Hold Up

A Memphis principal was fired over flawed test scores. Should state law protect him too?

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Memphis Academy of Health Sciences was one of the first charter schools in the city in 2003.

Reginald Williams was set to retire as principal of a Memphis charter school at the end of the school year. Instead, he was fired just days into the new school year, shortly after state test results showed the school’s scores had plummeted.

Memphis Academy of Health Sciences High School, one of the city’s first charters, had within a single year dropped from the second-highest rating on student growth to a level 1, the lowest.

School leaders who do not move the needle for academics are frequently fired, especially as a growing body of research confirms principals play a key role in student achievement. But after major technical glitches interrupted computerized testing for tens of thousands of students this spring, state lawmakers sprung into action. They passed two wide-ranging laws designed to protect teachers, students, and schools from test results that might not be reliable.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Corey Johnson, seated right, is the executive director of Memphis Academy of Health Sciences.

Until now, no public challenge has emerged to see how far the legislation extends — and whether or not principals are covered under it.

“You would think, though, if it’s a flawed test, that would be given consideration,” said Antonio Parkinson, a state representative whose district includes the school. “I think I would stop short of telling schools if they can move their folks around. But I would hope they would give the same consideration we gave them.”

Corey Johnson, the charter network’s executive director, told Chalkbeat he and Williams, who had served for four years as the school’s principal, had come to a “mutual agreement” about moving up the timeline for Williams’ retirement. However, emails between Johnson and the board’s president, Michael Dexter, explicitly tie Williams’ departure to poor 2018 results on the state test known as TNReady. (Chalkbeat obtained the emails through a public records request.)

“Instead of waiting until the year end, I believe it is critical to make this move now in order to show the community good faith that MAHS will moving to improve itself educational [sic],” Johnson said in the email. “It is difficult to promote high-quality education with a health science focus with the scores suggesting our school is a Level One.”

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
ACT prep teacher Patricia Ange spoke at a board meeting for Memphis Academy of Health Sciences after principal Reginald Williams was fired.

When school parents learned of Williams’ departure, many of them, together with community supporters of the former principal, overwhelmed a board meeting last month to demand answers that were not given.

When Chalkbeat asked how the state law on 2018 scores influenced his decision to fire Williams, Johnson declined to talk about the network’s former employee. He also declined to say why his reasoning was not made public to parents at the board meeting.

“MAHS, since its inception in 2003, maintains that it is our mission to cement a high-quality educational experience by providing a continuous, health science-focused curriculum,” Johnson wrote in an email to Chalkbeat. “Any changes in course in respect to that work, our faculty or administration are all made with that mission in mind.”

PHOTO: Courtesy of Reginald Williams
Reginald Williams

Williams attributed the large drop in scores to late delivery of laptops for students to practice on and a lack of motivation from students once they learned the scores would not count — a common observation among educators. When test scores came out this summer, Williams said he tried to work with Johnson on a plan to bounce back, but did not hear from him until he was fired on Aug. 10.

“I felt very strongly that’s the reason he was releasing me, but I couldn’t prove it,” he said. “I have a history of turning around programs.”

A spokeswoman for the state education department deferred questions about the legislation’s reach to local school board attorneys, though at least one state resource on interpreting the law said principals could void their evaluations based on the state law.

Shelby County Schools’ board’s attorney, Herman Morris, did not respond to several requests for comment. A district spokeswoman, meanwhile, told Chalkbeat to “speak with an attorney who is not affiliated with the charter school or the school district to answer your legal questions.”

The first year Williams was at the high school in North Memphis, the school earned the state’s highest score on student improvement. The following year it dipped, but mostly recovered before this year’s second drop.

Source: Tennessee Department of Education.<br />Note: The state does not publish school scores below 5 percent or above 95 percent to protect student data.

Parkinson, the state lawmaker, said Williams’ situation is a gray area in the law. For school staff, only teachers were specifically mentioned:

For the 2017-2018 school year, [local education agencies] shall not base employment termination and compensation decisions for teachers on data generated by statewide assessments administered in the 2017-2018 school year

G.A. Hardaway, a state representative who helped establish Memphis Academy in 2003 as part of the 100 Black Men of Memphis, said he hadn’t given much thought to how the scores would impact principals.

“The goal was to make sure that everyone was held harmless from those corrupt scores and corrupt process,” he said.

At least one group is insisting that principals should be protected under the law. The legal experts at Tennessee Education Association, the state’s largest teacher group, said principals are included in the definition of “teacher” in the state law.

Back at Memphis Academy, the fallout has many parents on edge. Several of them said they are actively looking for another school for their children in light of Williams’ departure and the board’s refusal to answer questions about it.

School leaders also fired ACT prep teacher Patricia Ange, an outspoken supporter of Williams, who spoke during the board meeting. Ange said she still does not have paperwork detailing why she was fired.

De’Licia Jones, a parent who has sent her children to Memphis Academy since 2013, said the whole atmosphere has changed at the school since Williams left. Several other teachers have quit, she and other members of the school community said, and it’s impacting the students.

“Before, they would be sick and still want to go to school. They were excited,” Jones said of her children. “Now he gets to a point where he doesn’t want to go to school.”

First Person

I’m a fifth-year Chicago teacher, and the challenges aren’t letting up. Now what?

PHOTO: Getty

When I started as a teacher in Chicago Public Schools, I remember hearing that half of teachers in urban school districts leave them in their first five years. When I went through rough patches I would wonder, was I going to make it?

I did make it, completing my fifth year of teaching last spring. But I can’t help but feel like something still isn’t right.

I feel like this should be the time when I am starting to really develop my expertise, feel secure in my skills and abilities, and build the self-confidence that I am effective in my craft. Instead, I  feel lucky just to be surviving day to day and week to week.

I thought that by now I would be in a groove with planning and preparation. I thought that my Sundays might actually be relaxing. Instead, I find myself filled with the “Sunday scaries,” scrambling to get materials created, adjust lesson plans, and polish final drafts of IEPs. I never feel “caught up,” and can’t say I have ever known what that feels like.

Even though my class sizes are not the largest in the district, they are filled with students who — although so talented, resilient, and special — have such a wide variety of needs and deficits that I don’t feel I can adequately address given all of the constraints I face. There simply are not enough resources and time to do everything I need to do to give my students the best that they deserve. This weighs on me, leading to overwhelming feelings of guilt and helplessness that are often paralyzing.

In short, I am mentally and emotionally exhausted, and I know many of my fellow teachers are too.

I’ve been thinking about this reality more since I joined a number of colleagues at an educator mental health-focused event in October. We dug into our own struggles and and then worked on ways to manage our stress. We named our biggest day-to-day stressors and then explored different ways to practice self-care — such as journaling, meditation, or picking up an instrument — to balance out the feelings of high anxiety and pressure we feel at work. I left with a number of resources to seek out on my own as well as a sense of renewal. But the onus was on me to find solutions moving forward.

Now, Chicago’s mayoral race is heating up. And while I work on managing the stress of this job, it’s also on policymakers — including our next mayor — to address the stressors themselves.

Large class sizes, the limited time we are allotted to plan and prepare for the school day, insufficient paid time-off policies, and ever-tighter budgets we are asked to stretch to meet our students’ needs are all the result of policies that could be changed.

I can’t practice enough self-care to replace the structural changes needed to make our profession more sustainable.

But school leaders, the mayor, and state policymakers, could make a difference. More independent and collaboration time in teachers’ days would help give us time to chip away at expanding to-do lists. Real teacher-leader roles would give teachers power and voice in school decisions. Schools destigmatizing “mental health” days and organizing activities to help teachers de-stress would help, too.

Dissenters may point to the fact that in many other jobs you’re expected to manage your work-life balance and handle stress on your own. But teaching isn’t like every other job: the stakes are especially high, and we have less control of our time and are more isolated in our work. Students benefit from teachers with experience, and every time a capable teacher leaves Chicago’s schools because they were overwhelmed, students lose out.

For my part, I pledge to be aware of my mental health needs and plan to be intentional about my self-care this school year. I hope Chicago Public Schools, the Chicago Teachers Union, and our city and state elected leaders will commit to helping me and my colleagues not only to survive, but to thrive in our jobs.

As mayoral candidates continue to flesh out their education plans, they need to acknowledge that our mental health and well-being is critical to our success as teacher. How are they planning to help us access resources like counseling services? Prioritizing how to best care for educators will help us continue to provide the best care possible for students.

Teachers are already doing exceptional work given the many constraints they face. Imagine what more we could do for our students if we were better equipped ourselves.

