core beliefs

In speech, state education chief forcefully reaffirms support for Common Core, evaluations

PHOTO: Geoff Decker
Commissioner John King at New York University's Wagner School, where he delivered a speech defending the state's education policies.

Stung by months of criticism and a condemnation by the state teachers union last weekend, New York State Education Commissioner John King hit back in a lengthy speech on Thursday, declaring that the reforms he ushered in aren’t going away.

“We’re not going backwards,” King said. “We’re not retreating.”

King was talking about new teacher evaluations and the Common Core learning standards, which have been the center of a public debate that he says too often “devolves” and churns out “misinformation.” But he also briefly acknowledged that the implementation of these policies has been rocky, and announced a few new ways that the state will help districts to reduce local testing and improve instruction.

“I know implementation has not gone perfectly and there is more the state can do,” King said.

King said that the state would allot $16 million of its Race to the Top grant funds to help districts reduce locally-mandated testing—including tests used specifically to evaluate teachers—though he offered no other information about how the money would be used. He also said the state will pay for districts to “borrow” master teachers from around the state to coach others.

More broadly, King used the speech to reassert the changes he’s pushed for since he joined the State Education Department in 2009 and was appointed commissioner in 2011.

Calls to weaken the teacher evaluation system and slow the implementation of the Common Core have been growing for months. They culminated with King receiving a “no-confidence” vote from delegates of the New York State United Teachers at their annual conference over the weekend, which also saw the ouster of president Richard Iannuzzi.

But in the recent state budget deal, lawmakers made few significant changes to Common Core and teacher evaluation policies after months of threatening to roll back both initiatives. Smaller education policy changes aimed at reducing testing and de-emphasizing test scores in promotion decisions lined up squarely with what King had already recommended. 

King also repeated his argument that concerns raised about testing and teacher evaluations were based on misrepresentations of the facts or situations that had been blown out of proportion.

On teacher evaluations, King said that teachers’ anxiety about being fired because of low ratings had been overstated, pointing to the small number of teachers rated “ineffective” on their evaluations. King said today that less than 1 percent of teachers could face termination when last year’s ratings are released.

“Anyone who says evaluation is all about firing teachers is deliberately misrepresenting the facts,” he said.

A spokesman for NYSUT, King’s primary adversary over the last year, offered a cryptic response to the speech, calling it “interesting” and saying that they “look forward to hearing more.” The union is just a few days removed from ousting its president, a move backed by the city’s United Federation of Teachers.  

UFT President Michael Mulgrew issued a much sharper rebuke of King, saying that the commissioner and the Board of Regents should be “embarrassed that the Legislature had to step in and do the work they should have been doing,” referring to the changes that de-emphasize state tests.

King delivered the speech in friendly territory. The event, which took place at the Wagner School at New York University, was attended largely by advocates of the state’s reforms, including charter school leaders and representatives from Educators 4 Excellence and StudentsFirstNY. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan praised King in an introduction, saying he was among the country’s top education leaders.

Despite King’s confidence, changes to teacher evaluations could still be coming. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said he is open to modifying the law so that evaluations aren’t tied to student performance on the new Common Core-aligned tests, and the Board of Regents has agreed to discuss a related proposal at their meeting at the end of April.

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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.