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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.”

fact-finding mission

Signal Mountain leaders look to Shelby County as model for school district secession

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
From left: Bartlett City Schools Director David Stephens and Lakeland School System Director Ted Horrell update state legislators on their new districts in 2015.

A cluster of towns that broke off from Shelby County Schools to create their own school systems in 2014 is about to host visitors from another Tennessee town looking into the viability of leaving Hamilton County Schools.

A committee from Signal Mountain, on the outskirts of Chattanooga, is scheduled next week to visit with leaders from Arlington, Bartlett, Collierville, Millington and Germantown. Along with Lakeland, the six towns have just completed a third year of operating their own school systems, just outside of Memphis.

Signal Mountain is in its second year of discussions about a possible pullout from the Chattanooga-based district. The community has three of Hamilton County’s higher-performing schools, as well as fewer poor and minority students. Its Town Council created the committee in January to look into the feasibility of creating a separate district, which would siphon off both students and revenue from Hamilton County Schools.

As part of their visit, the seven-member panel will hold open meetings with municipality leaders at Arlington High School. Signal Mountain Mayor Chris Howley and Councilwoman Amy Speek are scheduled to join the sessions.

“We felt it was valuable for us to meet with board members and school officials to gain insight on how the process went, what they learned, what they might do differently,” said committee chairman John Friedl.

“We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel,” he added.

The visit will come days after Shelby County’s secessions were spotlighted in a national report on the trend of wealthier and whiter communities to splinter off from larger school systems that are poorer and more diverse. The report was crafted by EdBuild, a nonprofit research group that focuses on school funding and equity. The report also listed Signal Mountain among nine towns across the nation that are actively pursuing pullouts.

The town of Red Bank, which is just east of Signal Mountain, also recently announced it will investigate launching a separate district.

If Signal Mountain residents vote eventually to create their own school system, they would use the same Tennessee law that allowed municipality voters in Shelby County to exit Tennessee’s largest district. The law, which EdBuild calls one of the most permissive in the nation, allows a town with at least 1,500 students to pull out without the approval of the district it leaves behind or consideration of the impact on racial or socioeconomic equity.

Signal Mountain leaders will focus next week on lessons learned by leaders in Shelby County.

After breaking off in 2014, the municipalities gained about 30,000 students, 33 schools and all of the challenges that come with launching new school systems. That includes funding, staffing and facilities. “We all started out with a central office staff of one, … and we had to build from there,” Millington Municipal Schools Director David Roper said during a 2015 presentation to state lawmakers.

The Shelby County breakaway also ended up in court over charges that the exit was racially motivated. But a federal judge eventually dismissed that lawsuit by Shelby County Schools.

The Signal Mountain exploration also has been met with some community resistance. A group called Stay with HCSD is advocating staying with Hamilton County Schools.

You can view the full schedule of Signal Mountain leaders’ visit below:

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Growth plus proficiency? Why states are turning to a hybrid strategy for judging schools (and why some experts say they shouldn’t)

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

A compromise in a long-running debate over how to evaluate schools is gaining traction as states rewrite their accountability systems. But experts say it could come with familiar drawbacks — especially in fairly accounting for the challenges poor students face.

Under No Child Left Behind, schools were judged by the share of students deemed proficient in math and reading. The new federal education law, ESSA, gives states new flexibility to consider students’ academic growth, too.

This is an approach that some advocates and researchers have long pushed for, saying that is a better way to judge schools that serve students who start far below proficiency.

But some states are proposing measuring academic growth through a hybrid approach that combines both growth and proficiency. (That’s in addition to using proficiency metrics where they are required.) A Chalkbeat review of ESSA plans found that a number of places plan to use a hybrid metric to help decide which of their schools are struggling the most, including Arizona, Connecticut, Delaware, Louisiana, Massachusetts, and Washington D.C.

