Tag Archives: absurdity

New Teacher Evaluation System

I guess this post has been two months in the making. In one of the Professional Development Days this August before school started, our administration described for us how we were to be evaluated this year. As we heard the news, murmurs of disbelief and outrage spread through the teachers in the audience, and I tweeted the following in shock:

EvalTweet

What this is about is the new teacher evaluation system that Baltimore City Schools (BCPSS) is implementing this year. It is inspired by the Race To The Top (RTTT) legislation that Maryland signed on to, which requires states receiving RTTT money to link teacher evaluations to student test scores. This is inherently problematic for several reasons that I won’t go into here; however, the specifics of how BCPSS is choosing to apply the RTTT-mandated new teacher evaluations is what makes the process a complete joke.

The new system sets out that a teacher’s evaluation will be calculated as follows:

  • 35% from classroom observations
  • 15% from meeting employee professional expectations
  • 15% from a school performance measure
  • 35% from measuring student growth

Now the first half makes sense. For the eight years I’ve been teaching, we’ve always had two observations by assistant principals and/or department heads which play a major part in our evaluation, and we’ve always had a “Professional Responsibilities” domain that factors into our evaluation as well. But let’s unpack the other two bullet points, which are the newer ones.

The “School Performance Measure“: this is where it starts to get troubling. Why should teachers’ evaluations be based on a factor largely beyond their control? The argument from BCPSS is that a teacher does contribute to the overall school learning environment and that this is an incentive for teachers at a poorly-performing school to work together and turn it around and they will all receive better marks in this category. However, if I am one teacher in a school with more than 100 teachers, realistically this is something I have little control over. And if I am teaching in a poor-performing school, my evaluation grade and thus my pay will be docked due to this fact.

Now, you might say that this is reasonable, since a teacher does have some limited influence on a school, even a large school, and 15% of the overall grade is not that high. But then here comes the worst-thought-out piece of the whole thing: the “Student Growth Measure“. Let’s list a few of the problems with it!

  • The technique of value-added modeling of student growth being used to rate teachers is flawed.
  • There are no details listed on the site about how the student growth measure will actually be calculated (the only examples talk about positive versus negative student growth).
  • Because HSA data does not come out until August, teachers of HSA subjects are actually being graded on last year’s results. Now this could work out in two ways, both of which are problematic:
    • I am graded based on the students I taught last year, and how the prediction of their scores compared to their actual scores. This is the less problematic of the two, but still leaves you wondering why this should affect this year’s evaluation since it has no relevance to the work I did this year.
    • Or, it could mean I am graded based on my current students’ HSA/MSA scores from last year, and how they compared to the value-added prediction. This makes absolutely no sense, since I did not teach those students last year and have no effect on how much they learned then.
  • For teachers of non-HSA subjects (e.g. me and at least 3/4 of the teachers in my high school), we are going to be rated based on what they are calling an “all-student measure”. Which is not related at all to the growth of the students I am teaching, but rather to the average for the entire school. Which brings us back to the issues with the school performance measure above and the fact that this is largely beyond my control.

Which is where that 50% number came from in my tweet up there.

How completely insane is that? Teaching is already odd, in that my success depends so much on other people (my students) rather than primarily on me. But for my success (or at least how it is evaluated) to depend not even on my own students but students from across the school whom I have never even met, much less had the chance to positively influence their growth???

Let’s work this out for a teacher at a typical Baltimore City Public School and how this affects her evaluation:

According to the field test results from last year (when it didn’t count yet), the average school in the district scored a 57.18 (out of 100) on their School Performance Measure. Since they did not do a field test of the value-added scores for the “all-student growth measure” for me to share how my school did or a district average, I shall take the fact that the growth measure is reported on a percentile basis to assume a score at the average school of 50 on that piece. Together, these earn the typical teacher at the typical school 26.077 points.

