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.

Votes are in

Memphis educators vote to begin negotiations on new contract with district

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
A teacher training last year on Expeditionary Learning, a new curriculum for English language arts introduced in Shelby County Schools in 2017.

Shelby County Schools teachers have decided it’s time to go back to the bargaining table with district officials to hammer out a new agreement.

Sixty percent of the district’s 7,000 educators, or more than 4,300, voted to allow the two teacher groups that represent them to start negotiating with district officials about pay, insurance, and working conditions. That’s well above the 51 percent that was legally required to begin talks.

It will be the first time the groups have negotiated with the Memphis school district since 2015, and the first since the city’s teacher group split into two. Last year’s organizing efforts didn’t get enough votes to begin negotiations, known as “collaborative conferencing” in Tennessee.

The last agreement, or memorandum of understanding, expired in March. The memorandums are legally binding and can cover such things as salaries, grievance procedures, insurance, and working conditions. But under state law, the agreements can’t address evaluations or personnel decisions such as layoffs or tenure.

Tikeila Rucker, president of the United Education Association of Shelby County, said she hopes talks with the district start by February. She says that it could take up to a year to reach an agreement, although she’s hopeful that it will be sooner.

“We’re creating a survey now to share with the teachers throughout the district so we’ll know what things teachers want to see,” Rucker said. They’ll ask teachers for input on items that can be negotiated, including wages, insurance, grievance procedures, and working conditions.

From earlier teacher feedback, Rucker said educators are concerned about rising insurance costs, and classroom conditions such as class size. They also want raises based on years of service restored, as well as extra pay for advanced degrees, she said.

Dorsey Hopson, Shelby County Schools superintendent, has tried for several years to implement a merit pay system for teachers based on evaluations that include student test scores. That would mean only teachers with high evaluation scores would be eligible for raises. But because of numerous testing problems, Hopson hasn’t yet done that. Instead, for the last three years, all educators have received 3 percent raises.

Keith Williams, executive director of Memphis-Shelby County Education Association, said the salary increases that teachers have received in recent years amounted to bonuses and so-called cost-of-living increases that haven’t kept pace with the cost of living.

“We need to have continuity of pay and a way to predict our earnings,” he said in advocating for the return of step pay increases.

Additionally, he said teachers want to restore time for daily planning periods. And they want a “quality curriculum” that they’re trained to teach and is ready to go on the first day of school.

Teachers have complained that the English curriculum, Expeditionary Learning, doesn’t allow them to tailor content for their students. The new math curriculum, Eureka Math, had a bumpy rollout. Some materials arrived late, teacher training was behind schedule, and for some, the program didn’t start until 12 weeks into the school year.

Williams believes negotiations may start in January and is hopeful that a new three-year contract will be in place by April. Meanwhile, he plans regular updates with teachers to allow them to have input.

Union leaders are waiting for the official certified vote numbers that are expected to be released Tuesday. Williams said that almost 60 percent of the teachers supported his group. That means they’ll have more seats at the negotiating table.

But once negotiations begin, Rucker said, “the two associations will work as one team to advocate and collaborate on behalf of teachers.”

Transparency Tracker

‘No secret agreements’: Newarkers demand details of district-charter enrollment deal

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

This week, the Newark school board approved a lengthy legal agreement spelling out the details of the enrollment system that thousands of Newark families will use to apply to schools for the coming year.

Didn’t hear about it? You’re not alone.

The board OK’d the deal at a hastily arranged meeting Monday that few people in the community knew about or attended. State rules require that any changes to the district’s enrollment system “be publicly and transparently articulated before adoption.”

It’s unclear whether any changes were made — which would have triggered the transparency rules — because the board did not publicly discuss the details of the deal before voting, and the district has not made the agreement public.

Deborah Smith-Gregory, the president of the Newark NAACP, who attended Monday’s meeting, said she was disappointed that the board did not reveal any specifics about this year’s enrollment deal. Now that the district is back under local control after decades of state rule, she said, the elected board must commit to greater transparency.

“They have to do things differently,” she said. “They have to keep in mind that they’re a public entity — and they’re accountable to the community.”

