The Evaluation: Episode Two

Melissa Bailey Photo “This is meant to be a dialogue,” said Principal Karen Lott. She pushed aside a heavy jar of Jolly Ranchers so she could sit face to face with her evaluee, a teacher in her 20s starting her career at ground zero for New Haven’s school reform drive.

This isn’t meant to be a monologue from the principal, but a conversation between two people, Lott said.

The teacher, sitting up straight in her chair, answered with a quick, cheery “OK.”

The teacher had a lot of stake in the meeting. So does her experimental school. And so do teachers throughout New Haven at a key juncture in a new approach to evaluating how they do their jobs—and deciding who gets to keep their jobs.

The meeting—the second such “episode” of the year for teachers involved in a new evaluation process—took place in the principal’s office at the Brennan/Rogers School at 200 Wilmot Rd., a 1950s brick building at the base of the West Rock projects that’s home to the city’s first in-house “turnaround” school.

The encounter was one of a flurry of evaluations that took place Thursday, the deadline for the next step in New Haven’s new teacher evaluation process. As a key part of a reform drive that focuses on accountability and test scores, teachers are now being graded according to their students’ performance—and face losing their jobs if they don’t meet their goals by the end of the year.

According to the new method, laid out by a landmark teachers contract, all 1,600 teachers in the public school district will be scored in June on a scale of 1 to 5, 1 for “needs improvement” and 5 for “exemplary.” Teachers were “pre-rated” in the fall; those who appeared to be on either end of the spectrum were alerted of their status.

District-wide, 40 teachers were pre-graded in November as “exemplary” and 62 as “needs improvement.”

Thursday was the deadline for principals to wrap up mid-year conferences, where all teachers check in on their progress since the fall.

Lott, the 45-year-old principal, held four meetings at Brennan/Rogers Thursday for that purpose. As the principal of a turnaround school, she sat in a rare position—she was evaluating teachers whom she had personally chosen to work at the school. When the failing school got tapped as a “turnaround” last year, Lott got unprecedented power to hire and fire as she chose and make new rules.

The woman who sat before her Thursday morning was one of 29 new teachers who joined the school in the fall, many of them energetic candidates at the beginning of their teaching careers. Twelve more teachers were returnees who stayed on for a new challenge.

The staff faced their first step of the evaluation just two months into the school year. At that time, teachers had their hands full with students “testing” the new authorities in their classrooms.

Lott and Assistant Principal Jen Olson marked seven teachers as tentative “needs improvement” and none as “exemplary.”

The teacher who sat down in Lott’s office Thursday morning was one of those in the “needs improvement” category. She walked in clutching a folder containing student scores and a self-evaluation.

Wearing a gray suit and holding a purple pen, Lott offered her a seat. She opened the meeting with a warm tone, using “we” and “let’s” instead of the accusatory “you.”

Tenacity & Tests

This was their second meeting of this type. In September and October, all teachers held goal-setting sessions with their principals or appointed instructional managers. In advance of the mid-year conference, teachers filled out a self-evaluation judging how well they did. (Read a blank form here.)

The teacher’s first two goals concern student improvement, which is supposed to be based on test scores, or in the case of an art or gym teacher, other academic targets.

Goal 1: Increase student scores on the “reflection and interpretation” part of the Developmental Reading Assessment (DRA) from 36 percent accurate to 61 percent by January.

Progress: “It didn’t work out as well as we had hoped,” the teacher told Lott. Her students showed 10 percent growth by that measure.

The teacher said her students did show progress in other types of reading, and that wasn’t reflected by the narrow measurement.

“We were a little confused with all the data,” she confessed.

Goal 2: Move students’ average math score on the DCMT (a district version of the Connecticut Mastery Test, or CMT) from 42 to 62 percent by June.

Progress: As of December, students were well on their way, with 56 percent correct.

Lott said that goal was probably too low.

The teacher agreed.

“They love math,” she said. Watching them take the CMT—the high-pressure, official state test—“I was so proud of them. They were working so hard at the math,” she said.

Lott asked her to set a third goal—this one focusing on reading, but using the more objective measurement of the CMT.

