First Person

Teacher Tenure Tantrum

The lame duck is acting like a bantam rooster.

Mayor Bloomberg’s fuss-and-feathers over use of student performance data in teacher tenure decisions is a short-lived diversion, like his presidential run during a previous lame duck period. Legal authority for his position is questionable and of little practical consequence. At best, under current law, he has one year to try to work his will but no principal’s tenure decision will change based on this new edict. Weakened by his slim re-election margin, Bloomberg’s tantrum is an understandable political strategy to appear politically strong. But our education plight is too important to be distracted by this sideshow.

The mayor invokes that portion of New York State Education Law § 3012-b as added by Chapter 57 of the Laws of 2007 which permits principals to make teacher tenure determinations based on “an evaluation of the extent to which the teacher successfully utilized analysis of available student performance data” and the more elastic “assessment of the teacher’s performance by the teacher’s building administrator.” The law was clarified by Chapter 57 of the Laws of 2008 to prohibit use of student test scores to grant or deny tenure. But even if the earlier version is found to permit use of test data for current tenure evaluations, State Education Commissioner’s Regulation § 100.2(o)(2)(iii) appears to prevent this use unless included in probationary teachers’ “professional performance review plan,” a formal document that must be developed “in collaboration with teachers … selected by the [Chancellor] with the advice of their respective peers.” Collective bargaining issues also exist as a change in the terms and conditions of employment. As a result, it is doubtful that the mayor’s unilateral analysis has much legal weight.

Rather than hastening their exit, the mayor has created a legal loophole for ineffective teachers to remain in classrooms.  What the mayor has actually done is to hand every failing teacher, already on the chopping block based on principals’ prior determinations, a ready argument that his or her tenure was denied on illegal grounds. Principals already know who they want to fire and have developed their own grounds to deny tenure. At best, test scores will provide an additional, controversial excuse. And those who principals want to keep will surely not be fired on the basis of test scores alone. This grandstanding —Bloomberg didn’t even let the chancellor announce the move, so impatient was he to garner public credit — will thus have the reverse effect of its purported intent. The mayor has made martyrs of the system’s dross.

Test scores from the first few years of a teacher’s career are relatively meaningless anyway. Even if some test scores, interpreted correctly, turn out to be valid measures of long term teacher quality, our current three year tenure clock is too short to make that determination. How can a fair evaluation be made from test scores during the first year on the job? Other data such as classroom management, content knowledge, and the ability to improve will be more determinative of retention. So the second year becomes the benchmark to compare to the third year, if the testing calendar allows. But this permits insufficient data for a studied tenure determination. Other measures, especially classroom observations which I strongly encouraged in my last column, are more likely to provide usable information. The mayor seemed to admit as much in his recent Washington speech but continues to give principals too little time to practice what he preaches.

In sum, the mayor has picked the wrong battle. Nonetheless, if he really wants to use student test data to evaluate teachers for tenure, his first step should first be in Albany, convincing legislators to adopt a probationary period of at least five years, effectively extending the period for at will termination and giving slow starters a chance to prove their mettle. Five years’ experience would allow for meaningful, long-term evaluation of teachers’ growth and the justifiable reward of tenure that would follow.

First Person

I mentor students demoralized about not having a vote. Here’s their plan for getting civically involved before turning 18

Students in the Minds Matter program.

Every Monday night during the school year, I spend time with two wonderful young women. They’re high-achieving high school sophomores from low-income families whose success would be certain if they grew up in a more affluent ZIP code.

Along with a team of other mentors, I help the students improve their writing and communication skills to help them prepare for a successful college career. That’s what I’m prepared to do.

I was less prepared for what they brought to our meeting last week, the first time we met under the tenure of a new president. They talked about feeling the consequences of the national political shift, though at 15, they knew it would be years before they could cast a ballot of their own. “We feel left out of a system that affects us too,” they said.

So our task that night became to expand our ideas about what participation in the American political system really means.

Here are five ideas we came up with, designed to help high schoolers do just that.

1. Meet elected officials. Meeting state senators and representatives during their campaigns is often the easiest way to make contact. Attend a coffee event, a party meeting, or a fundraiser where students can introduce themselves and talk about their concerns. Encourage them to be more than just another face in the crowd.

There are plenty of young, local elected officials to learn from. Dominick Moreno, a prominent Senate Democrat on the state of Colorado’s powerful Joint Budget Committee, got his start running for class president as a high school sophomore. Still only 32, he has already served in the House of Representatives and as mayor pro tem of a Denver suburb.

