Vox populi

Comments of the week: A teachers strike in the second city

As the city settled into for its first full school week of the 2012-2013 school year, heads were turned westward toward a simmering dispute that boiled over on Sunday night. In Chicago, the teachers union announced that it was striking after negotiations broke down over terms for a new contract.

On Monday, Philissa wrote a series of explainers about what precisely that meant.

T Williams criticized both sides of the strike, blaming the conflict on a clash of personalities more than a fight over the interests of students or families:

The two groups that are most directly affected by the teachers strike are on the sidelines with no role or opportunity to play a role in helping decide the outcomes. Those two groups are the students and their parents/guardians. Far too much of what passes for educational reform is top down. Far too often approaches to resolving labor conflict is adversarial when it should be more collaborative. In Chicago the teachers have drawn their line in the sand and the Mayor and School Board have their lines in the sand and neither line seems to have been drawn with what is in the best interest of public school students. This strike will be a boom to charter school education in Chicago and elsewhere in the country depending upon the final outcome. There will be no winners.

Norm compared the union dynamics in Chicago to the one in New York:

One aspect of this strike is that [it] is also a referendum on the Randi Weingarten/Mulgrew/ Leo Casey “you have to collaborate due to climate of the times”  unionism which has dug such a hole here in NYC. But we are still many years behind the impact of ed deform which began in Chicago in 1994-5. CORE/CTU which has already won some minor concessions that the UFT would have jumped at and sold to the members as the best we could get. Note how class size, which the UFT has refused to put on the table since c. 1970 is a real issue.

Buried beneath Monday’s strike news was an item out of Albany from the New York State Education Department Board of Regents meeting. The state is hoping to overhaul the two-year Global Studies Regents exam because it was too hard for students to pass. Commenters disagreed that it was too hard but seemed to agree that changes were needed.

Travis Dove, a student at CSI High School for International Studies wrote:

Sure, the information is learned over a two year period, but from my experience with the test, most of the questions were from the modern age rather than things like the Neolithic era 14892374816 years ago. Also, the thematic essay GIVES YOU TOPICS TO WRITE ABOUT, as well as the DBQ. It couldn’t be spelled out any better. Kids that spend even a week studying for it on regentsprep.org could easily get an 80+.

One of Mayor Bloomberg’s more successful initiatives has been his anti-truancy campaign to improve attendance. This year he expanded its mentorship program, a move that earned some praise from a comment, but also led to a question about whether there were more systemic solutions:

ms. v. wrote:

I’m glad this is working well for many students, but it seems like yet another example of how sometimes the city is 10 years behind the curve on initiatives well-known elsewhere (and, to be fair, sometimes way ahead). As I read this, all I could think was, this is the role of an advisory program, except it encompasses ALL students. And anyone versed in the best practices of middle schools for sure, and many high schools, will already know about advisory.

On Thursday evening the city released a limited set of data about its Teacher Effectiveness Pilot. The number of effective teachers increased after two years worth of observations, a trend that the Chancellor Dennis Walcott said was evidence that it was a successful way to measure teacher performance moving forward. That struck one reader as self-fulfilling on the city’s part:

Of course an administrator who has spent time observing, conferencing and coaching a teacher is likely to feel that a teacher has improved. Maybe teachers did improve, but I’m not sure the DOE report proves much of anything.

 

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.