The next category on the evaluation looks beyond test scores. Teachers had to designate an “area of professional focus.”

This teacher chose “classroom management.” By that she meant adopting better strategies so kids don’t interrupt the lesson. There were “big behavioral problems at the beginning of the year,” she said; she learned a ton from the experience.

“I could’ve written a book about the first couple of months,” she said.

Thursday, seven months into the school year, she was pleased to report a change.

“Do you have more energy focused on instruction versus discipline?” Lott asked.

Yes, came the reply. “It’s been a long haul for some of them,” but “we’re getting a lot more work done.”

Lott asked her what made the difference.

The teacher said she got a lot of support—from literacy and math coaches and other teachers in the school. “Just being able to talk to other people. Not being afraid to ask for help.”

With a newly extended school day, which stretches from 8:20 to 4:15 p.m., teachers now get at least six hours of professional development each week. That’s about an hour each day with their grade-level partners and two hours every Wednesday with outside consultants.

Lott commended her for making good use of all the resources, and sticking it out through a tough year.

“It’s been the tenacity of your spirit that has really pulled you through,” she said. “I know you had some tough, really shaky, uncertain days, but it was that openness” that made the difference. “You would come in and ask for help.”

“Maintain that openness and ask the questions,” Lott urged. She advised her to make use of an upcoming literacy training on an initiative called Plugged In.

“Oh, I’m ready,” the teacher said. “I have my list of questions.”


They moved on to Sections 3 and 4, quality of instruction and professional values.

A series of classroom observations determines these scores. All teachers district-wide are supposed to get observed twice throughout the year. Teachers who are flagged as potentially “needing improvement” get three observations, conducted by a principal or instructional manager along with a third-party validator from Area Cooperative Educational Services. Teachers grade themselves in a number of categories and principals weigh in with their own thoughts. Principals are being graded in June through a similar process—click here for a Power-Point explaining the process.

Lott gave three pieces of advice.

One: Make sure your goal for a lesson is clearly defined, so the kids know what it is, and a way to measure whether they’ve grasped the concept.

Two: “Challenge students. It is the right time to challenge them”

“I agree,” shot back the teacher. “Definitely.” She said she was nervous at the beginning of the year, when her kids scored low on basic literacy.

“I have to tell myself that they can do it, and they can.”

Three: Start sharing lesson plans with mentors. And when you start talking about something that might be unfamiliar, like a canoe, make sure to give the students the background first on what a canoe is.

“I learned that quickly,” replied the teacher. “I’ve got a notebook ready” of pointers for next year.

On the self-grading rubric, Lott said the teacher was too hard on herself in some areas, such as her ability to reflect on interactions in the classroom.

“I would rate you higher,” Lott told her.

“Well, thanks,” the teacher replied.

Lott seemed surprised that the hardworking teacher, who spends nights and weekends prepping for lessons, would also give herself low marks on having “high expectations.”

“I just need a little more confidence,” the teacher explained. “There was a point when I was feeling like I couldn’t do it. I just need to push myself and know that I can.”

That last statement gained the principal’s endorsement.

“You can be not just a good teacher, but a great teacher,” Lott said.

On The Move

Then Lott shared a welcome conclusion.

“You’re moving,” Lott told her—up from a potential “1” to a “2” or a “3.”

The other grades stand for “developing” and “effective.” If she moves into either category by June, the teacher will hold onto her job next year. Those who are flagged as potential 1s in November and remain there when official scores come out in June may be fired—whether they’re tenured or not.

The teacher asked about the remaining three months of the school year.

“I have one more observation, and that’s like a surprise?”

Yes, Lott explained. An auditor from the regional education organization ACES will pop by unannounced for another classroom observation. The point is to “see if there’s a difference when you know somebody is coming.”

“Fair enough,” said the teacher.

The observations “probably will start to happen very soon,” Lott advised.

Lott said she didn’t expect the teacher to be caught off guard: “When I come into your classroom, it’s obvious that you have planned.”

“All your kids had perfect attendance through the CMT,” Lott added, which is a sign that the teacher can set expectations and motivate her kids to meet them.

