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Retiring teacher reveals evaluation for all to see

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — As New Mexico’s teachers get their second year of evaluations, let’s skip the political rhetoric and look at a real-life evaluation.

Steve Brügge has taught for 25 years, and as he wraps up his last eighth-grade science classes today at Eisenhower Middle School, he poses this question:

How does a teacher with 25 years in the classroom go from near the top of the five-level evaluation scale (highly effective) to almost the bottom (minimally effective) in one cycle?

Answer: student data.

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Ellen Hur, the Public Education Department secretary’s chief of staff, explains that “the big difference” between these two evaluations is that “student achievement is included” in Brügge’s 2014-15 eval, and it wasn’t the year before. And that data, which she says is “the most objective and reliable measure of a teacher’s impact on students, can be a difference-maker.”

This evaluation cycle, 14,000 teachers in New Mexico had that data included, compared to 9,000 last year. For 75 percent of them, it did not make a difference in their rating, Hur says. For 25 percent, it did. For Brügge it made a big, and negative, difference.

The reason this is the first time student tests were used in Brügee’s eval is because it’s the first year that end-of-course exam results were available. If Brügee were staying, his subsequent evaluations would have up to three years of rolling exam results. The core subjects of reading and math are covered on standardized tests, and teachers in those subjects already had those results as their student achievement portion.

Eisenhower Middle School science teacher Steve Brügge takes down photos from a wall devoted to Madame Curie on Thursday, as he packs up after 25 years of teaching. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Eisenhower Middle School science teacher Steve Brügge takes down photos from a wall devoted to Madame Curie on Thursday, as he packs up after 25 years of teaching. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Hur says the student achievement in Brügge’s evaluation is the eighth-grade science end-of-course exam, which, according to the PED website, “integrates sixth, seventh and eighth grade New Mexico Science Standards.”

Hur explains that much like the Common Core curriculum, this test, designed and reviewed multiple times by New Mexico eighth-grade science teachers, relies on “spiraling,” that is, going back to core concepts taught in earlier grades to teach new ones. In the case of eighth-grade science, this would involve testing on the principles of mitosis from seventh grade to get at the structure of atoms, taught in the eighth grade.

In English, they would test the parts of speech as well as their use in compound, complex sentences.

In algebra, they would test basic mathematical operations from earlier grades as well as the more advanced equations.

Brügge, who reached out to the Journal in a letter, says that’s fine as far as it goes, that he does “try to make connections” in his subject matter to other scientific principles.

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But there’s only so many days in a school year, he has already had to scale back his subject areas and state statute is very distinct in what eighth-graders should learn in science.

The parts of the microscope aren’t on that list. But they were on his students’ end-of-course exam.

For that reason, he questions the validity of scoring him 8.78 out of 50 on student achievement, on an eval with a total possible 200 points, and using that test alone to say his students did not improve as projected by their own data as well as their peers’. He says there’s nothing in that eval that tells him he should, for example, “spend more time on gravity. It’s just a number.”

Hur points out that using end-of-course exams in evaluations are a district decision and that many other eighth-grade science teachers had their similar students do much, much better on those exams.

In fact, even using an end-of-course exam for evals is a district option. And teachers in subjects and grades without standardized tests, who are new or have all new students, can be assigned a student achievement score based on: how their overall student performance improved, how students in their grade level or a tested subject area improved, how the highest 75 percent of students improved, or how the lowest 25 percent of students improved.

Hur says that, in addition to using end-of-course exams when available, Albuquerque Public Schools chose “to use growth of the 25 percent of lowest-performing kids as the backup measure for teachers who cannot have an individual student achievement measure.”

Brügge and other teachers say those options are not reflective of a teacher or their students.

He also said “the testing/evaluation culture” is about 20 percent of the reason he’s done in the classroom. “I certainly still love my job,” he says, “but it’s not the same as it was even 10 years ago. I need a break.”

And while he won’t have to deal with any more evals, he’s concerned about “my colleagues (who) have many years ahead with the very real consequences of such evaluations.”

Megan Clark, left, and Stacie McElveny check out the ties Eisenhower Middle School science teacher Steve Brügge is giving away to his students. Brügge wore a different tie every day for the past 25 years, and since he's retiring, he's giving them to his students. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Megan Clark, left, and Stacie McElveny check out the ties Eisenhower Middle School science teacher Steve Brügge is giving away to his students. Brügge wore a different tie every day for the past 25 years, and since he’s retiring, he’s giving them to his students. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

He believes “a fair system would be heavily weighted to observation – ideally by a small team of master teachers/principals.” He has no quibble with his observation scores, which were done by his assistant principal, take up a full page of his eval and break down how he did in everything from “setting instructional outcomes” (that is, goals for what every student will know before they leave) to “managing student behavior.”

For the four “domain” observation areas, he received a total of 96 out of 130 points. While his scores are above or close to his school, district and state averages, his scores in 12 of the 22 categories show that his evaluator thinks he can do better.

Hur says that’s really the bottom line of the evals, which are “not an end. They are a means to an end. It’s the best information on how a teacher is doing and how their students are doing. What they are doing well and what they could be doing better. That’s the intent and the goal.”

While Brügge was also marked down on attendance – though he says two of his 11 absences were for a school field trip, two were scheduled days off on in-service days so class time wasn’t affected, and he’s returning 149 unused sick days to the district – he believes “test scores should maybe equal the current weight of attendance. (10 percent in APS.) Teaching is an art, and watching the interaction between a teacher and his/her students is where the rubber hits the road.”

Hur, who’s also a teacher, agrees that it’s an art but says student achievement data “speaks to how did kids do, how much did they learn. That’s the core responsibility of a teacher, to help a child grow academically.”

She says any teacher who has concerns about his or her evaluation scores, including questions about how student achievement and attendance were tallied, should talk to their principal or school leader, who should talk to their district leadership, who should call PED before the June 8 review window closes to get clarification or a possible revision.

Brügge is done teaching today and doesn’t plan to call.

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to assistant editorial page editor D’Val Westphal at 823-3858 or road@abqjournal.com. Go to ABQjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.

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