Thursday, April 30, 2015

How Competitive Are Those Competitive Grants?

John Sipple from Rural Schools was on WSKG today speaking sensibly about the fact that those big Pre-K grants last year mostly went to big schools with the personnel to fill out the copious paperwork.

Last year 62 districts in upstate New York won funds, but those winners are pretty unevenly distributed around the state. A lot of them are down near New York City. The Southern Tier had four awards, and the North Country had just one.

Well, we voted in November for another enormous competitive grant program, that super-duper Smart Schools Bond Act that gives us everything from crazy-fast broadband to new and improved security systems. (I say "we" voted for it, but "I" did not, for the reasons stated here.) And now, five months later, here are the guidelines for the competitive grant. I call your attention to my favorite parts. Boldface is theirs, not mine.

Adequate Technological Infrastructure:

In order for students and faculty to receive the maximum benefit from the technology made available under the Smart Schools Bond Act, their school buildings must possess sufficient connectivity infrastructure to ensure that devices can be used during the school day. Smart Schools Investment Plans must demonstrate that sufficient infrastructure that meets the Federal Communications Commission’s 100 Mbps per 1,000 students standard currently exists in the buildings where new devices will be deployed, or is a planned use of a portion of Smart Schools Bond Act funds, or is under development through another funding source. Achieving this speed standard is a precondition for the purchase of devices as described further in the school connectivity section.

Professional Development:

The district must describe a plan to provide professional development to ensure administrators, teachers and staff can employ the technology purchased with funds from the Smart Schools Bond Act to enhance instruction successfully. Districts will demonstrate that they have contacted the SUNY teacher preparation program that supplies the largest number of their new teachers to request advice on this issue. Please note that Smart Schools Bond funds may not be used for professional development.

Technical Support:

The district should provide sufficient on-going tech support to ensure that the technology (hardware and/or educational technology-related infrastructure) purchased with funds from the Smart Schools Bond Act will be distributed, prepared for use, maintained and supported appropriately. Please note that Smart Schools Bond funds may not be used for technical support. Districts are encouraged to work through BOCES for technical support.


As part of their Smart Schools Investment Plans, districts are required to demonstrate a long-term plan to physically maintain the investments made under the Smart Schools Bond Act in a useful condition. This sustainability plan will demonstrate a district’s capacity to support the recurring costs of use, for which Smart Schools Bond Act funds may not be used. These recurring costs include, but are not limited to, issues such as device maintenance and timing of replacement, as well as other technical support, internet and wireless fees, maintenance of hotspots etc., ongoing professional development, building maintenance, replacement of incidental items etc., as appropriate.

So to compete for this grant, not only must a district already have the infrastructure needed to support any devices purchased, but it must also prove that it has the funds to support its purchase in a sustainable way AND to provide adequate training for the people who will use the technology. All that in addition to having the personnel available to write the grant in the first place. Who will "compete" for this grant? As with the Pre-K grant, it will again be larger, urban districts. They are the most likely already to have the connectivity, and they have the personnel.

Our local districts are eligible for anywhere from $600K (Lansing) to over $2 million (Ithaca). If they don't apply, will they be perceived to be ungrateful? or just realistic? If they apply and don't succeed, will they be thought of as unworthy? or simply cash-strapped? Stay tuned.

How competitive are those competitive grants? Well, picture yourself falling off the couch and into the NFL Scouting Combine. It might be a competition, but how well do you think you would do?

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

State of Emergency

Baltimore was always one of those cities that people warned you about before you visited, in vague terms that masked the racism of the comments: You need to know where you're going, Don't wander far from the hotel, Stick close to the harbor, Don't stop on the way in. A lot has been said this week about the institutional segregation that encouraged African American residents to "respect... the sensibilities and prejudices of the white people" and led to two separate and unequal HUD programs in the city of Baltimore. One of the most interesting things I've read this week, which comes from the author of a book Simon recommends, is about the role of the Baltimore Sun in advancing and solidifying segregation and anti-Semitism in the city.

"Before I began working on the book, I had little idea of the extent of the white-supremacist record of the newspaper that employed me from 1969 until 2004. The record makes me utterly uneasy – and not only because of The Sun. My uneasiness stems from a realization that other newspaper companies in various parts of the country may share similar histories of segregation, except that those remain hidden because no one has probed them."