When the scores come out in June, Lott predicted, “I think that will definitely show.”

“Sounds good,” said the teacher.

Lott later said that most of the other teachers who were flagged as “needs improvement” are moving out of that category, too.

Two of them, however, got alerted this week that they may lose their jobs at the end of the year. Lott said that’s because she’s contractually obligated to let non-tenured teachers know by April 1 if they’re at risk of non-renewal; it doesn’t mean they’ll necessarily be fired. She said she sat down with those teachers and a union representative and agreed on goals for the end of the year. If they don’t meet the goals, they won’t be asked back.

Those two teachers were identified as potential “1s” and have not lifted out of that category, Lott said. “I’m really confident that one” will pull through by the end of the year, and “I’m rooting for the other.”

District-wide, 25 non-tenured teachers were given non-renewal notices prior to the deadline, according to the latest personnel report. That’s an average number compared to other years before the new teacher evaluation process, said teacher union President Dave Cicarella. By state law, teachers don’t get tenure until they have four years on the job; they can be terminated anytime before that.

Last In, First Out

The teacher in the principal’s office Thursday didn’t get one of those non-renewal notices. But she did have uncertainty about the year ahead. Before she left, she asked one more question.

“When will I know if I’m coming back next year?”

Lott said that unfortunately, she doesn’t have an answer yet.

“There’s a piece of it that’s an unknown,” Lott said.

The school district is facing a $14.5 million deficit for next year, and plans to make about 70 layoffs before next school year, including an unspecified number of teachers, Mayor John DeStefano said this week.

Lott said she has asked Superintendent Reggie Mayo to spare her school from layoffs next year. As a turnaround school, she has a lot of new teachers who are first in line for layoffs. But she’s also been working hard to cultivate a new school culture and a united staff.

“If there are layoffs, it would hit me particularly hard,” she told Mayo. When she hired her crew of teachers in the fall, Lott asked for a two-year commitment. She said she hopes she’ll be able to uphold that on her end. Otherwise, she’ll have to start from scratch with new staff in the fall. She said the superintendent told her he’d be sensitive to her situation, but that there is no guarantee.

The question touched on a national debate about “LIFO” or Last In, First Out—the process by which the newest teachers get hit first by layoffs. Some advocates, notably city school board member Alex Johnston, have been pushing to change that policy statewide; Mayor DeStefano has said he expects new teacher evaluations to solve that problem for New Haven, because it creates a way to eliminate teachers based on the quality of their teaching, not just on how many years they’ve been in the system.

Whether teachers are saved from the budget axe will depend on a number of factors: how many teachers retire; whether the governor goes to State Budget Plan B; whether the district can get outside funding; and how many teachers are terminated through the new teacher evaluation process.

Lott told her new teacher that she won’t have to worry about that last possibility, because she has improved so much since her first evaluation in the fall.

Aside from the layoffs, she said, “I’m anticipating that you’ll come back next year.”


Past stories on the Brennan/Rogers School:

• Turnaround Task: Fight Fatigue
Turnaround School Prepares For 1st Test
Parents Prepare To Help “Govern” 4 Schools
At Turnaround School, A Reading Push
In Garden, Teachers Tackle Special Ed Challenge
Brennan/Rogers Earns Magnet Status
No Naps For These Kids
Turnaround Team Sets To Work
Two Failing Schools Aim High
West Rock Kids Reap Two-Wheeled Rewards
Brennan/Rogers Prepares For Turnaround

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posted by: Annabelle on April 1, 2011  12:34pm

Please take a look at where we motivate students to meet standards through quizzes that teach and instructional questions that make students culturally sophisticated and able to think critically. This system, which will be a friendly bridge to the Common Core State Standards, is an adaptation of a system working very well in CT with 17,000 students playing. There are live scoreboards that rank kids by how hard they are working. That CT site is located here: I am a teacher who suffers with test anxiety and yet knows that we need to know “where kids are” in some objective way. This is my attempt to be part of the solution :)

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on April 1, 2011  3:58pm

Read Diane Ravitch on what she says about teacher Evaluation.

