Building Better Teachers

As Tennessee lawmakers end session, did legislature ‘get education right?’

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Gov. Bill Haslam, flanked by House Speaker Beth Harwell and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, discuss the business of the 109th Tennessee General Assembly, which came to a close on Wednesday.

Four months after Gov. Bill Haslam told lawmakers that “there is nothing more important to our state than getting education right,” he thanked the legislature for taking his message to heart, citing a $170 million boost in K-12 spending and a surprising consensus on what to do about Common Core.

“The reality is we’re making dramatic improvements in education,” Haslam said Thursday, one day after the legislature wrapped up its session for 2015.

However, legislative leaders of the minority Democratic Party were less celebratory, calling the assembly’s education accomplishments few — and overdue.

“Really, it’s a great start — for what we should have done five years ago,” said Sen. Jeff Yarbro (D-Nashville) of the additional education spending. “I mean, I’m glad to see us put real resources in education, and I applaud the governor and the whole legislature in doing that. But we’re still far behind on this score, and need to keep going.”

Here are some education highlights from the 109th Tennessee General Assembly:

Funding: Noting that most of Tennessee’s new revenue went to K-12 schools, Haslam identified increased education funding as one of the major achievements of the legislature, which approved his education spending plan with virtually no debate. “I challenge you to go around and look at any other state and see what they’re doing in terms of improving funding for education, and I’ll take Tennessee,” Haslam said during a news conference at the state Capitol. Much of the new revenue is earmarked for teacher raises that could amount to up to 4 percent in some districts. But bills that would have helped the state fully fund its Basic Education Program, which arose out of funding lawsuits in the 1990s and early 2000s, never made it to committee vote. Meanwhile, seven school districts in southeast Tennessee are taking the state to court over its level of public education funding, which the lawsuit says is woefully inadequate. In response to the suit, the legislature’s appropriation bill stipulated that school systems may not use state funding to sue the state. “Sneaking into the budget this mechanism to avoid litigation,” Yarbro said, “… was an indication that there are at least a lot of people in the majority (of the legislature) that are worried about the fact that we might not actually be meeting the constitutional obligations that were set out for us.”

Standards: Haslam called academic standards one of the most contentious issues of the session — and called the compromise bill to gradually review and replace Common Core one of the most surprising outcomes. “Entering this, if I had said we’re going to have a discussion about how we’re moving forward on standards in Tennessee, and we’re going to have that kind of consensus, everyone in this room would’ve said ‘I don’t think that could have happened,’” the governor said. The compromise between Common Core opponents, who largely object to the standards for math and English Language Arts because they weren’t locally written, and those who favored the standards because of their academic rigor, adds people appointed by legislative leaders to the governor’s existing standards review process. The bill does not stipulate what changes should occur, but says the state should have new-and-improved standards by 2017-2018, and that the standards should be completed next year so teachers have time to acclimate to them.

Legislative leaders speak with reporters at the state Capitol.
PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Legislative leaders speak with reporters at the state Capitol.

Vouchers: Despite strong support from Haslam, House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick (R-Chattanooga) and House Speaker Beth Harwell (R-Nashville), vouchers for low-income students to attend private schools stalled again in a House committee, where Rep. Bill Dunn (R-Knoxville) could not muster the votes for passage. Dunn cited local school district concerns that the program would take away too much funding from public schools. McCormick, who had predicted early in the session that vouchers would pass, said Thursday that a voucher bill will be back next year. “There’s a lot of people who used to be against it who are now for it,” McCormick said. However, the legislature passed a separate voucher bill that may impact up to 18,000 special education students statewide with severe disabilities. If Haslam signs the Individualized Education Act, the measure would allow parents who withdraw their students from public schools to spend state funds on services ranging from physical therapy to private schooling.

Parent trigger: While the Republican-dominated legislature has touted school choice and parent empowerment measures, such momentum did not carry a “parent trigger” bill past the committee level during this year’s legislature. The bill would have allowed parents at Tennessee’s lowest 10 percent of schools to replace administrators and teachers, extend the school day, or turn over the school to a charter operator, with the signature of 51 percent of parents. Though the bill passed the Senate Education Committee, it was pulled off notice in the House by Rep. John DeBerry (D-Memphis), who did not have the necessary support for passage. DeBerry and Parent Revolution, a California-based group that has campaigned for the law in Tennessee for the past two years, said parent trigger will be back.

