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Cause and effect of principals rating teachers accurately

Despite years of SEAs encouraging/requiring/begging districts and school principals to rate teachers more accurately, two recent studies (here and here) highlighted in an EdWeek article show that there has been little improvement in this area. One of the pullout quotes in the article is from a principal in Delaware. She states, “Somebody’s job is in your hands.” This statement is accurate and teacher evaluations should be taken very seriously, but as a principal, the futures of hundreds of students are in your hands every day. While a low rating could potentially cost an educator his/her job, the system should be designed to support that person improve over a specified time period. But, we must get back to the impact on the students.

Not accurately rating a teacher for ineffective performance (if warranted) makes it more difficult 1) for subsequent principals to provide accurate ratings (i.e. “I’ve never been rated poorly, this isn’t accurate!”) 2) to obtain the professional development that may be needed for that teacher, 3) to remove that teacher if performance doesn’t improve, and 4) most importantly, an inaccurate rating could harm classrooms of students for years. Based on these reports (in addition to the original TNTP report), as well as working schools and districts identified for performance issues, it it clear that simply requiring principals to rate teachers more effectively isn’t the solution.

This is a multifaceted issue and requires deep analysis and a number of solutions. Some of the areas that must be examined for root cause and possible solutions include: providing appropriate training for principals on both assessing the quality of instruction AND providing constructive feedback to staff, streamlining paperwork burdens (so that it is easier for principals to rate teachers ineffectively and provide them services), supporting principals with PD provision for the lower rated staff, providing high quality professional development to support staff that are rated ineffective (so that they can improve in a reasonable time frame), providing additional instructional support to the students in classrooms with teachers rated ineffective (so that they continue learning), and increasing the teacher pipeline (so that if ineffective teachers choose to leave or are removed, that there are people to replace them).

Some educators that I’ve met with over the years have also proposed tying a principal’s evaluation to the effectiveness of their teachers (i.e. Are the teachers improving their proficiency and effectiveness? Do the teacher ratings correlate with the performance/trajectory of the student body?). I fully agree that teachers should not solely be accountable for student performance. All of the adults in the education system play a critical role and should be accountable for how their actions impact student learning.

These areas can be complicated, filled with additional barriers, and are not easy or quick wins. But, putting the most effective teachers in front of our students should be an absolute priority in every single classroom across the country.

Ann Arbor, Michigan and New Haven, CT also recently revamped their teacher evaluation policies and interviews with staff from both of those cities demonstrated promising results.

 

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Usefullness of Classroom Walkthroughs

Classroom walkthroughs are a crucial tool for school leaders to get a gage learning in their school and for teachers to get some immediate feedback on areas that they might not normally be able to see alone. But, classroom walkthroughs can be done well or poorly. Some useful tips that I’ve picked up from school and district leaders over the years:

  • DO provide same day feedback for every walkthrough – either via email if using an ipad to monitor, or via a small slip of paper in the teacher’s mailbox)
  • Do Focus on a few key areas – a walkthrough is very different than a full classroom observation. It’s impossible to see everything in 3-6 minutes, so identify a few areas to focus on and DON’T provide negative feedback to a teacher if you didn’t see something (i.e. group work) if you only saw part of a class. You may have missed the group work section.
  • DO look for real learning – what level questions is the teacher asking? What type of thinking do the assignments require?
  • DO look for classroom management techniques and positive teacher-student relationships – these should be apparent in a classroom in 1 minute or 1 hour. They can make or break learning from occurring, so always keep an eye on it.
  • DO walkthroughs regularly – their benefit is their frequency
  • DO encourage others to do walkthroughs in the school (i.e. other district administrators or fellow teachers). But, if this is done, ensure that all observers understand appropriate protocol (i.e. being a fly on the wall, not distracting students, also providing feedback, etc)
  • DO use the results of many walkthroughs to inform school-wide professional development needs.

Some additional thoughts about walkthroughs are found in this EdWeek story.