Ravitch: Why teachers should never be rated by test scores
By Valerie Strauss
This was written by education historian Diane Ravitch on her Bridging Differences blog, which she co-authors with Deborah Meier on the Education Week website.

Ravitch and Meier exchange letters about what matters most in education. Ravitch, a research professor at New York University, is the author of the bestselling “The Death and Life of the Great American School System,” an important critique of the flaws in the modern school reform movement.

Dear Deborah,
You asked what keeps me running, which I assume means how I find the energy to stay on the road week after week, speaking to teachers, parents, school board members, and concerned citizens. These days, I am running because of an inner rage at the attacks on teachers and public education. I see one of our most important public institutions under siege by people who want to privatize it, turn it into profit centers, and treat children as data points on a chart. This is wrong, and it will end badly. Critics say I defend the status quo, but nothing could be further from the truth. The status quo is awful, but the demonizing of teachers and the vilification of public education are even worse.

Last week, I was in Los Angeles. I spoke to L.A. teachers, who were shamed by the Los Angeles Times’ disgraceful release of test-score data and ratings of 6,000 elementary teachers as more or less effective. I had previously believed that such ratings (value-added assessment) might be used cautiously by supervisors as one of multiple measures to evaluate teacher performance.

The L.A. Times persuaded me that the numerical scores—with all their caveats and flaws—would drown out every other measure. And, in fact, the L.A. Times database contained only one measure, based on test scores.

And so I concluded that value-added assessment should not be used at all. Never. It has a wide margin of error. It is unstable. A teacher who is highly effective one year may get a different rating the next year depending on which students are assigned to his or her class. Ratings may differ if the tests differ. To the extent it is used, it will narrow the curriculum and promote teaching to tests. Teachers will be mislabeled and stigmatized. Many factors that influence student scores will not be counted at all.

The latest review of value-added assessment was written by New York University economist Sean Corcoran. He examines value-added assessment in Houston and New York City. He describes a margin of error so large that a teacher at the 43rd percentile (average) might actually be at the 15th percentile (below average) or the 71st percentile (above average). What is the value of such a measure? Why should it be used at all? Please read this important and well-written study.

While I was in Los Angeles, a teacher committed suicide. Rigoberto Ruelas, 39, had taught 5th graders for 14 years. He was known as unusually dedicated and caring; he worked in a gang-ridden, impoverished neighborhood. Most students in his school were English-language learners. Friends and family said he was depressed by the poor rating he received in the L.A. Times. No one will ever know what caused him to despair and take his own life. Colleagues and former students wrote beautiful tributes to him. They thought he was a wonderful teacher.

It’s worth noting, however, that Los Angeles Deputy Schools Superintendent John Deasy said that Mr. Ruelas had a “great performance review” from his supervisors, but Mr. Deasy couldn’t release the personnel records because they are confidential. So only the test scores were released to the media, not the laudatory reviews by professionals who observed his work.

Now I hear that more districts, prodded on by U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Race to the Top principles, want to release value-added rankings. More teachers will learn that they are sub-par or superior when judged by flawed, dubious, inaccurate measures.

How many other ways can we discover to ruin teachers’ reputations and encourage teachers to abandon their profession? Why isn’t there a public outcry that such tactics undermine professionalism and the quality of education? When will we learn that we have turned education into a numbers racket, and we may lose the best teachers along with the worst?

posted by: yz on April 3, 2011  11:53am

Nevertheless, the scores and graduation statistics of New Haven’s schools are unacceptable. threefifths, I see no reason why these ratings should be publicized. And it is true that teachers may vary in performance from year to year as their students change. But one way around this is not to analyze a teacher from a single year’s performance, but to gauge it over two or three years. It is necessary in order to increase the pressure to perform well.

