Board Briefing Recap: TEI Improvements, Testing Young Kids, and Nutall Hates TFA

Also: Clearly we test young kids too much slash not enough

Some quick thoughts from the board briefing last night:

• Good recap from Tawnell about the discussion of TEI, the teacher evaluation system that doubles as a merit-pay system. Here are the money graphs:

Miles said that the district’s TEI expert group, made up of at least two teachers from each school, would consider some changes to the evaluation system at a Jan. 6 meeting. For example, the group will look at whether to reduce the number of spot observations this school year for teachers performing at the highest levels.

Some parents and teachers have complained that there’s an excessive focus on scores and data instead of learning. The new teacher evaluation system relies on in-house assessments and other exams to help grade teachers and determine their pay.

There’s also concern about elementary students, including kindergartners, being stressed over new tests in the non-core subjects of art, music and physical education.

“All of the feedback that I’ve received from parents has been negative,” trustee Dan Micciche said about the additional tests.

We talked about teachers’ concerns over implementation of TEI back in October. Here is an excerpt:

The problem was that this program was simply added onto the many other elements teachers are already struggling to implement under Miles’ reforms (the majority of which, remember, I am a fan). So, using one English teacher’s example, the SLO benchmark/pre-test and post-test and weekly grading for all students and review from school/staff administrators gets added to the STAAR benchmark/pre-test and the ACP writing benchmark and the ACP test in December and the STAAR benchmark in spring and the STAAR test and the Writing Assessment of Course Progress test oh right and the AP exams and others that I don’t understand and don’t want to take the time to learn about.

This meant that, for much of September, even those teachers who are very much onboard with Miles’ plans felt overwhelmed to the point they just can’t keep up with the demands, no matter how many hours they put in at home or on weekends.

Huge sub-point here: That level of frustration was felt on behalf of something that only counts 5 percent of their final score. (Sometimes 10 percent, but most of the time 5.) I spent a lot of time looking at evaluation systems across the country that formally incorporate SLOs, and almost all of them counted the SLO grades as a substantially higher percentage, clearly recognizing the work involved. (Usually it’s somewhere from 20 to 35 percent of your grade, the same range as it is for example in Pennsylvania and Maryland.)

This was a vital discussion. It’s good that Miles is saying he hears the concerns of teachers, that there is a committee giving him regular feedback, and that they will make changes that these groups deem necessary in terms of TEI, like possibly scaling back tests, doing away with the SLO component of TEI, and perhaps even eliminating the electives tests for young children. All good.

THAT said, some caveats. First, Miles was right to say (and Bingham echoed this) that they should let this year play out and allow everyone to reflect on what worked and what didn’t before changing course midstream. Also, as with most district problems I see, poor communication with teachers (and parents) has led to a lot of the confusion and fear of TEI. Often, when I talk to these groups, I’m far better informed about the nuances of TEI than they are. (And, sadly, than more than half the board. Good grief, do some homework, people.) Saying “it’s on the TEI website!” isn’t good enough. The district has to find a better way to get through to them, so that communication about this program doesn’t end up being a game of telephone that ends with the teacher or parent hearing “TEI spot obs raise cap more tests purple monkey dishwasher.”

• The discussion specifically about too much testing, especially of young kids and especially of young kids in electives, has been interesting. The DMN stories about this I think have fairly reflected the concerns of parents and teachers about testing young kids in activities like P.E. and other electives that are supposed to be fun. Trustees echoed these concerns, and Miles said he would look hard at doing what he could to minimize the stress put on kids in these situations. All good.

THAT said, Jim Schutze makes a good point about the wussification of our kids by parents who worry too much about upsetting little Johnny. I don’t know that I go so far as to agree with him here — I think we test too much in general — but he’s got a point. I invite you to read this great essay from 2010 by a parent whose kids were educated in China, and how they test their little ones over there, and how these tests are later remembered fondly by the high-achieving kids. I get the hashtag that kids are #morethanascore, but I think it’s much more complicated than that.

ALSO: Maybe I’ve missed it, but I don’t recall it being pointed out anywhere that these DISD fine arts ACP tests are often tied directly to the state’s curriculum standards, as defined by the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills portion of the Texas Education Code. For example, here is the fine arts portion, and here is the physical education portion. What is on these tests is taken from the TEKS, often verbatim. So if you’re riled about this, why don’t you take it up with the Ledge, too?

• Next week, I want to write a longer piece about Teach For America, or TFA, but the group was a hot topic at the board briefing last night, so I should mention one aspect of that conversation here. TFA, for those who don’t know, is a nonprofit that recruits and trains 20somethings to become leaders in urban education. They all teach for at least two years and then are encouraged to continue helping poor urban areas better educate kids in whatever way possible. The board president, Miguel Solis, is a TFA grad. The DFW branch of TFA has been here five years, has grown each year, and now has more than 500 TFA alumni from DFW, 70 percent of whom still work in education — a much higher percentage than the national TFA average. It’s not a perfect program, but it’s a good pipeline for teaching and leadership talent for DISD. If I were to tell any average person about this program, he or she would say, “Sounds awesome. Glad we have young smart people who care and are trying to help.”

This is not, however, the line you’ll get about TFA from the status-quo crowd. Case in point: Bernadette Nutall. Trustee Nutall just a few years ago used to speak glowingly about TFA. But last night — and I’ll put up the YouTube of this when it becomes available — Nutall began complaining about a summer program that DISD would run in partnership with TFA, wherein first-year (and other) teachers would go through various training and mentoring classes.

Paraphrasing, because I was both listening and watching the Cowboys try to blow that Bears game: Nutall said that while she once was a big fan of TFA, she now had (unspecified) problems with DISD’s collaboration with them in this instance, and that she had real concerns about this partnership. (Again, I’ll put up the video once it’s online.)

This is the complete transformation of Nutall from a trustee who would do whatever was necessary to improve outcomes in her district (which is who she was when she started) to a person who simply carries water for the status quo crowd (which is who she is now). I’d like to say I was startled, but nothing about these meetings startles me anymore.

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