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After 41 SESIS errors over two hours, a special-ed teacher joins a push for reform

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Special-education teacher Megan Moskop at a forum Monday where she described problems with the data-tracking system, SESIS.

When her son was in pre-kindergarten, Tiffany Zerges asked the city to find out whether he had a disability and to come up with a plan to serve him.

“Although by law we were allowed a response to our request within 60 days,” Zerges said at a special-education forum this week, “60 days came and went, then 90, then 120 days.”

Once her son was belatedly evaluated, specialists contracted by the city began working with him. But those specialists rarely coordinated with the boy’s teachers or updated Zerges on his progress, she said, adding that she met with service providers just twice over three years.

“Children are losing months and even years of their education while we wait,” said Zerges, whose son is now in second grade at P.S. 361 in Manhattan. “We need changes to happen now.”

Monday’s forum was organized by a coalition of faith-based groups called Metro IAF, which hosted two similar forums last May that Chancellor Carmen Fariña attended. Though Fariña promised then that services for the nearly 188,000 city students with disabilities would improve under her restructuring of the education department, the group insisted Monday that special-education problems remain widespread.

The department confirmed that earlier this month when it released data showing that nearly 30 percent of students with disabilities, like Zerges’ son, had to wait longer than the legal limit to receive the plans that initiative support services. The report, which was mandated by a City Council law, also said that 35 percent of students only receive some of the services they require, while 5 percent — or almost 8,600 students — receive none at all.

The city has cautioned that those figures are not fully reliable because of grave flaws with the department’s $130 million special-education tracking system, known as SESIS. The online system has been plagued by technical problems since it launched in 2011, and student information remains on multiple, disconnected databases. Early on, the system’s glitches forced so many teachers to input data on evenings and weekends that an arbitrator eventually ordered the city to pay out $38 million in overtime.

At Monday’s forum, special-education teacher Megan Moskop said SESIS remains as troubled as ever.

During a recent two-hour session she spent plugging data into SESIS, Moskop said she received 41 error messages. The time spent contending with the faulty system leaves less time to work with students, she said.

“We educators want to be helping students with disabilities,” said Moskop, who teaches at M.S. 324 in Washington Heights, “but instead we’re pressured and sometimes forced to prioritize this dysfunctional data-keeping over real student service.”

Last month, Public Advocate Letitia James filed a lawsuit against the city claiming that problems with SESIS have left some students without services and caused the city to lose millions of dollars in Medicaid reimbursements. On Wednesday, the city’s Independent Budget Office said those reimbursements fell $373 million short of the city’s initial projections from 2012 to 2015.

At the forum, Metro IAF members called on Fariña to quickly initiate a series of reforms, such as adding extra members to the teams that create plans for pre-K students with disabilities and fixing SESIS.

“This is not just a moral obligation to educate every child,” said Rabbi David Adelson of the East End Temple in Manhattan. “It’s also federal law to provide decent services.”

An education department spokesman said that the city is working to improve its Medicaid claiming process and expects to see an increase in claims this year. Rule changes and a “corrective action plan” the city was required to enact have limited its ability to file claims, he added.

He also said that a multi-agency task force is looking for ways to improve SESIS, and that the department has launched several new programs for students with autism, hired 300 extra occupational therapists, and added staffers to help create learning plans for students with disabilities.

“We know there is more work to be done,” said the spokesman, Harry Hartfield, “and we will continue to invest in programs and services to ensure that every student can succeed.”

social studies

Tennessee’s long journey to new social studies standards nears its finish line

Tennessee is one step closer to having new social studies standards after almost 1½ years of unprecedented public scrutiny and feedback.

The State Board of Education voted unanimously on Friday to move ahead with a revision that was begun partly out of concern over how Islam is being taught in seventh-grade world history.

Now receiving attention is the question of whether too much Tennessee history is being removed from standards that most everyone agrees were over-laden with material.

