getting to graduation

It’s official: New York is making it easier for students with disabilities to graduate this year

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder

New York students with disabilities can now graduate high school without passing most Regents exams. The dramatic move by New York’s education policymakers could increase demand for the state’s less-rigorous “local” diploma and reignite a debate about academic requirements for those students.

Under new rules approved Monday, students with disabilities will be able to earn a local diploma by passing the math and English Regents exams and proving to superintendents they have mastered course material in other subjects. Previously, those students had to pass another two or three exams with a lower score.

The changes, which will go into effect this month, are part of a broader effort by New York policymakers over the last two years to help more students reach graduation. Eliminating the need for some students to pass the exit exams is the most noteworthy departure from the state’s traditional requirements yet — and could have a big impact, given that nearly one in five New York City students has a disability. Almost half of graduates with disabilities already opted for the local diploma last year.

“We know that all students are capable of achieving this accomplishment,” State Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said Monday. “It’s on us to offer them multiple pathways to do so, pathways that are rigorous.”

State policymakers estimate that the new measure, which was adopted as an emergency regulation but faces a formal vote Tuesday, could help about 2,200 more students graduate this year. It’s also likely to add a dose of confusion into this round of Regents testing — which also starts Tuesday — and schools’ last-minute efforts to certify students for graduation.

Policymakers have been searching for new graduation pathways since 2012, when the state raised the passing Regents exam score to 65, instead of the previously required 55.

Students with disabilities have been at the center of this debate. Only 40 percent of the city’s students graduate high school in four years, and some educators and advocates have worried that students with disabilities were getting snared by the new standards.

But some observers are already worried that the changes, which apply only to students with Individualized Education Programs, could have a negative effect by reducing expectations for students with disabilities.

“This does not sound like a step in the right direction to me,” said Mark Anderson, a special education teacher at Jonas Bronck Academy in a comment on a previous story about the change. “What sort of expectations are we conveying for success in academics if we make it ‘easier’ for some?”

Regents acknowledged that the move might draw criticism for lowering standards, but said the benefits to students and families outweighed that concern.

Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa pointed out that students will still be required to take and pass Regents-level classes, and they will also have to attempt the exams. Keeping students in a rigorous classroom environment is “critical,” she said.

Under the new regulation, superintendents will review a student’s final course grade and also schoolwork completed throughout the year to judge whether he or she mastered the material.

New York has historically struggled to avoid tracking students into less rigorous diploma options. The state eliminated an IEP diploma, an earlier option for students with disabilities that was largely meaningless, since it was not accepted by colleges, the military, or employers as a high school credential.

The state also eliminated the option for most students without disabilities to earn a local diploma in recent years, focusing on getting more students to earn a Regents diploma that requires passing multiple exit exams with a score of 65.

The move away from local diplomas was important for ensuring all students get the best educational experience, said Regent Lester Young, who supported the changes on Monday. When that diploma was available, students of color were being disproportionately steered toward that less-rigorous option, he said.

“Whenever there have been local diploma options, the least of us get pushed in,” he said.

Others think the measure’s requirements are still too stringent for students with disabilities. Some took particular issue with the requirement that students would still have to pass the English Regents exam.

“As an ELA instructor of learning disabled high school students … I am outraged,” said John Connolly, a commenter on a previous story about the policy change. “Of all exams, how can the Regents believe that the Common Core ELA should remain?”

Charter strike

On Chicago charter strike, how far will the teachers union go?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Picket signs used by protesting strikers from the Chicago International Charter Schools, who were targeting charter network CEO Elizabeth Shaw on Feb. 11, 2019.

Chicago’s second charter strike has now stretched over nine days. Beyond picket lines and hashtags on social media, the Chicago Teachers Union has blocked a lobby of a Loop high rise, delivered labor-themed Valentines to Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office at City Hall, and even wrangled appearances from the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth.

How hard will the union push and what’s at stake in its efforts to win a new contract for teachers?

Related: Multiple CEOs, multiple layers: Strike puts charter management under microscope

It could be the future of charter organizing in Chicago, experts say. A victory could “buoy a local wave of new charter school strikes,” said Bob Bruno, director of the Labor Education Program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. But if the contract doesn’t bring home the goods, failure could cast a pall over future organizing at dozens of Chicago charters — and untold numbers elsewhere.

Bruno expects in coming days to see increased pressure on members of Chicago International’s board, and possibly even a civil disobedience confrontation that ends in arrests. “They’ll look for ways to demonstrate that the ownership and leaders of this charter operator are not people who are invested in schools,” Bruno said, while “looking for ways to move the employer at the bargaining table.”

But the union’s strategy is risky.

Private employers can permanently replace strikers because its teachers are governed by the National Labor Relations Act, not the Illinois Labor Relations Act which protects public employees.

Chicago International, where teachers at four schools are on strike, has dug in its heels, arguing that granting union demands would bankrupt the network within a few years. “They want a compensation that is fiscally irresponsible for us to agree to,” said LeeAndra Khan, CEO of Civitas Education Partners, one of a handful of management companies contracting to run some of the network’s 14 schools.

