right to know

Bills on table take diverse approaches to teacher rating shield

With just weeks left in the legislative session, bills to shield teachers’ ratings from public scrutiny are still on the table in Albany. But no consensus has yet formed about exactly what that shield would look like — if one is constructed at all.

Albany lawmakers are hung up on one key issue that distinguishes at least three proposed versions of the legislation: Should parents be allowed access to teacher ratings?

Republican Senator Greg Ball and Democratic Assemblywoman Sandra Galef, both of Westchester, have proposed bills that say they should not.

“I just feel very strongly that this is a part of a teacher’s personal and confidential record and that the grades should be handled appropriately,” said Galef, whose bill has so far collected 24 co-sponsors.

Twenty lawmakers, including Education Committee Chair Cathy Nolan, a Democrat, have signed onto a third bill in the Assembly that would give parents limited access to evaluations. The bill would require parents to make a special request for the evaluations.

Ellen Jaffee, who proposed the third bill, said the Assembly bills would eventually be whittled down into one.

“What we tried to do is put forward a variety of proposals that the governor would consider,” said Ellen Jaffee, who proposed the third bill. Jaffee said that Assembly lawmakers were considering a fourth version that would put a moratorium on releasing teacher evaluations until after statewide systems are implemented next year.

The differing versions reflect the unsteady agreement among politicians, advocates, union leaders and education officials that New York City’s release of performance rankings for 18,000 elementary and middle school teachers was not handled well. The reports, which were published by several New York City media organizations, quickly became front-page fodder for the city’s tabloids, which sought out the highest and lowest rated teachers. The city said that the ratings should not be taken as a complete picture of a teacher’s quality since it was only based on student growth in one category, test scores.

The lead sponsors on each bill are from upstate New York districts, although many of the lawmakers who have signed on as co-sponsors are from New York City.

The precedent of releasing information to the public was widely objected to by a broad base in February – Bill Gates and Michael Mulgrew were in agreement – prompting state officials into a conversation about a law to block the release in future years.

Ball proposed his bill on March 22, but even with a weeks-long head start, the bill has yet to garner any co-sponsors from his Senate colleagues. Mayor Bloomberg, a major donor to state senate campaigns, has been a staunch defender of releasing the performance data.

Unlike Bloomberg, Albany leadership has signaled that widespread release of the performance data would be imprudent, but they have also insisted that parental access to the data should be a priority in any legislation.

“Information and evaluation should be out there for parents to know,” Silver said in March. Cuomo used similar language when he was asked about it. “I believe in the case of teachers, the parents’ right to know outweighs the teachers’ right to privacy,” Cuomo said.

Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, who has not taken a firm stand on the issue, did not respond to requests for comment.

And while Jaffee’s bill is the only one that so far leaves open an option for parents to view their teacher’s information, it comes on limited terms. According to the bill’s language, parents would have to file an official request through the Freedom of Information Law, a complicated procedure that does not yield an immediate result. Once the request is granted, the parents would not be allowed to obtain any documents. Instead, they would be able to view the ratings “at a private meeting with the building principal.” Plus, the law would give an out for districts that have qualms about the ratings: The superintendent and the state education chief would have to sign a document certifying that the district’s teacher evaluations are accurate.

Despite the restrictions, union officials are hoping that Cuomo and the Senate and Assembly leadership would see Jaffee’s bill as a compromise.

“Clearly, what we desire is total confidentiality, but there is a political reality and a parent’s right to know has to play into what legislation has the best possibility of passing, ” said NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi. “For a parent, it’s more than a right to know. It’s a right to know more about their own child.”

Lawmakers and state insiders said they remained optimistic that resolving the issue of teacher data reports are on Cuomo’s list of priorities for this session, which ends at the end of the 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.