EDUCATION

New Haven, Connecticut Evaluation System Forces Out 34 Teachers

09/13/2011 11:16 am ET | Updated Nov 13, 2011

This piece comes to us courtesy of New Haven Independent.

New Haven, CT -- New Haven's new method of grading teachers spurred low performers to improve their game -- and led 34 others to leave the school district, officials announced Monday in the first test of a nationally watched component of the city's school reform drive.

School officials announced the news at a school board meeting Monday night, as New Haven enters its second full year of grading its teachers and principals based on how their students perform.

The took place without anyone getting fired, and with the district's relationship with its union intact.

Meanwhile, a national expert who helped craft New Haven's teacher evaluation system said the district appears to have succeeded where others have failed in several ways: Swift implementation; ratings that distinguish between teachers' levels of talent; removing tenured teachers; and cooperation with the teachers union. The early results set New Haven apart from rancor-ridden Washington, D.C., the other major city to undertake this new wave of teacher evaluation.

The new system graded 1,846 classroom teachers into five ratings, from 1 ("needs improvement") to 5 ("exemplary"). Teachers' scores came from classroom observations and goals they set for their kids, based largely on growth on student test scores.

The new system, brought about by a landmark 2009 teachers contract, makes it easier for the district to fire tenured teachers who aren't performing well. New Haven has gained national plaudits for leading a charge now taken up by many states to tie teacher evaluations to student performance. Observers have been watching to see if, after its first year of implementation, New Haven's much-touted system would prove more effective and less acrimonious than the one it's modeled on in Washington, D.C.

School officials emphasized Monday that the new system is not about just removing poor-performing teachers, but helping many of them improve -- two goals they said were met in the system's inaugural year.

Overall, 75 teachers were flagged as poor performers in November or in March. Of those, 39 percent rose out of the "needs improvement" category by the end of the year. Another 20 percent didn't improve their rating but got to keep their jobs. The final 41 percent resigned or retired in the face of termination.

A total of 16 tenured teachers (1.3 percent of the tenured force) and 18 non-tenured teachers (2.8 percent of the non-tenured force) left the district voluntarily because of poor performance on the evaluations, district officials said. Independent validators affirmed those teachers' ratings.

Three quarters of the city's teachers rated "effective" or better, meaning they got a score of 3, 4 or 5.

Click here for a presentation outlining the results.

As the threat of teacher firings loomed this fall, teachers union president Dave Cicarella waited to see if the grading system would be carried out fairly and whether it would affect tenured as well as non-tenured teachers.

On Monday Cicarella announced the process had gone "smoothly" on both counts.

"Teachers are much happier because everyone knows what's expected of them," Cicarella said.

The old grading system simply rated teachers as satisfactory or unsatisfactory, and how the system was used varied from school to school. Now teachers sit down with supervisors to set the terms for their own evaluations. They get more feedback on how they're doing.

Superintendent of Schools Reggie Mayo declared the new grading system "one of the best things that has happened in this school district." He said it provides support for those who need it and consequences for those who fail to improve.

Mayo called the system "a model for the nation," ensuring teachers "have the resources to excel" so their students can, too.

On the campaign trail last week, Mayor John DeStefano touted the evaluations as a successful component of his nascent school reform drive, which he is making the centerpiece of his campaign as he seeks a 10th two-year term in office. DeStefano, who serves on the school board and appoints its members, missed Monday's meeting on the eve of the most competitive Democratic mayoral primary in a decade.

36 RATE 'EXEMPLARY'

Teachers who got the lowest marks amounted to 3 percent of the workforce. The rest of the teachers were spread across the rankings: 8 percent of teachers rated "exemplary," 38 percent "strong," 28 percent "effective," and 9 percent "developing." Eleven percent of teachers weren't graded, either because of a transition in school leadership or because some itinerant teachers fell through the cracks, according to school reform czar Garth Harries.

The 36 teachers who ended the year with an "exemplary" rating will be offered the chance to become leaders of their own "professional learning communities," paid by a stipend to be funded by a private grant, Harries said.

School officials also released results from a parallel system for grading principals, which debuted last school year. Of the 44 principals who were graded, one person received the lowest mark and left the district. Fourteen percent were "developing," 39 percent "effective," 34 percent "strong" and 11 percent "exemplary."

