Regents rundown

What New York’s top education policymakers are talking about in May

In the second meeting with Chancellor Betty Rosa at the helm, the state’s education policy-making body will tackle charter school renewals, the metric for calculating violence in schools and computer-based testing.

A number of these issues are familiar, but they take on a new meaning as the board continues to chart its course under a new leader. For instance, will the board be tougher on charter schools that enroll a low percentage of high-needs students? Will Regents try to be more careful as they roll out new assessments, like computerized testing?

Here’s what you need to know about Monday’s meeting:

Another round of teacher evaluation tweaks

It’s become a tradition for the board to revisit aspects of the state’s 2012 teacher evaluation law, and this meeting is no different. Most of the changes appear to be small tweaks, but the very fact that there’s still hammering out to do underscores the fact that New York’s approach to measuring teacher quality remains complicated and unresolved.

A new look at charter schools?

At a recent forum, Rosa said the state education department is “very concerned” that some charter schools do not serve a population of students that reflects their communities, which is required by law. Several charter school renewals on the table could put that concern to the test.

The State Education Department is requesting a five-year renewal, the longest possible, for Harriet Tubman Charter School in the Bronx. The school has made considerable progress towards enrolling more poor students, but it still enrolls far fewer English language learners than other schools in the district. What Rosa says — or doesn’t say — about that gap at Harriet Tubman and other schools will provide useful information about how she plans to act on her concern.

The state is recommending that two charter schools get the right to operate only for a short time, three more years, with any further extensions contingent on improved performance — typically a high-stakes arrangement. One of those schools, a Montessori charter school in the South Bronx, had only 5 percent of students meet the state’s proficiency standards in reading last year and also lags the district average in serving poor students, English language learners, and students with disabilities. Rosa has said little about what should happen to charter schools that are not performing well since becoming chancellor, so her reaction to the renewal recommendations could illuminate her approach to accountability.

How to measure violence in schools

Taking a new look at the way the state calculates school violence could take the board into surprisingly tricky waters. Families for Excellent Schools, a pro-charter advocacy group, has used the state’s count of violent school incidents to criticize Mayor Bill de Blasio’s school safety record. But the state itself has called the metric problematic. Monday’s report will help explain how officials want to fix it.

The actual proposed changes to the current system, for now, involve revising the categories of violent incidents based on task force recommendations. The state is also piloting a program in 12 districts to use measures like surveys and attendance data to look beyond violent incidents to rate schools.

Testing with computers

To kick off the state’s switch to computer-based testing, over 950 schools have agreed to participate in field testing this year. The Regents are scheduled to discuss that switch, what schools need to be prepared, and how to support schools through the transition.

The board discussed the switch to computer-based testing at the last meeting, too. Their careful move towards computerized testing shows how sensitive they are to ensuring that schools have what they need to make the transition and an effort to avoid the pitfalls of other state that have switched to computerized testing.

Also on the docket: a proposal to make it possible for people who are not U.S. citizens to teach in New York schools. Not on the agenda this time, despite calls from lawmakers for more discussion: the challenges, and potentially unintended consequences, of creating additional ways for students to meet high school graduation requirements. Stay tuned for the most important developments from the two-day meeting.

legal opinion

Tennessee’s attorney general sides with charter schools in battle over student information

Herbert H. Slatery III was appointed Tennessee attorney general in 2014 by Gov. Bill Haslam, for whom he previously served as general counsel.

Tennessee’s attorney general says requests for student contact information from state-run charter school operators don’t violate a federal student privacy law, but rather are “entirely consistent with it.”

The opinion from Herbert Slatery III, issued late on Wednesday in response to a request by Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, was a win for charter schools in their battle with the state’s two largest districts.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen

McQueen quickly responded by ordering school leaders in Memphis and Nashville to comply. In letters dispatched to Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson and Director Shawn Joseph of Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, McQueen gave the districts a deadline, adding that they will face consequences if they refuse.

“If you do not provide this information by Sept. 25, 2017, to the (Achievement School District) and any other charter school or charter authorizer who has an outstanding request, we will be forced to consider actions to enforce the law,” she wrote.

Neither superintendent responded immediately to requests for comment, but school board leaders in both districts said Thursday that their attorneys were reviewing the matter.

Chris Caldwell, chairman for Shelby County’s board, said he’s also concerned “whether the timeframe stated gives us enough time to make sure families are aware of what is happening.”

Wednesday’s flurry of events heats up the battle that started in July when charter operators Green Dot and LEAD requested student contact information under the state’s new charter law, which gives districts 30 days to comply with such requests. School boards in both Memphis and Nashville refused, arguing they had the right under the federal student privacy law to restrict who gets the information and for what reasons.

The attorney general said sharing such information would not violate federal law.

The requested information falls under “student directory information,” and can be published by school districts without a parent’s permission. For Shelby County Schools, this type of information includes names, addresses, emails and phone numbers.

To learn what information is at stake and how it’s used, read our in-depth explainer.

The opinion also backs up the new state law, which directs districts to share information that charter operators say they need to recruit students and market their programs in Tennessee’s expanding school-choice environment.

However, the opinion allowed for districts to have a “reasonable period of time” to notify parents of their right to opt out of sharing such information. It was not clear from the opinion if the two school districts have exhausted that time.

A spokeswoman for Shelby County Schools said Tuesday the district had not yet distributed forms that would allow parents to opt out of having their students’ information shared, although the district’s parent-student handbook already includes instructions for doing so.

Below, you can read the attorney general’s opinion and McQueen’s letters to both superintendents:

Clarification, Sept. 14, 2017: This story has been updated to clarify the school boards’ arguments for not sharing the information.

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.