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Atlanta Cheating Conspiracy

12 Oct

The newest national scandal to hit the education scene is the discovery that primary students in the Atlanta public schools system changed their answers from incorrect choices to correct ones in excess of 250,000 times on the 2009 Criterion Referenced Competency Test. The CRCT is a standardized test administered to gauge compliance with federal No Child Left Behind requirements. The exam erasures represent a rate of answer changes well in excess of the norm for this test.  A single fourth grade class managed to change its answer choice to the correct one an average of 27 times.

Fifty-eight Atlanta schools were flagged for possible cheating. The school district launched an investigation which looked into the matter at just the dozen schools with the highest erasure rates. The investigation ultimately found that there was no concerted effort to boost scores. Since the release of this report in early August, the Governor of Georgia and the U.S. Department of Education have stepped in to conduct their own evaluations.

A major underlying issue here is to what extent Atlanta schools will be eligible to receive Title I money when the investigations are complete. Title I is federal money given by the federal government to states to distribute to schools with a higher population of indigent students. Any school with 40% or more student qualifying for free or reduced price school lunches is eligible for Title I grants. However, schools that receive the designation of “distinguished” may qualify for additional grant money. This designation requires improvements on the CRCT assessments and attendance over the previous three consecutive years. Of the 57 schools which received the designation for the 2009-2010 year, 39 were flagged for excessive exam erasures. Unfortunately it appears this issue may not be isolated to just this year, the Atlanta Journal Constitution has reported on statistically unlikely increases on the CRCT assessments in both 2008 and 2009.

NYC Teacher Tenure, an education

29 Sep

Earlier this week, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, announced his plan to change teacher tenure for public school teachers in New York City. He made the announcement as part of the Education Nation summit organized and broadcast by NBC to promote education reform efforts by local and national political and corporate leaders. In his speech, the Mayor revealed serious misgivings about the origins and purpose of tenure.

Tenure, as applies to New York public school teachers simply means that as part of a termination, a hearing will take place. Tenure does not mean “a job for life,” whether in literal or practical terms. A teacher can, at any point, be terminated for cause.

The Necessity of Tenure

The very first U.S. public school teacher tenure law enacted in the New Jersey. The intent of the law is to prevent the capricious and nefarious termination of undeserving teachers on the basis of nepotism, political favoritism, and otherwise arbitrary dismissals. (Citron 1985). While the tenure law removes discriminatory and subjective terminations as an option, there is still a bevy of grounds available to a principal or superintendent seeking to remove a teacher that is not fit for their position. The grounds listed below are those outlined in the NYS Education Law § 3012:

  1. Insubordination
  2. Conduct unbecoming a teacher
  3. Inefficiency
  4. Incompetence
  5. Physical or mental disability
  6. Neglect of duty
  7. Failure to maintain certification
  8. Immoral character

The argument against tenure is that it allows for the perpetual employment of ineffective and incompetent teachers. However, under the current law, those grounds are exactly that which would constitute just cause in the termination of a teacher. All a superintendent would have to do to effectuate the termination is prove the allegations.

The anti-tenure argument then becomes that the hearings required to prove the allegations are lengthy and costly. Public school teachers are not to blame for this bureaucracy and inefficiency. It seems scarcely just that they, as a profession, should be forced to relinquish rights for circumstances beyond their control.

How Tenure is Earned

The granting of tenure requires that a teacher hold a valid teaching certificate. Acquiring a valid teaching certificate usually requires thirty or more credits in one’s subject area at the undergraduate level, a master’s degree in education which provides a specific amount of credit hours in both the subject area and instructional methods. Then there are other requirements such as a background check, successful completion of three or more required examinations, and child abuse prevention workshops. These requirements are only for an initial teaching certificate. The initial certificate expires after a couple of years and before a teacher has taught the three years required before they are eligible for tenure, they must complete even more training to obtain a professional certificate.

As described by the 2010 UFT New Teacher Handbook:

the process for determining whether or not you will get tenure is rigorous, and tenure is not automatic at the end of the probationary period. You must: Complete all your state certification and city licensing requirements, file an application and receive professional certification. Have a record of satisfactory service during your probationary period. Be recommended for tenure by your principal.

Bloomberg on Tenure

On Tuesday’s episode of Brian Lehrer on WNYC, Michael Mulgrew, the president of the UFT suggested that Bloomberg may be understating his contribution to the “rubber stamp tenure” status quo to which he is so vehemently opposed. Bloomberg has had control over the New York City school system for approximately a decade, but seems to have chosen now as the time to address teacher tenure. Further, his attacks on tenure advocate changes to the system which are not changes at all as there are mechanisms to prevent the harms he insists need to be avoided. Specifically, those are that only good teachers receive tenure and that teachers should not be guaranteed a job for life.

I look forward to hearing from Mayor Bloomberg a specific actionable plan for how tenure can actually be changed. And because we must pander to the whims of education reformers by allowing them the benefit of backwards induction, I would further challenge the Mayor to produce evidence of correlation between any proposed real changes to the current tenure system to actual benefits to students and student learning. Without such hard evidence Bloomberg’s position appears irrational and raises questions about his credibility and ability to lead.

Facebook Cares?

23 Sep

Mark Zuckerberg, of Facebook fame, is expected to announce a gift of $100 million to Newark schools on the Oprah show this Friday, September 24th. I spotted this story on Huffington Post, which specifies that Zuckerberg intends to establish a foundation using Facebook stock, to benefit education in America, and specifically education in Newark.

The WSJ explains: “[u]nder terms of the understanding between Mr. Zuckerberg, the Republican Mr. Christie and the Democratic Mr. Booker, the mayor would become the governor’s representative to devise plans for the schools.” Hmm… The NYT even reports there has been speculation that Michelle Rhee, Chancellor of Education for Washington D.C. will go to New Jersey.

Having attended the most competitive law school in the country (Yale), Corey Booker automatically gets my respect for being brilliant. However, this increasing push for education governance by people who have not actually worked in (or even studied) education is disconcerting. The underlying insinuation seems to be that control should be centralized… I get that. But why aren’t we looking to education experts to execute that authority? Have we decided that there is not teacher, principal, or even Harvard GSE or Teacher’s College Ed.D. that can make a contribute of any value?? I think my puzzle is a piece short.

I also still haven’t figured out why so many big for-profits have made education the cause du jour. When I saw this story I automatically assumed Zuckerberg must be from Newark. He’s not. Apparently he has no connection to Newark whatsoever except that he and Booker met at a conference in July and have kept in touch about education. I bet I couldn’t meet anyone today who would be willing to give me $100 million in two months. Education seems an odd cause for huge companies to support, especially when the support comes with subtle or outward expressions of how the cause should be helped.

I will continue sleuthing.

Talks between Michelle Rhee & George Parker

20 Sep

What’s old is new again: I found this wonderful timeline of the teachers’ contract discussions that have taken place in D.C. over the past few years between the Chancellor, and George Parker, the leader of the Washington Teacher’s Union.

Parker had come under fire by union members who say he is not advocating on their behalf. In a 2008 interview with Charlie Rose, Rhee indicated that Parker was really committed to change and that without him as union leader her changes to the education system in D.C. would not be possible.

Rhee, a brief history

20 Sep

Michelle Rhee, the Chancellor of Education for Washington D.C. will appear on the Oprah show today, along with Bill Gates, and Davis Guggenheim, the director of “Waiting for Superman.” In anticipation of the broadcast, I have decided to take a look at the life and times of Michelle Rhee.

Rhee’s career in education began in 1992 when she joined Teach for America after graduating from Cornell University. She taught second (and perhaps third?) grade at Harlem Park Elementary in Baltimore, MD. Rhee has claimed that she was able to take her students, who had been performing, on average, in the 13th percentile on national standardized tests, to 90% of the students scoring in the 90th percentile. However, as reported by The Washington Times, those facts have not been verified. A quote from Rhee at the end of the article suggests she would be open to having those records released. But high turn over of students in the school from one year to the next and the fact her second two years at the school were taught, not by her individually, but as part of a team of two teachers, might in any event render such an inquiry inconclusive.