School officials didn't name names, but said that four principals have left the district over the past two years based on poor performance. One of those was former Wexler/Grant Principal Kevin Muhammad, who faces criminal charges of making hundreds of lewd and threatening calls to women at the school. He was demoted then resigned from the district in May.

Assistant principals and central office staff were also graded; those results have not yet been compiled. The school board still hasn't finished drafting a new way of grading the superintendent along the same lines.

A survey of principals in May showed they were pleased with the new teacher grading system, especially with the chance to help teachers improve in the classroom by giving specific feedback.

1 JOB RESCUED, 2 LOST

Iline Tracey agreed. Tracey, who was recently promoted to the district's central office, ran the King/Robinson school for the past six years.

After Monday's meeting, Tracey gave an on-the-ground report of how the new system worked.

Principal Tracey sat on the panel of teachers, administrators and parents who came up with the evaluation system. She had a good grasp on the thick stack of new rubrics with which she'd be grading her teachers for the first time. The 52 teachers in her K-8 school were graded by Tracey or by an assistant principal.

Teachers sat down with a supervisor in the fall to agree on goals for the year. Those who teach subjects on standardized tests had to base one goal on the Connecticut Mastery Test. Supervisors then observed them in class to see how they were doing.

Last November, three teachers in Tracey's school were alerted that they were on the way to a "needs improvement" rating if they didn't shape up. The teachers, all of whom were tenured, got improvement plans and extra professional development.

Tracey shared one story of how one teacher seized a chance to learn. She said the teacher had a firm grasp of the curriculum. "The problem was classroom management."

The teacher's class was disorganized, Tracey said. Kids need established routines with clear rules to make the day flow smoothly: That's what the teacher's class was lacking. Tracey paired the teacher with a veteran teacher who ran a tight class. The struggling teacher took time to shadow the veteran. She also attended workshops and watched videos on classroom management.

Over the course of the year, the struggling teacher sat down with her supervisor for a status conference, where she discussed her progress along her goals. (Click here for a glimpse inside a similar conference at a West Rock school.)

Like all other teachers flagged as "need[ing] improvement," the teacher got a series of visits from an outside validator from ACES (Area Cooperative Educational Services) to see if that initial rating checked out. Districtwide, validators agreed with school administrators in 87 percent of the "needs improvement" ratings and 80 percent of cases where teachers had been flagged as "exemplary."

By the end of the year, Tracey said, the hard work, extra training and feedback had paid off. When she visited the classroom again, she saw "there were clearly defined rules in place," rules that students themselves had helped to set. And the rules were being enforced.

Based on that improvement, the teacher moved up from a "1" to a "2" on the rating scale, saving her job, Tracey said.

The other two teachers at King/Robinson who had been flagged as "1"s, however, did not show significant improvement. Those two teachers -- one of whom had been teaching for over 10 years -- remained at the bottom ranking at the end of the year. Facing termination, they decided to leave the district of their own accord, Tracey said.

Tracey said in all her years as a principal, she never fired a tenured teacher for poor performance. The only teachers she let go were non-tenured, in their first two years on the job.

Cicarella, the union president, said he welcomes the change: Now tenured teachers are treated the same as their non-tenured counterparts.

The teachers who left King-Robinson couldn't be reached for this story; the district did not release any names of terminated teachers or the schools where they worked.

Tracey called her experience with the new grading system "very positive."

"I'm not looking at it as punitive," she said.

"This is not a game of attacking teachers," school reform czar Harries said later that evening.

He shared one sign that departures were peaceful: Of the 34 low-performing teachers who left the district, all of them had the right to request a termination hearing if they felt they were being wronged. None did.

'BENEFIT OF THE DOUBT'

Harries said the district also made an effort to give low-ranking teachers the "benefit of the doubt" in some "marginal cases."

Harries said seven tenured and eight non-tenured teachers fell into this category. They rated as "needs improvement" but were not threatened with termination. The biggest reason they weren't fired was that they didn't get the support they needed to improve, according to Cicarella. The district agreed to let those teachers keep their jobs -- with the understanding that they'll need to shape up next year.

Here are the raw numbers: 75 teachers received a "needs improvement" ranking in November or March. Of those, 29 boosted their rating enough to keep their jobs: 17 improved one step to "developing," nine improved two steps to "effective" and three jumped three levels to be "strong" teachers by the end of the year.

