Devil in the details

City: "Turnaround" schools won't have to replace half their staff

Department of Education officials are telling principals of schools slated for “turnaround” not to worry about quotas when they decide which teachers to hire for next year.

This guidance conflicts with the federal guidelines for the reform model, which require a school to replace at least half its teachers. It also contradicts the words of Mayor Michael Bloomberg and other city officials, who have done little to dispute this figure before alarmed teachers, students and parents at meetings held throughout the city.

The 50 percent figure has been repeated again and again in months since Bloomberg’s announcement, at forums, protests, union press conferences, and city presentations. Superintendent Aimee Horowitz told families and staff at Brooklyn’s William E. Grady High School and Franklin Delano Roosevelt High School that “up to 50 percent of the remaining faculty can be re-hired,” while at least 50 percent will have to leave. At a meeting of the Citywide Council on High Schools, Deputy Chancellor Elaine Gorman distributed a presentation that said part of the plan was to “re-hire no more than 50 percent.”

But behind the scenes, department officials have been telling principals to ignore this requirement. They said they have told principals at the 33 schools to hire the best teachers available without fretting over whether they are new or would be returning.

“Our goal is for schools to hire and recruit the most qualified teachers who meet the high standards set by their principals — not to remove a certain percentage of staff,” said Deputy Chancellor Marc Sternberg. “As that happens, we will work with the state to secure millions of dollars in funding that these new schools need and deserve.”

Principals who have been working on developing plans for the replacement schools say they plan to follow the department’s instructions and are anticipating replacing far fewer teachers than 50 percent. Multiple principals said they were expecting to replace about a quarter of their teachers over the summer.

GothamSchools reported in January that the city was exploring the option of replacing fewer teachers at the schools under an allowance in the federal guidelines for some teachers who have been hired in the last two years. Department of Education officials declined to say how many of the schools’ 3,400 teachers are recent hires. But the latest directives to principals at the schools slated for turnaround could easily open the doors to far more returning teachers than the federal regulations would allow.

It could be that the city is anticipating hitting the 50 percent mark anyway, by using attrition and the limited exceptions to cut against rehiring. Or it could be that principals will be asked to do some trimming after selecting their initial roster of teachers for next year. But it could also be that the city intends to take advantage of the state’s role as arbiter of whether the city should receive federal funding to try to skirt the federal regulations. The city submitted applications for the funding this week, and now it is up to State Education Commissioner John King to decide whether they meet the federal rules.

King has so far commented on the plans only to say that the city’s initial description of turnaround—which suggested that it would be replacing half the teachers at each school—was “approvable.” Last week, state officials emphasized that the city must adhere to the federal regulations if it wants the millions of federal School Improvement Grant dollars that are on the line over the next two to three years.

“In order to approve SIG grants, they have to be in compliance with the federal regulations,” Tom Dunn, a spokesman for the State Education Department, said about the city’s plans.

Rejecting applications on the basis of the 50 percent rule would put King in a difficult position. He would have to deny funding to schools that serve some of the state’s most needy students even though the principals of those schools say they have devised aggressive changes that are best for the students. When teachers unions across the state opposed new teacher evaluations and stalled SIG funding earlier this year, they were lambasted for undermining struggling students—and the state could face a similar backlash.

On the other hand, awarding funds to the city for applications that flout some rules could jeopardize funding for the other nine New York State districts that are eligible for SIG funding. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan warned New York last year that if it did not improve its compliance with the requirements of a different federal funding program, Race to the Top, it could lose funding. Failure to comply with SIG’s requirements could draw a similar threat.

The United States Department of Education has never asked a state to return SIG funding, which is allocated on a yearly basis, but it has delayed awarding year two and year three funds to states that have implementation problems in their districts. In general, however, it leaves administering of the grants—and cracking down on compliance problems—up to the states in order to empower them. The USDOE monitors states for compliance with their rules, and reports those findings on its website, federal officials said, but it does not intervene between states and their districts participating in the program, even when accountability questions are raised.

New York is among the states that has punished districts for failing to follow the guidelines, even witholding funds. But in other places, even when districts have skirted some of the requirements, states have approved their funding, and federal monitors have rebuked them without setting consequences.

The guidelines do contain a great deal of flexibility, particularly around the rehiring of recently hired teachers. The regulations say that anyone who was hired within the past two years may be counted as new hires under turnaround — as long as they were chosen using “locally adopted competencies,” education jargon for criteria set at the district or school level naming qualities that successful job candidates must possess.