The agreement describes in minute detail the inner workings of the five-year-old enrollment system, called Newark Enrolls, which allows families apply to most district and charter schools using a single application. The district and charter schools that opt into the system must sign the agreement each year.

The Newark Board of Education ratified the deal during a special meeting Monday — when schools and the district’s central office were closed. The meeting was scheduled to accommodate a charter school whose own board planned to vote on the agreement Tuesday. The timeline is tight because the citywide period for applying to schools begins Dec. 3.

The public agenda for Monday’s meeting, which mostly consisted of the board and Superintendent Roger León talking behind closed doors, did not mention the agreement. Just four community members were present for the public portion, when León and a couple board members made general comments about the controversial system, which critics contend funnels students into charter schools.

Then, without any public discussion of the agreement’s details — including a proposed change that León and charter leaders had debated in private — a majority of board members voted to approve it.

John Abeigon, president of the Newark Teachers Union and a fierce critic of charter schools, said both the district and its charter-school partners should disclose the terms of the deal.

“There should be absolute transparency,” he said.

The district’s current leadership is not the first to keep details of the enrollment system under wraps.

León, who began July 1, inherited it from his state-appointed predecessors, Cami Anderson and Christopher Cerf. One of only a handful of systems nationwide that combine district and charter admissions, proponents say it eases the enrollment process for families while helping to more evenly spread high-needs students across schools. Critics say it was designed to steer students and resources into the charter sector.

The system is dictated by the annual agreement between Newark Public Schools and participating charter schools. Apart from the news website NJ Spotlight, which published the agreement when it was first announced in 2013, it does not appear to have been released to the public since then — even as it has doubled in length, filling 20 pages last year.

In 2015, after Anderson touted the agreement at a state legislative hearing, saying it had created “greater equity and consistency” in admissions, several lawmakers asked to see it.

“No one seems to know about it,” said Assemblyman Ralph Caputo during the hearing.

After Anderson resigned, Cerf’s administration continued to renew the agreement each year. In an email, Cerf, who stepped down in February, said, “The document was always publicly available and was frequently discussed publicly.”

But community activists who have long scrutinized the enrollment system said they do not recall the district ever publicizing the agreement.

“I do not remember ever seeing this document, ever seeing it published anywhere, ever seeing it on the [district] website where we could find it, ever even discussing it in a thorough manner,” said Wilhelmina Holder, a longtime activist and critic of the enrollment system. She added that the new administration and school board should release the latest document to the public.

“No secret agreements,” she said. “You voted on it. If you’re discussing it, then why can’t we have a say in it?”

Absent the agreement, families have other ways to learn about Newark Enrolls. The district publishes a thick enrollment guidebook each year with information about every school, and hosts an annual admissions fair. It also maintains an enrollment website featuring a family-friendly video that illustrates how the system works.

But the agreement offers a uniquely detailed look under the system’s hood — and describes features that are not widely known, according to a copy of last year’s agreement that Chalkbeat obtained.

For instance, it alludes to a “third party” that programs the algorithm used to match students with schools based on the terms set forth in the agreement. The district plays “no active role” in the actual assignment of students to schools, the document says.

It also stipulates that the district must send charter schools as many students as they request. In return, charters must admit all students assigned to them — even if that pushes their enrollment above the limit set by the state, according to the 2017 document.

That practice of assigning schools more students than they currently have space for, called “overmatching,” is done to offset attrition that happens as some families inevitably leave the district before the next school year starts. It became a sticking point in recent closed-door negotiations between León’s administration and charter schools.

León wanted to end the practice, despite charter leaders who said it was critical for filling their seats. People in the charter sector said the final agreement still allows overmatching, though León told Chalkbeat that he believes the practice is unnecessary because charters can pull students from their waitlists to replace those who leave.

In an interview after Monday’s vote, León said no major changes were made to this year’s agreement.

Board chair Josephine Garcia, who made no public comments about enrollment during Monday’s meeting, declined to be interviewed immediately afterwards and did not respond to emails later in the week. However, she was overheard saying after the meeting that the district would eventually “rebrand” the enrollment system.

Chalkbeat contacted the district several times after the meeting to request a copy of the agreement. On Thursday evening, an official provided a public-records request form, which Chalkbeat submitted.

As of Friday, the district had not released the document.