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Understanding the Stakes in Teacher Evaluation Debate

By Hannya Boulos (Buffalo ReformEd):
Over the past two months, Buffalo ReformED has had the opportunity to visit a number of Buffalo schools and meet with their student support teams. These teams are made up of teachers, social workers, counselors, and administrators and are responsible for implementing a program aimed at reducing discipline problems and improving attendance rates.  We met with the support team in a small office or conference room; at each school, at least one wall of the room was covered in graphs, charts and tables tracking student data. Every other week the student-support teams meet and the first thing on the agenda is to update the data, to add the latest attendance numbers and the latest discipline referral rates. In all three of these schools there were two general trends in those key indicators: attendance numbers were looking up, and disciplinary referrals were going down.
In one of those schools, before meeting with the student support team we sat in a full auditorium, watching members of the student support team in action, celebrating the positive attendance and discipline trends with their students. In another school, we followed the principal through his ‘class transition’ routine: at every bell, every school day, the principal takes up the same position in the hallway. Other members of the student-support team take up their positions, in different parts of the school. They talk with students as they go by, checking in and ushering them to class on time. The entire time the hallways were calm, and as the bell rang, the hallways were virtually empty. As the principal pointed out to us, had we visited last year the orderly scene on this day would have been unimaginable.
The programs being implemented, called Positive Behavioral Interventions & Supports (PBIS) in elementary schools and Safe & Civil Schools (SCS) in high schools, are research and data driven approaches to effectively address attendance and discipline problems in schools. The basic approach of each program is simple: data about attendance and discipline problems can be used to apply appropriate interventions. If those interventions do not work, it shows up in the data and the support team knows to try something else. As a result, schools successfully using PBIS or SCS not only know when, where, and how discipline issues arise: they also know how to deal with these problems. They know what interventions have been tried, how successful those tactics have been, and what other interventions should be tried next. And, when PBIS or SCS has been implemented faithfully, the programs have been very successful: elementary schools have seen disciplinary referrals drop by over 25% and high schools have seen short-term suspensions drop by 50%.
The astounding thing about PBIS and SCS is how simple they are: they rely on establishing and committing to a structured, organized school environment where positive behavior is recognized and negative behavior is addressed with targeted, efficient interventions. While the primary objective of PBIS and SCS is to reduce disciplinary problems, it quickly becomes obvious that attendance rates and student achievement are intrinsically related and therefore benefit as well. The difficult part of PBIS and SCS is that they rely upon a concerted, unified approach from the entire school. The programs are driven by the support staff, social workers, counselors and administrators on the team but the program’s success relies on a commitment by all staff at the school. Getting buy-in from all staff members is the first major hurdle, but as we learned, once the school staff sees the big impacts even small changes, like the hallway ‘transition routine’ can have, staff members are clamoring for more.
The PBIS/SCS program is a wonderful example of a fully integrated approach, both at the school level (teachers, administrators and support staff) and beyond (collaboration between schools, the District administration and outside partners like Erie1BOCES). It is also, sadly, an example of one of the programs threatened by the loss of SIG funding if the District and the BTF fail to reach an agreement on teacher evaluations. While PBIS/SCS has been progressively implemented for several years, its success, particularly in the highest-need schools, depends on training, support, and additional staff–exactly the resources that are provided through SIG funding.
These effective programs are the casualties that have gone unnoticed in the recent debate surrounding the BPS/BTF negotiations to implement a new teacher evaluation system in six low achieving schools. The debate has focused almost exclusively on the details of the teacher evaluation system: whether it’s fair to hold teachers accountable for student attendance and if so, then for how much should attendance count for; whether a teacher’s influence on a student’s performance can be identified through value-added models; what teacher evaluation ratings should be used for. These are all relatively minor issues that have been resolved in 8 of the 9 other districts statewide required to adopt a new teacher evaluation system as part of their SIG applications. In Buffalo, however, the weight of these issues has been dramatically overstated. The issues being hotly debated have only a limited impact on up to 20% of a teacher’s cumulative evaluation (the portion coming from ‘locally-selected measures of student achievement’) that will only be in place for the remainder of this school year single year, in reality, 3 months of the remaining school year, and only in the six schools using SIG funds to implement the ‘transformation’ turnaround model. Regularly ignored is that ‘traditional’ in-class observations of teachers still count as at least 60%, and up to 80%, of a teacher’s evaluation. The scale of the issues fiercely contested has been obscured; even worse, so has the importance of the programs at risk. At this point, the district has finally crafted a sound agreement that fairly factors in student attendance, and union leadership has again rejected the proposal, insisting that a lawsuit against the State Education Department will be a better means of restoring the funding at stake.
While PBIS and SCS work will continue in other schools, the support programs in the six persistently lowest achieving schools will suffer greatly from the loss of additional resources, support, and staffing. These programs, the hard-working staff implementing them, and the thousands of students that benefit from them have been forgotten in the on-going debate. As the evaluation deadline quickly approaches, one lesson emerges: until union and district leadership can work collaboratively to implement needed reforms, students will continue to miss critical opportunities for an improved education.   

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Buffalo Rising

Sometimes the authors at Buffalo Rising work on collaborative efforts in order to cover various events and stories. These posts can not be attributed to one single author, as it is a combined effort. Often times a formation of a post gets started by one writer and passed along to one or more writers before completion. At times there are author attributions at the end of one of these posts. Other times, “Buffalo Rising” is simply offered up as the creator of the article. In either case, the writing is original to Buffalo Rising.

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