The strike also comes in the final weeks of Chicago’s mayoral election. The union has backed Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle for mayor, but critics wonder if the union’s effort in maintaining the strike means it’s paying less attention to getting Preckwinkle into office.

But the union has tried-and-true tactics, Bruno said, including political pressure and escalating protests that have helped win tough contract battles in the past. It’s become more combative since the Caucus of Rank and File Educators, or CORE, won leadership of the union in 2010 with a promise to fight against educational inequalities.

That approach helped teachers in the 2012 strike, when thousands of union members went out on a weeklong strike that captured national headlines and pushed their demands beyond just wages and benefits to broader school-quality factors.

Union political pressure also worked in December, when 500 unionized teachers at Acero charter schools in Chicago walked off the job during the nation’s first-ever strike of charter teachers.

Along with pickets throughout the four-day strike at schools across the city, the union also brought attention to how the network had used its political connections to expand. Strikers stormed the office of powerful Alderman Ed Burke, who represents areas thick with Acero schools. Burke then called the network’s CEO and pressed for an agreement. The strike ended shortly afterward.

The Chicago Teachers Union is also known for its staying power in strikes. In 2012, teachers stayed on strike an extra day to make sure that most members were able to review line items of the new contract before it was signed, despite pressure from Emanuel to end the strike. That strike lasted a total of seven days.

In the case of the Chicago International strike, Bruno said the charter network may shoulder the greater risk. The network, which oversees 14 schools run by five charter management organizations, some of which subcontract management to a third operator, has argued that meeting the union’s demands for wages could push the entire network into bankruptcy.

A strong contract that benefits teachers could also push teachers at the network’s 10 non-unionized schools to push for higher wages, Bruno said. “That could be a problem for the employer.”

While the union may be using tactics it has found successful in the past, management of Chicago International doesn’t respond to the same pressures, organizers acknowledged.

If the campaign doesn’t win raises for teachers, or results in cuts to the classroom, Bruno said it could risk slowing down the broader movement to unionize charters. “It gives teachers across the charter school system pause. They are no less interested in having a collective voice but they will remain somewhat uncertain that the union is the appropriate venue for that,” he said.

Richard Berg, an organizer in the Chicago Teacher Union’s charter division, said that because Chicago International and Civitas aren’t political in the same way that Acero is, the union has shifted to focus to the network’s unusual management structure and its connection to big business.

“If you look at their board, it’s not education people or community people. It’s corporate lawyers and money people,” Berg said. “Our strategy has been to say: OK, well, what is going to influence money people to care about children? The morality of it.”

A federal mediator already attends negotiations between Chicago International and the union.  The network requested federal mediation a month and a half ago, and since then a representative from the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service has been present both at bargaining and in the discussions held independently on each side.

Both teachers and management blame the delay in coming to an agreement on the other side.

“We are determined to make these schools right for our students,” Berg of the union said. “We hope [management] will do the right thing sooner rather than later, because we have thousands of students that are missing school because of management’s intransigence.”

The network, meanwhile, said it’s focused on finding an agreement in negotiations to get back to the classroom. “We are focused on trying to end the strike so that our kids can get back in school,” Khan said.

Career readiness

Lee announces plan to beef up science, tech offerings in Tennessee schools

PHOTO: TN.gov
Gov. Bill Lee has proposed two legislative initiatives focused on K-12 education and workforce development in his first month in office.

Gov. Bill Lee said Wednesday that he wants to expand science, technology, engineering, and mathematics offerings in Tennessee’s K-12 schools — and he’ll set aside $4 million in his proposed budget to pay for his so-called Future Workforce Initiative.

His proposal would launch new STEM-focused career and technical education programs at 100 middle schools and would triple the state’s number of STEM-designated public schools by 2022.

“The Future Workforce Initiative is a direct response to the emerging technology industry and making sure our students are first in line to be qualified for technology jobs,” the Republican governor said in a statement.

Lee also wants to grow the number of educators qualified to teach work-based learning and advanced computer science courses as Tennessee prepares to launch its first-ever computer science standards this fall for elementary and middle schools.

“[Fifty-eight] percent of all STEM jobs created in the country are in computing but only 8 percent of graduates study computer science in college,” Lee said. “By exposing Tennessee students to computer science in their K-12 careers, we are ensuring our kids have every chance to land a high-quality job.”

The legislative initiative is Lee’s second focused on K-12 education since taking office on Jan. 19. Last week, he announced a $30 million proposal to expand access to vocational and technical training for high school students who are soon to start college or career.

In conjunction with that, Lee wants to expand postsecondary STEM opportunities in high school with greater access to dual credit, advanced placement courses, and dual enrollment.

The goal of Lee’s Future Workforce Initiative is to make Tennessee one of the top 25 states for job creation in the technology sector by 2022.

Last year, Tennessee was ranked 39th in the nation and fourth in the Southeast on technology job readiness, based on a composite index released by the Milken Institute, an economic policy think tank. When workforce was considered independent of other factors, Tennessee ranked 42nd.

During Lee’s campaign, the Williamson County businessman promised to prepare students for the jobs of tomorrow by elevating vocational and technical education in public schools. He frequently pointed to the employee training program he started at his family’s $250 million home services company, which provides plumbing and HVAC work.