The regulations do not spell out how a district can prove that a school has already been undergoing a reform effort or is using locally adopted competencies, and federal officials said it is the state’s job to interpret them.

That latitude could be one reason that Sternberg and other department officials are confident that the city will receive SIG funding for the schools, even though principals are being told they can hire back more than half of their teachers.

The math suggests that the confidence might be warranted. Depending on the make-up of the staff at a particular school, and how many of those teachers are recent hires, the school could re-hire 75 percent of its staff or more and still be following the guidelines.

For example, if a school with 60 teachers hired 10 of them in the last two years — a reasonable expectation in a city where many teachers leave their schools, or the school system entirely, within two years — and is set to lose another 10 this year through regular and turnaround-motivated attrition, the principal could hire back as many as three quarters of the remaining 40 teachers and still meet the federal regulations.

This scenario would be different for every school, and schools with more recent hires will have the most flexibility. The federal regulations contain no special dispensations for teachers who have been in place for more than two years. City officials stressed that they are not advising principals to remove teachers who have been at their schools for more than two years.

Sternberg said he was confident the state would approve the plans regardless of the number of teachers who stay on and how long they’ve been working at their schools.

But advocates of the federal turnaround model say the city could be straying too far from the educational philosophy behind it.

“If a school has struggled for years and years, no light-touch intervention is going to make much of a difference,” said Justin Cohen, president of the School Turnaround Group of the nonprofit Mass Insight Education.

“There’s nothing magic about 50 percent, but if you’re going to change the culture of a school you have to be very careful to make sure every adult in the building has the tools to be great, and also believe that things can be different,” Cohen added. “I’m sure that there are folks and students lamenting the short-term pains they’re going through, but the question to ask is what’s tolerable about the status quo.”

What's your education story?

Leaving finance was easy, teaching was hard, but this educator realized: ‘I’ve got to figure it out.’

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Tom Hakin is an assistant principal at Cold Springs Elementary School in IPS.

education_story_graphic

Chalkbeat journalists ask the people we come across in our work to tell us about their education stories and how learning shaped who they are today. Learn more about this series, and read other installments, here.

Tom Hakim is now an assistant principal at Cold Springs Elementary School in Indianapolis Public Schools. He’s been an educator in Marion County for eight years.

I worked in corporate finance for four years — I was a finance undergrad — in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I was always involved and volunteered a lot in high school and college and did a lot of things in the community … (As an adult), I was a big brother in Big Brothers, Big Sisters, and I was coaching rec league basketball, I was teaching Junior Achievement, so that was actually my first experience going into a classroom teaching kids.

But through all of that, (those activities were) what I was really getting excited about in my days, not so much the day-to-day work I was doing in my current job.

So I just started looking at education and what options might be out there. And I read an article in the Detroit Free Press about Teach For America, and I had never heard about it prior to that. This was a chance for me to transition very quickly into a career that I think I may want to do, and that happened.

Even in a program like that, where you get the “meat and potatoes” of training of how to be a teacher, your first couple years, it’s just so hard.

But there was more of an idealistic commitment to it. This is what I think I really want to do, so despite the challenges, I’ve got to figure it out.

I was part of the 2009 (TFA) corp, taught in the charter world for five years here in town, and then had an opportunity three years ago to move to Washington Township. It’s actually the only place I’ve ever lived in Indy, and it was kind of the right fit at the right time.

I was a department chair at one of their middle schools. It was one that was the lowest performing at the time, Northview.

I think for the first time in my teaching career, I felt, in addition to working really hard and wanting to provide a great education for the kids of the school I was working in, I also felt that bigger commitment of the community because that was where I was living. My own children are going to school (there).

So it made it even more real for me, the “why” behind what we do.

I grew up outside of Detroit. When you really look at it, some of the issues that plague Detroit Public Schools are some of the same things we see here in Indy. My experience was not comparable to what I see some of our kids going through on a day-to-day basis.

So I think there’s the initial shock of that, but then there’s this next phase, where if I’m really going to be a part of this, I’ve got to understand all the factors that are really involved and going on here, and it’s not easy. It’s not easy work.

Over two years (at Northview), we went from lowest performing to highest math (test scores) in the district in my time as the department chair, which I primarily attribute to the team I had around me.

