teachable moment (with video)

A teacher evaluation panel dissolves early after dissent

A panel discussion that featured officials on each side of the teacher evaluation stand-off was halted abruptly last night after a disagreement escalated. The disruption did not stem from the teachers union and Department of Education official on the panel, but from a small group of audience members protesting the event itself.

“Okay, I’m going to cut it off,” said moderator Evan Stone, following a crescendo of interruptions that built up for nearly five minutes. Stone is a founder of Educators 4 Excellence, which hosted the event. “Clearly, we’ve broken a lot of norms of respectability.”

The interruptions came from at least three people in an audience of more than 100, most of them teachers. They began in response to Stone’s handling of the panel and then escalated into an airing of grievances that targeted Educators 4 Excellence and its teacher evaluation recommendations, released yesterday, which the protesters said did not reflect their views.

“I am a teacher and I have never been asked what I thought,” yelled out Stuart Kramer Kaplan, one of the protesters.

(Click here for video of the exchange.)

Educators 4 Excellence is an advocacy group of teachers who hold shared views on education policy, many of which — like the group’s position against seniority-based layoffs — challenge traditional teachers union orthodoxy. Led by Teach For America alumni who are no longer in the classroom, the group has quickly gained a high profile with the support of national philanthropists, including the Gates Foundation.

The group organized the panel as part of its efforts to influence the teacher evaluation debate. Panelists included Shael Polakow-Suransky,  the senior deputy chancellor at the Department of Education, and Leo Casey, the vice president of the United Federation of Teachers. Their respective organizations have not been able to hammer out an agreement on details of a teacher evaluation system. The panel also included a teacher, principal, and education consultant.

Earlier in the day, E4E released its own set of recommendations, which served as a major talking point for much of the evening.

For at least the first 90 minutes, those efforts created a productive dialogue. Polakow-Suransky and Casey engaged in a polite and wide-ranging conversation about best practices for improving instructional performance.

They reached consensus on the urgency for establishing new evaluation guidelines as well as the importance of more frequent classroom observations by school leaders and colleagues.

Polakow-Suransky stopped short of endorsing a recommendation by Educators 4 Excellence that teachers should be observed by outside consultants. He said that the estimated costs would reach upwards of $75 million annually. The cost of consulting contracts is a major target of City Council members pushing to avoid teacher layoffs by suggesting other cuts.

Towards the end of the evening, a brief dispute between Polakow-Suransky and Casey seemed to trigger the outbursts.

After Casey argued for keeping lawyers out of negotiations, Polakow-Suransky swiped back, reminding him that hours earlier the UFT filed a temporary restraining order to prevent the DOE from moving forward with any closure or co-location plans. (We’ll have more on the restraining order later today.)

“One arrives at litigation when the education process breaks down,” replied Casey.

Kramer and Michael Friedman, a union chapter leader, then intervened and went on to criticize the research methods of E4E.

“They didn’t ask us for our opinions. The leadership just came up with a position without any other teachers,” Friedman said.

Two research surveys were sent to E4E members by the policy team, according to Stone.

With the floor now unintentionally open to public comment, many audience members jumped to the defense of E4E and the panel.

“You have to leave. You have to go,” said one man, to applause.

After the panel broke, organizers downplayed it as an isolated incident. Others said they were shocked.

“I thought it was totally inappropriate,” said Emily Bisso, a teacher at Ocean Hill Collegiate, a Brooklyn school within the Uncommon Schools network.

A group of young charter school teachers said that they had mixed feelings about the panel, but agreed that it ended on a low note.

“I guarantee that was just pent-up frustration,” said Miatta Massaley, a teacher at  Harlem Success Academy 5 charter school. “It was inappropriate how they went about it, but they had legitimate concerns.”

“That’s exactly the opposite of what we teach our kids,” said Jarell Lee, a teacher at the Excellence Boys Charter School in Bedford Stuyvesant. “We teach them that there are better strategies to handle situations where they feel frustrated.”

Correction: The originally published version of this article characterized the majority of the audience as being charter school teachers. The report was based on interviews with teachers who identified as charter school teachers. According to a survey conducted by people who RSVP’d for the event, the characterization is not accurate. Ten charter school teachers attended the event, according to the survey, out of a total of 117 people.

after douglas

Betsy DeVos avoids questions on discrimination as school safety debates reach Congress

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos prepares to testify at a House Appropriations Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies Subcommittee hearing in Rayburn Building on the department's FY2019 budget on March 20, 2018. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos fielded some hostile questions on school safety and racial discrimination as she defended the Trump administration’s budget proposal in a House committee hearing on Tuesday.

The tone for the hearing was set early by ranking Democrat Rep. Rosa DeLauro, who called aspects DeVos’s prepared remarks “misleading and cynical” before the secretary had spoken. Even the Republican subcommittee chair, Rep. Tom Cole, expressed some skepticism, saying he was “concerned about the administration continuing to request cuts that Congress has rejected.”

During nearly two hours of questioning, DeVos stuck to familiar talking points and largely side-stepped the tougher queries from Democrats, even as many interrupted her.

For instance, when Rep. Barbara Lee, a Democrat from Texas, complained about proposed spending cuts and asked, “Isn’t it your job to ensure that schools aren’t executing harsher punishments for the same behavior because [students] are black or brown?” DeVos responded by saying that students of color would benefit from expanded school choice programs.

Lee responded: “You still haven’t talked about the issue in public schools as it relates to black and brown students and the high disparity rates as it relates to suspensions and expulsions. Is race a factor? Do you believe that or not?” (Recent research in Louisiana found that black students receive longer suspensions than white students involved in the same fights, though the difference was very small.)

Again, DeVos did not reply directly.