Additionally, the idea that privatization is somehow inherently evil is flawed. The goal behind privatization and school choice is to enable parents to choose the best schools for their children while making existing schools compete with each other performance-wise.

posted by: The Law on April 3, 2011  5:25pm

State Competitive Foods Regulations Section 10-215b-1 of the Regulations of Connecticut State Agencies prohibits schools from selling or dispensing candy (including breath mints and sugarless candy) to students anywhere on school premises from 30 minutes before the start of any state or federally subsidized milk or meal program (National School Lunch Program, School Breakfast Program, After-School Snack Program and Special Milk Program) until 30 minutes after the end of the program. Section 10-215b-23 specifies that the income from the sale of any foods or beverages sold or distributed anywhere on school premises during this same time frame must accrue to the food service account. For more information, see Competitive Foods in Schools at

posted by: Somewhere in CT (maybe New Haven, maybe not) on April 3, 2011  5:32pm

FILO (First in, last out) isn’t about protecting bad teachers…it is about protecting good ones who shake the boat.

I wasn’t impressed with the TEVAL system of “conversation”. I didn’t get to talk about instruction and what is really going on in my classroom. Really disappointing.

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on April 3, 2011  5:39pm

posted by: yz on April 3, 2011 11:53am
Nevertheless, the scores and graduation statistics of New Haven’s schools are unacceptable. threefifths, I see no reason why these ratings should be publicized. And it is true that teachers may vary in performance from year to year as their students change. But one way around this is not to analyze a teacher from a single year’s performance, but to gauge it over two or three years. It is necessary in order to increase the pressure to perform well.

The reason why they are unacceptable are parents at these failing schools are not steping up to the plate for there children at these schools.Also all of New haven schools are not failing.But I bet you this.That were this schools are failing,Other services are failing like Health,Jobs and Crime.You can.t blame the teachers if a child doesn’t turn there work in,I know teachers who have report cards that parents have never pick up from last year.First line of education is the home.The real problem is the the parents of the students are young themselves.

Additionally, the idea that privatization is somehow inherently evil is flawed. The goal behind privatization and school choice is to enable parents to choose the best schools for their children while making existing schools compete with each other performance-wise.

The problem with privatization is that will most likely widen the education gap. Currently, the education gap is most visible between urban and rural areas, in terms of quality and access to schools. The urban poor can still attend public schools and get an education.Also a gap will develop between the rich and the rest.Bottom line the gold of school privatization is to line the corporate vampires portfolio. If you don’t think so check this out.

The Faces of School Reform
By John Tarleton

posted by: teachergal on April 3, 2011  6:26pm

Three/fifths makes some good points. Diane Ravitch and Deborah Meier are wonderful in their reflections on public education. 

Regarding teacher evaluation, I believe teacher evaluation is important if we are going to retain good teachers and promote excellence in education. But, it should include multiple sources of data; classroom management, classroom environment, portfolio assessment strategies, test scores (minimal due inequities in student populations), teacher attendance, involvement in school committees, parent communications….all of these together should be used to evaluate teachers.

Teachers are now being evaluated on 2 goals which they select. I do not see anything else on the TEVAL that relates to other areas of participation.  We need to break away from using test data as the only assessment to evaluate good teachers. There is so much more to good teaching than shown by numbers.

Lastly, how can you compare a teacher who teaches at Hooker to a teacher who teaches at Hill Central.  It seems the Hooker teacher has some definite advantages. Student population, like it or not, does matter in this game of numbers. It just doesn’t seem fair to me.

I hope that NHPS continues to work on fine tuning the TEVAL so as not to drive away the good teachers who teach at the more challenging schools. New Haven has great teachers with a difficult job to do. They need support not pressure, appropriate professional development opportunities, good leadership and a positive school climate to work in.

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on April 3, 2011  6:36pm

I wonder how many years did Principal Karen Lott spend in the classroom with students as a teacher.

posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on April 4, 2011  9:30am

I agree with much of what 3/5s and teachergal have said. Privatization, in this instance, will not have the desired outcome that its proponents think it will. School choice is a nice theoretical idea, but just because people have the best intentions, doesn’t necessarily mean they will have the best results.
I would support a re-writing of public school employee contracts that got rid of some of the ridiculous provisions that currently exist and make it difficult to fire bad teachers and administrators, and rework how tenure is acquired. However, I would be very wary of correlating poor classroom results with bad teaching, a much more sophisticated method of evaluating performance needs to be developed before we start unfairly bashing schools and bashing teachers.

