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.

teacher prep

Tennessee’s mediocre teacher training programs prompt ‘interventions’ with university presidents

PHOTO: Austin Peay
Austin Peay State University in Clarksville is among four Tennessee schools that have undergone "interventions" with state officials over the quality of their teacher training programs.

Armed with sobering data about the performance of teacher training programs in Tennessee, state officials are holding meetings with top brass at universities where they say programs have grown out of touch with the needs of K-12 classrooms.

About 40 programs in Tennessee feed the state’s teacher pipeline with about 4,000 new teachers annually. The largest are based at colleges and universities.

But those same traditional programs generally aren’t attracting enough high-quality candidates or producing enough effective or diverse teachers. Not a single public university in Tennessee scored in the top fifth of teacher training programs under a state report card issued in 2016. And the outlook isn’t expected to improve much under the 2017 report card being released early next month, officials say.

“This data is sobering. It tells us that higher education must do better,” said Mike Krause, executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission. “I worry our higher education faculty in colleges of education get disconnected from what a K-12 classroom looks like.”

Krause outlined the challenges to state lawmakers during a presentation on Tuesday with Sara Heyburn Morrison, executive director of the Tennessee State Board of Education.

Their first “intervention meetings” were with the presidents and education deans at four universities: Austin Peay, Tennessee-Chattanooga, Tennessee-Martin, and Tennessee Tech. Similar meetings are scheduled this spring with leadership of private colleges and universities across the state.

Krause described the first meetings as “very productive” — and illuminating. “In many cases, the presidents just didn’t know” about their programs’ shortcomings, he said.

Teacher quality is considered a driving factor in students’ success, making the quality of teacher preparation programs a front-burner issue in Tennessee.  A 2016 report said only a handful of the state’s programs are consistently preparing teachers to improve student achievement based on Tennessee’s TVAAS measure. The State Board’s new grading system also highlighted weaknesses based on racial diversity, candidates’ ACT scores, and whether they are producing teachers for high-need areas such as special education.

Reading instruction is another big challenge. In a state where only a third of students are considered proficient in reading, new teachers are arriving in classrooms ill-prepared to instruct students on Tennessee’s new reading standards. The state is working with higher education institutions so their faculty can take the same professional development on literacy that working teachers are taking.

But for the most part, the State Board has limited levers for improving the quality of teacher prep. The biggest hammer comes every seven years when each program undergoes a comprehensive review for licensure. (In 2014, the state raised its standards and revised its measures for effectiveness to include data such as placement, retention and employer satisfaction.)

Chancellor Keith Carver

Tennessee-Martin Chancellor Keith Carver said his school took its last state report card to heart. As a result of its overall score of 2 out of a possible 4, the university hired an assessment coordinator to help guide decisions based on data. “It’s a really good baseline for improving,” he said of the report card. “We’ve got some work to do in our diversity profile.”

Tennessee’s teacher candidates are overwhelmingly white and female. Of those who completed Tennessee’s programs in 2016, only 14 percent identified themselves as non-white, compared with 36 percent of the state’s student population.

“Colleges of education will not stumble into diversity. There has to be a very intentional effort,” Krause said.

View the full presentation from Tuesday’s legislative hearing below.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at [email protected]

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

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

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede