"the civil rights issue of our time"

Formed to back Bloomberg, StudentsFirstNY now an adversary

Sonia Saddler joined a protest organized by StudentsFirstNY because she was unhappy with how many times her grand-niece’s kindergarten teacher at P.S. 92 was absent last year.

An advocacy group that fought for changes to teacher evaluations plans to cite data from the old rating system in a civil rights suit against the city.

In a complaint that hasn’t yet been filed, StudentsFirstNY will ask the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights to investigate the distribution of teacher quality in city schools. The group issued a report in January finding that the 3 percent of teachers rated “unsatisfactory” last year worked disproportionately often in schools with many poor students of color. Its complaint will allege that the distribution was the result of discriminatory city policies.

Filing a complaint against the Bloomberg administration is an unusual move for StudentsFirstNY, which was formed to defend the mayor’s education policies and criticize opponents during the mayoral election. Some of those opponents have a civil rights complaint of their own pending with the federal government, about the Bloomberg administration’s school closures.

But the move is necessary because the city’s flexibility to hire, fire, and reward teachers based on their quality is limited and should be expanded, said Glen Weiner, StudentsFirstNY’s interim executive director. He said he thought Bloomberg had done a good job pushing for latitude under the city’s new teacher evaluation system but said there were “other interests that are preventing that from happening,” alluding to the teachers union.

The ratings analyzed in the report came from the longstanding system in which teachers got either “satisfactory” or “unsatisfactory” evaluations based exclusively on their principal’s assessment. StudentsFirstNY has been among the most vocal opponents of that system during the group’s one-year existence in New York, joining existing critics who argued that the binary system did not produce meaningful information about teacher quality.

Starting next year, teachers will be evaluated under a more complex system that weighs student performance, something that StudentsFirstNY promoted.

Weiner said new evaluations were needed to be able to root out differences in teacher quality among the 97 percent of teachers rated satisfactory under the old system. The unsatisfactory ratings under the old system were meaningful, he said.

“The problem was that everybody is rated satisfactory. If you think about what it takes for a teacher to be rated unsatisfactory in the old model, it has to say something about those teachers,” said Weiner, who joined a protest outside the Department of Education’s headquarters at Tweed Courthouse today.

The number of unsatisfactory ratings handed out each year has increased under Bloomberg, who aggressively sought the ability to replace the city’s lowest-performing educators but made little headway toward that goal. Still, unsatisfactory-rated teachers were more than four times more likely to leave the school system after receiving their ratings last year than teachers rated satisfactory, according to city data.

The new evaluation system that will be in use this fall does not allow districts to remove low-scoring teachers any faster than under the old system: Teachers will still have to have two straight low ratings to face termination. It also won’t redistribute teachers among schools — although a feature of the algorithm that will be used to generate part of each rating might make it look like that has happened.

Among StudentsFirstNY’s recommendations is that parents should be notified if their child is placed in a classroom of a low-rated teacher. Under state law, however, that notification is illegal.

The protest this morning included dozens of parents, organizers, and students. Sonia Saddler, who is helping her niece raise her two young children, said she became involved at their school, P.S. 92 in Brooklyn, because of concerns she has about the school.

She said that class sizes were too big and she was frustrated with the number of absences that her grand-niece’s kindergarten teacher accrued this year.

She said she didn’t know if the teacher was among the few who earned unsatisfactory ratings on the school but she would have liked to. ”Parents need to be notified,” Saddler said.

Struggling Detroit schools

The list of promises is long: Arts, music, robotics, gifted programs and more. Will Detroit schools be able to deliver?

PHOTO: Detroit Public Television
Detroit schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti answers questions at a community meeting in Detroit.

Arts. Music. Robotics. Programs for gifted kids. New computers. New textbooks. Dual enrollment programs that let high school students take college classes. International Baccalaureate. Advanced Placement.

They’re all on the list of things that Detroit schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti told a group of community members assembled in a Brightmoor neighborhood church that he would introduce or expand as soon as next school year.

Vitti didn’t get into the specifics of how the main Detroit district would find the money or partnerships needed to deliver on all of those promises, but they’re part of the plan for the future, he said.

The comments came in a question and answer session last month with students, parents and community members following Vitti’s appearance on Detroit Public Television’s American Black Journal/One Detroit Roadshow. The discussion was recorded at City Covenant Church. DPTV is one of Chalkbeat’s partners in the Detroit Journalism Cooperative.

Vitti has been appearing at community events since taking over the Detroit schools last spring. He is scheduled next week to join officials from two of the city’s major charter school authorizers, Central Michigan University and Grand Valley State University, at a State of the Schools address on October 25.


Watch the full Q&A with Vitti below.


To promote virtual schools, Betsy DeVos cites a graduate who’s far from the norm

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos spoke to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools in June.

If Betsy Devos is paying any attention to unfolding critiques of virtual charter schools, she didn’t let it show last week when she spoke to free-market policy advocates in Spokane, Washington.

Just days after Politico published a scathing story about virtual charters’ track record in Pennsylvania, DeVos, the U.S. education secretary, was touting their successes at the Washington Policy Center’s annual dinner.

DeVos’s speech was largely identical in its main points to one she gave at Harvard University last month. But she customized the stories of students who struggled in traditional schools with local examples, and in doing so provided an especially clear example of why she believes in virtual schools.

From the speech:

I also think of Sandeep Thomas. Sandeep grew up impoverished in Bangalore, India and experienced terrible trauma in his youth. He was adopted by a loving couple from New Jersey, but continued to suffer from the unspeakable horrors he witnessed in his early years. He was not able to focus in school, and it took him hours to complete even the simplest assignment.

This changed when his family moved to Washington, where Sandeep was able to enroll in a virtual public school. This option gave him the flexibility to learn in the quiet of his own home and pursue his learning at a pace that was right for him. He ended up graduating high school with a 3.7 GPA, along with having earned well over a year of college credit. Today, he’s working in finance and he is a vocal advocate for expanding options that allow students like him a chance to succeed.

But Thomas — who spoke at a conference of a group DeVos used to chair, Advocates for Children, in 2013 as part of ongoing work lobbying for virtual charters — is hardly representative of online school students.

In Pennsylvania, Politico reported last week, 30,000 students are enrolled in virtual charters with an average 48 percent graduation rate. In Indiana, an online charter school that had gotten a stunning six straight F grades from the state — one of just three schools in that positionis closing. And an Education Week investigation into Colorado’s largest virtual charter school found that not even a quarter of the 4,000 students even log on to do work every day.

The fact that in many states with online charters, large numbers of often needy students have enrolled without advancing has not held DeVos back from supporting the model. (A 2015 study found that students who enrolled in virtual charters in Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin did just as well as similar students who stayed in brick-and-mortar schools.) In fact, she appeared to ignore their track records during the confirmation process in January, citing graduation rates provided by a leading charter operator that were far higher — nearly 40 points in one case — than the rates recorded by the schools’ states.

She has long backed the schools, and her former organization has close ties to major virtual school operators, including K12, the one that generated the inflated graduation numbers. In her first week as education secretary, DeVos said, “I expect there will be more virtual schools.”