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Discriminatory suspension data

During the 2011-12 school year, black/African American children accounted for 16% of the United States student population, yet accounted for 32% of students suspended and 42% of those expelled (according to DOE data). With a stagnant white-black achievement gap that has not budged since the 1960s, what’s the impact of these suspension rates on performance? Bottom line: Kids who aren’t in the classroom aren’t learning.

A study published in the journal Social Problems by University of Kentucky sociologist Edward Morris and Indiana University sociologist Brea Perry concludes that school suspensions account for roughly one-fifth of the white-black achievement gap. This study controlled for many of the factors that some argue contribute to this discipline gap – such as income, gender, and participation in special education – and found that black students were suspended at three times the rate as their white peers.

The answer is not to just simply stop suspending students; rather, future work should consider the contributing factors to discrepancies in black and white suspension rates and should help to identify ways to introduce revised disciplinary policies into school environments, while maintaining or improving the educational environment for all students. Some schools and districts have implemented restorative justice programs to offer an alternative to suspension – these programs focus on rehabilitation of the offenders through reconciliation with victims and the school community. Yet as Ilana Zafran, COO of Umoja Student Development Corporation notes, the biggest problem is patience – people want immediate results but changing a culture and restorative justice takes time. I also recently met with school staff in Ann Arbor Michigan where the principals come to classrooms to address behavior and discipline issues – as opposed to sending the students to the principal’s office. Given these research findings, it is imperative that we find alternatives to suspension and better monitor (and adjust) the equity of discipline referrals, as  key components to closing achievement gaps.

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The Challenges of Change

Even when change is absolutely necessary (i.e. the debt of Chicago Public Schools continues to grow and the current operating budget is not sustainable), education leaders must fight for every possible change. I completely agree that school closings are necessary, but they must be done strategically and we must analyze the unintended consequences of closing each school. The bottom line is that CPS cannot continue to run so many half-full (and often low-performing) schools. The below Editorial doesn’t acknowledge the other issues that must also be addressed in order to successfully and safely close schools (i.e. students crossing gang lines to get to new schools, long(er) commuting times, increased difficulty for parents to get to the schools, lack of a neighborhood/community hub, and the lack of higher-performing schools for students to attend), but it does address many of the reasons why the schools must be closed in the first place.

An editorial from today’s Chicago Tribune:

By Dec. 1, Chicago Public Schools officials must deliver to state lawmakers a list of schools slated to close at the end of this school year. The district will release its criteria for making those decisions this week.

As many as 120 Chicago schools are likely to be on the chopping block because the district faces a $1 billion budget gap next year. And the following year.

This is a critical moment for CPS and its new CEO, Barbara Byrd-Bennett. Make no mistake: This will be painful. But scores of schools must be closed.

There are more than 100,000 empty seats in schools because CPS badly mismanaged its real estate portfolio over the past decade. Overall district enrollment has declined by 34,000 students since 2003. CPS built new schools to relieve overcrowding in some communities but failed to close enough of the older, emptier ones, often caving to community pressure.

Reality check: Keeping half-used buildings open is a huge financial drain the system can’t afford.

CPS says it can save about $800,000 a year in operating costs by closing a school and reassigning kids to schools that have extra space. It also avoids the cost of capital improvements, and could generate some revenue through property sales.

Those closings alone won’t eliminate this huge budget gap. But CPS simply can’t operate more schools — heat more buildings, patch more roofs — than its students need.

One of the first major tests for Byrd-Bennett is how compellingly the district makes its case to Chicagoans — particularly parents of CPS students — that neighborhood schools must close. She needs to deliver a clear explanation of the district’s strategy. Byrd-Bennett and her boss, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, need to build community support for these closings. They should start making the case now by stressing two major points:

•Many of those half-empty schools not only drain resources, they rank among the district’s worst performers. CPS should first close schools that are underenrolled and poor performers. Scores of schools fit that profile.

•Displaced students can benefit academically if they transfer to a higher-quality school. That’s the conclusion of a 2009 University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research study of 18 elementary schools closed from 2001 to 2006. “Displaced students who enrolled in new schools with high average achievement had larger gains in both reading and math than students who enrolled in receiving schools with lower average achievement,” the study said.

