all before 9 a.m.

Tisch fans rumors of mayoral bid, calls test errors "inexcusable"

Teachers from New Rochelle wore custom shirts designed to mock a state test question to Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch's breakfast talk today.

Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch fanned interest in a possible mayoral bid by refusing to deny her interest in the position at a breakfast hosted by Crain’s New York today.

Crain’s NY editor Erik Engquist’s first question for Tisch was about the persistent rumors, first aired last fall, that she might be considering running to succeed New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. “Everything I have to say on that subject I think I’ve already said,” Tisch told Engquist.

What Tisch has said in the past hasn’t been entirely consistent. When GothamSchools broke the news about the mayoral murmurings in October, Tisch told us, “I am absolutely, positively not going to run.” But appearing on Inside City Hall the next month, she was less definitive.

“I have an obligation that I am fulfilling right now and I am very happy in my work,” she said. “And I know there is a really crowded field out there of very eager people and I am sure they will emerge and one of them will serve the city very well.”

Host Errol Louis pointed out that Tisch hadn’t actually said she wasn’t considering running. “I’ll take that as a ‘I’m thinking about it,'” he said. She answered, “That’s what you said.”

A mayoral bid appears unlikely — but is by no means impossible — with the campaign in official kickoff mode and six Democrats angling for the nomination. But allowing the rumors to persist could work to Tisch’s advantage as she works to advance the Regents’ agenda even as Gov. Andrew Cuomo works to advance his own similar but not identical agenda.

For example, the Board of Regents added passing the DREAM Act, legislation that would give children brought to the country illegally by their parents access to financial aid for state universities, to its legislative agenda this year. Tisch today urged audience members to press lawmakers to pass the bill — but so far Cuomo has stayed mum on the topic.

Tisch was more forthcoming today when offering advice for the city’s next mayor, saying, “I would say to anyone who runs for mayor that the education system is something that they’d better know inside out — first of all because it is the heart of economic development for this city, second of all because a huge part of the city budget goes towards it, and third of all because the public is paying attention to education and its outcomes as never before in our history. Study up, guys.”

Tisch was also forthcoming when discussing problems with this year’s state tests, which she called “inexcusable.” The criticism started over a seemingly nonsensical and ultimately spiked story on the seventh-grade reading exam — referenced on the t-shirts of some teachers who attended today’s breakfast — and have picked up steam in the weeks since the tests ended. The latest mistakes to be revealed are more than 20 translation errors on foreign language versions of the exams that made some questions unanswerable.

“The psychometricians have assured us that the reliability and validity of the exams … is not contaminated by these errors,” she said. “What does drive my anxiety is [test-maker Pearson’s] ability to deliver on the contract. The mistakes that have been revealed are really disturbing. I don’t think children should sit in an exam and be confused about the exam. I think testing needs to be as straightforward as possible.”

Tisch said she has warned Pearson officials to consider how this year’s exam snafus have eroded the general public’s confidence in the tests at a critical time.

“I would suggest to Pearson that they take this very seriously, because next year we are moving to the Common Core standards and those tests are going to be harder still,” she said. “What happens here as a result of these mistakes is that it makes the public at large question the efficacy of the state testing system.”

Changes to the tests that are on the way should restore some of that confidence, Tisch said, and she suggested that Pearson speed up the test scoring to counter objections to the state’s testing program.

“The purpose of these tests is not to play gotcha with school districts. The purpose of these tests is to inform instruction,” she said. “If we can’t get the results back to districts in a time frame in which they can actually use these measures to inform instruction, then you’re just testing for the sake of testing, or for some federal accountability system.”

Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community. 

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.