Twenty-nine teachers may lose their jobs at the end of the school year as the district’s new teacher evaluation system moves to a new phase: Pushing out not just lowest-performing teachers, but those who failed to improve to “effective” over three years.
The 29 teachers who face possible removal include 18 who were rated “needs improvement,” a 1 on a 5-point scale. The group also includes 11 teachers in a new category: those who failed to score above a 2 (“developing”) for three years in a row and were deemed “not on track” to improve.
Non-tenured teachers are set to find out in meetings with supervisors as soon as next week if they face possible termination for poor performance. The early “non-renewal” warning is required by state law before May 1; however, the district gives teachers until the end of the school year to show enough improvement to keep their jobs.
The tense conversations come as a new phase begins for the city’s nascent teacher evaluation program, which in 2010 became one of the first in the nation to grade teachers based in part on student performance, including test scores.
“We are no longer talking about separating from those who are egregiously bad, but those who are not on track to be ‘effective,’” said Garth Harries, the assistant superintendent in charge of reform. “We are trying to say, ‘Our kids deserve a very effective teacher.’”
“Not every basketball player can be All-American, but if you’re on the team, you have to have a certain level of competency,” said teachers union President Dave Cicarella.
Cicarella said the school system is being “fairly judicious” about which teachers it has flagged for possible termination. Scores with consequences are validated by outside auditors.
Principals and assistant principals also face a new grading system that mirrors the one for teachers. Their scores don’t get validated, so principals don’t have the same early notification process, Harries said. But “we’ve been aggressive about the evaluations of developing administrators from the start. Several of our separated administrators from prior years fell into that category, and that pattern is likely to repeat.”
The new evaluation system grades teachers on a five-point scale based on three categories: student performance, based on teacher-set goals that include test scores; and professional values and instructional practice, based on classroom observations. The new system aims to help teachers improve through formal goal-setting, more classroom observations, mandatory sit-downs with supervisors to discuss the teaching craft, and added training for teachers who struggle. It also makes it far easier to fire tenured teachers when they fail to show improvement.
The ratings carry the following descriptions: 1 for “needs improvement,” 2 for “developing, 3 for “effective,” 4 for “strong” and 5 for “exemplary.”
Unlike many other states and school districts adopting their own versions of reform, New Haven doesn’t use algorithms to crunch demographic data and test scores to determine the “value” teachers add to their kids. Instead, teachers set their own goals for student learning based only partly on standardized tests. The system is seen as softer than the “value-added” teacher evaluation models taking hold in cities like Los Angeles, Washington, D.C. and New York. New Haven has earned praise for pushing out tenured teachers for poor performance; helping others improve; and doing so in a manner that union leadership considers reasonable and fair.
So far, consequences have kicked in for only the lowest-performing 2 percent of the workforce. The new system warns returning teachers in November if they are on track to score a 1, gives them support, then calls for them to be fired at the end of the year if they fail to show improvement. In the first two years, 62 teachers, 33 of them tenured, lost their jobs through that process. Many others improved enough to stay employed.
“You Can’t Stay At ‘Developing’ Forever”
Now, in the third year of the evaluation system, new consequences are set to kick in for teachers who are rated a 2, or “developing.” The new grading system requires teachers to improve to the “effective” rating, a 3 on the scale, within three years. Teachers who do not score above a 2 for three years in a row face possible removal.
Here’s how the process works: Every November, returning teachers get early notification if they appear on track to get a high or low scores on the evaluations, based on past performance and classroom observation. For the past three years, the district has issued notifications in November to teachers in the 1 or 5 category. The early notification kicks off an outside validation process and enables the district to impose consequences after only one year. Last November, 18 teachers were a pre-rated as 1s; another 47 got pre-rated as 5s.
Last November, the district also sent notifications to some “developing” teachers. Those teachers had been teaching in New Haven since 2010, had not scored above a 2, and appeared to be still “developing” (a 2 rating) this school year. At mandatory mid-year conferences, supervisors decided whether these “developing” teachers were en route to move up to “effective” by the end of the year. Teachers who showed progress were listed as “on track,” meaning they will hang on to their jobs.
A total of 11 “developing” teachers, eight of them tenured, were placed in a new category called “not on track to be effective,” according to the school district. That means they face possible termination at the end of the year.