But what if she were not a typical teacher, even though she is at a typical school? Let’s say she is an amazing teacher who inspires her students to do amazing things in her classroom. Because she is at an average school, she still gets that same 26.077 points for the schoolwide ratings (together 50% of her score). However, even if she were to score a perfect 100 each on her classroom observations and professional responsibilities, that would only get her 50 more points, for a total of 76.077, which is below the cutoff of 80 needed for a “Highly Effective” and a pay raise. It is impossible for this great teacher to get a proficient evaluation merely because of the school she is in and the factors mostly outside her control. This is clearly unfair.

Now what if the school is below average on the all-student growth and school performance measures? I’m going to pull a few numbers out of thin air to make this point, but bear with me. Let’s say the school all-student growth measure is 40 (not too far below the median of 50 percentile), and let’s say the school performance index is 40 too. This is quite a bit below the district average of 57.18, so this is indeed a poorly-performing school (at least as measured by HSA tests). Let’s say a teacher scores an 80 out of 100 on his professional responsibilities (for example, he meets all the professional expectations and scores a solid “effective” on every professional skill listed here). And he scores a solid “effective” (3 out of 4, or 75 out of 100) on the classroom observations. Well, 40*.35 + 40*.15 + 80*.15 + 75*.35 = 58.25. This is below the level needed to qualify as an “effective” teacher (60). This teacher would be labeled “developing”, even though he was rated “effective” on all measures within his control, just because he taught at one of the worst schools in the city.

50% of my evaluation being largely beyond my control is a complete travesty of what it means to be “my” “evaluation”. That should be enough right there to stop this evaluation system in its tracks.

Additionally, as these two examples work out, I think it is clear that BCPSS has set up a perverse incentive for teachers. Ideally, there should be incentives to bring the best teachers to the most under-performing schools, so those teachers can improve the lives and the academic achievement of the students who need the most help. Instead, this new evaluation system does the opposite. It incentivizes good and great teachers, whose evaluations and pay are being held back by an under-performing school, to move away from that school. This is morally wrong.

So, seriously, North Ave, what on earth were you thinking with this? You are setting both your teachers and your students up for failure.

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Road Trip!

The year is winding down. Seniors are done (their farewell ceremony is Friday). Students are interviewing for summer internships and getting in their applications for other summer opportunities. The HSAs are over with (which unfortunately a few students take as a sign that the year is over with too). And final exams are coming. Though I can’t get a clear answer from North Ave about their timing, it seems like this year will be just as absurd as last year in that the final exam dates do not take into account any of the days off due to snow. That is, while our last-day-of-school has been postponed a week because of the five snow days taken, exams have not been postponed a millisecond. This will lead to ten, count ’em ten, days after final exams are taken and grades are entered. Gah! [noise of extreme frustration]

As the year draws to a close, I wanted to share one of my summer plans. I shall be attending the National Academy Foundation’s Institute for Staff Development again this summer, where I hope to learn more about interdisciplinary collaboration and finding work-based learning opportunities as we continue our work toward AOE. But more importantly, I have decided to drive to the conference.

This is more important to my summer plans than the conference itself because the NAF ISD is in San Francisco, and I am in Baltimore.

My plan is to take the scenic route, stopping to visit the sights along the way. It will be over 7000 miles round trip. On the way to the conference, I shall drive U.S. Route 20 from coast to coast, starting in Boston’s Kenmore Square after visiting my friends and family back in Massachusetts, and ending in Newport, Oregon. There, I will see the United States’s Pacific coastline for the first time ever, after which I’ll hook a left and head on to the conference. At this point, I’m leaving undecided exactly what path I’ll take back home to Baltimore.

I hope to keep y’all posted with regular updates here this summer, so be forewarned that this blog will soon experience a shift in focus from math and engineering teaching to travel. Though I’ll definitely keep my eye open (and keyboard at the ready) for any math & engineering sights along my journey!

Also, if anyone out there lives along or near Rte. 20, give me a shout out and I’d be thrilled to visit with you!

Happy travels.

