February 12, 2013
In the aftermath of New York City’s failed teacher evaluation negotiations, a small detail has gone unnoticed: There actually is one city school with a state-approved teacher evaluation system.
“We were surprised, too,” said Ken Byalin, president of John W. Lavelle Preparatory Charter School, a Staten Island secondary school with an emphasis on serving students with emotional challenges.
“When we saw there were no approved plans by charter schools, we thought, ‘Oh my god, what are we doing?’” Byalin said. “We were out in front in a way we hadn’t expected to be.”
Though alone among charter schools, Lavelle is hardly the only school in the state to beat the city Department of Education to creating a teacher evaluation system: More than 700 districts did. But as the smallest school in the state to write a system in line with the state’s requirements, Lavelle offers a unique look inside what teacher evaluation requires.
Even with just 37 teachers and fewer than 300 students, no unions to contend with, and practice assessing teacher quality that predated the state’s 2010 evaluation law, Lavelle’s top staff nevertheless worked nonstop for nearly a week to hammer out a plan that would pass muster with state education officials. And they are already planning to revisit their work this summer.
Hashing out an evaluation plan
Byalin said the school chose to meet the state’s Jan. 17 deadline, even though the deadline did not apply to charter schools, because of the prospect of federal support for its teacher training efforts. The state had awarded the school a $16,500 “Strengthening Teacher and Leader Effectiveness” grant from its federal Race to the Top funds, but made cashing the check contingent on having an approved evaluation plan in place.
As they began planning to design a system that followed the state’s rules, Lavelle administrators had a distinct advantage: Unlike most school districts, including New York City, the school had been evaluating teachers based on a variety of measures, including student performance, for years. Since it opened in 2009, Lavelle had been testing students and observing teachers in ways that would allow the school to meet the state’s requirements relatively easily. The school began tightening those practices earlier this year, when it joined a project led by the nonprofit CEI-PEA to help charter schools develop performance pay systems.
“This is just data in a different calculation,” Chris Zilinski, an eighth-grade teacher who has been at the school since shortly after it opened, said about the new evaluation system.
“What we tried to do is to keep [the state evaluation plan] as consistent as we could with what we’ve been doing, and refining and building on that,” Byalin said. Even so, he said, as the state’s deadline approached, the school had “probably three or four people working around the clock the last four or five days to get it done.”
For the 40 percent of evaluations that must be based on student performance, the school selected state-approved tests produced by private vendors to measure student growth in science, social studies, and high school academic subjects that do not have state exams. Physical education, art, and Spanish teachers will be graded according to the entire student body’s improvement on state math and reading tests.
Sixty percent of each teacher’s rating — the full amount allowed for measures other than student performance — will come from his or her score in an observation conducted according to the Danielson Framework, the same model the city plans to use whenever it does adopt new evaluations.
Like most districts across the state, Lavelle submitted a plan that would only cover one year — an arrangement that Mayor Bloomberg pilloried last month as a “sham” meant to dilute the power of an agreement. Bloomberg rejected a teacher evaluation deal for the city because of a two-year “sunset” that he said the city teachers union was demanding. “If the agreement sunset in two years, the whole thing would be a joke,” Bloomberg said at the time.
At Lavelle, administrators and teachers said they wrote the plan to apply only to this year because they expect the evaluation system will need to evolve as the school adds new grades each year and officials learn from each round of ratings.
“We will see and teachers will see which of the [assessments the school selected] seems fair and which seem to be completely distorting,” Byalin said. “The plan that we submit for next year will be informed by what happens this year.”
Of course, unlike the city Department of Education, administrators at Lavelle — whose teachers are not represented by a union — did not have to get teachers’ signoff before submitting an evaluation plan to the state. But Byalin said they worked to get teachers comfortable with the new system anyway. He cited both altruistic and pragmatic reasons.
“Part of the reason this feels safe here and doesn’t in some of the bigger [school] systems is that just like everything we do, it’s bottom up,” he said. “The advantage that we have is the ability to hear each person. While it’s a lot of work for us, it doesn’t have the same kind of cost that it does when you’re bringing together a huge bureaucracy.”
The evaluation system has already changed because of input from teachers, according to Zilinski, the eighth-grade teacher. Last year, the school used a set of nationally normed assessments called the Measures of Student Progress, but he said, “I don’t think our teachers were as happy with that as they could be.”
After looking at other assessments, teachers determined that tests produced by Scantron, which are also online and nationally normed, better reflected their goals for their students, Zilinski said. Now, the school is using Scantron assessments in all high school courses that do not have state Regents exams.
“It’s great to be able to say what assessments to base this on,” he said. “That’s a high level of teacher input.”
But Zilinski said he thought there was still room for Lavelle’s evaluation system to improve, for example by reflecting more than just what happens inside individual classrooms. Teachers run a variety of elective programs, such as mock trial, choral performance, and sports journalism, but excellence in those areas would not influence a teacher’s score under the school’s evaluation system.
“Right now my understanding is that the performance is based on numbers,” Zilinski said. “Those intangibles — I absolutely do believe they should factor in.”
Byalin, the charter school’s president, said future versions of the evaluation system are likely to grant credit for teacher leadership. (The state funding will let the school get help from Wagner College to figure out the best way to assess leadership.) He also said the school would likely add peer review to the subjective measures that influence teachers’ ratings and would carefully scrutinize the results to make sure that having many students with special needs does not put teachers at a disadvantage.
The biggest change on the horizon for the school isn’t about what goes into teacher ratings, but how they are used. As part of the latest cohort in CEI-PEA’s performance pay project, Lavelle will soon begin basing all raises are based on performance, rather than years of service. It’s a paradigm that Zilinski says all teachers buy in to before they join the staff.
“This is our culture, so what we’re doing in adopting [new teacher evaluations] is tweaking the method, not introducing new values,” Byalin said.
An early adopter among charter schools?
Whether other charter schools will follow Lavelle’s lead and submit teacher evaluation plans to the state is not clear. Like Lavelle, many other charter schools lack teachers unions, test students regularly, and aim to reward high-performing educators.
But the charter sector has so far resisted efforts by state education officials to get its schools to submit teacher evaluation plans. In December, charter school advocates urged school leaders not to fulfill a state request for teacher performance data.
That could change as the state makes more Race to the Top money available only to schools with teacher evaluation systems in place. Harvey Newman, co-director of CEI-PEA’s charter school performance pay project, said he has encouraged participating charter schools to use the state’s teacher evaluation requirements as a guide so that they can easily gain state approval when they want it.
“You’re going to have this requirement, whether it’s this year or next year or the next year,” Newman said he tells charter schools that are considering joining CEI-PEA’s Teacher Incentive Fund program. “Only now we’ll help you through the process.”
And more than money is at stake for charter schools to develop teacher evaluation systems that meets the state’s requirements, Byalin said.
“For charters to sit outside of this is going to become very, very difficult,” he said. “Part of the premise of charters is transparency and accountability. Either they’re going to have to do this system, or they’re going to have to come up with an alternative and justify why they are doing it that way.”