A month ago, the police commissioner was under fire for declaring that Baltimore had a race problem. And even though the reporters of this article were writing about a topic on which "leaders agree," they tempered their discussion with examples of the races getting along and the point that the commissioner came from a place that ranked even higher on the racism scale than Baltimore. Media coverage of Baltimore that focuses on the "mother-of-the-year" beating her rioting son seems to me no better than the Sun of 1910. By all means, let's blame Baltimore's problems on bad parenting.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Reading List

The author was called both too pro-Israel and too anti-Israel by reviewers, which probably means he's on to something. Don't read it if you're looking for The Answer. But he's very smart and thoughtful and writes like a dream.

Checking In on Oklahoma

Since I believe we've reached the tipping point on the Common Core State Standards and will soon backslide toward developing standards at the state level, again, I thought I'd check in on how one state is already doing that. Oklahoma decided to drop CCSS in 2014, as Governor Fallin, once a strong proponent, decided that they represented a federal takeover. Three months later, the feds revoked Oklahoma's NCLB waiver. The state was under the gun to come up with new standards that were similar to CCSS in rigor but completely unlike them in every other way. Quite a challenge.

The state put together a timeline with steps that pretty much mimicked CCSS's steps, except that the steps were bracketed by the approval of the Oklahoma Board of Education and the legislature and were MUCH compressed timewise. I thought I'd look at that Board of Ed, which has the ultimate say in OK's new standards. It's much smaller than our Board of Regents. It consists of a former teacher who ran Kumon Math & Reading centers for many years, a retired Army Major General and defense consultant, the one-time-schoolteacher wife of retired general Tommy Franks, the brother of former Governor Keating, and a US attorney who is also on the board of a Christian camp for underprivileged kids.

But they won't be writing the actual standards, of course. The direction will be set by a steering committee: Amy Ford, Chair; Joy Hofmeister, Superintendent of Public Instruction; Glen Johnson, Chancellor, State System of Higher Education; Deby Snodgrass, Secretary of Commerce; Marcie Mack, Director, Career and Technology Education; Major General Lee Baxter; Don Raleigh, Superintendent of Pryor Public Schools; Barbara Bayless, Reading Specialist, Choctaw-Nicoma Park Public Schools; Elaine Hutchinson, Mathematics, Fairview Public Schools; Mautra Jones, Parent.

Okay, so Oklahoma knows that teachers and parents ought to have some input, and they've included two teachers and a parent on their steering committee. And on their actual writing committees, they anticipate having "Co-chairs reporting to the Steering Committee, K-12 teachers, K-12 administrators, Grade level content experts, Post-secondary content experts, Post-secondary andragogy experts, Assessment expert, and a 'Scribe.'" Again, though I'm not sure about the Scribe, this isn't too different from the CCSS work teams. I do notice that there are no early childhood experts, a failing of the CCSS work teams, but maybe they'll remember to put some on the reviewing teams.

The steering committee has had input from experts who helped create standards in other states, which is interesting in light of the governor's insistence that the new standards be "By Oklahomans for Oklahomans." The meetings are open to the public, which is good, because the website still doesn't have summaries up, so there's no telling what decisions have been made on those writing teams unless you've dragged yourself to Oklahoma City to sit in. Apparently the Chancellor will choose the writers from higher ed, and the Superintendent (Ms. Kumon Math & Reading) will choose those for "common ed." Anyone not chosen will be part of the review process.

Oklahoma plans to have public review of the standards in August/September of this year. I wonder if they will get appropriate feedback from teachers at that time of year. CCSS went out in March and got 10,000 responses, 48 percent of which were from K-12 teachers, but that still was not enough to make people feel that teachers were adequately involved.

