation. In the last two to three years they have left to climb the ladder, seek new careers and positions, and become administrators and coaches. They look back at their positions on my team as stepping-stones. Looking forward to this year, my team will soldier on newly composed for the fifth straight year, using the knowledge structures that those who are gone helped to establish- knowledge and structures that together form a decently oiled machine that gets students to do their jobs most of the time and gets them on the whole far more out of their time in our eighth grade classrooms than in the years prior to the 2009-2010 school year. Given team trends, the machine will continue to improve, take on new initiatives, actively learn and seek out feedback on what we do, and perhaps one day stick together for two years or three or four, in spite of the pressures to depart.

Friday, August 23, 2013

600 Books Left

This summer while making my way through my reading list, trying to power through a long one for a book club, as well as concentrating on writing and doing a great job of procrastinating on my personal and professional summer to-do lists, a strange, disturbing thought struck me.

I have 600 books left.

Since I began teaching, I've made it through about ten books per year. This January I'll turn thirty. Assuming modern science will keep my heart ticking until I'm ninety, I have sixty years left, which means 600 books.

While I enjoy a lot of television programs, I think that at the end of those sixty years I'd rather look back and say I've read 700 books instead of seeing three or four or five more T.V. series.

On a related note, my reading list of the summer has been:

Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler
This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Utopia by Sir Thomas More
Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson
Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse

Thursday, August 22, 2013

On Hiring

Perhaps it is very difficult in other fields and places, but I feel like hiring in teachers in New York is especially tough. Hiring poor quality teachers is usually at least a 12-month mistake. Hiring the best teachers also has drawbacks, oddly enough. Watching bad demo lessons can be mind-numbing as a result of those things as well as the simply soul-sucking feeling that comes along sometimes when clowns get up in front of our summer school kids and ask for jobs.

The first and most obvious thing you want to do is avoid hiring bad teachers and people. After sitting at numerous hiring fairs this year and prior experience working in the Office of Recruitment for the Department of Education, it is apparent that many candidates can be dismissed after speaking to them for about ten seconds. Some of the reasons for such a dismissal are, admittedly, prejudicial. If you are a peppy, skinny blonde lady with a meek squeak of a voice, your chances are not good. If you do not speak English well enough for me to understand the words coming out of your mouth without considerable effort, your chances are slim. If you look like you lack confidence and follow up with a complete lack of presence in front of my hiring table, you won't make the list. For all the shades in between, I'm immediately skeptical of any who express interest in working with my staff, as I need to determine if they are the perfect fit.

Hiring what some would readily assume are the "best candidates" can also be a bad idea. If the candidate is interested in making a career in the field, it's likely that they will begin to start poking around for administrator positions, jobs in the central offices of the DOE, or education consultant companies, all of which pay more and reflect a climbing of the career ladder that is not possible if one stays a classroom teacher. If the candidate is not all that dedicated to the field or sees the classroom as a stepping stone, it's oftentimes difficult to determine. Being a Teach for America candidate or a Teaching Fellow does not necessarily mean one is going to jump ships after three years and go to law school, but very intelligent, Ivy League types don't seem to head toward the classroom for life. The real smart ones also do a good job of giving the impression that they are dedicated to the field.

There are also, admittedly, gender issues as well. The most immediate is that most principals and hiring staffs are looking for men. If two identical candidates present themselves, the male will generally get the job. Why? Because a large portion of the boy population in the city is being raised without fathers and these boys and young men need solid male role models. They need to know that there are normal, hardworking men out there that care about them. On a different and also offensive note, men also do not generally get paternity leave, which means they won't be gone for a spring (or two or three) as the kids prepare to take high stakes exams that not only determine their own scores, but the school's and all of the staff members in it. That gender issue stated, the situation actually arises very infrequently that a solid male candidate and a solid female candidate will vie for the same positions. If paying a solid paternity or family leave was common practice in this city or country, much of this latter element would be resolved, but unfortunately, it remains.

A few qualities I would look for in a candidate to make them closest to "ideal" would be: several years of experience in an urban middle or high school from which they departed on good terms; an undergraduate degree from a solid American college or university, though not necessarily an Ivy or quasi-Ivy (i.e. Stanford, etc.); certification after having attended a school of education, not an alternate teacher training program (TFA, Fellows, etc.); openness to change and acceptance of established school norms and customs; an expressed interest in staying at the school semi-permanently; evidence that the person went above and beyond what was expected of them in their most recent position, taking on leadership roles, extra-curricular duties, etc. I wouldn't want test score evidence, as such data strikes me as inherently flawed and absurd to use in evaluating teachers, let alone hiring them. In terms of data, I'd perhaps want to see how their principals scored them on a teaching rubric, but that might be the extent of it.

While some of those criteria are obvious, pegging the best candidates is rather tricky and fairly exhausting. After spending dozens of hours this summer helping to hire staff for the school, the future is all but certain for those hired. The staff will know in the first few days of school whether the hires were good ones for the fall. We'll have to wait until the end of the year and then the end of the next year and perhaps several more before we can say the hire was the best possible for the community.