Devonna Spease walked into her freshman English class at Kennedy High School with a secret.
“I couldn’t read,” said Spease, now a junior. “I couldn’t spell or write.”
Then 15 years old, she had skated through school, barely passing.
“My teachers would say, ‘Oh, you’ll figure it out,’” she said.
But no one took the time to sit down and actually teach her, Spease said. Although she had not learned to read, she had learned how to hide her secret behind a tough-girl act.
That was her frame of mind when she walked into Brittany Payne’s English I class in the fall of 2011.
“She said, ‘I don’t like English and I don’t like you,’” Payne remembers. “I just thought, ‘I don’t believe you.’”
Payne was right. She kept after Spease, and soon the wall she had built crumbled.
“She just blossomed,” Payne said. “She came in on the bottom and really grew.”
After years of falling through the cracks, Spease’s remarkable turnaround illustrates the impact that a great teacher can have on the life of a child. It’s something that educators emphasize and is undoubtedly true: good teachers do matter.
“Having effective teachers is absolutely the most important thing we can do,” said Leslie Alexander, principal at Kennedy. “They make all the difference.”
For all the importance, though, finding exceptionally effective teachers has not been easy for parents and students. Until recently, there was little data available to the public related to teacher quality. Teacher evaluations are kept private, so families were left to make inferences about the quality of their schools and teachers based on test scores and a complicated but important “growth” score, which measures how much students learn in a given year.
“Sometimes, it’s very difficult to be able to tell (effectiveness) when you’re just look at proficiency scores,” said Rebecca Garland, chief academic officer for North Carolina’s Department of Public Instruction. “Proficiency is so tied to socioeconomic status and how far students are behind when they come to school.”
So now the state is trying to measure — and report — teacher effectiveness. The DPI released teacher effectiveness data for the first time last month, revealing something that’s long been suspected: The highest-rated teachers are more likely to teach at already high-performing schools and in classrooms with high-achieving students.
“It shows a pattern that should concern those interested in raising achievement in high-poverty schools,” said Doug Lauen, a researcher from the Carolina Institute for Public Policy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Improving academic outcomes for low-income students has been an issue plaguing schools not just in North Carolina, but across the country. This data could be the first step in better connecting struggling students with the teachers who can best help them.
Technically, the state was required to collect and release the data to comply with requirements from such federal programs as Race to the Top and No Child Left Behind. But it serves an important educational purpose, too, Garland said.
“The public is constantly wanting to know if we have a high-quality teaching force,” she said. “That’s the beauty of this type of data. It appreciates what the teacher does in terms of moving a student forward without taking into regard whether the student moved far enough ahead to get to grade level.”
That progress — the progress that proficiency scores don’t take into account — is vitally important to students who are behind. And it doesn’t come easy. Just ask Spease and Payne.
“I didn’t like her because she wanted me to do well,” Spease said of Payne. “And I didn’t want to try because I was afraid I couldn’t do it.”
They started with the basics.
“I sat down with her,” Payne said. “The, them, then — (those words) were all the same to her.”
But they kept at it. They read aloud together. Payne gave Spease vocabulary and spelling lists. Spease started staying after school for tutoring.
By the end of the ninth grade, Spease improved her reading score by more than 30 points. She passed English I with a D.
Spease said Payne was excited about the grade, so she was, too.
“I thought, ‘If she can be excited about a D, so can I,’” Spease said.
Still, Spease fell just short of reading on grade level, so proficiency scores alone only showed a student of Payne’s that didn’t pass her end-of-course test without acknowledging the vast improvement that Spease had made.
This teacher effectiveness data does that, Garland said.
It rates teachers on six standards: demonstrating leadership, establishing a respectful environment for a diverse population, knowing the content, facilitating learning, reflecting on their practice and contribution to academic success — essentially the growth score, again.
The data set is new. The numbers have never been released and were not even collected for all teachers on an annual basis until 2011. It doesn’t include teachers in kindergarten through third grade or teachers that teach classes without end-of-grade or end-of-course exams. It only includes reading and math teachers in fifth through eighth grades
Garland said the state is working to include more teachers in the data set. Next year, K-3 teachers will be included. They’re working to include teachers in such subjects as art and music, too, she said.
Results for the first five standards are based solely on teacher evaluations. Teachers are rated annually by their principals. Most of the evaluation comes from in-class observations. Veteran teachers are observed a minimum of once a school year; beginning teachers must be observed at least four times. During the observation, principals look for such things as the relationship between the teacher and their students, how well the teacher knows the standards they’re responsible for teaching and how teachers adjust their teaching methods for students with different needs.
Principals complete 10-page evaluations, rating teachers on each of the standards as developing, proficient, accomplished or distinguished. There’s also a category for teachers who do not demonstrate a skill in the classroom. “Not demonstrated” is the lowest rating and a troubling sign, Garland said. It’s rare for teachers to receive that on any skill, but if they do it’s unlikely that teacher would be rehired, she said.
Only a few dozen teachers in the state did not demonstrate a skill for any given standard in the 2012-13 school year. Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools did not have any teachers with that designation during that period.
Teachers are expected to perform at the “proficient” level, Garland said. The vast majority of teachers in the state fall into the proficient category or better.
