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City school evaluations show problems in instruction

BullyingBaltimore School for the Arts

As the Baltimore school system prepares to implement a more stringent curriculum next year, sample evaluations of more than two dozen schools show that many are struggling with how to effectively teach children.

In an evaluation of teachers' instruction, none of the schools in the first round of assessments received a "highly effective" ranking, and nearly 40 percent were deemed "not effective," according to reports obtained by The Baltimore Sun through a Maryland Public Information Act request.

The evaluations also noted other issues, including complaints about bullying and students skipping class.

In a review of Forest Park High School, for example, the evaluator found that the quality of student work was low and that an emphasis on graduating students led teachers to focus on passing students rather than ensuring they were learning.

"Teacher focus groups reported that they had been directed by leadership to increase the graduation rate and that if seniors did not complete the projects assigned, teachers should change the assignments so students can pass," the evaluator wrote.

In the past two years, the system has focused on instruction and leadership, as teachers and students prepare to embark on a radically different curriculum, with principals at the helm. The more stringent national curriculum, called the common core standards, will begin to be implemented in the state, and the city, next school year.

But initial results from assessments conducted in the spring of 2011 show that even the top-performing schools with the highest test scores in the district need to strengthen their teaching programs and set up a climate that embraces higher standards.

Though the schools included some of the best in the district, such as the national Blue Ribbon-winning Mount Washington Elementary School, only two received "effective" ratings in instruction — the Baltimore School for the Arts and Mount Royal Elementary School.

Nonetheless, city school officials said there were few surprises in the reviews.

"This ... requires people to take a look in the mirror in a way they may not have before, and we've needed to for a long time," said Sonja Santelises, chief academic officer for the city school system.

The Baltimore reviews, which include pages of narrative observations, were conducted by a team of professionals from School Works, an educational consulting company, and city school officials. "School effectiveness reviews" also have been done in cities such as Chicago, Boston, Oakland and Charlotte, N.C. The reviews cost $15,000 per school visit.

Eventually, all schools in the district will undergo the extensive observations, and the district will also use them to guide school closures, internal overhauls and charter renewals.

The assessments rank schools as "highly effective" to "emerging" to "not effective" in 13 areas related to instruction, personnel, community engagement and leadership.

The instruction section measured several factors, including whether teachers planned and delivered highly effective instruction, used data to adjust their practices, and established a classroom environment that supported high-quality instruction.

Mount Washington, which consistently performs well on standardized tests, received an "emerging" in the category of whether teachers delivered highly effective instruction.

"Teachers do not consistently engage students in rigorous work," the evaluator wrote. "In 100 percent of the classrooms observed, basic recall or comprehension questions, such as 'What did we just do?' or 'What are our multiplication facts?' were frequent. Questioning requiring higher-order thinking … was far less frequent."

Student behavior affected instruction at other schools that were evaluated.

The evaluators of Digital Harbor High School, which ranks consistently as one of the most popular schools in a city where students choose where they attend, found that students often skipped class.

"Many students were observed in the hallways and stairwells during class periods throughout the day," the evaluator wrote. "While staff and teachers often admonish wandering students to go to class, teachers admit that their efforts often result in simply moving the problem to a different part of the building. Digital Harbor has not been able to institute obvious, immediate strategies to address this critical issue."

At Brehms Lane Elementary, observers noted other problems, and students reported that behaviors such as bullying interfered with learning.

"Teachers focus on negative behaviors and do not consistently reinforce positive behavior," observers wrote. They "also heard teacher comments such as, 'Hush, shut your mouth' and 'Get out of my classroom.' Finally, students were observed sitting apart from the class and not being included in the lesson."

For years, the Maryland School Assessments were the leading indicator of evaluating the strength of a school's program. But the school effectiveness reviews are a way to evaluate the quality of programs beyond proficiency ratings in subjects such as math and reading that can reflect teaching to the test, city school officials said.

The common core standards will require that students be able to comprehend reading, writing and math concepts on a deeper and more rigorous level, and teachers will be required to deliver lessons that are considered competitive in the global educational arena.

For example, the English standards will require students to learn American and world literature and the writings of Shakespeare and to write analytical pieces based in research.

The assessments "let us know what's going on in our schools through a different lens than the MSAs," said Jennifer Bell-Ellwanger, the city system's chief accountability officer, who previously oversaw the program in New York City. "We would have had expectations for our schools that they couldn't meet. No one is solidly common core ready."

The reviews covered a spectrum of schools and programs, including charter and traditional schools, and all grade levels.

Twenty-five more assessments were done throughout this past spring. Those reviews are still being finalized.

"I felt like it was a good, rigorous process," said Will McKenna, principal at Afya Public Charter School, who volunteered to go through the assessment process last month.

"The team we had was knowledgeable about schools in general, and I trusted them. They really took the time, and took the effort to come to an understanding about what we were doing in the school."

Several principals said that if the process continues to be strengthened, it could be the most objective measure of education Baltimore has ever experienced as they prepare to take on a new role as instructional leaders in the coming reforms.

More than half of the principals at schools already evaluated were found to be "not effective" in cultivating an environment that encourages effective instruction, such as feedback, to take place.

"The district has to decide whether or not this is a critical tool to help schools get better, or is it an evaluative tool that they want to judge schools," McKenna said. "I don't know if they know the answer to that. As long as it was done well, I could go either/or."

Cecil Elementary received some of the highest effectiveness ratings in the instruction categories. "It just confirmed and provided another piece of evidence of what we were seeing from within," said Roxanne Forr, the school's principal.

"Any time you have feedback that is more than a number, I think it allows you to drive your instruction in the next steps even further," Forr said.

Craig Rivers, who was in his second year as principal of Mergenthaler Vocational Technical High when his school was evaluated "not effective" in all areas of instruction, said the assessment prompted him to turn his attention to academics.

The school is consistently one of the top three most popular high schools among students in the school-choice process.

This past school year, the school ramped up its professional development to once a week and tailored efforts directly to flaws flagged in the assessment report.

"It kind of confirmed what we already knew, but to have that outside voice come in and confirm it all just made it real for us," Rivers said. "Anything can be debatable, but you usually have one time to make a first impression. And if that's what they saw in three days, I take that."

The system said that it will continue to slowly roll out the program as schools adjust to being scrutinized in a new way that is unprecedented in the state.

"We could have taken the easy way out and just looked at the lowest-performing schools, but even if you're good, even if you're excellent, you can get better," Santelises said. "There are other districts with equally high-performing schools that should be asking the same questions."

erica.green@baltsun.com

twitter.com/EricaLG

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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