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Roles

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the roles I play at work. I made a list over spring break of things I do (more of a concept map, actually) with over a hundred branches and sub-branches. From meeting with industry and higher education partners about job shadowing and other opportunities for our students, to recruiting students into the engineering pathway, to organizing a field trip centered around manufacturing and automation, to collaborating with other teachers around interdisciplinary units (just to name a few of the branches).

My Strengths; My Roles

Today a colleague asked what I thought my greatest strength as a teacher is. Her answer for herself was inspiration. After some thought, I responded that I believe my strongest teacher-quality is being able to quickly diagnose misunderstandings. This helps me see where a student has made a mistake in solving a math problem, or where a student skipped a step in programming the robotic arm [not realizing a motion we take for granted in using our own arms] which is why it is not functioning as expected.

This trait has informed the roles I play at school in my academy and in our engineering department. I am (informally) a first round of IT support to my fellow engineering teachers. Not because I know any more about computers than they do (growing up, I knew less about computers than many in my circle of friends); but because I am quick to see what possibilities there are for the error, or what they may have forgotten to click.

Another strength I think I have is the vision to see big picture connections. Connections between a student’s approach to a problem and a better way to solve it, that can then build on their foundation to create learning. Connections that tie together a complete subject, so that in my mind Algebra 2 with Trigonometry is not just a disjoint sequence of functions and graphing/solution techniques [whether I successfully communicate this cohesiveness I’m not sure]. Connections across subjects: between math and engineering (my two faves), across all four STEM disciplines, between math and art, across every subject in our integrated unit, all of which I’ve talked about on this blog before.

This characteristic has also played a part in my roles at school. Collaboration, including stealing ideas from other teachers, has been instrumental to developing good lessons in my classes (today my students played Log War, an activity from Kate Nowak). So I am thrilled to share ideas and connections with other teachers. I’ve worked on our academy’s integrated unit. I’ve created spaces for Baltimore’s engineering teachers to share documents and ideas across schools. And the vision of how engineering connects to other subjects has driven our program’s growth, fueled by teachers of other subjects who come in to teach an engineering course or two, and help grow the program and academy.

I myself started out as a math-only teacher. After my first year teaching the Algebra 1 / Data Analysis hybrid course, my principal asked if I’d like to spend two weeks that summer learning some engineering (specifically, computer integrated manufacturing) and then teach it come autumn. I was open to the idea, and so the next year taught five math classes plus one CIM class. Over time, with more engineering trainings and a deeper role in building up the PLTW program, the courses I teach have come to be half math and half engineering.

Our engineering department right now has two math teachers, one technology teacher, one science teacher, one JROTC teacher, and two art teachers, all of whom teach from one to five sections of engineering courses and also continue teaching in their primary certification area. As I mentioned, this is a strength of our program in my eyes, since it exemplifies the connections among STEM subjects (note all four are represented!) as well as the connection between art and engineering design. Each teacher brings a terrific outside-subject perspective on engineering, as well as several teachers bringing an inside perspective from their former careers as engineers. Our students benefit learning from people who have these diverse perspectives and who can make all these different connections explicit for our students.

Changing Roles

Also prompting some thought about my roles is the question of what roles I will take on as our school moves forward through the turnaround “Expanding Great Options” process. This week teachers found out whether we were invited back for next year or not (“selected staff replacement” is one of the main strategies for turning us around). Emotions ran strong; rumors ran rampant [especially rumors about which administrators would remain with the school and which ones would not]. Between staff taking retirement (early or regular), staff choosing voluntarily to transfer schools, and some being observed and interviewed and then not-invited-back, the school is losing a lot of employees.

I’ve been told that I can remain on in my role as an engineering teacher, but that I will no longer be permitted to teach math. This is budgetary in rationale, since the Office of Learning to Work considers me a career and tech ed (CTE) teacher in a “locked” and centrally-paid-for position and does not want me wasting my time (and therefore their money) teaching a non-CTE subject like math.

