tenure talk

New York's teacher tenure faces second challenge as Campbell Brown's group files suit

PHOTO: Jessica Glazer
Carla Williams (left) is one of seven plaintiffs suing the state over teacher tenure laws. The efforts are led by news-anchor-turned-education-activist Campbell Brown (right).

Soon after his twin daughters entered kindergarten, Keoni Wright started to see a difference in their academic growth. While Kaylah regularly had homework, Kyler did not—and as a result, Wright says, Kaylah is now entering second grade reading above grade level as Kyler struggles.

Wright blames an ineffective teacher, and he and six other plaintiffs filed a lawsuit today challenging New York state’s teacher job protection laws, which they say create obstacles to removing those educators. The case is the second legal challenge to teacher tenure in New York, and follows a similar case in California that found tenure laws in that state unconstitutional.

A mother and a plaintiff in the case, Carla Williams, spoke with Wright at a press conference on City Hall steps Monday morning.

“I am doing my part but some of Jada’s teachers have not,” Williams said about her daughter.

The complaint, whose filing was led by the news-anchor-turned-education-activist Campbell Brown, runs to 30 pages. It attacks the state’s job protections for teachers on a few fronts: it asserts that three years isn’t enough time to determine whether a teacher should receive tenure; takes issue with the lengthy disciplinary process required to dismiss teachers, opposes the “last in, first out” statute that privileges senior teachers during layoffs, and takes aim at the state’s teacher evaluation system.

The plaintiffs argue that those policies violate the state constitution’s guarantee of a “sound basic education” — a claim the city and state teachers unions have vigorously refuted.

“Parents know that attacking teachers is not the answer to the problems of New York’s public schools,” UFT president Michael Mulgrew said in a statement today. “We expect New York’s courts to reject the fact-challenged and legally questionable assertions in this case.”

Much of the filing consists of nearly 400 pages of studies that support the idea that teacher quality is the key to student learning, including research that has supported the use of value-added scores for teachers.

Some of the local data is less up to date. The complaint notes that 97 percent of tenure-eligible teachers in the city received the protections in 2007. Under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, though, many more teachers had their probationary periods extended. Last year, 53 percent of eligible teachers received tenure, while 44 percent had their probationary periods extended for another year.

For Angeles Barragan, a mother who lives in the Norwood section of the Bronx and another plaintiff, motivation to sue began with her daughter’s notebook.

Each day, Barragan sent her daughter, Natalie, to kindergarten with a notebook that she checked at night, but she noticed that Natalie’s teacher didn’t assign homework. When Barragan brought this up to her, the teacher implied that homework wasn’t crucial in kindergarten.

Angeles Barragan's daughter forgot a lot of what she learned in prekindergarten because of a bad teacher, she says.
PHOTO: Jessica Glazer
Angeles Barragan’s daughter forgot a lot of what she learned in prekindergarten because of a bad teacher, she says.

Supporters of the current job protections point to the state’s new teacher evaluation system as one way that ineffective teachers can be identified—and a key difference between New York and California. The first scores for city teachers under the new system aren’t yet in, though.

Of the suit’s claim that New York’s evaluation law isn’t an effective way to identify and terminate incompetent teachers, Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch said that was never its intention.

“I always thought the evaluation system was very simply about helping drive professional development,” Tisch said. “This was never playing ‘gotcha’ with teachers. We never thought we could fire our way out of this problem.”

Still, some of the issues raised by the lawyers are credible, Tisch said. “There’s probably a number of legislative fixes for what’s involved in the process for people who should not be teaching,” she said, including changes to the three-year probationary period for teachers.

In a statement, the state teachers union said that poverty, underfunding, violent crime, overcrowding, and concentrations of English language learners are among numerous factors beyond teacher quality that impact student learning. (Research has shown that teachers are the most important school-based factor in student achievement, but that external factors play a bigger overall role.)

“[Brown] and her wealthy supporters seem to think that if teachers could be fired for any reason at any time, student achievement in high-poverty schools would miraculously soar,” NYSUT, the state teacher union, said.

“Tenure means teachers can speak freely and strongly on matters of public concern,” the union added. “Teachers can partner with parents against inappropriate standardized testing and question Common Core precisely because they don’t have to fear reprisals for doing so.”

In the past, Mayor Bill de Blasio has defended teacher tenure as a way to recruit and retain effective teachers. A spokesman from the state said they could not comment on pending litigation.

At the press conference this morning, after three of the plaintiffs spoke, Campbell Brown stepped up to the podium and called for the parents to join her. As she briefly spoke, her voice trembled.

“It’s not going to be easy,” Brown said.

She said that her organization, Partnership for Educational Justice, plans to file similar lawsuits across the country.

student teaching

Building a teacher pipeline: How one Aurora school has become a training ground for aspiring teachers

Paraprofessional Sonia Guzman, a student of a teaching program, works with students at Elkhart Elementary School in Aurora. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Students at Aurora’s Elkhart Elementary School are getting assistance from three aspiring teachers helping out in classrooms this year, part of a new partnership aimed at building a bigger and more diverse teacher pipeline.

The teachers-to-be, students at the University of Northern Colorado’s Center for Urban Education, get training and a paid job while they’re in college. Elkhart principal Ron Schumacher gets paraprofessionals with long-term goals and a possibility that they’ll be better prepared to be Aurora teachers.

