litmus tests

As NYSUT endorses testing opt-outs, city union holds back

PHOTO: Justin Weiner
A rally against high-stakes testing at Brooklyn New School and the Brooklyn School for Collaborative Studies in 2015.

It wasn’t long before Karen Magee, the feisty leader of the state teachers union, steered the conversation on a radio program this week about the budget brawl in Albany to testing.

New York State United Teachers, along with its national and New York City counterparts, has made no secret of its problems with standardized tests. The required annual exams, which New York students will take this month, stress out children, warp instruction, and fuel unfair teacher evaluations, the unions say.

But as a rising number of parents decide to register their opposition to the tests by keeping their children from taking them, the unions have stopped short of endorsing the boycotts, saying only that parents should have a right to “opt out.” On Monday, Magee vaulted over that invisible line.

“I am saying that I would urge parents at this point in time to opt out of testing,” Magee said on the show Capitol Pressroom. (“Wow,” host Susan Arbetter replied.)

Last year, tens of thousands of students across New York sat out the state exams, as did more than 1,900 in the city — a tiny fraction of the 410,000 students who took the tests, but a 450 percent increase over the previous year. In addition to their loathing of standardized tests and how they can dictate what is taught in schools, many of the boycotters are also driven by their opposition to the Common Core standards that the tests measure and the teacher evaluations that rely on their results.

All that has forced union leaders, who back the standards and the need for student assessments but worry about over-testing and unreliable evaluation systems, to take increasingly nuanced stances on testing. The city’s United Federation of Teachers has managed to juggle those positions while at the same time mobilizing parents and teachers who are hostile to high-stakes testing, all without endorsing test refusal.

The union has been able to do that since members who openly back the opt-out movement are still in the minority. But with Magee’s comments coming as advocates predict record opt-out numbers this month, union leaders face new pressure to embrace exam boycotters.

“It’s really frustrating for those who are fighting the good fight to be turned down” by the unions, said Nancy Cauthen, a parent member of the city opt-out group Change the Stakes. “It seems like a little too much energy goes into maintaining their seat at the table,” she added, “rather than worrying about their membership and kids.”

Magee, who won control of NYSUT last year by pledging to take a harder line against state education policy, made her comments this week as state lawmakers battled Governor Andrew Cuomo over his plan to increase the weight of tests in teacher evaluations. In an interview with Chalkbeat, she said the union decided to encourage parents to opt out because of a “groundswell” of support for the movement among teachers and parents.

But in separate comments Monday, she suggested that a massive number of boycotters could undermine the evaluation system. “Statistically, if you take out enough, it has no merit or value whatsoever,” she told reporters. Her comments drew rebukes from a top state education official and Cuomo, who called them a “political tactic.”

Randi Weingarten, president of the 1.6 million-member American Federation of Teachers, of which NYSUT and the UFT are both affiliates, quickly jumped in. She posted online that she would boycott New York’s tests if she had children in the public schools, and that she understood “why @NYSUT and parents are calling for an opt-out.”

Laura Scott
PHOTO: Sarah Darville
UFT President Michael Mulgrew and AFT President Randi Weingarten attended a rally against Gov. Cuomo’s education policies at P.S. 10 in Brooklyn last month.

The influential historian and education blogger Diane Ravitch was quick to praise Weingarten for “personally endorsing” the opt-out movement. Other observers were more skeptical, asking if the AFT would now direct resources to the cause.

In an interview, Weingarten offered a nuanced take on testing, but stopped short of backing Magee’s decision to encourage test refusal. She said parents should have the right to opt out their children from the tests, and that teachers should have the right to “give parents both the pros and cons” of skipping the exams.

But she added that teachers are not necessarily protected if they refuse to administer mandated exams. And she said her union would not “run a campaign” advising parents to boycott the tests, as Magee implied she plans to do.

“There’s a difference between supporting a parent’s right to opt out and playing a leading role,” Weingarten said.

Unlike Weingarten, UFT President Michael Mulgrew did not rush to respond to Magee’s opt-out remarks. In an interview, he noted that he has previously said he backs parents’ right to boycott the exams and that his union is affiliated with NYSUT.

“That’s what the state president has said,” he said, referring to Magee’s comments. “We support our state union.”

Mulgrew represents a different membership than Magee, whose members hail from suburban and upstate districts with far higher opt-out percentages and some school boards that endorse test refusal. He also works closely with city schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, who takes a middle-of-the-road stance on testing similar to his. (Fariña told principals in a memo Tuesday to “reiterate the value” of tests to parents and students, but also to respect their decision to opt out.)

UFT President Michael Mulgrew and schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña have both called for a reduced emphasis on testing but avoided endorsing the test opt-out movement.
PHOTO: Jessica Glazer
UFT President Michael Mulgrew and schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña have both called for a reduced emphasis on testing but avoided endorsing the test opt-out movement.

Still, some city teachers have partnered with opt-out groups, discussed the movement with interested parents and sometimes encouraged them to join, and even pledged not to administer the tests. As they do, they are looking to their union leaders for support. Lauren Cohen, a fifth-grade teacher at opt-out-friendly P.S. 321 in Park Slope, said Magee’s comments this week made her wonder if the UFT would follow suit.

“Does this mean I can say what I really feel now and the union will protect me?” said Cohen, who is a member of the union’s Movement of Rank and File Educators, or MORE, caucus. 

Cohen introduced a MORE-sponsored resolution at a UFT meeting last week calling on the union to back parents who boycott the tests, to protect teachers who speak out against testing and “conscientious objectors” who refuse to give the exams, and to distribute opt-out materials. The measure did not get enough votes to be brought before the full membership, which some attributed to resistance from the union leadership.

Mike Schirtzer, a MORE member who helped write the resolution, said the union should conduct polls and host forums to gauge how many members support test refusal. Schirtzer, who teaches at Leon Goldstein High School for the Sciences in Manhattan Beach, Brooklyn, said he believes the number is larger than the leadership may realize.

“There is a huge groundswell of teachers getting behind opt out,” he said.

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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.