That could be a huge selling point for CPS to parents. No, not every student will be able to move to a much better-performing school; sadly, there aren’t enough in the system. But closing half-empty underperformers and boosting investment in the remaining schools should massively increase the odds that a child will transfer to a better school.

We know this will be a painful and emotional time for parents, teachers and students. Many parents don’t want to send their kids to another school, no matter how abysmal the neighborhood school performs. There are legitimate safety issues in some neighborhoods.

The Chicago Teachers Union should help guide CPS closings, not stand in the doorway of every school, shouting “No!”

And then there are the politicians. We expect state legislators who unwisely tried to meddle in earlier closings and turnarounds to try again with this round. They may have company: Some 33 aldermen are calling for City Council hearings on the closings, demanding to know which schools are being targeted for closing and under what criteria.

That can be helpful if the goal is to inform parents, not to delay the inevitable. We understand the impulse to save neighborhood schools. But this isn’t a matter of CPS whim. This is about the creating a sustainable budget for the district and its 404,000 students.

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Trusting a system that hasn’t always been trustworthy

I believe in school turnaround – the principle of drastically improving schools for students who’ve been disenfranchised and historically neglected by the education system, and that turning around a school is actually possible. That said, turning around schools is not easy, and most importantly, we have to trust that those making decisions that affect all of us are making those decisions for the right reasons.

Chicago is in the midst of a(nother) school turnaround/closure battle and while I disagree with many of the opponents claims, some of their points do make me wonder if and how turnaround has been used for political or personal gain. I want to trust that politicians are making decisions with children’s futures in mind, but sometimes it’s difficult to defend the policies when confronted with opposing data, claims and facts.

A common criticism that I see, read about, and hear in Chicago (and across the country) is that “turnarounds don’t work.” First, it’s important to remember that a large percentage of turnarounds in the business sector fail. Turning around a business (like turning around a school) is extremely difficult, and it requires all involved to change the status quo, to implement changes with fidelity, an infusion of resources, and most importantly in my opinion, a strong leader.

School turnaround is possible, but it also requires all of the above components. A turnaround effort will flounder if we only partially implement reforms (which I see all the time), if the entire community doesn’t support the efforts, if real (and lasting) changes aren’t embraced, if we don’t fully fund the reforms, and if there isn’t a strong leader to guide the entire effort at the school and district levels. Combining all of these factors (and more) in one effort is difficult to accomplish, so we should not expect every school turnaround to be successful.

A recent analysis by Chicago Public Radio/Catalyst Chicago  found that “Eighteen percent of the replacement schools (those schools located in buildings where either closure or turnaround has occurred) were rated “Level 1” by CPS this year, the highest performance level. Nearly 40 percent of replacement schools are Performance Level 3, the lowest rating CPS gives.” So, while 40% of the schools are still underperforming, that means that 60% are doing better, and in some cases they are doing significantly better. The data is also based on CPS’ performance ratings, which include a variety of indicators (including absolute/current status, trend and value-added student performance measures; as well as other indicators, such as attendance, AP enrollment & success, etc).To truly analyze school performance during a turnaround effort we should focus on the improvement (i.e. trend and value-added) data points. The fact that only 20% of students meet or exceed reading proficiency targets tells us nothing about how well that school is actually teaching students now. We must look at what students are learning, not what they do or don’t know.

Another common claim, and fact, is that “Turnarounds disproportionately impact poor and minority neighborhoods.” Part of the issue here is that turning around a school isn’t just about changing what happens within the walls of the school building, but it requires changes to the surrounding community. The Chicago Public Radio/Catalyst analysis also reported that Chicago’s turnarounds are concentrated in the West and South sides of the city, and are often located near former Chicago Housing Authority developments.