Dayna Heller is a special education teacher at Roger C. Sullivan High School in Rogers Park. She is an active member of the Chicago Teachers Union and Educators for Excellence, a national teacher-led policy organization.

tick tock

Denver district, teachers union make some progress as contract deadline looms, but still far apart

PHOTO: Erica Meltzer/Chalkbeat
Denver teachers listen to an update on bargaining during the second to last day of negotiations before the ProComp contract expires.

Something unusual happened near the end of bargaining Thursday between the Denver teachers union and school administrators: The district offered a change to its proposal, and some teachers gathered in the audience snapped their fingers in approval.

The two sides are still far apart in terms of reaching an agreement on Denver Public Schools’ ProComp system, which offers teachers bonuses on top of their base salary for things like teaching in a high-poverty school or earning a strong evaluation. The deadline for a deal is Friday, with teachers set to vote on either strike or ratification Saturday and Tuesday. The district’s and the union’s proposals still reflect different ideas about how teachers should earn more compensation — and have very different price tags.

But Thursday’s session was a far cry from the intense frustration that marked Tuesday’s bargaining session. On that day, district officials departed the bargaining table to “process” after the union refused to make a counteroffer to the most recent district proposal. Teachers filled the room after school and waited in hot, cramped conditions for a response that never came.

Thursday’s session opened with tense verbal sparring, but by the afternoon, the union had made changes to its proposal that reduced the cost by an estimated $2.5 million. District officials said they would spend the night and early Friday morning analyzing the proposal and seeing where else they might be able to move.

The district did offer a small concession Thursday that some teachers seemed to appreciate: increasing tuition reimbursement 50 percent, to $6,000. Denver Superintendent Susana Cordova said research shows this type of incentive is a strong tool for recruiting and keeping teachers, especially teachers of color. The money for this will come from reducing the bonus that teachers get for teaching in a so-called “distinguished” school.

More often, Denver teachers have reacted with boos to offers that the district saw as significant steps toward the union position.

Beyond small steps like the tuition reimbursement, Cordova said she was “very open to considering” aspects of the union proposal, a sentiment that seemed to clear the way for more back-and-forth.

“The district has moved and DCTA was willing to change their proposal,” said Tiffany Choi, a French teacher at East High School who attended the bargaining session. “We both showed willingness to compromise, and that’s positive.”

Dana Berge, a member of the union bargaining team, said the district is “beginning to listen to us, but they are not listening to us in terms of the values in our proposal.”

Both proposals keep some bonuses, at much more modest levels, and put more money into base pay. And both proposals lay out a schedule for how Denver teachers can earn more money, both by “steps,” or number of years of service, and by “lanes,” or additional educational achievement.

The union proposal has more lanes and allows Denver teachers to start moving up by earning additional college credit or by taking the kind of professional development that teachers need to do anyway. Teachers take such training to maintain their teaching licenses — or because they see a need, for example, to learn more about helping students with trauma. The union’s counteroffer Thursday removed one of the lanes, bringing down the total cost.

The district’s first lane change comes with a master’s degree, completing 10 years of service, earning an advanced license, or earning national board certification.

Berge said the union proposal more closely mimics those in other districts and will keep “highly dedicated, highly trained, highly experienced teachers” in Denver and reduce the problem of losing more experienced teachers to better-off suburban districts while less experienced teachers concentrate in the highest-needs schools.

She argued that a more stable salary structure would do more to keep teachers in high-poverty schools than the bonuses given under the current system.

The union proposal will cost a lot more than the district proposal. Cordova said the district is in the process of identifying “deep, deep cuts” to administrative positions to redirect money to classrooms, but even those won’t provide all the money needed to close the gap between the two sides.

During the long period in which each side was working separately on its proposals, a group of religious and community leaders from the Industrial Areas Foundation arrived to offer support to teachers and then a direct message to Cordova. They criticized her for framing the disagreement as one about values.

“Please don’t dare insinuate that you care more about the children in hard-to-serve, high-poverty schools than we do,” said Susan Cooper, a retired teacher and member of the organization. “We value solidarity, not a divide and conquer approach. We value stability, which we don’t have because we can’t keep teachers in Denver.”

Billy Williams of the Denver chapter of the NAACP said parents and community members would support the teachers “if they are forced to strike.”

Cordova said it was never her intent to suggest one side held the moral high ground.

“We can have similar goals, similar values, and different ideas about how to get those done,” she said. “Good people can disagree and still care about our kids.”

The two sides expect to resume bargaining at 10 a.m. Friday.