The idea has a high-profile supporter: The Education Trust, a civil rights and education group now headed by former U.S. Education Secretary John King. But a number of researchers say the approach risks unfairly penalizing high-poverty schools and maintaining some of the widely perceived flaws of No Child Left Behind.

These questions have emerged because ESSA, the new federal education law, requires states to use academic and other measures to identify 5 percent of their schools as struggling. States have the option to include “academic progress” in their accountability systems, and many are doing so.

This is a welcome trend, says Andrew Ho of Harvard, who has written a book on the different ways to measure student progress. Systems that use proficiency percentages alone, rather than accounting for growth, “are a disaster both for measurement and for usefulness,” Ho said. “They are extremely coarse and dangerously misleading.”

Under a growth-to-proficiency model, Student A would be considered on track to proficiency by grade 6 based on the growth from grades 3 to 4, but students B and C would not. (Image: Ho’s “A Practitioner’s Guide to Growth Models”)

States that propose using this hybrid measure — commonly called “growth to proficiency” or “growth to standard” — have offered varying degrees of specificity in their plans about how they will calculate it. The basic idea is to measure whether students will meet or maintain proficiency within a set period of time, assuming they continue to grow at the same rate. Schools are credited for students deemed on track to meet the standard in the not-too-distant future, even if the students aren’t there yet.

This tends to rewards schools that serve students who are already near, at, or above the proficiency standard, meaning that schools with a large number of students in poverty will likely get lower scores on average.

It also worries researchers wary of re-creating systems that incentivize schools to focus on students near the proficiency bar, as opposed to those far below or above it. That phenomenon has been observed in some research on accountability systems focused on proficiency.

“As an accountability metric, growth-to-proficiency is a terrible idea for the same reason that achievement-level metrics are a bad idea — it is just about poverty,” said Cory Koedel, an economist at the University of Missouri who has studied school accountability. He has argued that policymakers should try to ensure ratings are not correlated with measures of poverty.

Researchers tend to say that the strongest basis for sorting out the best and worst schools (at least as measured by test scores) is to rely on sophisticated value-added calculations. Those models control for where students start, as well as demographic factors like poverty.

“If there are going to be high stakes — and I don’t suggest that there should be — then the more technically rigorous value-added models become the best way to approach teacher- and school-level accountability,” said Ho.

A large share of states are planning to use a value-added measure or similar approach as part of their accountability systems, in several cases alongside the growth-to-proficiency measure.

Some research has found that these complex statistical models can be an accurate gauge of how teachers and schools affect students’ test scores, though it remains the subject of significant academic debate.

But The Education Trust, which has long backed test-based accountability, is skeptical of these growth models, saying that they water down expectations for disadvantaged students and don’t measure whether students will eventually reach proficiency.

“Comparisons to peers won’t reveal whether that student will one day meet grade-level standards,” the group’s Midwest chapter stated in a report on Michigan’s ESSA state plan. “This risks setting lower expectations for students of color and low-income students, and does not incentivize schools to accelerate learning for historically underserved student groups.”

In an email Natasha Ushomirsky, EdTrust’s policy director, said the group supports measures like growth to proficiency over value-added models “because a) they do a better job of communicating expectations for raising student achievement, and b) they can be used to understand whether schools are accelerating learning for historically underserved students, and prompt them to do so.”

Of the value-added approach, Ushomirsky said, “A lower-scoring student is likely to be compared only to other lower-scoring students, while a higher-scoring student is compared to other higher-scoring students. This means that the same … score may represent very different amounts of progress for these two students.”

Marty West, a professor at Harvard, says the most prudent approach is to report proficiency data transparently, but to use value-added growth to identify struggling schools for accountability purposes.

“There are just too many unintended consequences from using [proficiency] or any hybrid approach as the basis of your performance evaluation system,” he said.

“The most obvious is making educators less interested in teaching in [high-poverty] schools because they know they have an uphill battle with respect to any accountability rating — and that’s the last thing we want.”

This story has been updated to include additional information from Education Trust.