I wondered what the website meant by this: "Not only will the resulting standards ensure students are prepared for higher education and the workforce, they will reflect Oklahoma values and principles. This process is designed to be as inclusive and comprehensive as possible, encouraging the spirit of collaboration and a healthy exchange of ideas. These standards are to be created by Oklahomans for Oklahomans." What guiding principles is OK using that the CCSS did not? Here are their guiding assumptions:

Standards will prepare students for success in college level mathematics and English language arts courses

All standards will be clear, concise, objective, measurable, and grade-level appropriate

Standards will not require a specific teaching methodology or curriculum

Standards must demonstrate vertical and horizontal alignment

The standards writing process begins with input from teachers and experts

State assessments align with the standard

Where appropriate the standards reflect critical thinking.

Well, the wording is different, as advertised, but except for that ominous "where appropriate" at the end, the intention does not seem to vary much from the CCSS guiding assumptions:

The standards are:

Research- and evidence-based

Clear, understandable, and consistent

Aligned with college and career expectations

Based on rigorous content and application of knowledge through higher-order thinking skills

Built upon the strengths and lessons of current state standards

Informed by other top performing countries in order to prepare all students for success in our global economy and society

The standards establish what students need to learn but do not dictate how teachers should teach.

To be fair, one of their experts did suggest that Oklahoma include a lot of Oklahoma authors and history. Ralph Ellison? Will Rogers? Maybe S.E. Hinton?

So the jury's still out, and we must wait until August to see what Oklahoma's teams crank out and how it compares to the CCSS. My feeling is that the process is and always was the same when it came to the creation of standards, and the more Oklahoma closes its eyes and pretends not to look at anyone else's standards, the more its will resemble everyone else's. But they will be By Oklahomans for Oklahomans, and they will be funded by Oklahoma taxpayers, not the Gates Foundation, so it's all good.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

How Merger-Happy Publishing Harmed Education

How sad is it that one can be "the largest education company and largest book publisher in the world" and still not crack the Fortune 1000? Yes, the corporatization of education is a sorry-looking thing, and publishing of any kind is still a bad bet for your portfolio.

I worked in educational publishing in NYC at a time when you honestly needed a scorecard to keep track of who was buying whom. I got a job at Harper & Row Educational one day, moved to Harcourt Brace Jovanovich the next, and saw the ed division at Harper dissolve before Harper & Row itself was bought up by Murdoch, who later merged it with William Collins, another acquisition, and formed HarperCollins, now Harper. Then HBJ (formerly Harcourt Brace & World, before which it was Harcourt Brace & Company, once Harcourt Brace & Howe) left NYC for Orlando and San Diego, where it was purchased by General Cinema Corporation, which soon divested itself of anything having to do with cinema and started calling the publishing division Harcourt Brace & Company. It is now Harcourt, Inc. and is owned by Reed Elsevier, which sold the educational publishing group to Houghton Mifflin, forming Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

The story of the 1990s, by which time I had left NYC and moved upstate, was all about foreign companies (Murdoch's News Corp.; Reed Elsevier, which is British and Dutch) buying up American publishers. Bertelsmann (German) bought Doubleday, Bantam, and Random House. Maxwell (British) bought Macmillan. Viacom, which is American, and which does appear on the Fortune 1000 at rank 210, tried its hand at publishing but couldn't find the profit in it, so it sold many of its holdings to a British company called Pearson. That's how Pearson acquired Scribner, Simon & Schuster, and Prentice Hall. Along with Simon & Schuster, Pearson got several education-related subsidiaries, including Allyn & Bacon and Silver Burdett Ginn.

So over the course of a few decades, foreign companies gobbled up dozens of American publishers that dated back to the 1800s. (Macmillan was 1843, A&B 1868, Silver Burdett 1888. Prentice Hall and Simon & Schuster were relative newcomers at 1913 and 1924 respectively.) These companies simply were not profitable enough for American corporations to take a chance on them.

When fast food companies conglomerate, you run the risk of all the food tasting the same. When educational publishing companies conglomerate, you run a higher risk. When I started in ed publishing in 1980, there were twenty or so companies right in NYC who were trying to capture some part of that market, and other companies (Dick Jane and Sally's Scott Foresman, for example) were scattered across the U.S. That competition gave genuine choices to school districts who were looking for new textbooks or other educational materials. By the time I left in 1991, the market had already shrunk by more than half. And today we are stuck with a small handful of niche publishers and then gigantic megacorps (though not gigantic enough by Forbes's standards) like Pearson, the company everybody loves to hate. As a source of income, publishing just stinks, so, as the author of this Fortune article states, "Testing has helped Pearson reduce its dependence on old-fashioned publishing."