“Once you’re proficient, you’re doing your job,” she said. “To become accomplished, you’re excelling.”
To reach the “distinguished” level in any standard, a teacher really must set themselves apart, Garland said. The average teacher will be proficient, she said, and that’s something parents and students should embrace.
There will always be a degree of subjectiveness to the evaluations. There’s nothing to guarantee that one principal’s “proficient” wouldn’t be another’s “accomplished.” The rubric used in the evaluations is the same across the state, though, and does begin to lay out the difference between the “proficient” teacher and one that stands out.
It’s the difference between a teacher who takes responsibility for student progress and works to ensure students graduate from high school, and one who works to prepare students for a 21st century life.
It’s the difference between a teacher who understands and acknowledges cultural differences in the classroom and one who promotes that understanding and uses classroom diversity as an asset.
It’s the difference between supporting needs and anticipating them.
It’s the difference between knowing the content they’re responsible for teaching and sparking students’ curiosity for learning beyond the required coursework.
For Spease, it was the difference between teachers who let her hide behind her fear and the one who made her face it.
“I used my meanness to keep people from knowing I had a problem,” Spease said. “I was always nervous because I didn’t want anyone to know I couldn’t read.”
Spease was assigned to Payne’s English II class her sophomore year.
By the end of that second year with Payne, Spease scored in the proficient category for the first time on an end-of-grade or end-of course reading or English test.
Spease is far from the first struggling student to cross Payne’s path. Kennedy, the district’s career and technical education magnet school, has a high population of students from low-income families and English-language learners. Payne works with them all.
“It doesn’t matter how low you are,” Payne said. If a student is willing to work, she’s happy to help.
“She never put me down,” Spease said of Payne.
Alexander, the principal at Kennedy, said teachers like Payne are the reason Kennedy exceeded its expected growth last school year despite its challenging population.
“Our kids took a lot of pride in that,” Alexander said. “It showed they can make great gains.”
Improving outcomes at such schools as Kennedy and for students like Spease has been a focal point of the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County School system for years. The district spends more money in low-income schools in an attempt to compensate for the academic disadvantages that often accompany students from low-income families. Teachers are paid more to teach at these struggling schools.
Yet, standout teachers are still more likely to be found in schools with fewer low-income students and higher test scores, according to the teacher effectiveness data.
“It’s very reflective of the fact that, not so much (developing teachers) aren’t good teachers, but they’re likely much newer teachers,” said Beverly Emory, the superintendent of Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools. “They haven’t had as much time in the profession.”
It’s not just an issue, here, though. The trend exists across the state.
Researchers from the Carolina Institute for Public Policy have been studying teacher effectiveness data from 2009 and 2010. Using teachers’ value-added score — the measure of their ability to help students improve over the course of a school year — they found that students with similar characteristics have different access to the most effective teachers. Poor students and struggling students tend to have less access to high-quality teachers, those that exceed expected growth in a year. More advantaged students have more access to those high-quality teachers. While there is variety between districts, the trend widely holds across the state.
“There’s evidence of disparities (in access) to high value-added teachers between students, classrooms and schools,” said researcher Lauen from the Carolina Institute for Public Policy, who presented the findings Wednesday to the State Board of Education.
Lauen said there were gaps in teacher quality, not just between low-performing schools and high-performing schools but also between classrooms within a school.
“What this suggests to us is that schools may tend to group students of similar achievement levels together and assign the highest value-added teachers to the highest-achieving students,” Lauen said.
The study is just a snapshot of what’s going on in North Carolina schools, but it does shed light on a larger issue that’s been largely hinted at until now. On average, the best teachers are teaching at high-performing schools and in classrooms with high-achieving, middle- and upper-income students.
Getting more high-quality teachers into the places they are needed most in no easy task, Emory said. She said the district has had good results with programs already in place, but it’s clear that money alone isn’t enough to attract high-quality teachers to more challenging situations. Forcing teachers to transfer into struggling schools isn’t the answer, either, she said.
“We really have some work to do, in how to attract and retain some more experienced teachers in those places we need them,” she said.
Emory said the system will also look at ways to improve effectiveness across the district. Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools trailed the state average on percentages of accomplished and distinguished teachers in all of the first five standards.
Where the district did shine, and where Emory sees progress, is in standard six — the growth component. That measure looks at how well teachers are moving their students during a single year. They can fall into one of three categories: does not meet expected growth, meets expected growth, or exceeds expected growth.
Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools had more teachers meeting or exceeding expected growth — making that important progress with students — than the state average.
That matters because the most effective teachers have the ability to “grow” students more in a single school year than average and developing teachers. Instead of moving up a single grade level in a school year, great teachers can help students move up more, which could mean the difference between passing and failing for students who come into school behind their peers.
For some, it could be the difference between graduating or not.
Before reaching Kennedy High School, Spease said she had already thought about dropping out — taking the “easy way out,” she says.
Two years later, the girl who could barely read talks about going to culinary school after she graduates from Kennedy. She wants to open a restaurant one day, successful enough to feed the poor and needy for free.
She’s also interested in the environment and talks about curbing pollution and curing cancer. Last semester, she tied for the highest grade in the school on the biology final. Graduating is no longer a question for Spease, only whether she’ll do so with honors.
“It’s my biggest dream,” she says.