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Tuesday, January 27, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 24.0° F  Fog/Mist
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Madison school board candidates Arlene Silveira and Nichelle Nichols discuss tests, teacher evaluation, and No Child Left Behind
Take Home Test 2012, Week4

School board elections are usually sleepy affairs.

But the proposal this year for Madison Prep, a single-gender charter school, has sparked a lively, and sometimes controversial, conversation about one of the most pressing problems facing Madison schools: the achievement gap between students of color and their white peers. The debate has, in turn, sparked interest in the school board.

In the race for Seat 1, two-term incumbent Arlene Silveira is being challenged by Nichelle Nichols, who works at the Urban League of Greater Madison, the main sponsor of Madison Prep.

While there are an unprecedented number of candidate forums and listening sessions under way, we thought we'd pose our own questions to candidates. We focus on evaluation this week, of students, teachers, schools, and the district. What is the importance of student test scores, and how do they reflect upon teachers? What is the impact of No Child Left Behind on Madison schools?

What is the proper way to evaluate teachers? Do you believe they should be evaluated on the basis of student test scores?

Arlene Silveira
Teachers need to be evaluated as all professionals should be, and as in other professions, evaluating a teacher's effectiveness cannot be reduced to one factor, such as student test scores.

Right now, the federal government, the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI) and our Madison district are all working on new ways to evaluate teachers. I believe an evaluation system must be fair and equitable. It should be easy to understand for both the teacher and the evaluator. It should be adaptable to specific conditions and needs (i.e., profile of school, specific teaching job, career stage, etc.). A good evaluation system should also be summative (evaluative) and formative (developmental).

DPI is basing their evaluation on Model Core Teaching Standards, including application of content, content knowledge, planning for instruction, leadership and collaboration, and professional learning and ethical behavior. These are important skills for a teacher. How they will be represented in a rubric and effectively measured will determine if the new evaluation tool will be useful.

I have concerns about how test scores would be used to measure teacher effectiveness, because a student's achievement and progress are influenced by much more than an individual teacher. We now know that DPIs recommendations will involve only minimal use of student test scores.

No one single method should be used. We must use the expertise of senior teachers, principals and other administrators to establish rubrics for excellent teaching. We must then train principals in the use of those metrics. Successful evaluation systems use multiple classroom observations across the year. Evaluators must be well trained, and look at multiple sources of data that reflect a teacher's instructional practice. Feedback must support improvement and decision-making.

Because of time constraints on principals, teacher mentors could be part of the evaluation of probationary teachers. These mentors make observation notes each week that they are in the classroom and they are an excellent resource for examining promising teachers.

Nichelle Nichols
The Wisconsin Department of Instruction has provided recommendations on how to implement a statewide teacher evaluation system by 2014-2015 that include a combination of objective and subjective measures of teacher and school effectiveness on student achievement. This system includes 50% of the teacher evaluation being comprised from student data, and the other 50% from classroom level teaching practices that are observed and rated by a principal, based on a rubric developed by teacher evaluation expert Charlotte Danielson.

In this system, student test scores are a part of the evaluation, but can include a variety of data, such as state level assessments, district level assessments, school performance objectives, school-wide reading scores for elementary and middle schools, and graduation rates for high schools. In these cases, the emphasis is on value-added growth of students from year-to-year, controlled by factors including socio-economic status, race/ethnicity, gender, disability, and English Language Learners. Danielson's framework is based on continuous learning and improvement for teachers in four main domains, and requires that principals be trained on how to use the Danielson rubric in classroom observations.

Ultimately, teachers would have the opportunity for instant feedback on a regular basis. Teachers would be rated as "developing," "effective," or "exemplary." Any appeals to these ratings have to be developed by the local school district. This will be an important part of the transition from the collective bargaining agreement to the employee handbook.

I believe that teaching is one of the most complex professions, and we have to incorporate objective and subjective measures to determine teacher effectiveness. Test scores alone do not tell the whole story of a student or a teacher, but using a variety of data is important in telling us how we're educating a student from year to year, and growth achieved. Having regular and structured ways to give teachers feedback on their instructional practices is also an important part of supporting them in the classroom, which is ultimately where achievement gaps are closed.

I prefer this kind of balanced approach to teacher evaluation because it incorporates the complexity of student learning and the profession of teaching.

Do you think No Child Left Behind is a good fit for Madison schools? Has it helped or hurt?

Arlene Silveira
No, I do not think that No Child Left Behind (NCLB) has been a good fit for the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD). With NCLB, the federal government shifted to an emphasis on high-stakes standardized tests; this has harmed education in Madison and elsewhere.

That is why states are rapidly abandoning NCLB, Wisconsin included. Testing is meant to be diagnostic, to help districts and teachers determine general strengths and weaknesses as well as identify students in need of extra academic supports. The Wisconsin Knowledge Concepts Examination (WKCE) tests required by NCLB provide relatively insignificant diagnostic support for individual students. Testing occurs in October -- hardly measuring the impact of specific grade level curricula -- and results are not received until late March/early April, making them largely irrelevant.

For this reason, during my tenure we have continued to use additional assessments designed to enhance teaching and learning. Unfortunately, we have had to continue devoting scarce student and staff time, as well as scarce funding, to the WKCE.

There are two mostly positive portions of the NCLB legislation that the board has leveraged: Title I, targeting students in poverty; and Title III, addressing the needs of the English Language Learner. Yet these are underfunded, and often the program requirements don't fit well with best practices. MMSD has seen our English Language Learner population and its needs grow steadily. With Title I, we have been able to partially fund some initiatives like smaller class sizes, Positive Behavioral Supports, and Ready, Set, Goals conferences, but in other areas, the federal guidelines and their application have denied funding to programs that are working.

Some changes in the works promise improvement. The recent waiver application from the Department of Public Instruction promotes better assessments, more sophisticated accountability calculations, and more targeted and supportive interventions and sanctions. However, the waiver will bring new challenges, such as the Educator Effectiveness Evaluations (also mandated in recent legislation).

The experience I have working with complex mandates to find ways to maximize the good and limit the harm will help keep our district moving in a positive direction.

Nichelle Nichols
Answering this question requires a bit of background.

The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 was an attempt to address achievement gaps in K-12 public education across our nation, with a particular focus of closing gaps between minority and other disadvantaged students and their peers. It requires states to develop state assessments in reading and math, and to move all students to "proficient" or "advanced" achievement level by 2014. It also requires that districts and schools meet annual goals called Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), that schools collect information about students who are minority and disadvantaged, and show their attainment at these performance levels. A school that does not meet these annual goals for more than two consecutive years by sub-groups of students is identified as a "school in need of improvement." Required improvement plans and sanctions have been the result for schools and districts not meeting benchmarks over several years.

The Madison School District has been designated as a "District Identified for Improvement" because it has six schools that have not met AYP for two or more consecutive years.

One of the major shortcomings of NCLB is that an entire school may not meet AYP because of one sub-group of students who continue to not meet state assessment benchmarks over time, without looking at the improvement of other students. NCLB fails in addressing "quality education" and the complexities of student learning because it has relied only on annual test scores. However, the law did force us to demonstrate greater accountability for the achievement of minority and disadvantaged students, and track their progress, which is critically important as we continue to work to close achievement gaps.

Our Madison schools are filled with far more students who are considered disadvantaged than ever before, and the issue of raising achievement for all students has to remain a priority even though NCLB has flaws and is overdue for reauthorization. Our state has filed a waiver with the Department of Education to replace current requirements with new assessments and ways to measure "quality." This is a step in the right direction.

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