A lot had to go wrong to get us to this point: American publishers had to wear blinders and ignore the movement toward digital publishing; American corporations had to hold their noses when offered a chance at purchasing a publisher; successful European companies (Pearson does rank in the top 100 on the British Stock Exchange, which shows what a sad state British industry is in) had to see the possibilities in cornering the education market worldwide rather than sticking to their own tiny market shares; and everyone involved had to worship at the fire of the global free market. It's not at all clear to me where we go from here.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

5 Questions to Ask About Your School

Most people become politicized via an issue that inspires personal passion. Right now, that issue is testing and Opting Out. I'd like to pose five questions that might keep newly engaged parents curious about the workings of their schools, the education of their kids, and the connection of education to politics. In no particular order:

1. What do other kids get that my kids don't?

If you haven't connnected yet to the issue of unfair funding, this is one good way to do so. Take your school district's population. Find a district downstate with a similar population. Go to that district's website and see what they have that you don't have. If nothing else, this will give you a clue that when people say, "NYS already spends way too much per pupil," they're not necessarily talking about spending that's systemwide. All of our local districts lie below the median. Some of those downstate schools skew statewide numbers. A lot.

A word of warning: The last time I wrote about this, I got comments from people who said, quite seriously, that rich people should have better schools. I don't know where to go with that; it represents a fundamental confusion about the objective of public schools.

Here are some examples for sample districts from our region:

A district the size of Dryden

A district the size of Groton

A district the size of Ithaca

A district the size of Trumansburg

Using this handy guide to compare amount spent per pupil, it's easy to see that in the examples I used, Ithaca is outspent by $4K per student, Trumansburg by $6K per, Dryden by $7K per, and Groton by $12K per. Even taking into account the high cost of living in Westchester or Suffolk County, those are big differences, and they show up in costly extras such as foreign languages, orchestras, iPad initiatives—you name it.

It's worth mentioning that a lot of schools have a lot less than your school, too. You can use a similar strategy to see that sad fact illustrated.

2. How does my school handle controversial topics?

Does your school do a decent job teaching about evolution, sustainability, climate change, American and world history, world religions, sex ed? How can you find out? Are there books that the library won't carry or that the summer reading list has purged due to parental complaints? Different schools react differently to those squeaky wheels, but you may be surprised by the answers.

3. How does my school keep me informed?

Do you hear more through the grapevine than you do from the school itself? How do you find out what's happening at board meetings, in hiring, on the athletic field, in the classroom? Can you access timely information via the website and social media, or do you still need to rely on the old empty-the-backpack system? If you're not getting what you need, tell the people in charge. If there's no change, go to a board meeting armed with information about a district that's doing a better job of reaching out to parents. Good communication is not rocket science, and nowadays, it should not cost much more than time.

4. How much does my district spend to educate students at other schools?

Students from your district may attend religious schools. They may attend charter schools. You know that school choice is an issue, but you may not know its price. I know that I was surprised to learn the cost of educating students from my district at New Roots, and I've always been astonished by the things taxpayers cover for students who attend religious schools. And I'm not even talking about support of vouchers.

5. How do our students do after they leave the district?

This is one that you may not be able to answer. Unless they have a strong alumni association, most districts don't track kids beyond graduation. But although it's one way schools are measured, some of us believe that graduation for graduation's sake should never be the goal. You've heard the term "college- and career-ready." Whether you think that preK-12 education is a trajectory toward lifelong learning, personal passions, job training, or higher ed, it's helpful to know how kids have done once they put away the gown and tassel. Are kids from your school graduating from college? dropping out after a year? stuck in remediation? Are they finding jobs in the area? moving from job to job? stuck in their high school jobs? How can you find out? Do your counselors know? Does the administration have any idea? Are there data available from local colleges? Don't parents have a right to know this stuff?

These are my questions. You may have five others. Just don't be afraid to ask, and let the answers dictate what you do next.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Putting the Inactive in Activism

Simon brought up at lunch yesterday that he's lately eschewing institutionalism for activism; he'd rather work from outside than within. Which is funny, because I've headed the other way. What would get me out into the streets today? Maybe jackbooted neoNazis parading through Dryden. Other than that... pretty much nothing.

