first take

Deal lays framework for new evals; city appeals issue smoothed

A compromise between the state and its main teachers union will refine the state’s teacher evaluation law and make it easier for local districts to implement new evaluations, Gov. Cuomo announced today.

Cuomo had said that he would impose a new evaluation system if a deal did not come by today.

The announcement suggested that some of the most pressing issues at the state level had been resolved but that significant questions remained wide open here in New York City. The city and UFT have settled at least part of their dispute about appeals for teachers with low ratings but have not actually agreed on a new evaluations system.

Cuomo announced the deal during a a press conference in Albany, where he was joined by State Education Commissioner John King, NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi, and UFT President Michael Mulgrew — but no officials from New York City. Mayor Bloomberg is holding a press conference at City Hall this afternoon to discuss the deal.

We’ll have more details about the content of the agreement, which is a statewide framework that would tweak the state’s 2010 evaluation law, later today. Cuomo will be submitting bills today to formalize the agreement through the budget amendment process.

What’s clear is that it gives Cuomo some of what he wanted last spring when he asked the Board of Regents to increase the weight of test scores in teacher evaluations. The agreed-upon framework allows districts and their unions to agree to use state exam scores for a second 20 percent of evaluations set aside for local assessments — but they can’t use the exams in exactly the same way the state does. Instead, they’ll be able to crunch the numbers a different way or substitute their own assessments, which the State Education Department would have to approve.

It’s also clear that while the agreement represents a leap forward for the city and UFT, it does not end their disputes. The city and union agreed only to an appeals process for teachers with low ratings — resolving a major sticking point in negotiations over teacher evaluations at 33 schools that had been receiving federal funding.

But it does not actually represent an agreement on a new evaluation system. Other issues that were unresolved when negotiations broke down over the appeals question are still up in the air. Plus, the negotiations that fell apart were only for the 33 schools that received School Improvement Grants. The city, like all districts, now has until Jan. 16, 2013, to finalize an evaluation system using the framework NYSUT agreed to today.

“Are there continuing, outstanding issues when it comes to education between the city and the UFT. Yes, yes, that is clear,” Cuomo said. “We never said we were going to resolve all the open issues.”

The one issue that was resolved, about the appeals process, represents something of a loss for the city. Bloomberg’s position was that the school chancellor should have the final word on all appeals. But Mulgrew said the agreed-upon appeals process — which Cuomo said would go into effect by the end of 2012 and enable the city to receive a 4 percent increase in school aid — brings in third-party validation for some ratings.

He also said the process included safeguards against low ratings issued as a means of harassment.

Cuomo lavished praise on Mulgrew during the press conference, saying that the union leader had “worked extraordinarily hard … and has been extraordinarily reasonable” through the negotiation process.

A major open question is whether the city will go ahead with its plan to “turn around” 33 struggling schools, which would require half of their teachers to be replaced. Bloomberg had proposed turnaround as a way to circumvent a requirement that the city negotiate an evaluation deal for teachers in those schools. But with the sticking point in those negotiations resolved, the city could continue the school improvement strategies already underway there. The city is set to make its case with the state next week for why federal funds should continue flowing to support those schools

Mulgrew signaled today that he thought the evaluation should take turnaround off the table. But he signaled that the city had not said clearly that it would.

“”If the mayor chooses he can speak to us about putting in a SIG application,” he said in Albany. “You can ask him. I think he has decided he’d rather close schools than fix them.”

poster campaign

How one Memphis student is elevating the conversation about school discipline

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Posters created by junior Janiya Douglas have amplified student voices about the culture of White Station High School in Memphis.

Now in her third year of attending a premier public high school in Memphis, Janiya Douglas says she’s observed discipline being handed out unevenly to her classmates, depending on whether they are on the college preparatory track.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Janiya Douglas and Michal Mckay are student leaders in Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

“We’re heavily divided in an academic hierarchy,” said Janiya, a junior in the optional program for high-achieving students at White Station High School. “It’s obvious students are treated differently if they are in traditional classes.”

Janiya also has observed racial disparities in how students are disciplined, and the state’s data backs that up. White Station students who are black or Hispanic are suspended at significantly higher rates than students who are white.

Frustrated by what she’s seen, Janiya took her concerns last Friday to the hallways of White Station and hung 14 posters to declare that “our school doesn’t treat everybody equally.”

By Monday morning, the posters were gone — removed by school administrators because Janiya did not get prior approval — but not before other students shared images of some of the messages on social media.

Now, Janiya is seeing some fruits of her activism, spawned by her participation in Bridge Builders CHANGE, a student leadership program offered by a local nonprofit organization.

In the last week, she’s met with Principal David Mansfield, a school counselor and a district discipline specialist to discuss her concerns. She’s encouraged that someone is listening, and hopes wider conversations will follow.

The discussions also are bringing attention to an online petition by the education justice arm of Bridge Builders calling for suspension alternatives across schools in Memphis.

White Station often is cited as one of the jewels of Shelby County Schools, a district wrought with academic challenges. The East Memphis school is partially optional, meaning some students test into the college prep program from across the county.

But Janiya and some of her classmates say they also see an academically and racially segregated school where students zoned to the traditional program are looked down upon by teachers. Those students often get harsher punishments, they say, than their optional program counterparts for the same actions.

“Our school doesn’t treat everybody equally. A lot of groups aren’t treated equally in our school system,” junior Tyra Akoto said in a quote featured on one poster.

“If we get wrong with a teacher, they’ll probably write us up. But if a white student was to do it, they’ll just play it off or something like that,” said Kelsey Brown, another junior, also quoted in the poster campaign.

A district spokeswoman did not respond to questions about disciplinary issues raised by the posters, but offered a statement about their removal from the school’s walls.

White Station is known for “enabling student voice and allowing students to express their opinions in various ways,” the statement reads. “However, there are protocols in place that must be followed before placing signs, posters, or other messages on school property. Schools administrators will always work with students to ensure they feel their voices are heard.”

PHOTO: @edj.youth/Instagram
Members of the education justice arm of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program

To create the posters, Janiya interviewed about two dozen students and had been learning about about school discipline disparities as part of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

State discipline data does not differentiate academic subgroups in optional schools. But white students in Shelby County Schools are more likely to be in an optional school program and less likely to be suspended. And statewide in 2014-15, black students were more than five times as likely as white students to be suspended.

White Station reflects those same disparities. About 28 percent of black boys and 19 percent of black girls were suspended that same year — significantly higher than the school’s overall suspension rate of 14 percent. About 17 percent of Hispanic boys and 7 percent of Hispanic girls were suspended. By comparison, 9 percent of white boys and 2 percent of white girls were suspended.

Shelby County Schools has been working to overhaul its disciplinary practices to move from punitive practices to a “restorative justice” approach — a transition that is not as widespread as officials would like, according to Gina True, one of four specialists implementing a behavior system called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS.

“The whole goal is to not get them suspended, because we want to educate them,” said True, who met this week with Janiya and several other students from Bridge Builders. “When students are cared for emotionally, they perform better academically. As counselors, that’s what we’ve been saying for years.”

Janiya acknowledges that she didn’t follow her school’s policy last week when hanging posters without permission at White Station. But she thinks her action has been a catalyst for hard conversations that need to happen. And she hopes the discussions will include more student input from her school — and across the district.

“Those most affected by the issues should always be a part of the solution,” she said.

Correction: April 10, 2017: A previous version of this story said Janiya put up 50 posters at her school. She designed 50 but actually posted only 14.

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.