I was teaching one grade level, but again, it gets back to this idea that when you get the right teachers on board, growing in the same direction and pushing for the right things, pretty great things can happen.

unpaid leave debate

Colorado Supreme Court weighs challenge to law governing job protections for teachers

PHOTO: Denver Post file
The Colorado Supreme Court.

Are good veteran teachers still guaranteed jobs in Colorado, provided they don’t mess up?

The Colorado Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday on that issue and others related to a landmark 2010 state law that changed the rules for teacher evaluations and assignments.

Lawyers for Denver Public Schools squared off against lawyers representing individual teachers in two separate lawsuits. One case was brought on behalf of seven current and former DPS teachers. It challenges a provision of the 2010 law that allows school districts to, under certain circumstances, put effective teachers who’ve earned job protections on unpaid leave.

The other case was filed by a single teacher, Lisa Johnson, who was put on unpaid leave.

In both cases, lawyers for DPS argued that putting experienced, effective teachers on unpaid leave is not the same as firing them — and thus doing so doesn’t violate their due process rights.

But lawyers for the teachers said unpaid leave is essentially “an end run” around those rights.

To understand both lawsuits, it helps to have some background on the 2010 law, known as Senate Bill 191. It did several things, including change the way teachers earn “non-probationary status,” which affords them job protections. To earn that status, teachers must now have three years of effective ratings instead of just three years of employment.

Earning that status is desirable because non-probationary teachers can only be fired for a limited number of reasons, including insubordination and unsatisfactory performance. In addition, non-probationary teachers are entitled to a hearing before being fired.

The 2010 law also effectively eliminated a practice known as “forced placement.” Before the law, teachers who lost their jobs not for cause but due to circumstances such as a decrease in student enrollment were assigned to open positions at other schools.

DPS officials didn’t like forced placement because most teachers were placed at low-income schools, which they said led to the neediest kids being taught by teachers who didn’t choose to be there. So after Senate Bill 191 passed, DPS changed its policy. The district now gives teachers who lose their positions temporary assignments with the expectation that they will look for “mutual consent” positions, meaning a school’s principal agrees to hire them.

If a teacher doesn’t find a mutual consent position within 18 months, he or she is placed on unpaid leave as per Senate Bill 191. The teacher is welcome to continue looking for jobs in DPS and is entitled to his or her previous salary and benefits if hired.

Since Senate Bill 191 went into effect, at least 1,113 non-probationary DPS teachers have lost their positions due to a decrease in student enrollment, the closure of a school or other similar circumstances listed in the law, according to data the district provided at Chalkbeat’s request.

The majority of them have found mutual consent positions. Sixty-two teachers are currently on unpaid leave because they were unable to do so, according to DPS.

However, that number doesn’t include teachers who resigned or retired rather than be put on unpaid leave. That information is difficult to gather, a district spokesman said, but DPS did tally some numbers in response to an open records request the Denver teachers union submitted in February. As best the district could tell as of earlier this year, 39 non-probationary teachers who lost their positions between 2010 and 2014 resigned and seven retired.

On Wednesday, a lawyer for the teachers who brought the lawsuit argued that state law has historically afforded teachers a “basic bargain:” if they work for three years and are asked to come back for a fourth, they’re entitled to job protections. Lawmakers were wrong to alter that under Senate Bill 191, attorney Philip Hostak told the seven justices.

But DPS’s lawyer pointed out that the historical idea of tenure no longer exists — and hasn’t since lawmakers stripped the word from state law in 1990. “There is no indication in the legislation itself … that these folks are permanent teachers,” said attorney Eric Hall.

Pushing back on Hostak’s argument, Hall said lawmakers can amend laws however they see fit — and in the case of Senate Bill 191, they added the mutual consent provision and unpaid leave.

A lawyer for Johnson also challenged that provision and argued that Johnson shouldn’t be subject to it because she lost her position for a reason not listed in Senate Bill 191.

“The legislature tells us exactly which teachers can be displaced,” said attorney Eric Harrington.

However, the lawyer representing DPS in the Johnson case, Jonathan Fero, argued that the reasons listed in the law aren’t exhaustive and mutual consent applies to all teachers.

The lawyers did not debate the reason Johnson lost her position except to say they disagreed on the facts but that those facts aren’t an issue for the Supreme Court to decide.

The justices typically take months to issue an opinion.