First Person

19 Months Of Stalling By The NYC Education Department

This post also appeared on The Hechinger Report’s Eye on Education blog.

It’s nearly springtime, when a young man’s fancy turns to thoughts of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). At least in odd-numbered years. I’m not so young, but lately I’ve been thinking about NAEP, which is widely regarded as the best barometer of changes over time in the academic performance of U.S. students. No assessment can do all that we ask of it, but NAEP is a well-designed project supported by $130 million per year in federal funds.

Though not a substitute for careful evaluations of particular programs and policies, NAEP does crop up frequently in education policy circles. In New York state and New York City, for example, the discrepancy between trends in performance on the fourth- and eighth-grade reading and math NAEP tests (which were largely flat between 2007 and 2009) and the performance of the same population of students on the state’s own annual assessments (which skyrocketed over the same period) led New York state to change the threshold for student proficiency in 2010, and to make the state tests more challenging and less predictable.

The disparity also called into question Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s and Chancellor Joel Klein’s claims about progress in student performance and closing the city’s achievement gaps. There’s little doubt that the mayor and chancellor were annoyed with pesky reporters and bloggers using NAEP scores to poke holes in their claims.

This led me to speculate about how they might have responded. If you believe that tests are de facto measures of student learning, and that therefore test prep and teaching to the test are to be encouraged rather than vilified, why not do test prep for NAEP? It’s probably not illegal—although test prep for NAEP would certainly distort comparisons of performance over time and across urban school districts. Might Joel Klein, in the waning days of his tenure as chancellor in 2010, have put in place a NAEP test prep initiative for the Spring 2011 NAEP administration in New York City?

I don’t know. But I figured I could ask. So in July 2011, I filed a request for public records with the New York City Department of Education. New York state, as is true of most places, has enacted a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) that provides public access to most records maintained by public agencies, to support an open and responsible government. There are, of course, records that are exempt from disclosure, such as those pertaining to trade secrets or those that would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.

I wasn’t asking for anything like that, and an agency can always redact anything it deems irrelevant to the request or inappropriate to disclose. (This is why so much of Joel Klein’s email correspondence released in response to FOIL requests consists of blacked-out pages.) I was fairly specific in my requests, asking for email communications and letters among Department of Education (DOE) personnel relating to preparing students to take the 2011 NAEP assessments, including test preparation materials, memoranda, directives and/or instructions issued to central DOE personnel and/or personnel at elementary and/or middle schools regarding the policies and procedures for preparation for, and administration of, the 2011 NAEP assessments in New York City. There were a few other specific requests, and I followed guidance from successful requests in crafting the language of the letter. For example, I asked that the DOE disclose records as soon as they were identified rather than wait to gather all records.

New York’s FOIL law requires that an agency respond within five days to a reasonably described record request, and either (a) make the records available; (b) deny the request in writing; or (c) if it is unable to respond to the request within 20 business days, state in writing both the reason for the inability to grant the request within 20 business days and a reasonable, specific date when the request will be granted in whole or in part.

But the New York City DOE routinely fails to comply with this provision of the law.

Every month, I receive a letter that reads: “Pursuant to Section VI.B of Chancellor’s Regulation D-110, due to the volume and complexity of requests we receive and process, and to determine whether any records or portions thereof will be subject to redactions permitted under Public Officers Law 87-2, additional time is required to respond substantively to your request. Accordingly, a response is currently anticipated by [date],” where the date given is one month in the future. And, when that date rolls around, I get the next month’s letter, identical except for a new anticipated date.

My initial reaction was that this Chancellor’s Regulation must be pretty powerful to trump state law. But the regulation simply states how the NYC DOE is to comply with the FOIL law. Section VI.B pertains to responses to FOIL requests, particularly the responsibility of the Central Records Access Officer to determine a reasonable amount of time in which to grant the request. State regulations do allow the volume of requests and their complexity to be taken into account in determining a reasonable time.

But neither the FOIL law nor the Chancellor’s Regulation that must adhere to it allows an agency to delay a response indefinitely. I requested these records 19 months ago, and still have no idea when, if ever, the DOE will grant access to them, as the law requires.

I’m not alone in this situation. Advocates for Children of New York and the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund filed an unsuccessful lawsuit seeking to compel the DOE to comply with a series of FOIL requests to which the DOE only partially responded. Their case showed the same pattern of monthly unilateral delays in responding.

Fernanda Santos, former New York Times beat reporter for the city schools, just got a partial response to a FOIL request she filed 26 months ago. Santos is now the Phoenix bureau chief for The Times, but she’s passed the information on to her successor, Al Baker. And, outside of New York, journalist John Merrow, whom I respect greatly, has been stymied in his efforts to get to the bottom of how the District of Columbia Public Schools responded to allegations of test cheating under Chancellor Michelle Rhee. District of Columbia agencies have not responded to his FOIA requests from nearly eight months ago for a memo that is known to exist.

The obvious counterpoint to this record of delays in New York City and Washington, D.C. is how the NYC DOE responded to the FOIL requests submitted in October 2010 by many New York media organizations for public release of the Teacher Data Reports, the city’s version of value-added measures of teachers’ performance. Despite the complexity of the request, the DOE was prepared to respond the day after the request—and maybe even the day before.

Public agencies shouldn’t be able to pick and choose which requests for public information they respond to, escalating some while stalling on others. It’s antithetical to the spirit and letter of the law, which exists to promote openness, responsiveness and trust in our political institutions.

Did New York City put its thumb on the scale by engaging in test prep for NAEP? Are officials hiding the presence of their thumb? We don’t know, because the DOE has not released any relevant records in the past 19 months. In the meantime, the 2013 NAEP administration is already under way.

Thumbs down on public transparency and accountability.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.