For Schumacher, it’s part of a plan to not only help his school, but also others in Aurora Public Schools increase teacher retention.

“Because of the nature of our school demographics, it’s a coin flip with a new teacher,” Schumacher said. “If I lose 50 percent of my teachers over time, I’m being highly inefficient. If these ladies know what they’re getting into and I can have them prepared to be a more effective first-year teacher, there’s more likelihood that I’ll keep them in my school in the long term.”

Elkhart has about 590 students enrolled this year. According to state data from last year, more than 95 percent of the students who attend the school qualify for subsidized lunches, a measure of poverty. The school, which operates with an International Baccalaureate program, has outperformed the district average on some state tests.

The three paraprofessionals hired by the school this year are part of the teaching program at UNC’s Lowry campus, which has long required students to work in a school for the four years they work on their degree.

Students get paid for their work in schools, allowing them to earn some money while going to college. Students from the program had worked in Aurora schools in the past, but not usually three students at once at the same school, and not as part of a formal partnership.

The teaching program has a high number of students of color and first-generation college students, which Rosanne Fulton, the program director, said is another draw for partnering with schools in the metro area.

Schumacher said every principal and education leader has the responsibility to help expose students to more teachers who can relate to them.

One of this year’s paraprofessionals is Andy Washington, an 18-year-old who attended Elkhart for a few years when she was a child.

“Getting to know the kids on a personal level, I thought I was going to be scared, but they’re cool,” Washington said.

Another paraprofessional, 20-year-old Sonia Guzman, said kids are opening up to them.

“They ask you what college is like,” Guzman said.

Schumacher said there are challenges to hiring the students, including figuring out how to make use of the students during the morning or early afternoon while being able to release them before school is done for the day so they can make it to their college classes.

Schumacher said he and his district director are working to figure out the best ways to work around those problems so they can share lessons learned with other Aurora principals.

“We’re using some people differently and tapping into volunteers a little differently, but if it’s a priority for you, there are ways of accommodating their schedules,” he said.

At Elkhart, full-time interventionists work with students in kindergarten through third grade who need extra help learning to read.

But the school doesn’t have the budget to hire the same professionals to work with older students. The three student paraprofessionals are helping bridge that gap, learning from the interventionists so they can work with fourth and fifth grade students.

Recently, the three started getting groups of students that they pull out during class to give them extra work on reading skills.

One exercise they worked on with fourth grade students recently was helping them identify if words had an “oi” or “oy” spelling based on their sounds. Students sounded out their syllables and used flashcards to group similar words.

Districts across the country have looked at similar approaches to help attract and prepare teachers for their own schools. In Denver, bond money voters approved last year is helping pay to expand a program this year where paraprofessionals can apply for a one-year program to become teachers while they continue working.

In the partnership at Elkhart, students paraprofessionals take longer than that, but in their first and second year are already learning how to write lessons during their afternoon classes and then working with teachers at the school to deliver the lessons and then reflect on how well they worked. Students say the model helps them feel supported.

“It’s really helping me to become more confident,” said Stephanie Richards, 26, the third paraprofessional. “I know I’m a lot more prepared.”

Schumacher said the model could also work in the future with students from other teaching schools or programs. It’s a small but important part, he said, toward helping larger efforts to attract and retain teachers, and also diversify the ranks.

“You’re doing something for the next generation of folks coming in,” he said.


Teachers in Millington and Knoxville just won the Oscar awards of education

PHOTO: Milken Family Foundation
Millington English teacher Katherine Watkins reacts after learning that she is the recipient of a 2017 Milken Educator Award.

Two Tennessee teachers were surprised during school assemblies Thursday with a prestigious national teaching award, $25,000 checks, and a visit from the state’s education chief.

Katherine Watkins teaches high school English in Millington Municipal Schools in Shelby County. She serves as the English department chair and professional learning community coordinator at Millington Central High School. She is also a trained jazz pianist, published poet, and STEM teacher by summer.

PHOTO: Milken Family Foundation
Paula Franklin learns she is among the recipients.

Paula Franklin teaches Advanced Placement government at West High School in Knoxville. Since she took on the course, its enrollment has doubled, and 82 percent of her students pass with an average score that exceeds the national average.

The teachers are two of 45 educators being honored nationally with this year’s Milken Educator Awards from the Milken Family Foundation. The award includes a no-strings-attached check for $25,000.

“It is an honor to celebrate two exceptional Tennessee educators today on each end of the state,” said Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, who attended each assembly. “Paula Franklin and Katherine Watkins should be proud of the work they have done to build positive relationships with students and prepare them with the knowledge and skills to be successful in college and the workforce.”

Foundation chairman Lowell Milken was present to present the awards, which have been given to thousands of teachers since 1987.

PHOTO: Milken Family Foundation
Students gather around Millington teacher Katherine Watkins as she receives a check as part of her Milken Educator Award.

The Milken awards process starts with recommendations from sources that the foundation won’t identify. Names are then reviewed by committees appointed by state departments of education, and their recommendations are vetted by the foundation, which picks the winners.

Last year, Chattanooga elementary school teacher Katie Baker was Tennessee’s sole winner.

In all, 66 Tennessee educators have been recognized by the Milken Foundation and received a total of $1.6 million since the program began in the state in 1992.

You can learn more about the Milken Educator Awards here.