This should not be surprising. Due to a myriad of reasons over many years, including discriminatory and unfair practices and policies, these parts of the city received less funding, less support, fewer well-prepared teachers and principals. It is not surprising that these schools, and their surrounding communities, continue to struggle and require extreme changes to turn around years (if not decades) of unfair treatment. The students in these schools require additional supports to catch up to their same-age peers in other parts of the district, so equal funding or treatment is not sufficient. Providing an equivalent education to these students requires unequal (i.e. more) funding and different policies and practices.

Yes, a turnaround will change the community, could be disruptive, and cause temporary tension, but I struggle to understand why parents and communities continue to fight to keep their perpetually failing schools open. If a turnaround is done well (i.e. if administrators and politicians are truly closing or turning around schools because they are not educating students, if the plan is implemented with fidelity, and the incoming operator was chosen because they are the best fit for that community), then we have to believe that what will result from the changes will be better for our children. The historical mistrust is valid (and in many cases deserved), but one fact remains — these schools are not currently meeting the needs of the children or the community.

Do I agree with every decision CPS has made regarding turnaround and school closures? Of course not. But, the bottom line is that what we’re doing now in these schools isn’t working, so we have to try something different. What that “something” is may vary, but we must try anything and everything to improve the educational opportunities for these students. They deserve better.

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Reflections on my own public education

My mother recently asked for my opinion of the education I received in Vermont public schools. My elementary and middle school (K-8 in one building) focused on creative thinking, independent projects, student-directed learning, interdisciplinary lessons, and academic-level based classes for math and reading. My high school featured small learning communities for freshman, block scheduling, daily advisories, numerous AP and honors courses, and a required community-based senior project. All strategies that I now advocate for in my professional life.

While I think I received a great education, I now recognize that all of my classmates did not receive the same quality education. As a high school student, I didn’t realize how much tracking was used  until I took a non-tracked creative writing class my senior year. A few of us rarely attended class, as we did our homework (at home); the rest of the class used the class periods to do their homework. I wonder how many of those students had potential that should have been cultivated earlier on? What was the process for selecting students for tracking?

My K-8 school provided me with a number of useful life-long skills, including the ability to debate, the ability to lead, the desire to learn and to think outside of the box. But, the school was so focused on instilling a team structure (4 classrooms with one teacher from each content area) and self-directed learning that I never learned how to take a test. While I performed well on the state standardized tests, I dreaded the SATs, ACTs and the GREs.

I agree that the lifelong skills listed above are more important than learning how to fill in a bubble test, but until all states have aligned learning standards, colleges and universities will continue to use standardized tests (and rightly so) and students need to know how to take those tests. In the long-run, I am glad that I can determine and defend an opinion, but the memories of taking any standardized test still haunt me. Is it possible to find a better balance between both types of learning? And, for a student who received a slightly alternative public education – did standardize tests really predict my performance in college, graduate school, and beyond?

I should also note that despite the strong overall education I received (and some truly fabulous teachers), there were more than a handful of teachers who needed a great deal of help or who should not have been teaching. Even good strong school systems have weak teachers who need stronger professional development, coaching, content knowledge, and in some cases they should be removed from the classroom.

After this conversation with my mother, I wanted to know which Vermont schools receive School Improvement Grand funds. While some of the schools/districts were as I expected, I was shocked to learn that my K-8 is a Tier III SIG school. After further investigation, I discovered that while overall student performance is strong (75-80% proficiency), the performance of students with low Socio-Economic Status drops to 40-50% in both reading and math. The district “owns” the data and realizes that changes are necessary. But, their plan for the SIG funds lacks any real systemic or process changes. The district proposes additional training and coaches, yet does not address creating a better triage or early warning system for students (especially those with low-SES).

Even strong education systems have room to improve. This case also demonstrates why subgroup analysis is so important. On the surface, my old school may be doing well, but when you break down the subgroups, the school is not meeting the needs of a large percentage of the students. Student needs were not met at the elementary and middle school levels, so it’s not surprising that students entered high school with varying academic levels and were then tracked for the rest of their public school careers.

 

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A tale of two schools

John Zorn of the Chicago Tribune recently looked into the details behind a recent speech given by CPS CEO Jean-Claude Brizard. Brizard discussed two schools in South Chicago, 1 mile away from each other, with students of similar demographics, and yet the schools have stark differences in performance.