“There is no place for discrimination and there is no tolerance for discrimination, and we will continue to uphold that,” she said. “I’m very proud of the record of the Office of Civil Rights in continuing to address issues that arise to that level.”

Lee responded that the administration has proposed cuts to that office; DeVos said the reduction was modest — less than 1 percent — and that “they are able to do more with less.”

The specific policy decision that DeVos faces is the future of a directive issued in 2014 by the Obama administration designed to push school districts to reduce racial disparities in suspensions and expulsions. Conservatives and some teachers have pushed DeVos to rescind this guidance, while civil rights groups have said it is crucial for ensuring black and Hispanic students are not discriminated against.

That was a focus of another hearing in the House on Tuesday precipitated by the shooting last month at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican, falsely claimed in his opening statement that Broward County Public Schools rewrote its discipline policy based on the federal guidance — an idea that has percolated through conservative media for weeks and been promoted by other lawmakers, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Utah Sen. Mike Lee. In fact, the Broward County rules were put into place in 2013, before the Obama administration guidance was issued.

The Manhattan Institute’s Max Eden, a leading critic of Obama administration’s guidance, acknowledged in his own testimony that the Broward policy predated these rules. But he suggested that policies like Broward’s and the Obama administration’s guidance have made schools less safe.

“Faced with pressure to get the numbers down, the easiest path is to simply not address, or to not record, troubling, even violent, behavior,” he said.

Kristen Harper, a director with research group Child Trends and a former Obama administration official, disagreed. “To put it simply, neither the purpose nor the letter of the federal school discipline guidance restrict the authority of school personnel to remove a child who is threatening student safety,” she said.

There is little, if any, specific evidence linking Broward County’s policies to how Stoneman Douglas shooter Nicholas Cruz was dealt with. There’s also limited evidence about whether reducing suspensions makes schools less safe.

Eden pointed to a study in Philadelphia showing that the city’s ban on suspensions coincided with a drop in test scores and attendance in some schools. But those results are difficult to interpret because the prohibition was not fully implemented in many schools. He also cited surveys of teachers expressing concerns about safety in the classroom including in Oklahoma CityFresno, California; and Buffalo, New York.

On the other hand, a recent study found that after Chicago modestly reduced suspensions for the most severe behaviors, student test scores and attendance jumped without any decline in how safe students felt.

DeVos is now set to consider the repeal of those policies on the Trump administration’s school safety committee, which she will chair.

On Tuesday, DeVos said the committee’s first meeting would take place “within the next few weeks.” Its members will be four Cabinet secretaries: DeVos herself, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, and Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen.

Town Hall

Hopson promises more flexibility as Memphis school leaders clear the air with teachers on new curriculum

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson answers questions from Memphis teachers at a town hall hosted by United Education Association of Shelby County on Monday.

The Shelby County Schools superintendent told passionate teachers at a union town hall Monday that they can expect more flexibility in how they teach the district’s newest curriculums.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the teachers who score highest on their evaluations should not feel like they need to read from a script to meet district requirements, although he didn’t have an immediate answer to how that would work.

Teacher frustrations were reaching a boiling point on district curriculums introduced this school year. Although the state requirements have changed several times over the last eight years, this change was particularly bothersome to teachers because they feel they are teaching to a “script.”

“Teachers have to be given the autonomy,” Hopson said. Although he cited the need for the district to have some control as teachers are learning, “at the end of the day, if you’re a level 4 or level 5 teacher, and you know your students, there needs to be some flexibility.”

Vocal teachers at the meeting cited check-ins from central office staff as evidence of the overreach.

“I keep hearing people say it’s supplemental but we have people coming into my room making sure we’re following it to a T,” said Amy Dixon a teacher at Snowden School. “We’re expected to follow it … like a script.”

The 90-minute meeting sponsored by the United Education Association of Shelby County drew a crowd of about 100 people to talk about curriculum and what Hopson called “a culture of fear” throughout the district of making a mistake.

Hopson said his team is still working on how to strike the right balance between creativity and continuity across nearly 150 district-run schools because so many students move during the school year.

He reassured despondent teachers he would come up with a plan to meet the needs of teachers and keep curriculums consistent. He said some continuity is needed across schools because many students move a lot during the school year.

“We know we got to make sure that I’m coming from Binghampton and going over to Whitehaven it’s got to be at least somewhat aligned,” he said. “I wish we were a stable, middle-class, not the poorest city in the country, then we wouldn’t have a lot of these issues.”

Ever since Tennessee’s largest district began phasing in parts of an English curriculum called Expeditionary Learning, teachers have complained of being micromanaged, instead of being able to tailor content for their students. The same goes for the new math curriculum Eureka Math.

The district’s changes are meant to line it up with the state. Tennessee’s new language arts and math standards replaced the Common Core curriculum, but in fact, did not deviate much when the final version was released last fall. This is the third change in eight years to state education requirements.

Still, Shelby County Schools cannot fully switch to the new curriculums until they are approved by the Tennessee State Board of Education. District leaders hope both curriculums, which received high marks from a national group that measures curriculum alignment to Common Core, will be added when textbooks are vetted for the 2019-20 school year.

Some urged educators to not think of the new curriculums as “scripts,” and admitted to poorly communicating the changes to teachers.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Pam Harris-Giles

“It’s not an expectation that we stand in front of our children and read off a piece of paper,” said Pam Harris-Giles, one of the district’s instructional support directors, who helps coordinate curriculum training and professional development.

Fredricka Vaughn, a teacher at Kirby High School, said that won’t be easy without clear communication of what flexibility will look like for high-performing teachers.

“If you don’t want us to use the word script, then bring back the autonomy,” she said.

Hopson stressed that the state’s largest school district could be a model for public education if everyone can work together to make the new curriculums work.

“It’s going to take work, hard work, everyone aligned from the top, everyone rowing in the same direction.”