Charters launch in-depth evals

With $60 million over seven years from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, four charter school organizations in California are carrying out a teacher evaluation system that bears watching.

Their collaboration is known as The College Ready Promise. The evaluation process they’ve created  after a year of piloting will combine detailed, intensive classroom observations with student test scores and questionnaires of parents, students, and other teachers. Teachers have been included in developing the observation rubric and the rules, and appear receptive, if not enthusiastic, even though important aspects are still being developed: how the evaluations will be used to determine pay and advancement, and how teachers whose students don’t take standardized tests will be measured.

The reason they’re open to it: the focus is on improvement as classroom teachers; the observation process will be rigorous and uniformly measured, and it will be coupled with opportunities for  training in specific skills and needs that were identified.

“It will give you ideas to push yourself,” said Candace Chang, a kindergarten teacher at the Aspire Alexander Twilight College Preparatory Academy in Sacramento, who served on the advisory committee that developed the observation regimen for Aspire Public Schools. “Our voices were heard; I never felt this was imposed on us.”

That’s what James Willcox, CEO of Aspire Public Schools, intended. “One of the accomplishments we’re most proud of as a partnership,” he told me in a video interview, “is that we think we’ve arrived at a really robust framework and a rubric that could be used in lots and lots of places, that can really start to put some language around what we mean when we say, “’You’re a great teacher, and this is great instruction.’” (Go here for the transcript of the Wilcox interview.)

Unionized teachers in the mix

Aspire is the largest charter management organization in the state, with 34 schools and 12,000 students. The others in the partnership are three Los Angeles-based charters: Alliance College-Ready Public Schools, Partnership to Uplift Communities, and Green Dot Public Schools. The latter’s inclusion is important, since it’s the only one with unionized teachers. If  The College Ready Promise is to have legs, as Gates hopes, and become a potential model for district schools, union teachers will have to see its value. Gates is also funding Intensive Partnerships for Effective Teaching in public districts in Pittsburgh, Memphis, and Hillsborough County, Fla. (Bill and Melinda Gates explain their overall Measures of Effective Teachers initiative in an opinion piece last Saturday in the Wall Street Journal.)

“We want to create something solid and accurate that teachers feel confident in,” said Arielle Zurzolo, Green Dot teachers union president and a teacher at Animo Venice Charter High School. “We are doing some really cool stuff.”

So far, Green Dot teachers have agreed only to pilot the evaluation rubric – they are a year behind Aspire in the process – and not to move ahead with basing advancement and pay on the results.

40 percent based on test scores

What unions and districts elsewhere may balk at is Gates’ condition in taking the money that growth in student achievement – standardized tests in those subjects and grades in which they’re given – count 40 percent of a teacher’s evaluation. The charters in The College Ready Promise have split that, with a teacher’s individual students’ test results counting 30 percentage points and the school’s collective result counting 10 percentage points. The big bridge ahead is what to do with non-test subjects and grades ­– use the school’s score or other measurements or assessments that teachers are already using.

Gates is confident that there is a correlation between growth in student test scores and the qualities of good teaching measured in teacher observations. That has yet to be proved. If there is some  relationship,  how and why should a standardized test be used as a weight in grading a teacher’s ability to build a classroom environment to support student learning or ability to prepare students for college – two of the core values behind the evaluation?

I sense some ambivalence among the charters about the 40 percent weight but agreement in the overriding benefit of funding the evaluation process, intensely training principals in observations, and getting all 85 schools in the consortium tuned in to effective teaching.

For more than a decade Aspire has included a school’s California standardized tests as a third of a teacher’s evaluation. Heather Kirkpatrick, Oakland-based Aspire’s vice president of education, said that teachers themselves, in a survey, indicated they wanted their student test scores as a sizable piece.

Two-thirds of Aspire’s schools have API scores above 800, the state target; Aspire schools’ combined API is 820, impressive for a largely low-income student body. Kirkpatrick said that the goal at Aspire is to get all students ready to succeed at a four-year college. So if teachers are not effectively teaching basic skills, as measured on CSTs, then there’s a problem.

Various forms of value-added analysis measuring student growth have come under withering criticism since the Los Angeles Times published teachers’ ratings using one method. The College Ready Promise has chosen a variation, called Student Growth Percentiles. To gauge teacher effectiveness, it compares changes in CST scores among students in the four charter organizations and Los Angeles Unified who had the same CST results the previous year. The system compares “academic peers”; ethnicity and family income, factored into other value-added analyses, are not relevant.

