Future of Teaching

Nearly all Indiana educators rated effective again

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

In the second year of what was intended to be a tough new system of evaluating educators, the results were the same: hardly any were rated ineffective and nearly all were certified as doing their jobs effectively.

Less than 0.5 percent of educators were rated “ineffective” during the 2013-14 school year, which could place them at risk of being fired, according to data posted on the Indiana Department of Education website in advance of a presentation at Wednesday’s Indiana State Board of Education meeting.

That’s about the same percentage as the prior year.

A slightly greater share of educators — about 2 percent— were rated in the second lowest of four categories, called “improvement necessary.” The percentage of educators in the top category rated “highly effective,” dropped to 26 percent from 35 percent, but nearly all of those who fell were rated in the next highest category, or “effective.”

The ratings are based on an evaluation system put in place during the past three years that was expected to make it harder for teachers to earn top scores.

It hasn’t, and that could lead the Indiana State Board of Education to ask districts to count student test scores as a bigger factor in the evaluation system in the future.

The overhaul was intended to formalize a process that was hit-and-miss in the past: some teachers were evaluated as infrequently as every three years, sometimes based on a single classroom visit from the principal. In most cases, those evaluations did not affect educator raises, and teachers were rarely fired for poor performance.

In most districts, the new system includes several observations and specially trained evaluators reporting strengths and weaknesses on a variety of skills. The 2013-14 data includes more school districts than last year and, for the first time, charter schools. The law’s implementation schedule left out charters and districts still under old labor contracts in the first year.

State Superintendent Glenda Ritz has advocated for improved teacher evaluation systems, but differed with Republican leaders and some of her fellow state board members about the details. In particular, Ritz favors more flexibility for local school districts to devise their own systems, including allowing local decisions about how much to factor in student test scores.

But so far the new system has produced little change.

An Indiana Department of Education study of a sample of school districts conducted under Ritz’s predecessor, Tony Bennett, prior to the 2011 change in state law, showed very similar results were produced by the old system: 99 percent of educators were rated effective.

Indiana’s law applies to anyone who carries a state certificate, which includes counselors, principals, superintendents and others besides teachers.

Changes are in the works, however. Claire Fiddian-Green, co-director of Gov. Mike Pence’s Center for Education and Career Innovation, said the state board wants to clarify the rules. The board soon will share best practices and new guidelines that Fiddian-Green hopes will make the system work better.

She cited the number of F schools — about 4 percent of schools in Indiana last year — as out of step with less than 1 percent of teachers rated ineffective.

“I do think that calls into mind whether the models, especially the local models, are being implemented with fidelity when it comes to the law,” she said

Unlike other states, Indiana gives local school districts tremendous flexibility to develop their own systems to judge performance. While districts must ultimately assign each educator a 1 to 4 rating, how they get there varies widely. Because of those variations, it can be hard to determine how well school districts follow the state evaluation law.

For example, state law says student gains should be a “significant” factor in an educator’s rating, but it leaves it to schools to figure out how much weight that translates to. Fiddian-Green said the clarifications, set to come before the state board in February, could set a range of percentages for just how much student test scores should factor in.

“It would be too far for me to say that there was a question of the validity of the data,” Fiddian-Green said. “I think it’s more that this is a new system and we’re working out the kinks.”

But Teresa Meredith, president of the Indiana State Teacher Association, said the results are encouraging.

“I think statewide, by and large most of our teachers in the profession are doing a really good job,” she said.

For the first time, the state released separate totals for teachers, superintendents and principals. Democratic House leader Rep. Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City, said looking at the performance of administrators as well as teachers is a good idea.

“One thing we’re starting to hear is that we shouldn’t be blaming our teachers for everything we perceive as wrong with education,” Pelath said. “And I’m starting  to hear that come from my friends across the aisle.”

Those results showed superintendents got the best ratings of all, with 41 percent rated highly effective and just 0.22 ineffective. Two-thirds of all superintendents were rated in the top two categories.

Teachers had fewer in the top category (35 percent) but more rated in the top two categories (89 percent) and 0.34 rated ineffective.

Principals had the most rated ineffective, but the percentage was still tiny, 0.58 percent, and 86 percent of principals were rated in the top two categories.

Under Indiana’s law, effectiveness is rated on a 1 to 4 scale. Factors that go into the ratings of teachers include observations by administrators or other trained evaluators, student test score gains and other factors that vary by school or depend on the subject taught.

