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.”

 

Exiting

Tennessee schools chief Candice McQueen leaving for job at national education nonprofit

PHOTO: TN.Gov

Tennessee’s education chief is leaving state government to lead a nonprofit organization focused on attracting, developing, and keeping high-quality educators.

Candice McQueen, 44, will step down in early January to become the CEO of National Institute for Excellence in Teaching.

Gov. Bill Haslam, whose administration will end on Jan. 19, announced the impending departure of his education commissioner on Thursday.

He plans to name an interim commissioner, according to an email from McQueen to her staff at the education department.

“While I am excited about this new opportunity, it is hard to leave this team,” she wrote. “You are laser-focused on doing the right thing for Tennessee’s students every single day – and I take heart in knowing you will continue this good work in the months and years to come. I look forward to continuing to support your work even as I move into this new role with NIET.”

A former teacher and university dean, McQueen has been one of Haslam’s highest-profile cabinet members since joining the administration in 2015 to replace Kevin Huffman, a lawyer who was an executive at Teach For America.

Her tenure has been highlighted by overhauling the state’s requirements for student learning, increasing transparency about how Tennessee students are doing, and launching a major initiative to improve reading skills in a state that struggles with literacy.

But much of the good work has been overshadowed by repeated technical failures in Tennessee’s switch to a computerized standardized test — even forcing McQueen to cancel testing for most students in her second year at the helm. The assessment program continued to struggle this spring, marred by days of technical glitches.

Haslam, who has consistently praised McQueen’s leadership throughout the rocky testing ride, said Tennessee’s education system has improved under her watch.

“Candice has worked relentlessly since day one for Tennessee’s students and teachers, and under her leadership, Tennessee earned its first ‘A’ rating for the standards and the rigor of the state’s assessment after receiving an ‘F’ rating a decade ago,” Haslam said in a statement. “Candice has raised the bar for both teachers and students across the state, enabling them to rise to their greatest potential. I am grateful for her service.”

McQueen said being education commissioner has been “the honor of a lifetime” and that her new job will allow her to “continue to be an advocate for Tennessee’s teachers and work to make sure every child is in a class led by an excellent teacher every day.”

At the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching, she’ll work with states, districts, and schools to improve the effectiveness of teachers and will operate out of the organization’s new office in Nashville. The institute’s work impacts more than 250,000 educators and 2.5 million students.

“Candice McQueen understands that highly effective teachers can truly transform the lives of our children, our classrooms, our communities and our futures,” said Lowell Milken, chairman of the institute, which has existing offices in Phoenix, Washington, D.C., and Santa Monica, Calif.

In an interview with Chalkbeat, McQueen said numerous organizations had approached her about jobs this year as Tennessee prepared to transition to a new administration under Gov.-elect Bill Lee. She called leading the institute “an extraordinary opportunity that I felt was a great fit” because of its focus on supporting, leading, and compensating teachers.

“It’s work that I believe is the heart and soul of student improvement,” she said.

McQueen’s entire career has focused on strengthening teacher effectiveness and support systems for teachers. Before joining Haslam’s administration, the Tennessee native was an award-winning teacher; then faculty member, department chair, and dean of Lipscomb University’s College of Education in Nashville. As dean from 2008 to 2015, Lipscomb became one of the highest-rated teacher preparation programs in Tennessee and the nation. There, McQueen also doubled the size and reach of the college’s graduate programs with new master’s degrees and certificates, the university’s first doctoral program, and additional online and off-campus offerings.

As Haslam’s education commissioner the last four years, McQueen stayed the course on Tennessee’s 2010 overhaul of K-12 education, which was highlighted by raising academic standards; measuring student improvement through testing; and holding students, teachers, schools, and districts accountable for the results.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Candice McQueen has been commissioner of education for Republican Gov. Bill Haslam since 2015.

One of the plan’s most controversial components was teacher evaluations that are tied to student growth on state tests — a strategy that McQueen has stood by and credited in part for Tennessee’s gains on national tests.