If a teacher is rated “developing,” explained union chief Cicarella, it means “you’re not terrible. It’s not like kids are lighting the trashcan on fire.” But “there’s clearly some gaps that have to be addressed. Kids are still learning—it’s just not where teachers need to be.”
In the new system, “you can’t stay at ‘developing’ forever,” Cicarella said.
The goal of the grading system is to ensure that all teachers are “effective.” Though it’s the middle of the five-point scale, it doesn’t mean average, Cicarella said—it denotes a level of competency. “If you’re going to be in the classroom teaching kids, there’s a level of competency you have to have.”
Cicarella said he is pleased with the way the district has handled the new system.
“It’s not usually popular for a union president to say this, but I really think there has been a good effort to be judicious on this,” he said.
Instead of automatically moving to terminate everyone who doesn’t score above a 2 over three years—a process that might lead to grade inflation—the school system is handling each teacher’s case on an individual basis.
Cicarella said the union has made sure principals and assistant principals follow the prescribed process for evaluating teachers. For example, in a handful of cases, the supervisors have failed to sit down with teachers for goal-setting at the beginning of the year. In other cases, supervisors have skipped the required thrice-a-year conferences where they are supposed to check in on teachers’ progress and discuss how to help them improve. In cases where supervisors don’t hold up their end of the bargain, teachers do not get punished, Cicarella said.
Cicarella has pushed the district to hold principals to similar consequences. Principals and assistant principals also get graded based in part on student performance, as well as on how effectively they use the teacher evaluation system to help their staff improve. So far, at least five principals have been pushed out due to poor performance.
So far, no tenured teachers have fought their removal; all agreed to go quietly without filing a labor grievance, according to union and district officials.
Following a national trend towards merit pay, teachers now stand to be rewarded for the first time for high performance on job evaluations: 47 teachers were flagged in November as potential “exemplary”; if a validator confirms that rating at the end of the year, some may be promoted this summer to a master teacher role with additional responsibilities and pay. The promotions are part of a $53 million plan to further develop the way New Haven grades, rewards and recognizes educators. The grant came from the federal government. The application calls for $5,000 bonuses for master teachers and principals; a panel of labor and management is working out the details.
So far, the biggest complaint about the evaluation system is inconsistency of implementation: Depending on who’s doing the grading, and the goals each teacher sets, a teacher may end up with a very different score.
Fired Teacher: Eval “Unfair”
One new teacher who was fired after just one year in the school district called her evaluation “very unfair.”
The teacher, whose first name is Cherylyn, joined Hill Regional Career High School as a science teacher in the fall of 2011 after teaching for one year in Milford. As a first-year teacher New Haven schools, she did not have tenure. She maintained she was not alerted of concerns about her performance until March, when the district issued her a non-renewal notice. Citing concerns about classroom management, her assistant principal put her on an improvement plan for the final three months of school.
“There was information that I disputed that was intended to qualify my performance as very poor,” she said. She said she performed all that was asked of her in her improvement plan. She said she met the student learning goals she set at the beginning of the year in conjunction with her assistant principal, only to be told, “in the 11th hour, suddenly my goals weren’t good.” She was let go at the end of the year. As a non-tenured teacher, she did not have recourse to appeal the decision.
“The process is intended to be used wisely and fairly, but like any process, it can be manipulated,” she said. “I don’t feel like the process was any benefit to me.” She said she has since landed a job in another school district.
Asked about the scenario, Harries later said that unlike returning teachers, first-year teachers don’t get early notification in November of poor performance that may lead to termination. “We don’t want to send a discouraging sign too early,” he said. “We didn’t want, two months into their tenure, to say, ‘We’re going to fire you.’”
Supervisors wait until mid-year conferences to identify first-year teachers in the “needs improvement” category, Harries said.
Harries said in reviewing a case for possible termination, the district examines not just whether a teacher meets her student learning goals, but whether those goals were “appropriate.” In some cases, teachers were given reprieve from goals that were set too high; in others cases, the goals were set too low, he said.
Harries said simply completing the steps laid out in an improvement plan is not enough for a teacher to keep his or her job. “That’s a common misunderstanding.” If a teacher sits through a training session, but does not bring those skills back to the classroom, he said, that “is not sufficient for us [or] for our kids.”
“The steps are designed to help people be better teachers,” Harries said.
“At the end of the day, our obligation is to try and support,” Harries said, “but it’s the teacher’s obligation to improve and be a good teacher.”