Teacher evaluations: Responding to concerns voiced by educators, Haslam initiated proposals to alter teacher evaluations, one of the major components of his first-term education agenda. The resulting bill was approved by the legislature and phases in the weight of test scores as the state transitions to its new TNReady assessment, which will be rolled out during the 2015-2016 school year. However, the legislation does not decrease the weight of student achievement data in overall teacher evaluations, which can be up to 35 percent. Under the revisions, scores from the new test will account only for 10 percent of the teacher evaluation score in the 2015-16 school year; 25 percent in 2016-17; and the entire 35 percent in 2017-2018. The policy also is designed to address concerns that teachers of non-tested subjects — such as art and physical education, as well as school counselors — are evaluated solely based on test scores that they don’t directly impact. The soon-to-be law decreases from 25 percent to 10 percent the amount student growth counts in 2015-16, and then to 15 percent in subsequent school years.

Follow the status of education-related bills in the 109th Tennessee General Assembly.
Follow the status of education-related bills in the 109th Tennessee General Assembly.

Achievement School District: Charter schools meeting student growth expectations in the state-run Achievement School District (ASD) will be able to enroll students who aren’t residentially zoned to the schools under a bill that Haslam is expected to sign. Moving through the legislature, the legislation became a lightning rod about the performance of the ASD — a school turnaround district that is the centerpiece of Tennessee’s education improvement plan of the last five years. The bill’s approval reflected a vote of confidence from lawmakers impressed with and encouraged by the ASD’s results so far. However, its detractors — many of whom filed legislation to limit the district — questioned the adequacy of the ASD’s turnaround track record and argued against increased enrollment flexibility.

So what do you think? In the comments section below, tell us if you think state lawmakers “got education right” this year.

Contact Grace Tatter at [email protected]

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deep cuts

New York City teachers don’t get paid maternity leave. Their paychecks prove it.

PHOTO: Emily James/Courtesy photo
Brooklyn high school teacher Emily James with her children.

Susan Hibdon opened her front door and saw nothing but white.

It was a day that would go down in tabloid headline history after schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña declared it “absolutely a beautiful day,” despite a forecast calling for 10 inches of snow. For Hibdon, a Brooklyn high school teacher, it was memorable for a different reason. It was exactly six weeks after she had given birth, which meant it was time to go back to the classroom.

She kissed her infant goodbye and headed into the wet February weather.

“If you want to pay your rent, you have to go right back to work,” she said. “That’s not just bad for the mother who just gave birth. That’s bad for everybody.”

New York City teachers have no paid maternity or family leave, a policy that takes a toll on teachers’ paychecks and creates deep gender inequity in an education workforce that is about 77 percent women.

Hibdon and fellow teacher and mother Emily James recently launched an online petition calling on the United Federation of Teachers to negotiate for paid leave, which is not included in any of the city’s contracts with unionized workers. Almost 78,000 people have signed on, and the women will present their request at the union’s executive board meeting on Monday.

“I think the irony of it sticks out to many people: These are women who are paid to raise children and they aren’t paid to raise their own children,” Hibdon said.

As it stands now, teachers who want to take paid time off after having a baby must use their sick days. The policy only applies to birth mothers, putting a strain on those who become parents through adoption or surrogacy, and fathers who want to take a leading role in the earliest moments of parenthood.

“We talk so much about parents being active in their child’s education,” said Rosie Frascella, a teacher who has also pushed for paid leave policies. “Well, let’s let teachers be active in their child’s education.”

For teachers, the policy packs a financial blow on multiple levels.

If a mother wants paid time off after giving birth, the only option is to use sick days. Women are limited to six weeks of sick time after a vaginal birth, and eight weeks after a C-section.

Teachers earn one sick day per school month. In order to save up for an eight-week leave, a teacher would have to work about four years without using any sick days.

Many women haven’t accrued that many days, so they can “borrow” sick days they haven’t yet earned. Teachers run into problems, though, if they actually get sick — or their children do — since they can only borrow up to 20 sick days. Once they hit that number, any additional time off is unpaid. And if a teacher leaves the education department, she must repay any sick days she borrowed.

Hidbon learned that the hard way. She has three children — and precious few sick days in the bank. Hidbon remembers a time that she completely lost her voice, but still had to go to work.