Now this saddens me personally, since math is my passion. I’ve enjoyed learning engineering, teaching it, and building the engineering program at our school. But math was my first (and strongest) love. Math is my favorite lens through which to view the world and discover its secrets! Math is also my main area of expertise (B.A. in mathematics, including a senior honors thesis; M.A.T. in teaching secondary math; Maryland certification to teach secondary math).

And the rationale seems pretty silly. Why can’t they just count me as a 0.5 CTE-teacher, 0.5 math-teacher, with half my salary coming from the central office, and half coming from the school? Or whatever fraction is appropriate — another teacher might be 1/6, 5/6. It doesn’t take a math teacher to figure out these basic fractions!

But perhaps more importantly, this news also saddens me professionally. Engineering cannot be separated from math, science, technology, art, etc. They are destroying one of the strengths of our engineering program. I can see our engineering department losing the perspectives and connections brought in by having teachers of mixed subjects. Some teachers who are now only teaching one engineering course will be told they can no longer do so, since I and my other “full”-engineering teachers will need to fill our schedules and can no longer do so with subjects like math, science, and technology. Furthermore, with a narrow focus on engineering only, my own perspective will begin to shift and my broad view of the big picture will begin to shrink, which is good neither for me nor my students.

I respectfully disagree with this new policy, which I see as harmful to my school, my academy (AOE is all about connections with its integrated units!), my engineering pathway, and my engineering students. I shall do my best to see its reversal. But until then, I may be resigned to a change of my most fundamental role: from math-and-engineering-teacher to no-longer-a-math-teacher.

Sincerely,
Nick Yates
Math Teacher, at least for another month

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The Numbers Game

The news has been filled recently with stories about Baltimore City Public Schools valuing numbers above true education. For example, this Baltimore Sun letter to the editor exposing pressure from North Avenue to graduate more students (sending back the number of students who had not met requirements as “too high”). This pressure, and the resulting adjustment of these numbers allows North Avenue (and the schools themselves) to claim a higher official graduation rate. More discussion here. Another example of number games is fussing over the words “dropout” vs. “withdrawal”, and the related more basic question of whether the number of dropouts or even the number of withdrawals is accurate (see comments here). Higher graduation rates and lower drop-out rates are two of Dr. Alonso’s mosttouted “successes” in his four years in Baltimore.

You may remember a few years back a similar big hullabaloo over whether North Ave’s statistics on reduced numbers of suspensions reflected reality. And you may also recall this scene from Baltimore’s own The Wire where Prez sees the connection between middle school teaching and his former job on the police force — “juking the stats”.

It may seem odd at first glance that I, a math teacher, should be against this over-reliance on numbers. But, of course numbers anywhere (except maybe in pure mathematics) have context, and everyone should be approach numbers with a healthy dose of skepticism: 1) that the numbers are accurate, and 2) that a true (not a misleading) context is presented.

So, why am I writing this now? Because of a recent encounter in which we were presented with a numbers game, where the numbers themselves seem to be given higher priority than the students’ education they represent.

This has been coming a long while. “Data-driven instruction” is the new buzzword we’re hearing from everywhere. Which in itself sounds like a decent thing, but not if you let the data overwhelm the reality.

Followers of this blog know that my school is undergoing a turnaround process. Part of this is a renewed focus on improving instruction for our large population of English Language Learners (we have the most ELL students of any school in Baltimore). Another part of this process is “selected staff replacement”, which translates as follows: Our principal (of thirteen years, a lifetime in high-turnover city schools) will not be our principal next year. Assistant principals and some teachers have to reapply for their jobs. Teachers are encouraged to find jobs elsewhere if their vision and time-commitment don’t align with the new direction the school is going.

Another part of this process, in theory, is a renewed commitment to the career and technology (CTE) pathways that have brought some level of success to our school. But what makes me doubt this commitment is the narrow focus on numbers. We have been told that if we do not have classes filled to at least 80% capacity next year, our program will be excised from the school.

Two issues with that.

