Fact check

Three takeaways from The Colbert Report's teacher-tenure talk

PHOTO: Via The Colbert Report
News-anchor-turned-education-activist Campbell Brown appeared on The Colbert Report to discuss teacher tenure.

The debate over New York’s teacher tenure laws moved from the steps of City Hall to the studios of The Colbert Report on Thursday night. Campbell Brown appeared on Colbert’s show to discuss the recent lawsuit she’s spearheading that challenges those job protections for teachers.

Brown leads the Partnership for Educational Justice, a newly created organization that helped file the case, Wright vs. New York, in Albany. The suit charges that the job protections leave ineffective teachers in the classroom, and specifically challenges the “last in, first out” policy in which districts lay off teachers based on seniority, the too-short amount of time, plaintiffs feel, that administrators have to decide whether a teacher is effective enough to get tenure, and disciplinary statutes that make firing ineffective teachers a lengthy process.

Her appearance was a bit tense as Colbert pushed Brown on a few contentious issues, including her anti-teachers union stance and her funding sources.

Since a minutes-long interview can’t capture much nuance, here’s what you need to know:

1. The equal access argument
When Colbert asked whether the lawsuit is focused on ensuring equal access to education, Brown said yes. “That’s exactly right,” she said, mentioning the California decision that found teacher tenure unconstitutional earlier this summer.

However, while the California case argued that teacher tenure violated the state’s guarantee of equal educational opportunities, the two New York lawsuits do not. Instead, they claim that the job protections violate the state constitution’s guarantee of a “sound basic education.”

Many people have been speculating on the likelihood of a New York case succeeding, so differences between the two states’ cases are worth noting.

2. Getting rid of incompetent educators
The Wright case argues that it takes too much time and costs too much money to get rid of incompetent teachers and that, as a result, principals and districts often avoid that process.

“It takes, on average, 830 days to fire a teacher who has been found incompetent,” Brown said on the show.

However, that’s not the clearest information. According to the NYS School Boards Association, which is whom Brown and the lawsuit cite, it actually took 830 days for an incompetency hearing to reach a decision – not to end in a firing. It took an average of 520 days for all proceedings to reach a decision, including misconduct cases. Those figures come from 2004-2008 and they exclude New York City cases.

More updated data from the State Education Department show it’s been taking less time to resolve disciplinary cases recently. For fiscal year 2013, it took 177 days, on average, to reach a decision statewide, and 190 days in New York City.

3. Follow the money
Parents and teachers organized by the Alliance for Quality Education, an advocacy group that receives funding from the state’s teachers union, showed up outside Colbert’s midtown studio to protest Brown’s appearance. The American Federation of Teachers created a Twitter hashtag, #questions4campbell, which started to pick up speed before the show and succeeded in lobbing a question into Colbert’s interview notes.

“Your organization, where’s its money come from?” Colbert said. “That’s one of the things they asked me to ask you.”

Brown initially skirted the question by saying the law firm Kirkland & Ellis is taking the case pro bono.

“So the Partnership for Educational Justice has not raised any money so far?” Colbert asked.

“Yeah, we are raising money,” Brown said.

“And who’d you raise it from?”

“I’m not going to reveal who the donors are because the people who are out–.”

“I respect that because I’ve had a super PAC,” Colbert joked.

“But part of the reason is, the people who are outside today, trying to protest, trying to silence our parents who want to have a voice in this debate–.”

“Exercising their First Amendment rights,” Colbert said.

“Absolutely. But they’re also going to go after people who are funding this,” Brown said. “And I think this is a good cause and an important cause and if someone wants to contribute to this cause without having to put their name on it so they become a target of the people who are outside earlier today, then I respect that.”

“Well, I respect… you,” Colbert said.

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Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.