“No one could hear me. I had to conduct my entire class writing notes on the board,” she said. “I’m supposed to be teaching and I can’t do my job because of the way the system is set up — and my students are getting the short end of the stick.”

The crunch for sick time could lead to a financial blow later in a woman’s career. Teachers are allowed to accrue up to 200 sick days, and receive a payout for unused time when they retire. The city could not provide numbers for how many sick days men versus women retire with. But it makes sense that men would rack up far more since women with children are more likely to get stuck with a negative balance.

James, a Brookyln high school teacher and co-starter of the online petition, still has a negative balance of 16 sick days — almost three years after giving birth. The problem is compounded by the fact that women are more likely to take time off when a child is sick or there are other family obligations, a pattern that is seen in professions across the board.

“There were many times when I was so sick at work the kids were like, ‘Why are you here? Miss, go home,’” she said. “But it costs a lot of money to stay home.”

Even when women don’t have to borrow sick days, they can still lose financially. The city only allows women to use up to eight weeks of their banked time. Any additional days off are entirely unpaid.

Amy Arundell, a former director of personnel for the UFT, said many mothers stay home longer because of the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, which provides job protections for 12 weeks of leave.

“The people who don’t take 12 [weeks] obviously have real financial commitments” that make taking unpaid time off impossible, she said.

Women who take that time get hit with a double-punch to their salaries. Because of the way summer pay is calculated, unpaid time off results in a smaller summer paycheck, too. Arundell said the hit is usually equivalent to one paycheck.

Same sex-couples and those who become parents through surrogacy or adoption face many of the same financial setbacks, since only birth mothers are allowed to use sick time after having a baby.

After years on a waiting list, Seth Rader and his wife had only weeks’ notice that their adoptive baby was on the way. Since his wife was in grad school, the couple decided Rader would stay home with their new son — even though Rader, a Manhattan high school teacher, is the primary breadwinner at home.

“In a lot of ways, I’m much more bonded with him as a father, and him to me,” Rader said. “Are we really in a place where we want to discourage fathers from taking that role?”

At the time, the couple were saving for a down payment to buy a place of their own. After the expense of Rader taking off from work, they still are.

“I think all of this has to be affecting the sustainability of teaching,” he said. “If we create a system where people can’t imagine being teachers and parents at the same time, then that’s a loss.”

When it comes to the push for family leave, teachers have been left behind even as strides are made elsewhere. New York State recently passed a mandatory paid leave policy that will cover private employees. Last winter, Mayor Bill de Blasio signed a paid leave act for city employees.

But that benefit isn’t extended to workers with unions, like the United Federation of Teachers. Currently, no union in New York City has paid maternity leave, according to a city spokeswoman.

Teachers across the city are fighting to change that. The petition started by Hibdon and James calls on UFT President Michael Mulgrew to “fight for our teaching mothers.”

“They’re supposed to really care about what teachers are struggling with and they’re our voice,” James said. “I just wish that they would take this seriously.”

Both the city and the United Federation of Teachers say they have held talks to extend similar benefits to teachers. In an emailed statement, Mulgrew called family leave “an important issue for the UFT and its members.”

“In our talks so far, the city has failed to come up with a meaningful proposal,” he said.

In an article published in the UFT journal, which ran shortly after the city passed its parental leave policy, the union pointed out that gaining that benefit came at the cost of a scheduled raise for managers and fewer leave days for veteran employees.

According to the article, Mulgrew said he “looked forward to negotiations with the de Blasio administration for an appropriate way to expand parental benefits for UFT members.”

Educator diversity

Most Denver students are kids of color. Most teachers are white. That hasn’t changed, despite recent efforts.

PHOTO: Denver Post file
McMeen Elementary teacher JaMese Stepanek reads poetry with first-grader Citi Hejab.

Despite efforts to diversify its teacher workforce, Denver Public Schools still faces an imbalance that plagues many school districts across the country:

About three-quarters of its 92,000 students are children of color, but 73 percent of its teachers this year are white.

That number remains unchanged from last year.

Although DPS tried to hire more teachers of color through targeted recruitment and other strategies, and while it’s had some success diversifying its principal pool, its efforts are having little difference at the front of the classroom.

