Fact check

Three takeaways from The Colbert Report's teacher-tenure talk

PHOTO: Via The Colbert Report
News-anchor-turned-education-activist Campbell Brown appeared on The Colbert Report to discuss teacher tenure.

The debate over New York’s teacher tenure laws moved from the steps of City Hall to the studios of The Colbert Report on Thursday night. Campbell Brown appeared on Colbert’s show to discuss the recent lawsuit she’s spearheading that challenges those job protections for teachers.

Brown leads the Partnership for Educational Justice, a newly created organization that helped file the case, Wright vs. New York, in Albany. The suit charges that the job protections leave ineffective teachers in the classroom, and specifically challenges the “last in, first out” policy in which districts lay off teachers based on seniority, the too-short amount of time, plaintiffs feel, that administrators have to decide whether a teacher is effective enough to get tenure, and disciplinary statutes that make firing ineffective teachers a lengthy process.

Her appearance was a bit tense as Colbert pushed Brown on a few contentious issues, including her anti-teachers union stance and her funding sources.

Since a minutes-long interview can’t capture much nuance, here’s what you need to know:

1. The equal access argument
When Colbert asked whether the lawsuit is focused on ensuring equal access to education, Brown said yes. “That’s exactly right,” she said, mentioning the California decision that found teacher tenure unconstitutional earlier this summer.

However, while the California case argued that teacher tenure violated the state’s guarantee of equal educational opportunities, the two New York lawsuits do not. Instead, they claim that the job protections violate the state constitution’s guarantee of a “sound basic education.”

Many people have been speculating on the likelihood of a New York case succeeding, so differences between the two states’ cases are worth noting.

2. Getting rid of incompetent educators
The Wright case argues that it takes too much time and costs too much money to get rid of incompetent teachers and that, as a result, principals and districts often avoid that process.

“It takes, on average, 830 days to fire a teacher who has been found incompetent,” Brown said on the show.

However, that’s not the clearest information. According to the NYS School Boards Association, which is whom Brown and the lawsuit cite, it actually took 830 days for an incompetency hearing to reach a decision – not to end in a firing. It took an average of 520 days for all proceedings to reach a decision, including misconduct cases. Those figures come from 2004-2008 and they exclude New York City cases.

More updated data from the State Education Department show it’s been taking less time to resolve disciplinary cases recently. For fiscal year 2013, it took 177 days, on average, to reach a decision statewide, and 190 days in New York City.

3. Follow the money
Parents and teachers organized by the Alliance for Quality Education, an advocacy group that receives funding from the state’s teachers union, showed up outside Colbert’s midtown studio to protest Brown’s appearance. The American Federation of Teachers created a Twitter hashtag, #questions4campbell, which started to pick up speed before the show and succeeded in lobbing a question into Colbert’s interview notes.

“Your organization, where’s its money come from?” Colbert said. “That’s one of the things they asked me to ask you.”

Brown initially skirted the question by saying the law firm Kirkland & Ellis is taking the case pro bono.

“So the Partnership for Educational Justice has not raised any money so far?” Colbert asked.

“Yeah, we are raising money,” Brown said.

“And who’d you raise it from?”

“I’m not going to reveal who the donors are because the people who are out–.”

“I respect that because I’ve had a super PAC,” Colbert joked.

“But part of the reason is, the people who are outside today, trying to protest, trying to silence our parents who want to have a voice in this debate–.”

“Exercising their First Amendment rights,” Colbert said.

“Absolutely. But they’re also going to go after people who are funding this,” Brown said. “And I think this is a good cause and an important cause and if someone wants to contribute to this cause without having to put their name on it so they become a target of the people who are outside earlier today, then I respect that.”

“Well, I respect… you,” Colbert said.

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father knows best

How a brush with death convinced one dad to get his diploma, with a boost from the Fatherhood Academy

PHOTO: Courtesy of Steven Robles
Steven Robles with his family

Steven Robles thought he might not live to see his daughter’s birth.

In May 2016, the 20-year-old was in the hospital after being shot during what he described as an argument in his neighborhood.

A year later, Robles just graduated from City University of New York’s Fatherhood Academy. He passed his high school equivalency exam and is happily celebrating his daughter Avare’s 8-month birthday.

“That conflict is what got me into the program, and what happened to me before she was born motivated me to stay in the program,” Robles said. “It motivated me to manage to pass my GED.”

Robles grew up in Brownsville, Brooklyn and attended Franklin K. Lane High School. Though he liked his teachers, Robles said other students at the school were not “mature enough,” and the disorderly school environment made it hard for him to concentrate.

A quiet student, Robles said teachers would often overlook his presence in the classroom. Between that and friction with other classmates, Robles lost interest in school.

“My parents didn’t try to help me, either,” Robles said. “Nobody really tried to help me with that school, so I just stopped going.”

It was a whole different experience for him once he arrived at the Fatherhood Academy at LaGuardia Community College, a program run by CUNY for unemployed and underemployed fathers ages 18 through 28. The Academy, now partnering with the New York City Housing Authority at its LaGuardia location, was launched in 2012 and also has programs at Hostos and Kingsborough Community Colleges.

“I have interviewed many of the men who come into the program and I often ask the question, ‘What brought you here?'” said Raheem Brooks, program manager of the Fatherhood Academy at LaGuardia Community College. “Mostly every young man says, ‘I’m here because I want to create a better life for my child than I had.’ So, I think the main theme of the program is that we help promote intergenerational change.”

At the LaGuardia branch, 30 students attend classes three times a week over the course of 16 weeks. Subjects include mathematics, social studies, and writing for students seeking to get their high school equivalency diplomas. Students also attend workshops run by counselors who guide them in professional development and parenting.

Robles found out about the program after seeing a flier for it in his social worker’s office at Graham Windham, a family support services organization. Curious to see what the Academy offered, he called to find out more and officially enrolled after passing a test to prove he could read above seventh-grade level.

“Before the Academy, I was not really into school at all,” Robles said. “But when I got there, it just changed my life. In this program, I didn’t know anybody there, there were no distractions. It made me more focused, and I just really wanted to get my GED and education.”

What helped Robles the most was getting to learn from the other fathers in the class, who were going through similar experiences as him.

“Little things I didn’t know, I learned from them because they were also fathers,” Robles said. “I just liked the way they were teaching us.”

In fact, he liked the Academy so much, he doesn’t plan to leave. He is applying to study criminal justice at LaGuardia Community College and to become a mentor for the Academy next year.

Currently, Robles lives with his grandparents, his daughter and the mother of his child. Getting a place for his family is next on his to-do list, he said.

“Avare always has a smile on her face and always puts a smile on my face,” Robles said. “She motivates me to get up and do what I have to do. Anything I could do for her, I will.”

Though school did not play a huge role in his life growing up, that is not what Robles wants for his daughter. He said after participating in the Academy, he wants to make sure Avare stays motivated and in school.

“I hear a lot from people about how they think they can’t do it,” Robles said. “I almost lost my life before my daughter was born and that motivated me. If I could do it, you could do it.”

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.