Sanctions for those rated in the lowest categories are serious. An ineffective rating, a 1 on the scale, can be cause to fire an educator immediately. Those who are rated in the next lowest category, a 2 or in need of improvement, can be dismissed if they fail to raise their ratings to effective (3) or highly effective (4) after two years.

Included with the latest results are two additional sets of data: one looking at the connection between educator quality and school A to F ratings and another looking at the possible effects of educator quality on teacher retention.

There appears to be a strong connection between educator effectiveness and school grades. Schools with A grades have far more highly effective teachers on average (more than 40 percent) than schools rated F (about 15 percent).

The reverse is also true. Although the numbers are small, the percentage of educators rated in the two lowest categories was more than five times high at F schools (more than 5 percent) than at A schools (1 percent).

A-rated schools were far more likely to keep their teachers employed in the same school or school district (85 percent retained) than F rated schools (64 percent).

Meredith pointed out that in charter schools rated D or F, more teachers were rated ineffective than in traditional school districts rated D or F. In traditional schools rated D or F, ineffective teachers made up less than 1 percent of all teachers. But in charter schools rated D or F more than 10 percent of teachers were rated ineffective.

“Why would you keep someone who’s doing that poorly of a job?” Meredith said. “As a parent, if there was an ineffective person in a school system and they are listed on that chart, I would be upset … to see charter schools be so high is a little frightening to me.”

Meredith said she was also concerned that evaluations could be increasingly based more on student test scores. Those scores, she said, are a snapshot of a student’s performance at one point in time, whereas teacher evaluation data now is mostly based on an entire year of observation in addition to more objective measures.

Tosha Salyers, spokesperson with the Institute for Quality Education, said it’s more fair that teachers are being evaluated with objective data. The Institute advocates for changes in education policy, favoring ideas like greater scrutiny on educator performance and wider school choice offerings.

Salyers said when she was a teacher, performance evaluations were too subjective and did little to help her improve.

“We think there’s still work to be done,” Salyers said. “The legislation is fairly new, and we think that the more schools become comfortable with it that the results will do what they should do: inform teachers’ practice. What we hope is that it’s a tool being used as not a punitive thing, but as a way to help teachers grow.”

 

How I Lead

Meditation and Mindfulness: How a Harlem principal solves conflict in her community

Dawn DeCosta, the principal of Thurgood Marshall Academy Lower School

Here, in a series we call “How I Lead,” we feature principals and assistant principals who have been recognized for their work. You can see other pieces in the series here.

Dawn DeCosta, Thurgood Marshall Academy Lower School’s principal of seven years, never pictured herself leading a school. Originally a fine arts major and art teacher, she was inspired to be a community leader when she took a summer leadership course at Columbia University’s Teacher College. The program helped her widen her impact to outside the classroom by teaching her how to find personal self awareness and mindfulness. For the past four years she has taught the students, teachers, and parents in her school’s community how to solve conflict constructively through the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence’s RULER program — a social-emotional learning program that brings together many of the tools that she learned at Columbia. While describing these new practices and techniques, DeCosta reflected on the specific impact they have had on her community.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

What is the Yale RULER program?

It’s more of a process, not a script or curriculum. An approach that has these four anchors: the mood meter, the charter, the meta-moment, and the blueprint. We use the mood meter to describe feelings, because a lot of times we’ll just hear “I feel happy” or “I feel sad.” You want them to be able to better pinpoint how they feel, and the mood meter is a square with these quadrants that are different colors and show how much energy a student has at a given moment and how pleasant they’re feeling. The charter is an agreement to the class. It replaces “don’t hit, don’t kick” with “how do we want to feel, what are we going to do to feel that way, what will we do if we have a conflict.” The meta-moment are six steps on how to deal with a stressful situation, and the blueprint is a plan to serve a longer-term conflict between two people- to solve an ongoing conflict that we need a plan for, that’s not just in the moment. We integrate all four components throughout the day, throughout the week, throughout the year.

What changes did you make to it to make it work for your community, and what are the specific strategies you use?