First, the non-numbers problem. Especially with our school’s smallest-in-many-years number of ninth graders to recruit from, it fosters an unhealthy level of competition among CTE teachers. There is no way all 14 pathways can recruit 80+% capacity; that would be about 280 students, but we currently have just over 200 ninth graders. So, in order for some pathways to get their 80% or even 100% capacity, other pathways must get less than 80%. This creates a Hunger Games-esque scenario, to reference the book our whole school read this year, with CTE pathways fighting for students and resources at the expense of other pathways. When really we should be working together to improve education and opportunities for all students at the school.

Second, the ridiculous numbers game. If we say capacity is 25 students, then what happens if a pathway goes above and beyond and recruits 30 students? This shows the pathway is very popular, and in my mind should be rewarded for recruiting to 120% of capacity. But what must needs happen (since the capacity is also a class cap) is that those 30 students will be split into two sections of 15 students each, which will look like only 60% capacity. Instead of being rewarded, the pathway is penalized and removed from the school.

At least this is what has been communicated from North Avenue’s Learning to Work office and our school administration. I’m hoping someone will step forward and say this is a miscommunication, because I’m beginning to tire of teaching in a school system where numbers are all-important while the real facts of education (are students learning worthwhile content and skills that will prepare them for college and the workplace?) are ignored and covered up.

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Funding Woes

Actually, maybe “funding annoyances” might be a better title.

Annoyance #1: Project Lead the Way (PLTW)

They’ve revamped three of its courses’ curricula in the past two years, and with the new curriculum for each course they are requiring thousands of dollars of extra spending on new equipment. I can see some of the reason behind the new curricula: to make sure their engineering pathway and course content is motivating and engaging to students, while also meeting higher education and engineering industry standards. But stagger the courses out please!! We can’t afford all this new equipment at the same time, even if we weren’t in the middle of a recession!

At recent meetings with teachers from other schools across the city, state, and region, various people have expressed their frustration that PLTW had them buy a robotic arm for an estimated $15,000, that now — less than two years after purchasing it — is no longer part of the curriculum while PLTW is requiring purchase of several thousand dollars’ worth of Lynx Robots instead. Or similar stories for the other PLTW courses and equipment. Additionally, many teachers have mentioned that they don’t yet have the required equipment for a course that began in August, due to a combination of a lack of funds, illogical bureaucratic ordering schedules (see next topic), and several-month-delays in shipping. All in all, though I’ve been a fan of PLTW’s exciting and relevant program since I’ve begun teaching engineering, this was not well thought-out.

Annoyance #2: The Perkins funding schedule

Who on Earth designed a system wherein you apply for funds (from the federal Perkins grant, which sponsors a variety of career and technical education programs) in April, don’t hear back how much got approved until October, thereby not ordering equipment and supplies until November that actually arrive in December, for a course that began back in August?!?! What’s even worse is when you have a prescribed (though not scripted – ew) curriculum, like we do for PLTW, where we are expected to be using certain equipment and supplies on Day 1 (in August) and specific other equipment on Day 40 (in October), equipment which has not yet even been approved for ordering! What’s even more worse is if you’re teaching a semester course instead of year-long, so your course ends in January, meaning the equipment arrives and you have three weeks left to use it!

The short answer, I believe is that Congress (who wrote the Perkins law) is who designed that ludicrous schedule. [I see a lot of heads nodding in understanding now.] But it appears they wrote this education law/grant without talking to a single educator, all of whom could have told Congress that the school year is not the same as the calendar year. That getting supplies in December (80% through a semester-long course, or 40% through the school year) is not a good or sensible time frame.

Now, to those who say, then plan ahead and use this year’s Perkins funds to pay for next year’s equipment, I say: Excellent idea! If only we can catch up from using this year’s funds to pay off what was urgently needed last year or at the START of this year and still have some money left over, that would work well. But a few factors get in the way: bureaucratic reality (most schools start behind, and so will never catch up), the need to plan super-far in advance (really ordering things you’ll need a year and a half from now), and PLTW changing the things you need to order (see point #1).