Principals trained to score alike

Instead of a single numerical rating, teachers will get scores, on a scale of 1 to 4, on five key areas or “domains” – the equivalent, Aspire’s handbook says, of getting your blood pressure, bone density and cholesterol checked when you get a physical. Each test measures something different. Aspire expects teachers will need “threes” to successfully prepare students for college, although what’s important, especially for new teachers, said Kirkpatrick, is improvement. The domains, based on The Framework for Teaching, by consultant Charlotte Danielson, include lesson planning, monitoring student learning, building a classroom culture, providing learning experiences preparing students for college,  and contributing to the school community and the teacher’s own growth.

The goal is two formal observations of each teacher by the principal or dean each year, plus a half-dozen or so walk-throughs. Administrators underwent a week-long training; to be certified, they must have agreed on scoring three-quarters of the time within a narrow range. This should address the biggest source of anxiety for teachers: a lack of confidence in the knowledge and objectivity of their principals.

The object of The College Ready Promise is to create pathways of advancement, whether as mentor teachers, subject specialists or administrators, with matching financial rewards. Aspire hasn’t gotten that far, but deep cuts in state funding are complicating the ability to deliver. The other Gates districts are facing similar dilemmas.

Asked about what happens after the Gates money runs out, Willcox said, “With the will to keep this going, and with the results that we believe are possible, we think that we can figure this out. That said, it’s going to be a really tough challenge to sustain this work.”

Gates pushes charter compacts

The Gates Foundation is making a pitch to Santa Clara County and Sacramento to join the next round of 12 to 15 school districts and high-performing charter schools nationwide that agreeing formally to collaborate. The Foundation is offering $100,000 in negotiations money, plus the possibility of receiving several million dollars to carry out the terms of their compact. But the driving force, Gates Deputy Director Don Shalvey told school board members in San Jose, should be mutual interest – a willingness to work together for their students’ benefit.

If they agree to the idea, Sacramento City Unified and a handful of districts in Santa Clara County, together with the Santa Clara Office of Education, would join Los Angeles Unified as the only participants from California. Last December, Los Angeles joined districts in Baltimore, Denver, Hartford, Conn., Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Nashville, New Orleans, New York City, and Rochester, N.Y., in signing compacts.

Gates’s hope is that districts and high-performing charters – a term left to each locality to define – can work through their suspicions and conflicts. In the Los Angeles compact, charters agreed to share admission and retention data and to enroll more English learners and students with disabilities. Critics have charged charter schools with discouraging special needs students from applying.** LAUSD, in turn, agreed to provide charters with access to low-cost loans that districts and charters are taking, because the state is delaying billions of dollars in payments owed to schools.

As an example of an effective compact, Shalvey cited Denver, which has promised to provide facilities to every high-performing charter as they become available. Charters, in turn, pledged to support the district in closing poorly performing charter schools. But for the most part, Shalvey acknowledged, there has been more talk than action in the months since the compacts were signed.

Shalvey suggested that districts and charters could work together in creating Common Core lesson plans, common data systems, and measures of teacher effectiveness in subjects not covered by standardized tests. High-performing charter schools’ test scores don’t currently count in districts’ accountability measurements. Making that happen is one incentive for working together, he said. Sharing best practices is another.

A former San Carlos School District superintendent, Shalvey is co-founder of Aspire Public Schools, the largest group of charter schools in California, and remains the co-chairman of its board of directors, and so has a special interest in California charters. He is particularly interested in Sac City because of its location in the state capital, where a compact would be visible to state legislators and their staffs, many of whom send their children to local schools. San Jose is becoming a magnet for effective charter schools, including Rocketship Learning, KIPP Schools, Summit Preparatory, which will open two high schools in East San Jose, and Downtown College Prep, which is also opening another high school. Districts in the city by and large have been antagonistic or ambivalent to charters (the largest district, San Jose Unified, just approved only its second charter in a decade), while the county office has approved many on appeal. A compact could create a meeting of the minds.

One district that has embraced charters is Franklin-McKinley, a small elementary district whose students are largely Hispanic and Vietnamese Americans. It has two charter schools now, and Superintendent John Porter is working cooperatively with Rocketship to launch two more. But the district has a declining enrollment, Porter said. “We want to be financially responsible and told other charters, ‘Please let us stabilize financially.’”

But other than Rocketship, charters may not care about the district’s plight and press ahead anyway, he said, implying a compact could attract more charters to apply.

Shalvey had no direct answer for Porter. Under state law, districts and county offices are not allowed to consider financial impact on a school district as grounds for denying a charter.

Shalvey said that districts or regions that sign compacts could apply for several million dollars to implement them. An example might be money to renovate a school for a charter, which would then repay the district on the loan.

** However, some researchers have raised the possibility that charter schools are meeting the needs of special education students without labeling them as such. Macke Raymond, director of the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford, suggested this might be the case last week during a panel discussion at the Education Writers Association conference.