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Tisch to Cuomo: Tougher teacher tenure requirements, faster dismissal process should be on the table

The state’s top education officials want to lengthen the probationary period for new teachers, overhaul the way teachers are terminated, and give the state more power over teacher evaluations.

They also said the state should have more authority over low-performing school districts, “arbitrary barriers” preventing charter schools from opening should be eliminated, and mayoral control in New York City should be renewed.

Those are among about two dozen positions from Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch and soon-to-be acting Education Commissioner Elizabeth Berlin laid out in a 20-page letter sent on Thursday to Jim Malatras, the state director of operations for Gov. Andrew Cuomo. The letter offers the first comprehensive look at what the Board of Regents and State Education Department are willing to support as Cuomo prepares to push for aggressive changes to the way teachers are hired, fired, and evaluated.

The letter was solicited by Malatras earlier this month in a letter that challenged Tisch and Berlin’s predecessor, John King, to take a stand on a series of thorny education-policy debates that Cuomo said he wants addressed as his second term gets underway.

Many of the other proposals and positions aren’t new, Tisch noted in an interview. Others were unsolicited, such as an increase in funding for underserved students, boosting school diversity and passing the DREAM Act.

But the letter’s contents stuck out because of the areas that Tisch and Berlin wade into that the State Education Department and Regents rarely speak up about, in part because they have limited power to change them.

“The questions and concerns outlined in the letter relate to issues of State Law, which are under the direct control of the State Legislature and the Governor, not the Department or the Board of Regents,” they write.

New York’s tenure review process is one example. Tisch and Berlin say one way to strengthen it is to change the law so that new teachers are required to work for five years, not three, before they are eligible for the added job protection.

Another is the due process law for teachers facing termination, which critics say make it too hard to remove incompetent teachers. Tisch and Berlin propose that lawmakers should get rid of the independent contractors who oversee the proceedings and replace them with state employees to speed up the process, which takes an average of six months.

Tisch’s letter was sent on the eve of Cuomo’s second inauguration ceremony and just days before he is to deliver a State of the State address. The governor has signaled his second term will feature a far more aggressive education agenda than he pursued when he came into office in 2011.

Recently, he vowed to take on what he has called the “monopoly of the education bureaucracy,” and said that the state should allow more charter schools to open and require tougher teacher evaluations. Malatras’ letter to Tisch and King earlier this month suggested that the governor will want to go even further.

Cuomo has also expressed frustration over his limited power when it comes to education policy. He has often criticized the Board of Regents, a 17-member volunteer board that appoints the commissioner and controls policy, for its closeness to the legislators who appoint them.

Cuomo is not the first governor to gripe about his limited power over education decisions. Mario Cuomo, Andrew’s father, blamed the Regents for high dropout rates, and George Pataki repeatedly proposed abolishing the Board of Regents during his 12 years in office.

Tisch said she didn’t think any changes should be made to the way Regents are appointed. She also said the New York City mayor should remain in charge of schools, but that other cities considering the model should make the decision on their own.

It’s unclear which parts, if any, Cuomo will highlight in next week’s speech. But he has recently welcomed fights with the teachers unions. At roughly the same time that the State Education Department released the letter to reporters, New York State United Teachers were protesting the outside the governor’s mansion, where Cuomo was hosting a New Year’s Eve event.

Neither Malatras or Cuomo immediately responded to the letter’s contents, but StudentsFirstNY, an advocacy group aligned with the governor, offered faint praise for some of the proposals, calling them “useful ideas.” It also drew a quick rebuke from United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew, who called it a “wish list of ideas that won’t help kids.”

Tisch also said that the letter is not meant to represent the positions of the entire Board of Regents, a sign that it was not uniformly embraced.

“I was asked a set of very direct questions,” Tisch said when asked if other Regents weighed in on the letter. “The letter was directed to me” and John King, whose last day as commissioner is today.

defensor escolar

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.