We do it with teachers, students, staff, and supplement it with a culturally relevant approach. We have 100 percent black and brown children, so this means using culturally relevant texts, since we want students learning about leaders and artists who look like them. We want them to see models of excellence in themselves and see success too in themselves in order to combat some of the negative images they see in the media or even in their neighborhoods. This is a beautiful place but there’s also a lot going on in terms of poverty and violence, which have an impact on their lives, how they feel, how they live, how they see things. We’ve incorporated meditation, mindfulness, brain breaks, yoga, and arts into our curriculum. We’ve put all the different pieces together to tap into what makes kids want to go to school and makes them love to be here. We want to use these in every grade, so that we give students a common language and kids can move from one grade to the next easily. Student ownership is a big piece, because what happens when the teachers aren’t there? Do you know how to use this in less structured environments, at home with your siblings at home?

How do you make sure vulnerable students are getting emotional support and give time for that reflection and self growth but also provide a rigorous education that meets your school’s standards?

The work that we are doing is ensuring that the kids have academic improvement and success. Because they feel cared for and comfortable, ultimately students feel successful, and when you feel successful you will apply yourself more. Right now, learning is rigorous. It’s not what it was 10 years ago. So we ask kids to think very deeply to be critical thinkers. The text that they have to read is more rigorous, ones that require problem solving (and) for kids to think for themselves. And so that by itself is taxing. And that kind of work can be really stressful. A lot of the work we’ve done is around test anxiety. We want kids to know that this is just a piece of information, you need to know where you’re doing well, where you’re struggling so that they can address areas of challenge with a little more positivity. But we see the effects of it in our academic performance.

How have you measured the success of the program?

When I first became principal it wasn’t like we were having emergencies necessarily, but we were putting out a lot of fires. Kids were just coming in with issues, getting into fights, things like that. We also wanted to bring in more of the parents, because there were some that we wanted to be more engaged. We have seen an increase in test scores, but I use personal growth stories as my data–that’s how I know that this works. When I have those success stories, when I see students that really needed it, use it and feel a change, that is the data. We didn’t actually see real, big changes until last year, when we were three years into using this new style of learning. There’s always work to be done, it’s an ongoing thing.

In your own words, what is emotional intelligence and why is it important to have?

To me, it means that you are aware of what you may be feeling at a certain moment and of how your feelings impact interactions with others. It’s about how self aware you are, how are you thinking about what you’re going to say or do before you do it, and about how you show compassion for others who are also thinking and feeling just like you. It’s about how you listen to others, how you see and recognize what others are giving you, and how you support others. We’ve been told that all we can do is control ourselves, and that we’re not responsible for other people. But I think through emotional intelligence, we are responsible for how we make people feel.

In what ways do you help take this learning outside of the classroom?

We send home activities for students to do with their families, for over vacation. It will be like, “check in with your family members on their moods for the week and on how everybody is feeling this week,” or “what was one time when you and your parents had a conflict and what did you do well or not do well.” We keep finding the means to engage the parents at home with it by having them come in and do stress relief workshops. I have students ask, “Can I have a mood meter for my mom? I think it will help her because she feels really stressed.” So that home/school piece is a really important part of what makes everything successful. We’re all supporting the kids, we’re raising them together.

In what other ways, do you help the parents learn as well, and what does that look like?

We trained a group of parent leaders in RULER, who helped us train other parents. Parents like hearing from other parents, so we wanted to make sure that it was presented to them as something they could relate to. I think that sometimes as educators we are guilty of using a lot of acronyms and indigestible words when we’re talking to families, and what we’ve decided to do is breaking it down to talking about how do they deal with stress. Kind of how we brought it to the parents is that we brought to the kids strategies on how to deal with stress. We did some yoga with them, breathing techniques, and then we just started talking to them about what kinds of emotion they go through in a day. They talk about getting kids ready, making trains, dealing with family members, and really getting out what they were dealing with as parents–all that stuff that nobody really asked them about before. Honestly, they were the most receptive group. I think talking to each other, in a place where we’re all supporting each other, creates that space that we need.

Describe a specific instance or an anecdote that you think is reflective of the changes that have happened since you have implemented these new practices. How did you see the impact?

A boy came to us in the second grade, and he had been on a safety transfer, which means that he had been in a situation that may not be safe for a child. They’re either in violent conflict with others, or they’re being bullied, or something’s happening where they need to be removed from where they are. At first we had a lot of emotional difficulties and poor relationships with his teachers, and even though he was only six or seven he had been suspended several times. His family had also shut down from the school connection because since they were constantly hearing negative information. The principal basically said “Look, there’s nothing you can do with him. It’s just too much, he’s violent, he bites, it’s just too much.” But he came to the school, and just through engaging him through some of the new practices he was able to self regulate. It impacted his focus and changed his ability to relate to others. The changes didn’t make him perfect or change who he is, but it gave him some tools to be successful and work with others. Once he had love and compassion and felt accepted in our community, all of those behaviors just disappeared. His family became more supportive and trusting and he graduated last year.

