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.

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.