data dribble

City releases ratings for teachers in charter, District 75 schools

The Department of Education released a final installment of Teacher Data Reports today, for teachers in charter schools and schools for the most severely disabled students.

Last week, the city released the underlying data from about 53,000 reports for about 18,000 teachers who received them during the project’s three-year lifespan. Teachers received the reports between 2008 and 2010 if they taught reading or math in grades 4 through 8.

When the department first announced that it would be releasing the data in response to several news organizations’ Freedom of Information Law requests, it indicated that ratings for teachers in charter schools would not be made public. It reversed that decision late last week and today released “value-added” data for 217 charter school teachers.

Participation in the data reports program was optional for charter schools and some schools entered and exited the program in each year that it operated, with eight schools participating in 2007-2008 and 18 participating in 2009-2010. At the time, the city had about 100 charter schools.

The department also released reports for 50 teachers in District 75 schools, which enroll the city’s most severely disabled students. The number is small because few District 75 students take regular state math and reading exams. Also, District 75 classes are typically very small, and privacy laws led the city to release data for teachers who had more than 10 students take state tests. District 75 also teachers received reports only in 2008 and 2010; the program was optional in the district’s schools in 2009.

Department officials cautioned last week that the reports had high margins of error — 35 percentage points for math teachers and 53 percentage points for reading teachers, on average — and urged caution when interpreting them.

“We would never advise anyone — parent, reporter, principal, teacher — to draw a conclusion based on this score alone,” Chief Academic Officer Shael Polakow-Suransky told reporters during a briefing about the data release.

The reports released today have similarly wide-ranging error margins, and only about 40 teachers received multi-year value-added estimates that are more reliable than single-year estimates.

James Merriman, CEO of the NYC Charter School Center, said in a statement the charter schools that had opted into the city’s value-added system had done so because they “are open to as much information as possible on how their teachers — and schools — are doing.”

But he said charter school leaders were “well aware of the data’s limitations” and found little value in seeing their teachers’ scores made available to the public.

“Publishing this data serves little purpose for the schools or their teachers who are constantly made aware of — and held accountable for — their outcomes,” Merriman said.

Seth Andrew, the founder and head of the Democracy Prep network of charter schools, said he had found value in the city’s data release. In 2010, he learned that the 14 teachers at his school who taught reading and math had posted ratings of “average” to “high” compared to other teachers across the city. But he said he appreciated finding out today how their ratings compared to teachers at other charter schools.

Still, Andrew said, “We dont think any one point of data is enough to evaluate a teacher or a student.” Democracy Prep’s teacher evaluation system are based 40 percent on objective measures such as test scores and 60 percent on subjective measures such as observations, just like the state evaluation framework approved earlier this month.

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.