departures

Amid sweeping changes, state's testing chief resigns suddenly

The State Education Department official who has supervised the state’s testing program since 2004 — through skyrocketing scores, a brutal crash, and the dawn of an overhaul — has resigned.

David Abrams, the State Education Department’s assistant commissioner for standards, assessment, and reporting since 2004, announced his resignation today. His resignation is effective immediately, shocking some people who had expected to participate in meetings with him this week.

Abrams’s departure comes at a time of robust efforts to overhaul both state tests and how their scores are used — and of robust criticism of those efforts. Most recently, principals across the state have launched a rebellion against the state’s plan to use student test scores in teacher evaluations. This week, a plan to lengthen reading tests to four hours was released prematurely, then rescinded the next day amid backlash.

The department has yet to find a replacement for Abrams, according to SED spokesman Dennis Tompkins. He said other department officials would fill in for Abrams for now, as would members of a privately funded group that has been advising SED on implementing Race to the Top commitments, which include redesigning student assessments and teacher evaluations.

“Obviously [Abrams] will be missed, but we do have a really strong team that can fill in,” Tompkins said. He declined to comment on the reasons for Abrams’s departure.

Abrams supervised the state’s testing program during a period of controversy and change.

For the first several years of his tenure, test scores skyrocketed, even as experts warned that the tests were not accurate gauges of student performance. In 2010, ex-Commissioner David Steiner, then in his first year as state education chief, acknowledged that the scores were inflated and promised to toughen exams, first in a series of incremental changes and then with entirely new tests in coming years.

Some argued that fundamental improvements to state tests could not happen as long as Abrams remained at the department. Last year, a New York Post editorial pegged Abrams with responsibility for grade inflation on state tests, and Manhattan Institute fellow Sol Stern wrote in the conservative National Review, “It is dismaying to discover that David Abrams, the Albany bureaucrat who was squarely in the middle of the test-inflation scandals of the past few years, is still New York’s state testing director.”

But others saw Abrams as having a role to play in improving the testing program. In the same Post editorial that criticized him, In the editorial, Steiner and Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch described Abrams as “a valued member of New York’s assessment team.” And an educator who has worked with Abrams on student assessment issues but does not work for the state said today that Abrams is “very passionate about testing and getting it right.”

Abrams did not respond to requests for comment today.

weekend update

How the education world is reacting to racist violence in Charlottesville — and to Trump’s muted response

PHOTO: Andrew Dallos/Flickr
A rally against hate in Tarrytown, New York, responds to the violence in Charlottesville.

For educators across the country, this weekend’s eruption of racism and violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, offered yet another painful opportunity to communicate their values to families, colleagues, and community members.

Many decried the white supremacists who convened in the college town and clashed with protesters who had come to oppose their message. Some used social media to outline ideas about how to turn the distressing news into a teaching moment.

And others took issue with President Donald Trump’s statement criticizing violence “on many sides,” largely interpreted as an unwillingness to condemn white supremacists.

One leading education official, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, followed Trump’s approach, criticizing what happened but not placing blame on anyone in particular:

DeVos’s two most recent predecessors were unequivocal, both about what unfolded in Charlottesville and whom to blame:

Leaders of the nation’s two largest teachers unions responded directly to Trump:

The American Federation of Teachers, Weingarten’s union, is supporting vigils across the country Sunday night organized by chapters of Indivisible, a coalition that emerged to resist the Trump administration. The union also promoted resources from Share My Lesson, its lesson-plan site, that deal with civil rights and related issues.

“As educators, we will continue to fulfill our responsibility to make sure our students feel safe and protected and valued for who they are,” Weingarten said in a statement with other AFT officials.

Local education officials took stands as well, often emotionally. Here’s what the superintendent in Memphis, which is engaged in the same debate about whether Confederate memorials should continue to stand that drew white supremacists to Charlottesville, said on Twitter:

Teachers in Hopson’s district return for the second week of classes on Monday. They’ve helped students process difficult moments before, such as a spate of police killings of black men in 2016; here’s advice they shared then and advice that teachers across the country offered up.

We want to hear from educators who are tackling this tough moment in their classrooms. Share your experiences and ideas here or in the form below. 

Betsy DeVos

‘Underperformer,’ ‘bully,’ and a ‘mermaid with legs’: NYMag story slams Betsy DeVos

PHOTO: New York Magazine
A drawing of DeVos commissioned by an 8-year-old starts the New York Magazine article.

A new article detailing Betsy DeVos’s first six months as U.S. education secretary concludes that she’s “a mermaid with legs: clumsy, conspicuous, and unable to move forward.”

That’s just one of several brutal critiques of DeVos’s leadership and effectiveness in the New York Magazine story, by Lisa Miller, who has previously covered efforts to overhaul high schools, New York City’s pre-kindergarten push, and the apocalypse. Here are some highlights:

  • Bipartisan befuddlement: The story summarizes the left’s well known opposition to DeVos’s school choice agenda. But her political allies also say she’s making unnecessary mistakes: “Most mystifying to those invested in her success is why DeVos hasn’t found herself some better help.”
  • A friend’s defense: DeVos is “muzzled” by the Trump administration, said her friend and frequent defender Kevin Chavous, a school choice activist.
  • The department reacts: “More often than not press statements are being written by career staff,” a spokesperson told Miller, rejecting claims that politics are trumping policy concerns.
  • D.C. colleagues speak: “When you talk to her, it’s a blank stare,” said Charles Doolittle, who quit the Department of Education in June. A current education department employee says: “It’s not clear that the secretary is making decisions or really capable of understanding the elements of a good decision.”
  • Kids critique: The magazine commissioned six portraits of DeVos drawn by grade-schoolers.
  • Special Olympics flip-flop: DeVos started out saying she was proud to partner with the athletics competition for people with disabilities — and quickly turned to defending a budget that cuts the program’s funding.
  • In conclusion: DeVos is an underperformer,” a “bully” and “ineffective,” Miller found based on her reporting.

Updated (July 31, 2017): A U.S. Education Department spokesperson responded to our request for comment, calling the New York Magazine story “nothing more than a hit piece.” Said Liz Hill: “The magazine clearly displayed its agenda by writing a story based on largely disputed claims and then leaving out of the article the many voices of those who are excited by the Secretary’s leadership and determination to improve education in America.”