Teaching teachers

Mentors matter: Good teaching really can be passed down to student teachers, new research finds

PHOTO: Jessica Glazer
Janet Lo (left) and Stacey Gong-Zhang attend a training program for pre-K teachers.

Do student teachers learn more when they’re mentored by especially effective teachers?

The answer may seem obvious, but there’s been little research confirming as much. Until now.

Three studies released this year offer real evidence that good teaching can be passed down, in a sense, from mentor teacher to student teacher. In several cases, they find that the performance of the student teachers once they have their own full-time classrooms corresponds to the quality of the teacher they trained under.    

And as many teacher preparation programs face pressure to improve, the findings offer a common-sense prescription: invest in finding the most effective possible teachers to supervise their trainees.

“Taken together, the point is that teachers who are … effective appear to be very promising mentors,” said Matt Ronfeldt, a University of Michigan professor who co-authored all three papers.

One of the studies, published last month in the peer-reviewed journal Educational Researcher, examined thousands of student teachers between 2010 and 2015 who were subsequently hired by a Tennessee public school. (Getting the data to understand this was a multi-year undertaking, since there isn’t a centralized system connecting mentors with their student teachers.)  

It found that teachers tended to be better at raising students’ test scores if their supervising teacher was better than average, too. Similarly, new teachers scored better on classroom observation rubrics when they had been mentored by a teacher who also scored well on that same rubric.

There was no evidence that teachers with more years of experience, all else equal, were more effective as supervisors.

The researchers can’t definitively prove cause and effect, but the results suggest that the mentor teachers are imparting certain specific skills to their student teachers.

The effect was small, though: Having a supervising teacher who did particularly well on their observations or their test scores was comparable to about half the performance leap teachers make between their first and second years in the classroom. That’s not a huge difference, but research has found teachers make their steepest improvement in those years.

A similar study, released in January, focused on about 300 student teachers in Chicago Public Schools who were subsequently hired in the district. Again, the student teachers who had better mentor teachers, as measured by classroom observations, ended up with better observation scores themselves.

Here too, there was no clear benefit of having a more experienced supervisor.

A separate paper, published in April through the research organization CALDER, looked at a single teacher prep program, Tennessee Tech University, which allowed researchers to conduct an experiment with its student teacher placements.

After all of the supervising teachers and schools had been selected, researchers divided them into two categories: those likely to be effective mentors and those less likely to be. This was based on data on the teachers (their performance and years of experience) and the schools (staff retention numbers and student achievement growth). From there, the nearly 200 teachers were randomly assigned, allowing the researchers to conclusively determine whether being in that high-quality group mattered.

It did. The student teachers with better placements reported that their mentor teachers were better instructors, offered more frequent and better coaching, and provided more opportunities for them to practice. This analysis didn’t track the student teachers’ later performance, but they did report that they felt more prepared to teach themselves and to manage their future classrooms.

This study, the researchers conclude, “would make a strong case to school systems that the quality of placements is fundamental to the development of new teachers.”

The set of studies add to a small but growing body of research on the best ways to set teachers up for success. Previous research had linked higher-functioning placement schools to better results for student teachers. Teachers also seem to do better after having student taught at a school with similar demographics as the school where they go on to teach. And concerns that adding a student teacher to a classroom hurts students (by allowing an untrained teacher to take over for a high-performing one) seem mostly unfounded.

The latest findings aren’t especially surprising, but to Ronfeldt they’re still important.

“While that may be a ‘duh’ moment, the reality is that there [are] often assumptions like this in education, and I think having the research evidence to back it up is critical,” he said, pointing out that few states have requirements that mentor teachers have strong evaluation scores. “We can make all sorts of assumptions, as I have for other things, and find out the opposite.”

Want to read more about efforts to improve teacher preparation? See Chalkbeat stories on teacher residencies, a Texas program known as UTeach, the challenges of identifying successful programs, a teacher training program that has embraced “personalized learning,” Denver’s effort to ease the transition into the classroom, and New York City and Memphis programs to recruit more men of color into teaching.