PARK SLOPE — Eve Litwack, the principal of Park Slope's popular P.S. 107, carried her laptop into a fourth-grade class recently as the students were doing a lesson on subtraction.
She was accompanied by a trio of other experts dressed in suits and carrying notebooks — her assistant principal, a leader from the school’s network of 36 schools and the network’s talent coach, Marcella Barros, who was there to train Litwack on how to better evaluate teachers.
Under the watchful eye of Barros, Litwack took off her blazer and crouched down on the floor with her computer next to the kids to better hear them discussing the math problem. The quartet took careful, time-stamped notes on the teacher’s interactions with the students for 15 minutes, like anthropological field workers.
“We’re around in classrooms so much more than we used to be, and it’s purposeful,” Litwack said after the 15-minute observation, which Barros helped dissect by going over the play-by-play of the teacher’s lesson.
Across the city, the Department of Education has hired approximately 70 talent coaches like Barros — at a starting salary of $97,199, according to a job posting — to teach principals about the city's controversial new teacher evaluation system. The salaries are being paid using a federal Race to the Top grant, DOE officials said.
Coaches like Barros — a former teacher and principal herself — visit two schools a day to provide professional development for principals and help hone their observational skills.
“This is what I see Rex Ryan doing with the Jets," David Weiner, a deputy schools chancellor, said in a phone interview, noting the "granular level of information" they discuss when working with principals. “The talent coaches really are rock stars."
The DOE first introduced talent coaches two years ago, starting with 20 schools and three talent coaches. There were 50 coaches at 300 schools last year, and the DOE took the program citywide this year, Weiner said.
The talent coaches help ensure there’s consistency across the school system on how teachers are being graded, he said, noting that some of the high-poverty schools in the pilot saw “far more growth” in their teacher performance than others.
Unlike the old pass/fail evaluations — which did not distinguish between gifted educators and those that were merely OK — the new evaluations focus on identifying teachers' specific strengths and weaknesses and helping them improve, Weiner said. And rather than one observation per year, school administrators must now observe each teacher either for one 45-minute period and three 15-minute periods, or for six 15-minute blocks.
“For the first couple of months, it’s hard for principals to understand the rubric,” Weiner acknowledged. But by the winter, most of the schools in the pilot had become more comfortable with it, he said.
Under the new evaluation system, administrators note the teacher's performance on 22 different criteria, and the results of that observation make up 60 percent of the teacher's overall grade.
It's a shift from the former teacher evaluation system, which was in place for 80 years, and involved just one 40-minute observation.
The new system judges each teacher based on more detailed criteria outlined by education expert Charlotte Danielson, an Oxford-trained economist who runs a Princeton, N.J.-based education consulting firm.
Danielson created a description for “highly effective” teaching more than 15 years ago, including categories such as "setting instructional outcomes" and "using questioning and discussion techniques." The framework is now being used in schools across the nation.
At P.S. 107, the new evaluation system has meant more paperwork for Litwack and more time devoted to conducting observations of the school's 37 teachers and then giving feedback, which she or her assistant principal do within two days of watching a lesson.
She acknowledged that she was able to focus on the observations because the “building was running well” at the moment, rather than facing such crises as “out-of-control” students.
Still, she said it was well worth the work if it means improving the quality of instruction.
“It’s the most important thing,” said Litwack, who is trying to get her teachers to foster more group discussions in response to Danielson's rubric.
The observations are just one piece of the new teacher evaluation system that the state imposed on New York City earlier this year after the United Federation of Teachers union could not agree on an evaluation system with the city's Department of Education.
In addition to observations, the teacher evaluations are also based on students' state test scores — some of them in subjects that the teachers do not even teach.
Teachers who receive two "ineffective" ratings in a row could be fired.
The UFT recently filed 17 grievances over the implementation of the new evaluation system, including complaints that the administrators observing the teachers were disrupting the lessons, GothamSchools reported.
Brooklyn College education professor David Bloomfield said he understood some of the concerns with the new evaluation system.
“The greatest burden for principals is figuring out how to get into all the classrooms they need to get into,” Bloomfield said. “Just the logistics of the observations from a time management perspective is proving exceedingly difficult.”