With the new school year upon us, we asked a handful of superintendents of districts in the greater Washington area to answer six questions so we could get a better understanding of their vision and challenges.
Th school district chiefs were asked to talk about teacher evaluation, class size, new initiatives and more, including the one thing they would do to improve their districts if they had the power to get it done. And it turns out that they all don’t agree on a number of issues.
Here are the questions and answers:
1) MEASURE OF SUCCESS:
Now that the Obama administration’s waivers have dropped the No Child Left Behind measures of school success and failure, we’d like to know how you think schools should be measured each year. What are the most legitimate metrics? How do you decide whether a school year has been a success?
HENDERSON: We’ve been really clear that we will define our success through our strategic plan that we announced earlier this year called A Capital Commitment. The plan includes five bold goals to ensure our students are successful, including improving achievement rates, investing in struggling schools, increasing graduation rates, improving student satisfaction and increasing enrollment. You can read more about it here: dcps.dc.gov/2017.
DALE: There are multiple sets of measures we should pay attention to: The first two include basic skills (common core), plus additional 21st Century skills of Communication, Collaboration, Creativity and Critical Thinking. Each of these can be measured and all students should have multiple opportunities to demonstrate mastery of these skills. The issue should be learning, not a single, one-shot high stakes test at a specified time of year that does not allow students or teachers to modify instruction based on performance.
A second set of measures should be aspirational in nature and have students begin to explore their areas of keen interest, skills and passion. As Tony Wagner, in his recent book “Creating Innovators,” notes: innovators are developed through opportunity to “play” in their field of interest, as they develop a “passion” for that field and ultimately focus on a future “purpose” in that field. The more recent focus on students developing individual learning plans supports the development of innovators and entrepreneurs.
While the first paragraph describes more measurable outcomes, the second must be addressed in our educational system from Kindergarten to graduate school.
HATRICK: We have never used a single measure to determine the success of our students or schools. We continue to look at multiple measures, including test scores, graduation rates, acceptance in institutions of higher education, and performance of students across the curriculum. Educators and the community at large will continue to debate appropriate measures of student and school success. Test scores will certainly play a part in determining student success, but they must be test scores that reflect growth over time, not a snapshot of a day. Other than the feeling one gets based on years of experience, the only true measure of a school year’s “success” is found in extensive data about all aspects of the school year involving students.
SHERMAN: Our school division continues to be measured by state and federal accountability systems. However, we believe that our Division Strategic Plan, our Education Plan and the priorities that we have set for our division and our individual schools provide key targets that are the most legitimate metrics by which to measure or success or shortcomings. We take pride in the fact that we measure each of our subgroups of student against all students when considering our academic growth and progress.
2. TEACHER EVALUATION
We would like to know specifically how you think teachers should be evaluated. Some of you are being forced to change your teacher evaluation systems to include standardized test scores. How are you going to change the system? What do you think of using standardized test scores of students to evaluate their teachers?
HENDERSON: At DCPS, we have led the field in teacher evaluation with our evaluation system known as IMPACT. IMPACT uses student achievement as the single largest factor in evaluating our teachers. This year we made some key updates to raise expectations, broaden the measurement of student achievement and increase support and flexibility.
STARR: The U.S. Department of Education has highlighted our teacher evaluation system as a national model of excellence. And yet, under the state’s Race to the Top plan, we would have to change that model to incorporate more use of standardized test scores. I question whether this is what President Obama and Secretary Duncan had in mind when they designed the RTtT. Our Professional Growth System was developed in collaboration with our employee associations and uses a combination of data, observation and mentoring to help teachers grow and improve. Underperforming teachers are referred to the Peer Assistance and Review (PAR) panel, which has led to improved performance for thousands of our educators. It has also led to more than 500 educators leaving the classroom over the past 10 years.
HATRICK: I believe that we in Loudoun have adopted a method of teacher evaluation that is fair to the teachers. It is based on the six performance areas identified by the state, each of which is weighted equally. The new rub, however, is that in order to receive the NCLB waiver Virginia had to agree to increase to 40% the value that student test scores will play in teacher evaluation (one of the six performance areas). It is troubling that we will now take tests we’re not sure are good measures of student performance and extrapolate teacher performance from student scores. I predict that this will not last.
