on second thought

UFT chief Mulgrew doubles down on private remarks, with one concession

PHOTO: Geoff Decker

UFT President Michael Mulgrew doubled down on blunt remarks he made privately to his  members this week, defending his role in last year’s failed teacher evaluation deal and vilifying opponents of the union.

“They wanted to use teacher evaluations to take teachers down,” Mulgrew said in an interview on Friday, explaining why he fought to implement a more complex teacher rating system than the one the city wanted.

The sentiments echo his remarks to the teachers union’s delegate assembly on Wednesday night, where he said that the union pushed to require supervisors to rate teachers on 22 skills as a way to “gum up the works” and spoke disparagingly of the Bloomberg administration. Chalkbeat reported those comments Thursday, which critics pounced on as proof the union did not fully support changes meant to increase accountability for teachers.

Mulgrew also raised eyebrows with a critique of education “reformers” who oppose teacher tenure and support charter schools, whose ideas he said were destroying public education. On Friday, he said it was merely the latest showdown in a lengthy battle and said he no longer wanted to associate himself with the term “reform.”

“We’ve been fighting with these folks for years,” Mulgrew said. “This has been a non-stop fight.” 

When Mayor Bill de Blasio was asked on Friday whether the union president’s remarks indicated an unwillingness to support change, the mayor defended Mulgrew. The union leader was “front and center” in pushing for the biggest changes in the proposed contract, de Blasio said, including higher salaries for top teachers who agree to take on leadership responsibilities, bonuses for teachers in high-need schools, and the creation of “innovation schools” that will be freed from certain scheduling restrictions.

“These are all fundamental reforms, so Mr. Mulgrew was front and center in making those reforms happen with us and I respect him for it,” de Blasio said.

The comments capped a whirlwind week for Mulgrew, who announced a tentative agreement with the city on a new contract last Thursday. Though some members have criticized the way the union communicated the contract’s terms, Mulgrew has successfully steered the union’s ratification process through two preliminary rounds of approval. All that is left is a vote by the union’s 100,000 members, which is expected next month.

But Mulgrew has been criticized by advocates who said his comment are symbolic of the union’s resistance to change. Others said Mulgrew’s comments offered proof that he was negotiating in bad faith over teacher evaluations—especially significant because the city’s failure to negotiate a teacher evaluation system last year cost schools $290 million in state aid.

Mona Davids, a parent activist who is suing the state to recoup some of that money, said that she planned to add Mulgrew and the teachers union to the lawsuit in the wake of his comments.

“He admitted to gumming it up so there was no way possible, no matter what, for this thing to work,” Davids said. “He had no intention to negotiate with Michael Bloomberg. He knowingly cost our children $290 million.”

When State Education Commissioner John King settled the dispute, he sided with the union on its request to require that all 22 elements be used to rate teachers.

This year, principals have said the mandate has been the most frustrating part of the resulting evaluation system. They’ve said that rating teachers on all 22 elements is overly burdensome and that the emphasis on completing the entire rubric has made it difficult to focus on supporting teachers in specific ways. It has also led to more work for teachers because they’ve had to collect paperwork and submit it to supervisors to be rated on some of the 22 competencies.

Chancellor Carmen Fariña also singled out the 22 components as a flaw in this year’s teacher evaluation system, calling them “a bit overwhelming” last week.

But the evaluation system Mulgrew signed onto for next year closely resembled the one he so vehemently opposed during last year’s negotiations, with fewer skills to be assessed. Six of the seven components the city wanted last year will be used next year.

Asked if he felt responsible for any of these implementation hurdles, Mulgrew said the alternative would have been even worse. Trust had eroded so dramatically between the union and the Bloomberg administration that he assumed the metrics would have been used more punitively, he said.

“They would have turned it into a complete disaster this year,” Mulgrew said. “It would have completely damaged education this year.”

Speaking about Wednesday’s Delegate Assembly meeting, Mulgrew said that he wished some of his comments about the contract had gotten more attention. For instance, he said, the new contract expands the definition of sexual misconduct, a fireable offense, so that it includes inappropriate texting between a teacher and student.

“The [delegate assembly] was wholeheartedly endorsing it,” Mulgrew recalled from Wednesday’s meeting, “and we’re proud of it.”

And though Mulgrew didn’t back away from his remarks about the teacher evaluation negotiations, he did admit to second thoughts about another recent rhetorical addition: the use of the phrase “education reform.”

He and Mayor de Blasio touted their tentative contract agreement as being “truly in education reform mode” less than a week ago. But in Friday’s interview, Mulgrew said he was retiring the word “reform” from his vocabulary altogether.

“I thought about it for the last couple of days, and I thought, you know what, I’m not going to call it education reform,” Mulgrew said.

 “What we’re doing is innovation,” he continued. “We are innovating education.”

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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.