The best solution to me would be to (approximately) reverse the timeline. Have teachers and schools submit what they will need for the next year in October, hear back in April, and put in orders in May, for equipment which will then arrive over the summer, be set up, and be ready to go the first day of school! A revolutionary concept, that! This is not perfect: the equipment needs will not be as clear in October as in spring, but hopefully the big equipment needs are somewhat clear, since the teacher is teaching the course (as opposed to April, when that teacher may not have been there if it’s her first year). And the impatient among you might say getting equipment in December is better than not getting it until the school year is out, but at least this plan makes it 100% clear that you are buying for the year ahead, instead of the gray area under the current plan where people think the Perkins money is for this year but don’t get it until halfway through, and then you’re trapped in a bad cycle.

Anyway, we teachers have brought up this scheduling issue time and again when meeting with our district office, and while they are not the ones in charge of the schedule (the federal government is), it is a continued point of conflict (though not heated, everyone keeps their cool): how can our district be expecting us to raise test scores (not to mention tie our pay to test scores) when the test will be on equipment, and procedures for using and understanding that equipment, that we do not even have when we are teaching the course?

Dealing with my anger issues

So, to make a long story short (too late!), we just found out a few weeks ago that we only received 16% of what we requested through the Perkins grant. And what we requested was not frivolous or padding, but required equipment to add a PLTW course and upgrade our existing course curricula. No justification was communicated to me as a teacher for why this was so low, or what specific parts were rejected while delineating the 16% that were approved. Combined with our overall fiscal situation in rough times, this means we have a budget crisis. Even though PLTW may not like to hear me say this, it also means that I won’t be able to keep up with all the new curriculum, and shall try to teach my students with some muddled combination of ideas and concepts from the new curriculum, taught with equipment from the old curriculum plus whatever I can scrounge from our science department, the dollar store, and the local sidewalk.

On a positive note, we have also been looking more deeply this year into grants we can apply for. One we are working on right now is the NACME STEM Innovation grant (my math teacher readers, your ears may want to perk up here!), up to $1000 which can be applied toward any STEM-related project at an inner-city school.

Do you know of any other grants to look into?

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Snow Daze Update

As a follow-up to my post on the Baltimore Blizzard of February 2010, our school superintendent (CEO) finally announced Wednesday how we were going to make up the snow days.  Almost two months to the day after the storm hit. And, guess what?

I predicted it!


Not a single one of the nine snow days will be made up instructionally!

I said:

But there are several indications that most of the instructional time missed due to snow will not be made up:

1) Last year, the 3-4 snow days we had were added to the end of the school year in June, after final exams were over and grades were turned in.

2) Our state superintendent has already declared that she will approach the state school board seeking a waiver of the requirement that students attend school for 180 days.

In fact, this is indeed what came to pass.  Our school district’s superintendent/CEO got approval from the state superintendent and school board to waive (cut) five days outright.  The other four days were added after final exams.  The last day of school has been postponed to June 16th from the originally-scheduled June 10th, but final exams still begin for students on the same day as planned:  June 7th.

To make things more annoying, in their Wednesday announcement the district decided to extend third quarter by a week, even while (effectively) not extending the school year.   And when is the best time to make such an announcement, delivered in a letter to students, parents, and teachers?  Rather than allow teachers time to plan ahead for the quarter transition, why not wait until the afternoon of the (originally-scheduled) last day of third quarter, by which time teachers had been instructed to already have administered midterm exams, tally up grades for students’ third quarter work, and enter those grades in the online grade reporting system?

Not to sound cynical or anything 🙂

Ah, the absurdities of the Baltimore City Public School System!  To clarify, extending the third quarter is not absurd.  This translates to us having 40 instructional days in third quarter (really more like 37, due to the six half days that nobody even thinks of making up), and 36 instructional days in fourth quarter (well, less really, due to the state standardized testing days in there).  What is absurd is 1) throwing make-up-snow-days on to the year after final exams when courses are over, and 2) notifying teachers of the change in quarter dates on the last day of the quarter.  As Epiphany in Baltimore said the day he got the news, “It was a frustrating day to teach in Baltimore City today.”

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