That's partly cranky old ladyism, partly a steadily growing fear of crowds, and partly my memory of one particular aftermath of a march in the 1980s. I ran into a friend and merrily told him that I'd just come from a march at the UN for US Out of El Salvador. "Oh," he replied. "Did it work?"

Ever since Paul got onto the school board, he has become increasingly convinced that board work is meaningless; that real progress comes from people shrieking at the board and forcing change out of the board's fear of bad publicity. That's only partly true, I think. Some of the little changes that have come in his three years on the board have been due to a collaboration between the audience and certain board members—not a collusion, but rather a meeting of the minds. I think that happened with the fracking "ban" in Dryden, too. Part of the audience supplied the fervor, and the board members who were in agreement helped it happen. So it takes all kinds.

I like to encourage smart activists to run for school board or town board, in part because I think it's extremely useful to understand the backstory of How Things Really Work. It helps activism become both more focused and more pragmatic when activists get the history of How We Got Here and the rules of legislating, rules that may either stand in the way of or create a possible pathway toward acceptable change.

Behind-the-scenes change takes more time than most activists are willing to spend, I think, because their kind of passion burns hot and can flame out. Getting pre-K at Dryden took me nearly a dozen years of steady nagging, on and off the board, bringing in experts, looking for funding streams, finding $32K when Dryden lost it. Getting a Democratic majority on town board—the reason, I'm convinced, that we got the ban at all—took 15 years from the time I joined the committee. Both of those are insecure successes that could easily slip away without vigilance. There's no glory there and no real feeling of a job well done. It's about continuing on and dragging forward slowly, one step at a time.

I went and sat for a bit with Occupiers in Buffalo a few years ago, because theirs was an issue that resonated with me. But what's going to effect real change—a movement that mostly gave us a vocabulary word, or someone like Elizabeth Warren? Or are both needed for any success to be possible?

Paul is pretty excited about Harvard kids blockading offices to get their university to divest from fossil fuels. There's a lot of money involved, and if all the major universities did what they earlier did around apartheid, there could indeed be some real, important change. The Harvard president has been quoted saying that an endowment should not be seen as an "instrument to impel social or political change." But of course, it should.

In a workshop he gave recently on nonviolence, Barry Derfel talked about the interconnections of education, politics, and money in any successful movement. It takes a three-pronged approach, with participants behaving in a way that re-educates the witnesses; actions that pressure politicians to change laws; and boycotts that produce monetary pressure on businesses, municipalities, and ordinary citizens. Smart civil disobedience is a wonderful, powerful thing.

Here's what I've done about divestment at my alma mater: Liked the DivestNow Cornell Facebook page. Submitted my opinion to the student assembly's public comment page. Written this blogpost. Here's what we've done at home: Invested in geothermal heat and solar electric. Here's what I'm probably not going to do: March around Ho Plaza with a sign. I'm putting the antisocial in social protest, the inactive in activism. It takes all kinds.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Not a Jobs Program, Either

A lot of the concern about state and PARCC/Smarter Balanced testing is expressed as anger that test companies are raking in the bucks hand over fist. That's why this message from Chuck came as a bit of a surprise. Pearson laid off 200 back in 2013, but it was hard to tell whether those layoffs were testing related. These clearly were.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Testing in Texas

Texas is one of four states that never, ever signed on to the Common Core State Standards. That has something to do with Texas's independent streak and a lot to do with the power of the Texas Board of Education and its desire to retain that power.

In 2012, Texas replaced its famous Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) with the new State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR). From the state website:

The STAAR program includes annual assessments for

Reading and mathematics, grades 3–8

Writing at grades 4 and 7

Science at grades 5 and 8

Social studies at grade 8

End-of-course assessments for English I, English II, Algebra I, biology and U.S history.

Beginning in 2016, TEA will voluntarily administer STAAR EOC assessments for English III and Algebra II.

So it is possible to have a boatload of tests without any connection whatsoever to the Common Core. In comparison, NYS has reading and math at 3-8, science at 4 and 8, social studies to come, plus Regents in a variety of courses at the HS level.

