"the civil rights issue of our time"

Formed to back Bloomberg, StudentsFirstNY now an adversary

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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.

teacher prep

Tennessee’s mediocre teacher training programs prompt ‘interventions’ with university presidents

PHOTO: Austin Peay
Austin Peay State University in Clarksville is among four Tennessee schools that have undergone "interventions" with state officials over the quality of their teacher training programs.

Armed with sobering data about the performance of teacher training programs in Tennessee, state officials are holding meetings with top brass at universities where they say programs have grown out of touch with the needs of K-12 classrooms.

About 40 programs in Tennessee feed the state’s teacher pipeline with about 4,000 new teachers annually. The largest are based at colleges and universities.

But those same traditional programs generally aren’t attracting enough high-quality candidates or producing enough effective or diverse teachers. Not a single public university in Tennessee scored in the top fifth of teacher training programs under a state report card issued in 2016. And the outlook isn’t expected to improve much under the 2017 report card being released early next month, officials say.

“This data is sobering. It tells us that higher education must do better,” said Mike Krause, executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission. “I worry our higher education faculty in colleges of education get disconnected from what a K-12 classroom looks like.”

Krause outlined the challenges to state lawmakers during a presentation on Tuesday with Sara Heyburn Morrison, executive director of the Tennessee State Board of Education.

Their first “intervention meetings” were with the presidents and education deans at four universities: Austin Peay, Tennessee-Chattanooga, Tennessee-Martin, and Tennessee Tech. Similar meetings are scheduled this spring with leadership of private colleges and universities across the state.

Krause described the first meetings as “very productive” — and illuminating. “In many cases, the presidents just didn’t know” about their programs’ shortcomings, he said.

Teacher quality is considered a driving factor in students’ success, making the quality of teacher preparation programs a front-burner issue in Tennessee.  A 2016 report said only a handful of the state’s programs are consistently preparing teachers to improve student achievement based on Tennessee’s TVAAS measure. The State Board’s new grading system also highlighted weaknesses based on racial diversity, candidates’ ACT scores, and whether they are producing teachers for high-need areas such as special education.

Reading instruction is another big challenge. In a state where only a third of students are considered proficient in reading, new teachers are arriving in classrooms ill-prepared to instruct students on Tennessee’s new reading standards. The state is working with higher education institutions so their faculty can take the same professional development on literacy that working teachers are taking.

But for the most part, the State Board has limited levers for improving the quality of teacher prep. The biggest hammer comes every seven years when each program undergoes a comprehensive review for licensure. (In 2014, the state raised its standards and revised its measures for effectiveness to include data such as placement, retention and employer satisfaction.)

Chancellor Keith Carver

Tennessee-Martin Chancellor Keith Carver said his school took its last state report card to heart. As a result of its overall score of 2 out of a possible 4, the university hired an assessment coordinator to help guide decisions based on data. “It’s a really good baseline for improving,” he said of the report card. “We’ve got some work to do in our diversity profile.”

Tennessee’s teacher candidates are overwhelmingly white and female. Of those who completed Tennessee’s programs in 2016, only 14 percent identified themselves as non-white, compared with 36 percent of the state’s student population.

“Colleges of education will not stumble into diversity. There has to be a very intentional effort,” Krause said.

View the full presentation from Tuesday’s legislative hearing below.

college plans

As Washington decides their fate, ‘Dreamers’ preparing for college are stuck in limbo

PHOTO: Joe Amon/The Denver Post
Randi Smith, a psychology teacher at Metro State University, marched to support Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals during a citywide walkout in downtown Denver, CO.

While many high schoolers spend spring of their senior year coasting through classes and waiting to hear back from colleges, undocumented students who hope to attend college spend their time calling lawyers, consulting school counselors, and scouring the internet in search of ways to pay for school without the help of federal financial aid or student loans — assuming they even get in.

That process, anxiety-provoking even in a normal year, has become incalculably more chaotic this admissions season — even traumatic — as these young undocumented immigrants watch President Trump and lawmakers wrangle over Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the program that has until now allowed them to remain in the country without having to fear deportation.

As the policy battle nears a climax, these students aren’t just breathlessly waiting to learn whether they’ll be accepted into college — they’re waiting to see whether they have a future in this country.

“It’s different for me. It’s definitely more stressful and there are times when you want to give up,” said an undocumented student at KIPP NYC College Prep High School, who is graduating this year and applying to colleges. She requested anonymity because of her legal status. “But then I remind myself that regardless of what’s going on, I’m still going to do what I’ve set myself to do.”

High school counselors are also feeling the strain. They already faced the difficult task of helping undocumented students compete for private scholarships, and finding schools that will support those students once they’re on campus. Now those counselors also must monitor each twist and turn of the immigration debate in Washington, while, somehow, trying to keep their undocumented students focused on college.

One of those counselors is John Kearney, who works at Guadalupe Centers Alta Vista High School, a charter school in Kansas City, Missouri. Dozens of his soon-to-graduate students are beneficiaries of DACA, a program created under former President Obama that allows undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country as children to avoid deportation and work here legally. Lately, they have been asking him why they should even consider college when their fate in the U.S. is so uncertain.

“The big question is, ‘Why? Why go to college, and then I can’t even work, then why?’” said Kearney, who also helped start a nonprofit that provides scholarships to undocumented students. “It’s a really tough question.”

As of Friday, President Trump and lawmakers were still locked in heated negotiations over DACA, which Trump said this fall that he would eliminate unless Congress enshrined it in law. Without an agreement, it is set to expire March 5, just as graduating seniors firm up their college plans. If that happens, young immigrants, often called Dreamers, could lose the few crucial protections they have. For many, their DACA status has already lapsed.

Even with DACA’s protections, Dreamers face massive hurdles to enroll in college: They don’t qualify for federal aid or loans, and, in some states, are barred from receiving financial aid or even attending public universities. Out of the estimated 65,000 undocumented students who graduate from high school every year, only 5-10 percent enroll in college.

Following Trump’s announcement in September, counselors have also had to race against the clock counting down to DACA’s expiration: That meant juggling college application deadlines with the October cutoff for students to apply for renewed DACA status.

The KIPP charter school network received a donation this year to help students pay for the renewal fee, which has been a godsend for many students — including the young woman who is graduating from KIPP NYC College Prep High School.

As soon as she learned the school would pay the fee for her, she immediately called her father, who is also undocumented and repairs beauty-salon equipment for a living.

“My dad was definitely trying to round up the money before the deadline, so it was a blessing that the school was able to find a donor,” she said. “I told him not to worry about it and it was a relief — like a weight off his shoulders.”

If the girl was trying to relieve her father’s stress, her college counselor, Rob Santos, was trying to do the same for her. Even as she balanced college-application essays, transcripts, and the rest, she was also coming to realize how quickly her life would change if DACA is not extended.

“There was definitely extra emotional support that I’ve had to provide this year,” Santos said. “I definitely had my DACA student in my office, and tears were happening.”

Santos keeps a running list of the colleges that accept students who don’t have permanent legal status and the few scholarships available to them. Many of those scholarships require undocumented students to have DACA status. If the program ends, it’s unclear whether students will still be eligible.

Still, Santos said his dreamer student rarely talks about the political furor surrounding her future in the U.S. as she awaits her college-acceptance letter. Instead, she’s more likely to discuss her hope of one day studying business and fashion.

“Our DACA students are resilient. They’re optimistic,” Santos said. “But they’re also realistic for what could actually happen.”