Another eight left the district before the process was finalized. That leaves 38 who ended the year with a "needs improvement rank," meaning they risked termination.

Another three teachers joined that group when they slipped in ratings and ended the year with a new "needs improvement" rank, which would set off a process in the fall of observations and improvement plans.

Of this group of 49 non-improving teachers, 16 tenured and 18 non-tenured teachers resigned or retired. The remaining 15 were allowed to keep their jobs -- a number that will likely decrease next year, as the district moves into the second year of its grading system.

Superintendent Mayo said he expects more 1s and 5s next year, as principals become more comfortable with the new format. Last year, principals at some schools shied away from rating teachers in those categories.

The city's second-largest high school, for example, didn't grade anyone a "1" because Hillhouse High Principal Kermit Carolina was new to the job and to the grading system.

As the system is more fully implemented, Mayo said he remains concerned about whether administrators have the capacity to handle the volume of paperwork, conferences and classroom observations that is due to follow.

'IS THIS FOR REAL?'

Education watchdog Alex Johnston, who was brought onto the school board as an outside reformer, said he has heard a lot of talk about New Haven's teacher evaluation system. The system earned a glowing editorial from the New York Times in May 2010 and drew interest from President Obama's secretary of education, who invited New Haven's school and union officials to D.C. to share how the new system works.

"People have asked me, 'Is this for real?'" Johnston said Monday.

"Yes," came his answer Monday. "I think there are very few places in the country that have had these kind of results."

He said the conversations that take place about instruction are valuable, and students in classrooms should feel the impact of even 34 poor-performing teachers being replaced with more effective teachers.

"This is a big deal," Johnston said. "I am very optimistic" that the process is going to have "a good impact."

Timothy Daly, president of The New Teacher Project, which was hired by the city to help craft the evaluation system, gave several reasons Monday why early signs point to a good start. DeStefano raised private money to hire Daly's New York-based group, which was founded by Michelle Rhee before she left to make national waves as the school chancellor in Washington, D.C.

Daly downplayed TNTP's role in the process -- he said his group administered a couple of surveys of New Haven teachers and administrators and served as a resource, offering New Haven decision-makers options as they crafted their new grading system. The group brought to the table a national perspective, including research on some systemic flaws in teacher evaluations. TNTP's contract has ended and the group had no role in implementing the new system.

When he learned New Haven's results Monday, Daly said they stand out in several ways.

One problem with teacher evaluations is that they serve only to "separate incompetence from the rest," Daly said, but not to "distinguish levels of performance." That was one finding of a study TNTP performed of 12 districts across four states called the Widget Effect: Our National Failure To Acknowledge and Act on Differences in Teacher Effectiveness.

Daly said by contrast, New Haven's teacher and principal evaluation results appear to reflect the nature of the workforce -- which is that there are people of all different talent levels.

The fact that New Haven has removed tenured teachers is also exceptional, Daly said. TNTP's research has shown "it's extremely uncommon for a tenured teacher to get a negative rating, let alone be dismissed."

Washington, D.C., became the first district in the nation to roll out a teacher evaluation program based on student growth two years ago. It was one of Rhee's most controversial moves as chancellor, prompting concerns that teachers would be fired unfairly and that focusing so much on test scores would encourage cheating. Since Rhee left the district has relaxed the rules under which teachers can get fired. That district now faces a federal probe into allegations of cheating on tests during Rhee's tenure.

After D.C., New Haven was one of the first districts nationwide to design a teacher evaluation system based on student performance; since then President Obama has spurred states to take up this issue through his Race To The Top initiative.

New Haven is "further along than any other district" except D.C. in implementing such a system, Daly said.

So far, New Haven has seen nothing like the public acrimony that erupted around Rhee's reforms. Monday's meeting was quiet, with only a few members of the public present.

Daly said it's a positive sign that no New Haven teachers challenged the results of their ratings. He said it appears that the union and district continue to collaborate well.

He also credited New Haven for quick implementation: The system was designed in just one year, and launched it "not as a pilot, but with stakes attached."

"They're a great example of how you can design a system that fits your needs and get it implemented in a short timeline," Daly said.

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