Want to criticize testing? Criticize testing. Just don't blame testing on the Common Core.


A total loss in today's fire. We shall miss you.

Dear Senators

Dear Senators Gillibrand and Schumer:

As the Senate takes up discussion of the Alexander-Murray revision of No Child Left Behind, I encourage you to consider a couple of things. The revision maintains testing at grades 3-8 but strips away consequences of that testing. If testing now only exists so that the public may see achievement gaps, it seems to me that the sort of grade-span testing we had before NCLB is adequate. Testing cohorts at grades 4, 8, and high school will clearly indicate those gaps.

What to do about those gaps is a civil rights question, and this nation has a bad track record when civil rights issues are left up to the states. And by ceding control over standards that the states create to meet new guidelines for rigor, the Senate bill ensures that we once again will have 50 sets of disparate standards, and that students moving from one state to another or vying for jobs or college placements will once again find themselves far behind or far ahead of their peers, depending on their ZIP codes.

Nations that compete successfully with us have national standards and fewer tests. Yes, those students beat ours overall in science, math, and even reading at times. But those nations don't educate all students. We do. To address achievement gaps, we need to deal with issues of urban and rural poverty, mental health, and absenteeism. We need universal pre-K, before- and after-school programs, and culturally competent teachers. We need multiple pathways to graduation. We need help from our teachers unions to mentor and monitor their members. We need funding streams that are reliable and equitable. We need better teacher training and support.

We don't need 3-8 tests to tell us what we need. We already know. I encourage you to support a bill that addresses schools' needs rather than one that continues to hunt for and publicize their deficits.


K.A. Zahler

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Opting Out

Call me cynical. Just do. Now the Ithaca Teacher's Association has published a statement in the Ithaca Voice encouraging parents (I mean "informing parents of their rights") to opt their kids out of the "high stakes New York state ELA and Mathematics tests for 3rd through 8th grade students" that will "begin on April 14, 2015." Imagine it! "Commercially prepared state tests"!

Well, I guess if you have young kids in school or have lived under a rock for a decade and a half, you don't realize that we've had "commercially prepared state tests" for grades 3 through 8 since No Child Left Behind (a federal law, not a state law) was implemented. Other states have had them, too. In NYS, the tests, created by CTB McGraw-Hill, were first presented in January 2006, which was the very last possible time states were allowed to introduce them, according to NCLB.

Mind you, prior to 2006, NYS had plenty of testing, just not at every grade. Fourth and eighth graders had state tests, and we've always had the Regents tests for graduation purposes. So-called "state tests" were created by McGraw-Hill, or by Pearson, or by McGraw-Hill, or by Pearson—and both companies were busily creating state tests for the other 49 states as well.

Along the way, there were complaints about the quality of tests, or the meaninglessness of tests, and those of us in the textbook business complained that we were testing too much and teaching too little.

So what changed? Well, with the development of Common Core State Standards, there was no longer a need for 50 different tests. Some states chose to get their tests from one of two consortia, PARCC or Smarter Balanced. PARCC tests were designed by Pearson. Smarter Balanced were designed by CTB McGraw-Hill. NYS, being persnickety, decided not to go with either one but rather to keep overseeing the design of their own tests—by Pearson.

So that's not really much of a change, is it? Okay, the real change is this: In a decision completely divorced from Common Core, which includes no such directive, NYS teachers were told that they personally—not just their schools or districts—would be held accountable for student improvement, as based on test results. And now we have Opt Out.

"High-stakes testing" is testing whose outcome has great consequence for the test-taker. By that definition, these are not "high-stakes tests," whatever the union might think. Or rather, they are "high-stakes" for the teachers and districts, not for the students, whose graduation or even promotion is never determined by the 3-8 state tests. The most that ever happens to a student based on a test score is that the student might receive extra help—and that usually only happens if the school has carefully done a gap analysis of the data to determine where each student had difficulty.