SHERMAN: We want to evaluate teachers holistically. Test scores and student outcomes are one piece of the teacher evaluation. Observations are also a vital component of the evaluation process. We have a new teacher evaluation system which connects student learning, professional learning plans, and our strategic planning.
3) CLASS SIZE
Have budget cuts forced you to increase class size for the coming year? What will your class sizes be? Please give a range and not simply an average. What are the smallest and largest classes? What is the largest size a class can be without undermining the effectiveness of a teacher?
HENDERSON: With this the first week of school, we’re still assessing enrollment and therefore class size. We still have additional teaching positions to allocate in cases where class size may be too large. We know that class size continues to be a hot button issue. We also know that a great teacher can be transformational. We want to improve the classroom experience for students by making sure they all have great teachers in environments that meet their educational needs.
STARR: In FY2011, we did raise class size by an average of one student across the district. Class size is certainly important and I know that some of our classes are too large. However, I believe that teacher quality is a more important factor. A well-trained, motivated and engaged teacher is what makes the difference in instruction. There is no “magic number” for class size, but we know if a class gets too big, it makes instruction and differentiation more difficult. This is an issue we have to keep an eye on.
DALE: Class sizes will range from the mid teens to 100+ in band classes. Small class sizes are expected where the most direct assistance is necessary for students to learn the content and skills. This is especially true for students behind their peers in mastering content and skills, including English. Class size should become a function of the type of instruction that is taking place and the level of individualization that is necessary, not a prescriptive formula that does not allow for individual needs and differences.
HATRICK: We in Loudoun are not increasing class sizes for the coming year. Average elementary class size is 24 with a range from 10 to 31. Average class size for middle school is 23.6 and for high school is 27.9. The range at both levels is 10 to 33.
SHERMAN: Class sizes are among the lowest to be found anywhere.
Average Class Size
* 18 Elementary
* 20 Middle
* 22 Secondary
4) TEACHER PREPARATION
What is the right amount of training for a teacher before he/she takes over a classroom? Is five weeks of summer training, as done by Teach for America, too little? Would you want your own child being taught by a young person with five weeks of training?
HENDERSON: DCPS is focused on teacher effectiveness. We know that some long tenured and exhaustively trained teachers are highly effective and some aren’t. We also know that some first-year teachers, including Teach for America teachers are effective and some aren’t. As Chancellor, I want as many highly effective teachers, whose instruction helps spur student achievement, in as many classrooms as possible. And like all parents, I want the same for my child.
STARR: It’s not just time — it’s quality. There is no doubt that our teacher preparation programs need to be updated to develop 21st century educators. I’m not opposed to alternative prep programs — especially in high-need areas such as STEM — but generally, I believe that the education of a teacher takes years, not weeks or months. Local districts must work with the higher education community to improve teacher preparation programs so they meet the demands of the 21st century. School districts must also have induction programs that provide our teachers ongoing support throughout their first year, so they don’t get overwhelmed or frustrated. One thing I really like about our Professional Growth System is that it provides direct support and mentoring to our first-year teachers.
DALE: We have found that an effective teacher needs at least a year of well grounded practice to become minimally proficient in the classroom. Teachers continue to learn and refine knowledge and skills through their first 5-7 years of experience. The more that experience is with coaching, the shorter the time to become a highly skilled teacher.
HATRICK: Teacher preparation is probably the most important area in which we could really improve the quality of teachers across our country. After receiving a master’s degree with a heavy concentration in the subject/s to be taught as well as methodology, teachers should spend at least a year in a mentored, co-teaching environment before they are asked to handle the complexities of the modern classroom on their own. Think of the medical model with internships and residencies or the legal models of associate status to get some idea of what we should be doing in education. This model would greatly increase the cost of education, but that cost would be money well spent in preparing teachers for the classroom.
5) WHAT’S NEW?
What are you doing new this year to address the needs of your least-advantaged students? And what are you doing new to address the needs of your highest-performing students?
