Digging in

Memphis leaders vote not to release student information to charter schools

PHOTO: TN.gov
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen and Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson flank Gov. Bill Haslam at a 2016 event in Memphis.

The board for Shelby County Schools voted Tuesday night to withhold student contact information from state-run charter schools.

The decision defies an order from Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen to turn over the data to Green Dot Public Schools. The charter network had requested the information under a new state law intended to spark cooperation between traditional schools and the state’s growing charter sector.

The board’s action means Tennessee’s largest district more than likely will be sued by the state of Tennessee. On Oct. 18, the state sued Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools after its board declined to hand over information to three state-run charter schools.

A spokeswoman for Tennessee’s Department of Education said the state will evaluate its options in the wake of the board’s vote.

“We are disappointed by this decision from the Shelby County Schools Board of Education as we in good faith provided the district with additional time to comply,” said spokeswoman Chandler Hopper.

The vote came after members discussed their legal options with the district’s top lawyer during a closed executive session. At issue: Whether to stick by the board’s earlier resolution to be in solidarity with Nashville’s board, or to turn over the information after giving parents the chance to opt out. (About 7,700 Memphis families met this week’s opt-out deadline set by Superintendent Dorsey Hopson.)

Board member Chris Caldwell offered up an amendment stating that the Memphis board will not comply with Green Dot’s request. The vote was unanimous, with two members absent.

Earlier at the board meeting, parent advocacy group Memphis Lift spoke in favor of data sharing. The group, which said it gathered more than 1,200 signatures on a petition, argued that the district is blocking parents from knowing all of their school options.

Hopson responded that parent concern is what prompted the district’s initial resistance in the first place. He said information previously shared by the district was used for recruitment purposes by charter operators and representatives from Memphis Lift who were knocking on doors in neighborhoods.


What Memphis parents should know about how schools share student information


Below is school board’s resolution:

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with a comment from the Tennessee Department of Education and a copy of the Shelby County Schools board resolution.

race in the classroom

This test-prep passage about Robert E. Lee made a New York City teacher feel ‘angry and sick’

PHOTO: Grace Tatter

Soon after Ruben Brosbe handed out an assigned test-prep packet to his fifth-grade students in Harlem this month, he became concerned.

As he read over his students’ shoulders, he noticed a passage about Robert E. Lee that appeared to minimize the Confederate leader’s role in preserving slavery.

Lee “claimed that he didn’t like it that slavery existed,” read the passage, which was part of a practice test created for New York schools by Curriculum Associates, a company that makes tests, educational games and classroom materials for schools across the country. The passage went on to say that Lee’s wife “did show genuine concern” for the family’s slaves, teaching them to read and sew.

Brosbe said he found the piece to be “very biased.” But he said he couldn’t discuss it with his students, who are mostly black and Hispanic, because they were taking the practice tests, which Brosbe said the city requires certain low-performing schools to administer twice per year.

“I thought it was very problematic and it didn’t make any sense to me why it would show up on a test when teachers aren’t able to provide any context,” Brosbe told Chalkbeat. He also blogged about the experience, writing that the passage “is a glaringly bad example of the racial bias embedded into tests, curriculum, and the U.S. education system in general.”

A spokeswoman for Curriculum Associates said the passage was flagged during a review last fall and is no longer included in new materials.

“As a company, Curriculum Associates takes cultural responsiveness seriously and is committed to constantly evolving our materials to ensure we serve all students equitably,” said Charlotte Fixler, the company’s director of communicationsin an email. “We agree with the fundamental concerns shared by this educator and felt that presenting this content in a non-teacher-led environment was not in the best interest of students.”

She added that the company is working with experts to make sure its materials “don’t marginalize” any students.

New York City education department spokesman Michael Aciman said the passage “lacks important context” and will no longer be included in materials used in city schools.

Brosbe’s concern about the test passage comes amid a new wave of attention to racial bias in classroom materials and instruction in New York City. The incident highlights how even seemingly neutral materials like test-prep booklets can reflect baked-in biases and values.

Reports about several racially charged lessons, including an incident where a teacher is accused of stepping on the backs of students of color to simulate slavery, have given new ammunition to advocates who say the education department needs to provide teacher training and classroom materials that are culturally sensitive and reflect all students.

As Brosbe’s experience shows, even teachers who try to make their classrooms welcoming for all students can be thwarted when they are required to use curriculum materials that they don’t control.

The Southern Poverty Law Center zeroed in on that problem in a recent analysis, finding that popular textbooks rarely detail the “comprehensive history” of slavery, including white supremacy. In a survey, 58 percent of teachers found their textbooks “inadequate” and 40 percent said their state did not offer enough support for how to teach about slavery.

Presented with the passage that Brosbe’s students read, Maureen Costello, the director of Teaching Tolerance — an arm of the law center which provides free resources for educators — said she saw numerous problems.

