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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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.