The proposed draft, which will undergo a final vote in July, reduces the number of standards overall by 14 percent — but at the expense of some Tennessee history such as the Chickamauga Indians, “Roots” author Alex Haley, and the New Madrid earthquakes.

Members of the Standards Recommendation Committee have presented the proposal as striking the right balance.

“There’s an infinite number of people and facts that are significant, and we can’t include them all,” said Todd Wigginton, who led the teacher review and is director of instruction for Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools.

But Bill Carey, one of the panel’s nine members, offered a dissenting opinion to the section for grades 1-5.

“In these standards, the Plateau of Tibet is mentioned twice but the Cumberland Plateau is never mentioned,” said Carey, who is executive director of the nonprofit Tennessee History for Kids. “… I think a case can be made that there’s too much of Tennessee missing.”

Wigginton said the idea behind the final draft is that teachers should have more flexibility, and focus more on important concepts.

He said Tennessee’s new standards asked students to consider, for example, the significance of civil disobedience in the civil rights movement, rather than memorize a list of people and dates.

The state spearheaded a laborious review for social studies beginning in January 2016 after critics charged that seventh-grade standards addressing the Five Pillars of Islam amounted to “proselytizing.” Members of the recommendation committee say all religions would be taught in a uniform way under the new standards.

The draft reflects tens of thousands comments from hundreds of Tennessee residents over the course of two public reviews, as well as nearly 100 hours of meetings by the committee. That panel, along with a team of educators who reviewed public feedback last summer, created standards that they say allows teachers flexibility and the freedom to go in-depth, while also covering key topics.

Unlike many other states, Tennessee hasn’t cordoned off Tennessee history to specific units for nearly two decades, choosing instead to “embed” state-specific facts across all grades. Carey said he’s made a career out of helping teachers incorporate Tennessee material into their history classes. He noted that several state historical associations and museums have raised concerns too about the final draft.

“In my opinion, for embedding to work, Tennessee topics have to be clearly spelled out in the standards,” said Carey, who submitted a minority report to share his concerns. “If they’re not, teachers won’t get the message that they have to cover Tennessee history.”

Jason Roach, a former social studies teacher and now principal of Mooresburg Elementary School in Hawkins County, said those terms could be incorporated into curriculum, even if they aren’t explicitly spelled out in the standards.

Standards lay out what students should know at each grade level, while curriculum includes the lessons and activities that students study and do throughout the school year.

“Tennessee history needs to be taught in Tennessee schools. I believe that,” Roach said. But, he continued, teachers should decide how to build curriculum on a local level, rather than the state over-prescribing what should be covered through the standards.

During a discussion Thursday about the final draft, board members offered praise about both the process and the results.

“You did an incredible job,” said Lillian Hartgrove, who represents part of Middle Tennessee. “I know it’s not exactly what everyone wanted … but what you have accomplished is truly incredible.”

Tennessee’s academic standards in all four core subject areas have been overhauled over the last three years, and social studies standards are the only ones still in the works.

If approved, the new Tennessee Academic Standards for Social Studies will reach the state’s classrooms in the 2019-2020 school year.

Compromise

Indiana budget deal would offer modest school funding increases plus a big fix for teacher bonuses

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Many schools across Indiana could expect more money per student in the coming years and strong teachers at struggling schools would be likely to receive higher bonuses under a budget deal announced Friday.

House and Senate lawmakers have come to an agreement on how much money to send to Indiana schools over the next two years. The budget would increase total dollars for schools by about 3.3 percent from 2017 to 2019. Included within that: a 2.5 percent average increase for per-student funding to $6,709 in 2019, up from $6,540 this year. The budget is expected to go up for a final vote late Friday.

Overall, the budget plan would accomplish some of the key goals prioritized by Gov. Eric Holcomb, state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick and House Republicans. Those goals include increasing funding for the state’s preschool program, internet access for schools, and Advanced Placement exams that help students earn college credit while in high school.