2. Volunteer on a campaign. This is the best opportunity for students to get an inside look at the political process and can help them establish lasting relationships with real people working in politics.

Some legislators face tough races and are out knocking on doors for months. Others spend their time differently, and in either case, candidates need help reaching out to voters, managing social media accounts, answering emails or organizing events. Plus, this work looks great on student résumés.

I tell students about my own experience. It started small: When I was 10, I passed out stickers for local elected officials at holiday parades. When I was 16, I got the chance to intern at the South Dakota state capitol. At 21, I got my first job in Washington, and at 23 I started lobbying in Colorado, affecting policy that now touches all citizens of the state.

3. Think locally. There are so many small things that students can do that will help their community become a better place on their own timeline. Help students organize a neighborhood clean-up day or tutor at an elementary school. These might feel inadequate to students when they look at the big picture, but it’s important to remind them that these actions help weave a fabric of compassion — and helps them become local leaders in the community.

4. Pre-register to vote. Voting matters, too. It sounds simple, but pre-registering addresses a root cause of low voter turnout — missing deadlines. In Colorado, one must be a U.S. citizen, be at least 16 years old, and reside in the state 22 days prior to the date of the election.

5. Affiliate with a party.
This assures full involvement in the process. Before turning 18, students can still attend party meetings or even start a “Young Democrats/Republicans” group at school. If they don’t feel like they fit with either the Republican or the Democratic parties, that’s OK — unaffiliated voters can now take part in the primary elections and help name either Republican or Democratic leaders.

Talking through these ideas helped the students I work with realize voting isn’t the only way to make a difference. One of my students has started a group that helps other young women know about birth control options, after seeing girls in her high school struggle and drop out after getting pregnant. Other students in the group have asked to learn more about the legislative process and want to testify on legislation.

They’re proving that democracy doesn’t begin and end with casting a ballot — but it does depend on taking interest and taking action.

Zoey DeWolf is a lobbyist with Colorado Legislative Services, based in Denver. She also works with Minds Matter of Denver, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to help prepare accomplished high school students from low-income families for successful college careers.

First Person

It’s time to retire the myth that any counselor can do the job alone — even at a tiny school

A few of the author's students who graduated last year.

I waited five years to get my dream job as a counselor in a New York City public school. After all of that waiting, I was full of ideas about how I would be able to use my experience to help students navigate what can be an overwhelming few years.

I wanted to make our school counseling more individualized and full of innovative support mechanisms. I wanted our guidance department to be a place that anyone could leave with a grand plan.

A few months into that first year, in fall 2015, it was clear that my vision would be, to put it bluntly, impossible to achieve.

When I received my position at a Harlem high school in District 5, I was assigned to not only take on the responsibilities of a school counselor, but also to act as the college advisor, assign (and then frequently re-shuffle) class schedules for every student, and several other tasks. My school had just under 200 students — enrollment low enough that it was assumed this could all be managed.

This proved to be a very inaccurate assumption. I was working with a group of students with low attendance rates, and many were English language learners or students with disabilities. Many students were overage and under-credited, others were in foster care or homeless, some had returned from incarceration, and a couple were teen parents or pregnant.

The American School Counselor Association recommends a maximum school counselor-to-student ratio of one to 250. I know from experience that extremely high student need makes that ratio meaningless. Almost all of these students needed help in order to be ready to learn. Their needs tripled the feel of our enrollment.

This frequent mismatch between need and numbers puts school counselors like me in the position to do a great disservice to so many students. As the only counselor available, a seemingly small mishap with a task as crucial as graduation certification or credit monitoring could have spelled disaster for a student. I know some seniors missed certain financial aid opportunities and application deadlines, and some ninth, 10th, and 11th graders could have used more academic intervention to help them transition to the next grade level successfully.

My success at keeping our promotion and college admissions rates on the upswing was largely due to my outreach and partnership with community-based organizations that helped support several of our students. Had it not been for their assistance, I wouldn’t have achieved anything near what I did.

I’m still a counselor at my small school, and some aspects of the job have gotten easier with time. I love my job, which I think of as the most rewarding yet intense position in the building. But I still believe that there is almost no case in which only one counselor should be available for students.

Principals and school leaders directly involved with the budget must make sure to effectively analyze the needs of their student population, and advocate for an appropriately sized counseling staff. Small schools face real funding constraints. But ones serving students like mine need more than they’ve gotten.

Students’ social and emotional development and their academic success go hand in hand. Let’s not make the mistake of conflating enrollment numbers with need.

Danisha Baughan is a high school counselor and college advisor. She received her masters in school counseling in May 2010 and has held elementary, middle, and high school counseling positions since then.