free response

Tisch to Cuomo: Tougher teacher tenure requirements, faster dismissal process should be on the table

The state’s top education officials want to lengthen the probationary period for new teachers, overhaul the way teachers are terminated, and give the state more power over teacher evaluations.

They also said the state should have more authority over low-performing school districts, “arbitrary barriers” preventing charter schools from opening should be eliminated, and mayoral control in New York City should be renewed.

Those are among about two dozen positions from Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch and soon-to-be acting Education Commissioner Elizabeth Berlin laid out in a 20-page letter sent on Thursday to Jim Malatras, the state director of operations for Gov. Andrew Cuomo. The letter offers the first comprehensive look at what the Board of Regents and State Education Department are willing to support as Cuomo prepares to push for aggressive changes to the way teachers are hired, fired, and evaluated.

The letter was solicited by Malatras earlier this month in a letter that challenged Tisch and Berlin’s predecessor, John King, to take a stand on a series of thorny education-policy debates that Cuomo said he wants addressed as his second term gets underway.

Many of the other proposals and positions aren’t new, Tisch noted in an interview. Others were unsolicited, such as an increase in funding for underserved students, boosting school diversity and passing the DREAM Act.

But the letter’s contents stuck out because of the areas that Tisch and Berlin wade into that the State Education Department and Regents rarely speak up about, in part because they have limited power to change them.

“The questions and concerns outlined in the letter relate to issues of State Law, which are under the direct control of the State Legislature and the Governor, not the Department or the Board of Regents,” they write.

New York’s tenure review process is one example. Tisch and Berlin say one way to strengthen it is to change the law so that new teachers are required to work for five years, not three, before they are eligible for the added job protection.

Another is the due process law for teachers facing termination, which critics say make it too hard to remove incompetent teachers. Tisch and Berlin propose that lawmakers should get rid of the independent contractors who oversee the proceedings and replace them with state employees to speed up the process, which takes an average of six months.

Tisch’s letter was sent on the eve of Cuomo’s second inauguration ceremony and just days before he is to deliver a State of the State address. The governor has signaled his second term will feature a far more aggressive education agenda than he pursued when he came into office in 2011.

Recently, he vowed to take on what he has called the “monopoly of the education bureaucracy,” and said that the state should allow more charter schools to open and require tougher teacher evaluations. Malatras’ letter to Tisch and King earlier this month suggested that the governor will want to go even further.

Cuomo has also expressed frustration over his limited power when it comes to education policy. He has often criticized the Board of Regents, a 17-member volunteer board that appoints the commissioner and controls policy, for its closeness to the legislators who appoint them.

Cuomo is not the first governor to gripe about his limited power over education decisions. Mario Cuomo, Andrew’s father, blamed the Regents for high dropout rates, and George Pataki repeatedly proposed abolishing the Board of Regents during his 12 years in office.

Tisch said she didn’t think any changes should be made to the way Regents are appointed. She also said the New York City mayor should remain in charge of schools, but that other cities considering the model should make the decision on their own.

It’s unclear which parts, if any, Cuomo will highlight in next week’s speech. But he has recently welcomed fights with the teachers unions. At roughly the same time that the State Education Department released the letter to reporters, New York State United Teachers were protesting the outside the governor’s mansion, where Cuomo was hosting a New Year’s Eve event.

Neither Malatras or Cuomo immediately responded to the letter’s contents, but StudentsFirstNY, an advocacy group aligned with the governor, offered faint praise for some of the proposals, calling them “useful ideas.” It also drew a quick rebuke from United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew, who called it a “wish list of ideas that won’t help kids.”

Tisch also said that the letter is not meant to represent the positions of the entire Board of Regents, a sign that it was not uniformly embraced.

“I was asked a set of very direct questions,” Tisch said when asked if other Regents weighed in on the letter. “The letter was directed to me” and John King, whose last day as commissioner is today.

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.