Reform should be focused on ensuring that funding is allocated equitably amongst all public schools and that as much funding as possible is being spent on the students rather than the buildings and the administration. It should also focus on making sure that teachers who are hired are qualified and competent at teaching. These initiatives alone, however, will do very little to address the actual education gap, which will need to be addressed by reorganizing our communities to be much more complete and include much larger cross sections of the general population. Neighborhood segregation is a serious problem that is being ignored with the “school choice” movement. Neighborhoods should have a mix of professionals, workers, children, elderly, etc. By reforming the zoning ordinances, the tax structure, municipal boundaries, and development subsidies we could make enormous gains the structure of our communities and the ability for everyone to have opportunities to succeed and access their daily needs.

posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on April 4, 2011  10:00am

Although I should say that I do think well designed buildings are extremely important, not only for the confidence and pride of the students, but for the symbolic message that it sends to visitors and the general public about our commitment to public education. What I am against is the wasting of resources on poorly designed buildings that were inadequately planned and will look dated in just a few years. While the efforts of Destefano to secure funding to rebuilt schools was laudable, the execution of the project was pretty disastrous. The partially State-funded school reconstruction project should have focused on re-localizing schools around neighborhoods and providing a selection of high schools with varying curricula concentrations. However, unlike many critics of the project, I’m less disappointed at the miscalculations of student population than I am at the designs and sizes of the buildings themselves, as well as the arbitrary layout of the district. One argument for over building schools would be that the project is assumed to draw in more students and residents from suburbs. While that has yet to happen, it is also not entirely out of the question.
For examples of excellent, simple and dignified school designs that are not very expensive we don’t have to look further than the city.
Here is the old Hillhouse High School from 1870:
Here is Hillhouse again after it moved to York Square (now Tower Parkway and Stiles College):
Commercial High at York Square (now Wilbur Cross):

posted by: LOL on April 4, 2011  3:47pm

New Haven Public Schools has a healthy foods initiative that prohibits students from bringing candy to and eating candy in school.  In fact, my principal instructs teachers to confiscate candy possessed by students on Halloween and Valentine’s, and teachers cannot use candy as an incentive for students.

So why is there candy on this principal’s desk?  Shouldn’t school leaders lead by example?  Or is this just the latest example of the “do as I say, not as I do” attitude that’s all too prevalant in NHPS??!!

PS - Tom Burns, your comments under the students protest article are horsebleep.

Your “kudos” to Mayo, DeStefano and Clark are laughable; of course they were willing to at least listen and meet with these students—to do otherwise would’ve been a public relations disaster (plus, for $226K, $127K and $146K, respectively, that’s the least Mayo, DeStefano and Clark could do).

posted by: Teachergal on April 4, 2011  6:26pm

LOL,  that’s so true. Meanwhile, the students smuggle in bags of candy and sunflower seeds. I’m pretty good at catching them but I regularly find wrappers on the floor from the expert sneaks. Regarding principals, I believe it’s the do as I say not what I do principal at work. I totally pick my battles with gum and candy because it wastes too much instructional time.

posted by: Teachergal on April 5, 2011  9:29am

Oops, I mean ” principle”....Gotta slow down!

posted by: to teachergal from LOL on April 5, 2011  10:59am

This will never happen, but it should:  Take all the teachers out of Hooker and Hill Central.  Place Hooker’s teachers in the Hill and the Hill’s teachers in Hooker.  I guarantee the scores at Hooker won’t drop and the scores at Hill won’t go up.

I know first hand because I have a student at my “failing” school who was placed on a waiting list for Hooker; that student is reading two grade levels ahead while the rest of my students are barely at or well below their grade level.

Downtown just won’t admit it.  Or hold parents accountable.  Instead, we’ve got this ridiculous TeVal where veteran teachers are being evaluated by know-it-all-administrators despite the fact the veteran teacher has forgotten more about education/pedagogy than the admin even knows.  In fact, my school’s principal emailed staff notification of an upcoming visit from mayor “Destafano”.  What a joke.