“It’s overly-simplified and, worse, lacks context,” she wrote in an email. Those issues, she added, could undermine the test’s effectiveness.

“It reflects a white sensibility that assumes this is a good neutral topic on which to base a test question,” she wrote. “When you use a passage as loaded as this one with assumptions about history, it introduces new variables (does it jibe with what a student believes? Does it make the student angry? Does it demean the student?) that may make it harder for the test to actually measure what it’s intended to.”

Curriculum Associates is a Massachusetts-based company that also produces online “personalized learning” programs that are widely used across the country. Its materials are used by 6 million students, according to a company press release. The passage was included in the company’s “Ready” materials that are designed to mirror New York state tests, Brosbe said.

Many New York City elementary and middle schools use the company’s materials, and the state has previously approved its assessments for use in teacher and principal evaluations.

Brosbe blogged about “feeling angry and sick” after reading the questions about Lee, and included a link to the Curriculum Associates website where the passage was posted. The link stopped working after Chalkbeat sent the company a request for comment late Tuesday.

Brosbe’s concerns about the test passage are in line with a growing push in New York to root out bias in the city’s classrooms and teaching materials.

On Wednesday, a group of parent leaders called for “systemic changes to begin addressing racism in our schools and the school system.” The Education Council Consortium, which represents all the local parent education councils in the city, pointed to a number of other problematic incidents — including a PTA fundraiser ad that featured performers in blackface — but did not specifically address the test passage.

“Underneath these overtly racist incidents,” the group said in a statement, “are microaggressions and implicit biases that plague many students of color on a daily basis, taking a toll on their socio-emotional well being.”

Here’s more from the test passage:

Lee didn’t support secession. He believed that states did not have the right to leave the Union, and he worried that war would come if they did. Lee also did not like the idea that a war would be fought over slavery. He claimed that he didn’t like it that slavery existed in the United States, and he once wrote that “slavery as an institution is a moral and political evil.” At the same time, he was very much against an immediate end to it. He favored what he later called a “gradual emancipation,” one that would take place over time.
Lee and his family owned slaves, and by all accounts, he treated these people as property. Legally, he could have freed them, but he didn’t.

His wife, Mary, however, did show genuine concern for the slaves at Arlington, the estate where they lived. She taught the female slaves there to read, write, and sew, so that they would be better prepared for freedom when the time came.

Monica Disare contributed reporting. 

The big sort

To win back families, Detroit district plans a sweeping search for gifted students

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

Detroit’s main school district could soon dramatically expand offerings for gifted students in its latest bid to woo back families who have fled in recent years.

Under a proposed policy to “develop the special abilities of each student,” the district would start screening all second-graders for giftedness as soon as next year. A school board committee took a first look Tuesday at the policy, which could undergo changes before a vote by the full board.

Exactly how students would be identified hasn’t been decided. But according to the policy, the district will consider students gifted if they have abilities “above their peers” in three categories: academic strength, creativity, and leadership.

Students who meet the standards will be able to take special classes just for gifted students, according to the policy. The district says its goal is to create gifted classes in all subjects — including reading, math, science, social studies, and electives.

The move is part of first-year Superintendent Nikolai Vitti’s push to restore special programs that were cut during years when state-appointed emergency managers controlled the district. Vitti said the cost-cutting moves had driven families from the district, which shrunk by more than 100,000 students — or two thirds of the student population — in the last two decades.

“Quite a few students have left the district who are identified as gifted because the district was not providing gifted services, so I think this is also a way to recruit students back from charter schools and suburban districts,” he said.

By trying to appeal to families of gifted students, Detroit is also wading into a national debate about separating students by ability. Gifted programs can be a popular option for parents whose children test into them, but in many communities, they also tend to exacerbate racial and socioeconomic segregation.

In Detroit, the programs could also face another challenge: a well documented teacher shortage that could make it difficult to staff the new classes. According to the proposal, teachers would need to have special certification to work in the gifted program.

Vitti said the district is putting together a plan to create a pathway for teachers to get their certificates.

“There are a likely limited number of teachers who have gifted certification, but that’s something we would work on,” he said. “A teacher could provide the services and work through courses to gain that certification.”

The district policy lists several goals for students in the new programs: academic growth; stimulating curiosity, independence, and responsibility; developing creativity and a positive attitude; developing leadership skills; and exploring different career options.

The initiative would also help the district comply with federal education law, which requires districts to understand and work to improve the achievement of all students, including ones considered gifted.

If the board approves the new initiative, Vitti and his team would start putting it in place. That work would include deciding exactly how to screen students and creating the program’s curriculum. The first gifted classes could launch in the spring of 2019, according to district officials. Eventually, Vitti said, he’d like to create three art schools for gifted children.

Read the full proposed policy below.