Zorn concluded that leadership, class size and time were three factors that likely impacted the success of the High(er) Performing High Poverty school. While class size and increased learning time definitely make a difference in any school, and especially in schools that educate high minority and high low-income populations, in my mind, there is no question that the primary cause of the school’s turnaround is leadership.

In a turnaround transformation having a principal that walks the walk, monitors everything (and everyone) in her building, holds everyone (from parents to teachers to students) accountable, and is relentless in the pursuit of high standards makes a world of difference.

First, change the school climate and culture – and this must come from the top down.

Second, the principal and her leadership team focus on basic instruction, teacher PD, and increasing instructional rigor.

Lastly, the principal should distribute the leadership amongst a team of staff members to ensure changes are embedded into the culture and structure of the school – so much so that improvements remain and continue if the school leadership changes.

The principal sets the tone of the building and she must be the one to determine that the old status quo is no longer acceptable and that change is coming, it’s coming now, and reforms are not going away. While we frequently talk about the shortage of high quality teachers (a legitimate concern) creating a larger supply of turnaround principals and school leadership teams must become a higher priority in federal, state and district policy.

“There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.”

— Niccolo Machiavelli
The Prince (1532)

Excerpts from the original article:

“I was at a school a few days ago, late last week, on the far, far South Side of the city,” said Brizard, speaking at a recent joint appearance with Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis at the University of Illinois at Chicago, “100 percent minority, 100 percent poverty. Yet at the 95th percentile in proficiency.”

Brizard went on to ask how the school could be doing so well when there is another school “only about half a mile down the road, same kind of school, same kids, same neighborhood, (but) at the bottom of the pile in achievement. That’s the question I think we also have to wrestle with: How some schools are doing it and others seem to struggle with the exact same situation.”

Intrigued, I followed up. It turns out Brizard was referring to Burnham/Anthony Math & Science Academy (right) and Robert H. Lawrence Math & Science School, kindergarten through eighth-grade facilities located in the same square mile of the Jeffery Manor neighborhood south of 95th Street and west of the Chicago Skyway.

Both public schools are roughly 99 percent black and 1 percent Hispanic, and more or less 95 percent of students at each school qualify as low-income.

Neither school is a magnet or selective-enrollment academy. Each has about 10 percent of its students classified as disabled and has daily attendance rates in the mid-90s.

Yet 88 percent of Burnham/Anthony students met or exceeded state standards on the composite 2011 Illinois Standards Achievement Test of reading, math and writing, compared to 47 percent of students at Lawrence (the city average is 73 percent).

Ten years ago, Lawrence’s meets/exceeds score on the ISAT’s was 41 percent, compared to just 38.5 percent for Burnham/Anthony.

How did Burnham/Anthony do it?

“The new principal came in and changed the culture,” said long-time Burnham/Anthony Local School Council President Felicia O’Neal, who has had children at the school since 1999. “She put the focus on academics and she let the teachers and parents know she was going to hold everyone accountable.”That principal, Linda Moore, a former teacher and assistant principal in the system, took over just prior to the 2004-2005 school year. She began using grant money to operate a one-hour after-school academic program four days a week from October through March.“I meet with each new family and share my expectations for them and their children,” Moore told me. “I tell them the child must take ownership, the parents must take ownership, and the teachers and staff must take ownership of the success of that child.”The result is a 94 percent “parent contact” score on Burnham/Anthony’s state report card, compared with 70 percent at Lawrence.Why is Lawrence struggling and still targeted for improvement under No Child Left Behind?

Put it all together and the answer to Brizard’s crucial question — Why do some schools thrive while seemingly identical schools falter? — seems to involve at least three things in Jeffery Manor: leadership, class size and time.

Burnham/Anthony took off after the arrival of a dynamic new principal who inspired and enabled both teachers and parents and who added four hours a week of after-school academics — though teachers there last week voted down the controversial contract waiver that would have added 90 minutes to the regular school day.

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