I don't have any objections to parents standing up and saying "We're testing too much and teaching too little." I've been saying that for a long, long time. I think testing at 4 and 8 and disaggregating those data is probably good enough for determining where the gaps lie in a district. (Disaggregation helps you to see equity in a district—whether a school is as competent at teaching its students with disabilities, ESL kids, students in poverty, and students of different races and ethnicities as it is at teaching any other student.) I do object to unions using parents' ignorance about educational history to their advantage. I do object to teachers and parents transferring their hysteria onto children for whom these tests should mean little to nothing at all.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Suing Schools

The Ithaca Voice reported on a case in Vestal, where a teacher was accused of separating a kid's shoulder and the mother's photos of the injury went viral. (At that age, my brother could do that with his shoulder at the drop of a hat, which isn't to say that the kid wasn't injured.) The teacher was exonerated by the DA, who could not find evidence to support the claim.

Lots and lots and lots of people commented that the teacher should be fired, hanged from the nearest tree, etc. But those of us who've worked in and around schools mostly went, "Uh oh."

It happens, of course. Teachers abuse kids and have to be fired. Lawsuits happen, too. I have no objections to Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, for example. Some grievances can only be settled in court.

When I googled "number of lawsuits vs. public schools," I found no actual figures, but I did find a slew of sites on "How to Sue a School." You wouldn't think that schools were deep-pocket litigants, but apparently they are deep-pocket enough, because most schools I know annually face a number of suits that affect their bottom lines. This article from 2004 claims that 60 percent of principals back then had faced a legal challenge. I don't have any reason to think that number has dropped.

I firmly believe that there are lawyers—not local, but not far away—whose metier is suing public schools, and who actively seek out clients in the region. They often find suitable clients in the parents of special education students, because it seems particularly easy to find that schools have not completed paperwork accurately, held appropriate numbers of meetings, or otherwise lived up to the letter of the extremely specific laws that guide special education. Suing for compliance issues is easy and common. And the poorly-kept secret is that schools settle lawsuits, however frivolous they might seem, because it's usually cheaper than going to court.

So suing schools is a profitable business. But the constant threat of lawsuits clearly has a dampening effect on schools, thwarting creativity as it takes up time and energy and costs taxpayers thousands and thousands of dollars.

Bad stuff happens in schools, and sometimes, where there's smoke, there's fire. Just not always. Sometimes there's just a lawyer blowing on the embers.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Predicting Outcomes on April Fool's Day

I wonder what it means that the NYS Budget is due on April Fool's Day. I wonder why legislators who never much cared before are so terribly eager to have an on-time budget now.

Here's what we got: A pretty comfortable increase in monies for schools, primarily based on restoration of a good sized percentage of the money taken away by the gap elimination adjustment. No new charter schools. A lot more oversight of bad graduate level teacher programs. A longer tenure probationary period. A whole bunch of steps, including the establishment of a "community engagement team," before a school may be put in receivership. And a teacher evaluation system based on observations and tests at grades 3-8 plus Regents exams, in a plan to be put together by the Board of Regents.

NYSUT's reaction was to call for a mass opting out of exams, with a fact sheet right on their website about how parents can do it.

So here's my prediction: Parents who are involved in their kids' schooling will do the paperwork to opt their kids out of exams. Because there are strong correlations between parental involvement and student success, the remaining kids who take the test will be those most likely to do poorly. Because there is not (yet) any required percentage of a class sitting for tests, a whole slew of previously fine teachers will suddenly find themselves rated ineffective. In year two, teachers will find themselves in the awkward position of begging parents to let their children sit for tests, lest those teachers get another ineffective rating, labeling them incompetent. Three ineffective ratings, should things go that far, lead to a 3020-a hearing in which the teacher must prove fraud or risk dismissal.

Now, NYSUT may assume that a statewide test boycott will cause the system to implode, and maybe it will—very slowly. But my prediction is that a bunch of teachers, administrators, and even whole districts will be caught in that slow-motion implosion. Do you really think we have a governor who will say, after a year, "Oops, my bad; let's reverse this foolish plan"? Or legislators who will confess, "Well, I didn't really have time to read the whole thing, so I didn't understand what the results might be"?

There is a chance that the Regents might recognize the possibilities and build in a failsafe switch, saying, for example, that if 30 percent of students opt out, the test won't count toward teacher, administrator, or school evaluation. I hope New Yorkers are willing to bet their favorite teacher's career on that.