tonal shift

At Columbia, Walcott says "poisonous debate" is hurting kids

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Dennis Walcott at Teachers College.

In his first speech since being named chancellor, Dennis Walcott poured on the charm, asking everyone to “dial down the rhetoric” and giving no hints of any new reforms he’s planning.

Walcott spoke at Columbia University’s Teachers College on Saturday morning, filling in for ousted Chancellor Cathie Black, who was originally scheduled to speak as part of the day-long “academic festival.”

While Black quickly gained a reputation for verbal faux pas and blunt remarks, Walcott was warm and light, cracking jokes about his recent high-profile stint making waffles for students — and even jokingly flirting with the namesake of the morning lecture, Phyllis Kossoff.

Walcott’s charm even moved the crowd to applaud the much-maligned Black.

Carefully avoiding new policy announcements, Walcott focused most of his speech on trying to bridge different sides in the reform debate. He told the crowd about his childhood in Queens — noting that he grew up, and attended public schools, in the same borough as ex-Chancellor Joel Klein — and the role that great teachers had in his success.

“Unfortunately that’s not a storyline we hear as often as we should, especially when it comes to education,” Walcott said. “The conversation we hear about is poor versus the wealthy. Charter schools versus district schools. And who is to blame for the failures of our education system.

“People on both sides of this debate have been guilty of contributing to the current polarized atmosphere,” he said.

“The poisonous debate is hurting our children, plain and simple. And they don’t have time to wait for us to grow up,” he continued. “The problems facing our schools are extremely complicated. They can’t be summed up in 10-word sound-bites. And above all they can’t be solved until we start listening and working together.”

Walcott said he wants high-quality schools in the city, regardless of whether they’re traditional public schools or charter schools. “I want options. I love options. … I want people to be able to choose.”

Other highlights from Walcott’s speech:

  • He didn’t distance himself from previous administrations, saying he and Klein talked regularly and were “joined at the hip” — to the point that their wives wonder why they speak to each other so often. But he also talked up his relationship with union leaders, and especially UFT President Michael Mulgrew, as well. (Mulgrew has not exactly welcomed Walcott warmly.)
  • In an interview after Walcott’s speech, Teachers College professor Jeffrey Henig pointed out that Walcott mentioned his relationship with the unions much more than his relationship with Klein. “That was very important and welcome,” Henig said.
  • Walcott acknowledged that the “problems of poverty and education are deeply intertwined.”
  • He also said the “last-in, first-out” policy of seniority-based layoffs can’t be allowed “to remain on the books.” In response to an audience question, he shot down the argument that ending LIFO might result in principals laying off the best-paid teachers, saying — not completely accurately — that the way schools are funded gives principals no particular incentive to do so.
  • Walcott said “the jury is still out” on incentive pay, but indicated he “has some ideas” along those lines that he plans to raise with the union. He said he’s very open to “creative ways of paying our teachers.”
  • He pointedly declined an invitation from a teacher in the audience to visit her charter school in Philadelphia — which is part of the Mastery chain — saying he’ll be busy visiting New York City schools instead. In fact, Walcott said he plans to spend most of his time in the city’s schools—and that the press will need track shoes to keep up with him. “I’m an open book … I’m going to be accessible,” he also said.
  • Despite a conciliatory tone and lack of specifics, Walcott said Mayor Bloomberg’s education reforms aren’t dead and he won’t shy away from them. “I believe in tough decisions,” he said. “I don’t plan for a second to take my foot off the gas.”
  • Henig said that Walcott’s remarks — and the change from his predecessors in tone, style and approach to stakeholders — likely signal that he’ll assume a lower profile on the national level. “To me that’s suggesting, perhaps, a distinction from Chancellor Joel Klein and Michelle Rhee,” Henig said.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet affiliated with the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, based at Teachers College, Columbia University.

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.