Seventy percent of the 929 new teachers hired for this school year are white, which is the same percentage as last year and only slightly more diverse than the overall teacher workforce:

Nationwide, about 80 percent of all public school teachers are white. That percentage is even higher in Colorado’s second-largest school district, neighboring Jeffco Public Schools, where about a third of students are children of color. State statistics show that in 2016-17, 90 percent of Jeffco teachers were white.

“We’re encouraged that we’re ahead of both the national average and surrounding districts,” Katie Clymer, DPS’s director of talent acquisition, wrote in an email. She added DPS understands “the urgency for our students today, and (is) eager to continue to push forward.”

Some research shows students of color benefit academically and socially when they’re taught by teachers who share the same background. A recent study found low-income black students who have even one black teacher in elementary school are more likely to graduate high school.

While students of color in Denver are making academic progress, recent state test scores showed that white students and non-low-income students are still outpacing them.

The district’s school leaders are more diverse. Additionally, 39 percent of the new assistant principals and principals hired for 2017-18 were educators of color:

District officials credit a “grow-your-own” strategy for recruiting diverse principals. Almost all of the principals hired in the past couple of years have been from within DPS, said Debbie Hearty, the district’s chief human resources officer. It’s easier to grow teachers of color into leaders once they’re already in the district than it is to get diverse teachers in the door, she explained.

“Our pipelines coming into teaching from the traditional routes are not as diverse as we need them to be,” Hearty said. “…In the principalship, we have a more captive audience.”

Recent reports have shown enrollment in Colorado’s traditional teacher preparation programs is declining, and state colleges aren’t producing enough teaching graduates — let alone graduates of color — to keep up with demand. Many districts, including DPS, recruit from out of state.

To that end, DPS recruiters last year visited 17 colleges and universities across the country that graduate high proportions of top-performing teachers of color, Clymer said. They sometimes brought along alumni who are now teaching in DPS to speak about their experiences.

But convincing graduates to apply for jobs in Denver isn’t always easy, Clymer said.

“We’re fighting against the perception that Denver is a white ski town,” she said.

Connecting potential recruits with educators of color already working in DPS gives them a more realistic picture, Clymer said. The district is also launching a new employee resource group for educators of color to help them feel connected once they’re hired, she said.

“When you have current employees of color saying, ‘This is a place I can thrive,’ that unofficial recruiting is a powerful way to increase diversity,” Hearty said.

A joint effort between the city of Denver, DPS and several charter schools is also showing promise, Clymer said. The Make Your Mark campaign kicked off in March 2016 with the aim of selling the city to educators of color. Fifteen top minority teaching candidates visited Denver that month for a three-day whirlwind tour dubbed the Mile High Showcase that included school visits, a job fair, a Nuggets basketball game and dinner at a Mexican restaurant.

This year, the campaign shifted gears, Clymer said. After finding that many candidates who attended the showcase were already sold on Denver and didn’t need convincing, she said organizers eschewed hosting a tour for a select group of candidates in favor of launching more wide-ranging recruitment campaigns in Pueblo, Chicago and Puerto Rico.

In response to candidates expressing trepidation about Denver’s rising housing costs, organizers posted a list of local housing assistance programs on the Make Your Mark website. DPS compiled an even more comprehensive guide to housing, childcare and other resources. Inquiries from would-be teachers and principals to the Make Your Mark website are growing fast, Clymer said.

But she said recruitment can only do so much given the finite pool of teaching graduates of color. Ultimately, Clymer said, “you’re not going to hire your way out of this problem.”

That’s why DPS is also focused on convincing more young people and paraprofessionals to become teachers, and holding on to the teachers of color it already has, officials said.

This year is the second of a DPS program that pays for paraprofessionals to earn a bachelor’s degree and a teaching license while keeping their jobs for most of the time they’re in school.

More than 50 percent of participants are educators of color, Hearty said. But she said it’s too early to gauge the multi-year program’s effectiveness at diversifying the DPS teaching force.

That’s even more true for another DPS “grow-your-own” effort that targets high school students interested in a teaching career. Called EdConnect, the program launches in three DPS high schools this year and will offer students classes and work experience related to teaching.

Numbers show the district does a better job of keeping diverse educators once they’re hired. In fact, turnover was lower this year for DPS educators of color than for white educators:

But while that trend is encouraging, officials said the district understands it needs to move faster.

“We’re excited the changes we’re making are beginning to show positive gains,” Clymer said. Now, she added, it’s about figuring out how to capitalize on those gains to make more.