a re-evaluation

In a win for the UFT, city reaches deal that moves further away from evaluating teachers based on multiple-choice tests

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña (center) unveils a new evaluation agreement with teachers union chief Michael Mulgrew (left)

New York City teachers may soon be rated based in part on collections of their students’ work, under a deal struck by the city that continues a shift away from using multiple-choice tests to judge teachers.

The announcement answers a big question raised last year when New York policymakers banned the use of grades 3-8 math and English state tests in teacher evaluations: What should replace those scores?

Districts across the state were on the hook to come up with an answer by the end of 2016. On Wednesday, schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña and leaders of the city’s teachers and principals unions said they had agreed on new options which would provide more “authentic” measures of learning, including city-created tests in a variety of new subjects, lengthier projects, and “student learning inventories,” or compilations of student work.

“The best evaluation tool is the work that students do day-to-day in the classroom,” Fariña said. “Sometimes it’s not the end product that matters but the process to get there.”

That’s a significant shift from what city officials were saying in 2010, when they were battling over the use of test scores in teacher ratings for the first time. Spurred by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the prospect of extra money from the Obama administration, lawmakers had overhauled the state’s evaluation law to require teachers be rated in part based on how much their students’ test scores went up — then left many details up to districts and their local teachers unions.

Then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg wanted to make sure the new evaluations would lead to low-scoring teachers losing their jobs, while the United Federation of Teachers argued that test scores aren’t a useful measure of student learning. A multiyear showdown between the union and the city followed.

The evaluations have seen many rounds of changes in the years since, but few teachers were ever removed because of their low ratings. Meanwhile, anti-testing sentiment has grown, and Cuomo’s 2015 push for a teacher evaluation law increasing the weight of state standardized tests in evaluations helped inspire a testing boycott movement — and a moratorium on the use of those exams.

The new evaluation scheme will go into effect this school year, officials said Wednesday, if it receives state approval. It will likely be in place for the next three years.

Under the new plan, the other main ingredient in New York City teacher ratings, classroom observations, will not change see big changes, union officials said.

A new legal requirement that some observations be conducted by outsiders, not school administrators, was supposed to kick in this spring. But after districts including New York City complained about the burden, the Board of Regents decided to offer waivers from the requirement. New York City plans to apply for one, officials said.

Schools will also continue to be able to choose from a menu of tests for deciding how to evaluate teachers. Some of the options will remain in place, like the “Measures of Student Learning” created by city teachers in recent years that consist of essay prompts or performance-based exams. The new option to present portfolios of student work would include assignments coming from teachers and others created centrally by the Department of Education.

Advocacy groups that have fought for evaluation systems that identify more low-performing teachers and remove them from schools immediately criticized the new system. Jenny Sedlis, executive director of StudentsFirstNY, called it “Mayor de Blasio’s scheme to rate every teacher effective.”

But there was little tension between union and city officials, who stood side by side and presented a coordinated message Wednesday morning.

“This is the first time where I can stand here before you and say we are moving in a better direction,” teachers union chief Michael Mulgrew said.

moving on up

Jeffco on track to move most of next year’s sixth-graders into middle school buildings

PHOTO: Denver Post file

Jeffco Public Schools is moving forward with plans to put the majority of its sixth-graders in middle schools instead of elementary schools starting next fall, a shift district officials say will both better utilize building space and ease what can be a rough transition for kids.

The change, announced more than a year ago, will bring the state’s second largest school district into alignment with how most Colorado districts split up elementary and middle school.

Jeffco will continue to operate models that break that mold, including longstanding K-8 schools and a newer experiment with 7th through 12th grade schools officials say has shown promise.

Some critics continue to voice concerns about the plan, including questioning the cost and comparing that to what they say will result in a questionable benefit for students’ educations. District officials, however, say parents are getting their questions answered and educators are hearing fewer concerns than before.

The issue has come up at forums for school board candidates running this fall, and Jeffco staff last week at a regular board meeting updated the school board.

