“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