HENDERSON: Our strategic plan, A Capital Commitment addresses both our lowest performing and our highest performing students. We want to increase the proficiency rates by 40 points in our lowest performing schools and double the number of advanced students across the district. We also identified $10 million earlier this year to give out in grants to schools who can innovate around time, talent and technology in a program called Proving What’s Possible. We gave out grants ranging from $10,000 to $450,000. All of our 40 lowest performing school received a grant and 18 additional schools. Schools are using the money in very creative ways to support student success, like extending the school day, creating blended-learning models, enhancing academic acceleration and providing remediation tools. Three middle schools are also implementing a school-wide enrichment model for the first time ever in DCPS. This school wide gifted and talented program will support the creativity of our students by identifying “gifted behaviors” in students, such as above-average abilities, creativity and task commitment. It’s going to be a great year at DCPS!
STARR: We are continuing to implement Curriculum 2.0, which is our improved elementary grades curriculum. Curriculum 2.0 will be in all K-3 classrooms and really combines a strong foundation in the core areas of Reading, Writing and Mathematics, with a renewed focus on other content areas, such as science, social studies, the arts and P.E. It also teaches critical and creative thinking skills that area so important. District-wide, we are focusing on three specific areas that I think will help all students — professional development; timely, comprehensive interventions; and a framework for true community engagement and collaboration. If we can get it right in these three areas, we will be serving students at all achievement levels.
DALE: We will continue to provide additional support to students who are not mastering our curriculum (Program of Studies). We continuously measure student progress throughout the year, and provide help for those who need it in-school and after schools. In addition, FCPS schools with the greatest challenges receive additional staffing in order to provide smaller class sizes for students who are performing below their peers. We have been blessed by a community that continues to support having more resources for our most needy students — needy defined as performing below grade level. Our highest performing students will continue to have enrichment opportunities in advanced academic offerings either their home school or in advanced academic centers. Thirty of our elementary and middle schools also receive instructional coaches and district-level support through the Priority Schools Initiative.
HATRICK: Two initiatives this year to address the needs of all students:
* Launching the Parent Portal in all Schools: Beginning on October 3rd parents of students in grades 3-12 will be able to follow assignments, grades, and messages from teachers through online access to the CLARITY system. Parents will be able to select from choices of notifications about the status of students’ grades. Attendance information will also be available for secondary students.
* Implement Assessment and Grading Professional Development Series: This training provides greater focus on an initiative begun last year. This year’s training emphasizes the effective use of formative and summative assessment practices. For planning lessons and creating assessments, teachers have received professional development in the use of Learning Progressions which provide a framework for differentiating instruction for beginning, proficient, and advanced learners.
SHERMAN: ACPS is providing many opportunities to impact all students including differentiated learning in the classroom. Our International Academy provides additional support for our English Language Learners (ELL students) while our new T.C. Satellite Campus provides a more flexible learning environment for high school students. The new campus allows for recovery and accelerated coursework. Our newly developed curriculum has frameworks to support students at all levels. We have increased access to our Talented and Gifted (TAG) program for all students. Additionally, the new TAG program provides assessments at every school versus the former system of a single point of assessment.
If you had the power and resources to make one change in your school system this year, what would it be?
HENDERSON: We can’t help our students if they’re not in school. If I could make one change, it would be eliminating the barriers that prevent them from getting to our schools every day. We have great programs, terrific teachers, motivated principals but if they’re not in their seats, they’re not learning. We need every student, every day, every class, on time.
STARR: I want for our students what I want for my own children’s education: I want them to be excited about learning and have fun in school. I want them to come home every day and say “guess what we did today in class today?” And I want every employee to feel equally energized and engaged and have fun at work every day.
DALE: Offer all teachers the opportunity to work on a 12-month contract. This would provide additional learning time for students as well as time for teachers to develop new skills, to work with colleagues analyzing student performance, and to design an exceptional, differentiated instructional program to meet the needs of all students.
HATRICK: I would extend the school year for all students and teachers. We have tried to adjust almost every aspect of the educational environment except the amount of time available for teaching and learning. A re-arranged calendar, with more days of instruction and breaks throughout the year that provided immediate time for remediation or enrichment would greatly enhance our educational efforts.
SHERMAN: It would be a wonderful thing for this city if we had increased resources to dedicate to the expansion of early childhood programs. To that point if we simply had the resources to implement more flexibility in our classrooms (such as extending the school day) to continue to meet the needs of our diverse student population and the many schools and students who are struggling; it would be an exceptional gift.