Marcia Anker, who started in July as the district’s sixth grade transition coordinator, said that some Jeffco schools individually started asking to make the change more than 10 years ago. Some individual middle schools had already been allowed to start enrolling sixth graders.

District officials say they estimate 3,355 students due to be sixth graders next year will be attending a middle school in 2018-19 instead of staying in an elementary school.

Many of the players involved in the initial discussions to move sixth grade out of elementary schools aren’t in the district anymore, including former superintendent Dan McMinimee.

Current district leaders say it was a conversation that began with district officials who oversee use of buildings, but that the decision wasn’t driven by building concerns.

Still, building use is a factor. Tim Reed, executive director of Jeffco facilities said middle school buildings in Jeffco were designed to hold three grade levels and have been underutilized.

“I think the conversation has always been about what’s best for students,” Reed said. “There was a recognition that there was significant underutilization in our middle school buildings. This was a way to accomplish two things including to better utilize middle schools.”

National research on middle school grade configurations has not been keen on sixth through eighth grade models. One study comparing students in sixth through eighth grade schools to students in schools that are K-8 schools found that student test scores weren’t different, but found more negative perceptions among students in traditional middle schools.

Jeffco board members and staff who have touted the benefits that sixth graders will see in a middle school point out that students will get a chance to start exploring their career interests with elective classes and have more time to develop relationships with staff in the middle schools.

Karen Quanbeck, interim chief school effectiveness officer and a previous middle school principal in the district, said at last week’s board meeting that two years with students is not enough.

“It seems like you’re welcoming them and in the blink of an eye you’re sending them off to high school,” Quanbeck said.

But some schools will need to continue with the seventh and eighth grade model for at least one more year. Because the empty middle school seats aren’t evenly spread throughout the district, some schools will require expansions to make room for new sixth graders.

The school board has already approved the funding to build a $10 million addition to Drake Middle School and a $4.5 million addition to Dunstan Middle School to accommodate the changes. Another $2 million in reserves will be used to make minor fixes at five other schools.

Three schools — Ken Caryl, Creighton and Summit Ridge — will delay their transition to the new model because the district estimates it needs to find another $15.5 million to add eight classrooms to each school.

Two years ago, in a bid to help lift student achievement, the district merged some schools to create two seventh-through-12 schools: Alameda and Jefferson junior and senior high schools. Those schools will retain that model.

Principals at those schools say they are seeing small benefits from the change. Though the neighborhoods are traditionally higher in poverty and mobility, Anker said that principals tell her students are staying in the school at a higher rate than before.

Still, Anker said one model is not better than another.

“Matriculation models that offer the fewest transitions are what benefits kids,” Anker said.

While there may be some benefits to having every Jeffco middle school offer the same grades — for instance, so parents choosing different schools across the district have consistency — the cost of doing that would also be prohibitive, Anker said.

“We also value the differences in our communities,” Anker said.

The district in the coming months will need to find a way to fund the remaining middle school expansions. Officials also will help some sought-after schools decide if they will cut down the number of seventh and eighth graders they enroll, or ask for help to build out space as well.

vegetarian options

Want your Brooklyn school to go meatless on Mondays? Here’s your chance.

PHOTO: Helen Richardson, The Denver Post

Goodbye, ground beef and popcorn chicken. Hello, crispy tofu and roasted chickpea tagine.

Starting next spring, 15 Brooklyn schools will begin “meatless Mondays” — an effort to make school lunches and breakfasts a little healthier and friendlier to the environment, officials said Monday.

The city has not yet picked the schools that will participate in the pilot program, and an education spokeswoman said the city will make decisions based on interest and public input. (Whether the city is prepared for a barrage of requests from health-minded Park Slope parents is another matter.)

The announcement comes less than two months after city officials made lunch free for all students regardless of income. Monday’s press conference was held at Brooklyn’s P.S. 1 — one of three district schools that only serves vegetarian fare — and drew Mayor Bill de Blasio, schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams.

“Cutting back a little on meat will help make our city healthier and our planet stronger for generations to come,” de Blasio said in a statement, adding that meat will no longer be served at Gracie Mansion on Mondays.

You can read more about the program here.