Under the compromise, every district in Marion County would see its basic state aid and per-student funding increase, including Indianapolis Public Schools. (IPS would have seen cuts in the House plan, and the increases wound have been higher under the Senate plan.)

Suburban districts such as Carmel and Hamilton Southeastern would get sizable funding bumps as with the Senate plan. Districts losing enrollment, including East Chicago, could lose state money. But overall, many of the districts with some of the state’s poorest students stand to see increases. The Gary and Hammond districts, for example, would both see gains in per-student funding and overall.

Lawmakers also settled on a compromise about how to pay teachers.

Throughout the session, they waffled about whether to pay teachers more for their performance or for taking on additional work in their schools.

At first, the House cut the bonuses entirely and set aside $3 million for a “career pathways” program that would reward teachers who take on leadership roles in their schools. That was far less money than the $40 million the Senate wanted to put toward teacher bonuses, but some teachers said they would rather have the long-term opportunity to improve their teaching and leadership skills rather than a short-term bonus that might not go toward their salaries in the future.

“I want a leadership role, but I want to be a teacher — I don’t want to be an administrator,” said Allison Larty, a teacher in Noblesville and Teach Plus policy fellow. “(A bonus) is not going to be make an impact. The creation of career pathways will make an impact in the long run.”

But those dollars were eliminated in the Senate budget and the budget compromise. Rep. Tim Brown, chairman of the House Ways & Means Committee, said it came down to Senate negotiations. Senators were willing to spend more on preschool, Brown said, if they didn’t have to spend elsewhere — so career pathways dollars were cut.

But lawmakers did agree to change the state’s now $30 million teacher bonus program, which came under fire from educators across the state last year for rewarding effective teachers in high-performing, usually affluent schools at a higher level than similar teachers in lower-performing schools.

Going forward, the program will dole out money based on a policy created by each school district, rather than ISTEP scores. Under the plan, the state would distribute $30 per student to each district, which would then divvy up the local bonus pool among teachers rated “effective” or “highly effective.” Of that money, up to 50 percent can be added into a teacher’s base salary so that the teacher receives it in future years as well. And teachers in virtual schools can receive these bonuses — something the Senate had moved against.

The compromise plan keeps other requirements suggested by the Senate for virtual schools, mandating that they report information about class size, teacher-per-student ratios, and how often teachers have in-person meetings to the education department each year. Virtual schools would get 90 percent of the basic per-student funding amount from the state, as they do now. (The House’s plan would have increased that to 100 percent.)

The state’s voucher program would see its funding grow over the next two years under the compromise plan. Indiana is projected to spend more than $156 million by 2018 and $167 million by 2019 on the program, up from $146 million in 2017.

This new agreement no longer carves out the voucher money as a budget line item. Critics of making it a line item said it made the program vulnerable to cuts, but supporters applauded the change because they said it increased transparency around how much the state spends on vouchers but pulling it out of school-by-school calculations and placing it squarely in the budget itself.

The budget also includes:

  • $22 million per year for the state’s preschool program, up from about $12 million. $1 million per year is set aside for “in-home” online preschool programs.
  • About $32 million for English-language learners, up from about $20 million. The grant would be $250 per English-learner student in 2018 and $300 per student in 2019. Schools with higher concentrations of English learners would get additional funding.
  • $3 million per year to improve school internet access.
  • $5 million over two years in incentive grants for schools and districts that consolidate services.
  • $10.4 million for Advanced Placement tests and $4.1 million for PSAT tests.
  • $1 million to align initiatives in science, technology, engineering and math.
  • $500,000 per year for dual language immersion programs.
  • $26.3 million per year for testing and $12.3 million per year for remediation testing.
  • $15 million per year for the Charter and Innovation Network School Grant Program, which would support schools that want to become “innovation schools.”

Chalkbeat reporter Dylan Peers McCoy contributed to this story.