Since 2011, Tennessee has seen record-high graduation rates, college-going rates, and ACT scores and steadily moved up in state rankings on the Nation’s Report Card.

Several new studies say Tennessee teachers are getting better under the evaluation system, although other research paints a less encouraging picture.

Her choice to lead the national teaching institute quickly garnered praise from education leaders across the country.

“The students of Tennessee have benefited from Candice McQueen’s leadership, including bold efforts to ensure students have access to advanced career pathways to lead to success in college and careers, and a solid foundation in reading,” said Carissa Moffat Miller, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers.

Louisiana Education Superintendent John White said McQueen brings ideal skills to her new job.

“She is not just a veteran educator who has worked in higher education and K-12 education alike, but she is also a visionary leader with a unique understanding of both quality classroom teaching and the systems necessary to make quality teaching possible for millions of students,” White said.

Read more reaction to the news of McQueen’s planned exit.

reading science

Reading instruction is big news these days. Teachers, share your thoughts with us!

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

Lately, lots of people are talking about reading. Specifically, how it’s taught (or not) in America’s schools.

Much of the credit is due to American Public Media reporter Emily Hanford. In September, she took an in-depth look at what’s wrong with reading instruction in the nation’s classrooms and how explicit, systematic phonics instruction could help.

The crux of the issue is this: In the 1980s and 1990s, the “whole language” approach to teaching reading took hold, relying on the idea that learning to read is a natural process that could be helped along by surrounding kids with good books. At many schools, phonics was out.

In time, many educators brought small doses of phonics back into their lessons, adopting an approach called “balanced literacy.” The problem is, neither whole language nor balanced literacy is based on science, Hanford explained.

Her work on the subject — an audio documentary called Hard Words, a follow-up Q&A for parents, and an opinion piece in the New York Times — has spawned much discussion on social media and elsewhere.

A Maine educator explained in her piece for the Hechinger Report why she agrees that explicit phonics instruction is important but doesn’t think “balanced literacy” should be thrown out. A Minnesota reporter examined the divide in her state over how much phonics should be included in reading lessons and how it should be delivered.

In a roundtable discussion on reading last spring, Stephanie Finn, a literacy coach in the West Genesee Central School District in upstate New York, described the moment she became disillusioned with the whole language approach. It was while reading a story with her young daughter.

“The story was about gymnastics and she had a lot of background knowledge about gymnastics. She loved gymnastics. She knew the word ‘gymnastics,’ and ‘balance beam’ and ‘flexible’ and she got to the girl’s name and the girl’s name was Kate, and she didn’t know what to do,” said Finn. “I thought ‘Holy cow, she cannot decode this simple word. We have a problem.’”

In an opinion piece in Education Week, Susan Pimentel, co-founder of StandardsWork, provides three recommendations to help educators promote reading proficiency. Besides not confining kids to “just-right” books where they already know most words, she says teachers should increase students’ access to knowledge-building subjects like science and social studies. Finally, she writes, “Let quality English/language arts curriculum do some of the heavy lifting. Poor-quality curriculum is at the root of reading problems in many schools.”

Meanwhile, some current and former educators are asking teacher prep program leaders to explain the dearth of science-based lessons on reading instruction.

An Arkansas teacher wrote in a letter to her former dean on Facebook, “while I feel like most of my teacher preparation was very good, I can say I was totally unprepared to teach reading, especially to the struggling readers that I had at the beginning of my career in my resource classroom.”

Former elementary school teacher Robert Pondiscio, a senior fellow and vice president for external affairs at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, wrote to his former dean, “I’m grateful for the professional credential … But if there’s anything one might expect an advanced degree in elementary education to include, it would be teaching reading. It wasn’t part of my program.”

Teachers, now we’d like to hear from you. What resonates with you about the recent news coverage on reading instruction? What doesn’t? Share your perspective by filling out this brief survey.