After three years, she left teaching to pursue a master’s degree in public policy from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. She obtained her degree in 1997 and that same year established The New Teacher Project in New York. The aim of TNTP was to train mid-career professionals in teaching and provide an alternate route to certification, similar to TFA. TNTP has established large and well-known multi-year teaching fellowship programs in several states around the country.

In 2006, Adrian Fenty campaigned for the mayoral election on a platform of reform across several areas, including education. Before the election, Fenty met with Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein who advised Fenty to secure mayoral control over the D.C. education system. Fenty won the D.C. mayoral election that Fall and took control of its schools in June 2007. Immediately upon taking control of the school, he named Michelle Rhee to serve as the district’s Chancellor of Education. Vincent Gray, the democratic chairman of the City Council who beat Fenty last week in the democratic primary election for this year’s mayoral race, raised questions regarding Rhee’s claims of having produced significant improvement in her students at Harlem Park. The uncertainty was not enough to hinder the confirmation process and she took her post in Summer 2007. Indeed, immediately upon her taking office, media outlets began to report on the Harlem Park student success figures without any qualifying language, or with ambiguous qualifying language, as though her confirmation as chancellor were a prima facie absolution of the uncertainty surrounding the numbers.

As chancellor, Rhee has established a reputation as a hard-nosed no-excuses leader. She has fired teachers and principals, including, perhaps most audaciously, the principal of her own eight and five-year-old daughters’ elementary school because she found the homework assigned to them to be “sporadic and unchallenging.” Questions have been raised, and a lawsuit filed a week and a half ago, regarding a teacher Rhee actually declined to fire. The teacher at issue is Robert Weismiller, a former D.C. special education teacher at Shadd Transition Academy. Shadd itself, established under Rhee, apparently as a school specifically for emotionally disturbed students, has faced scrutiny as a failed project. There are reports the school was poorly planned, is plagued with bureaucracy, under-staffed, and has ultimately become a “disaster.” The lawsuit however, has nothing to do with the viability of Shadd as a school, but instead that staff at Shadd and Rhee, allowed Weismiller to engage in the continued sexual abuse of one of its special needs students, the plaintiff, Ayanna Blue. The suit stems from a D.C. Public Schools investigation into the matter that ultimately found Weimiller not guilty of “grave misconduct.” The suit indicates that although Weismiller was in fact ultimately terminated, the termination was part of the school system’s October 2009 reduction in force, and not as a result of any sexual charges. Blue gave birth to a daughter in November 2009, paternity tests revealed a 99.9% probability that Weismiller is the biological father. Early this year, Rhee seems to have made a slip of the tongue where she implied that a terminated teacher at Shadd academy had been having “sex with children,” which would indicate that she was cognizant of the fact that such sexual abuse occurred, and begs the question, whether she arrived at that knowledge before the conclusion of the investigation.

Unfortunately, there is yet another sex scandal in the chronology. It is of allegations that Rhee’s new husband, Kevin Johnson, the Mayor of Sacramento and a former player with the NBA Phoenix Suns, sexually harassed at least one student volunteering through a charter school he was operating, St. Hope Academy. However, Rhee’s involvement in the scandal seems unclear. Reports have surfaced indicating that she attempted to do “damage control,” but all I could find to substantiate that assertion was a simple quote from a St. Hope employee claiming as much. This more thorough outline of the events tying Rhee to the controversy also seems to suggests that her connection to any actual cover-up or mitigation of the charges is tenuous at best.

In July, Rhee released numbers indicating 241 teachers were to be fired between then and August. And that 165 of those teachers had received low scores on the newly-implemented teacher evaluation system, IMPACT. The IMPACT system, launched in Fall 2009, is meant to serve as a value-add analysis of teacher effectiveness. That is, it aims to gauge each teacher’s effectiveness on the basis of changes in student assessment scores; is the teacher adding value? As with virtually every other fact in this piece, the number of teachers subjected to termination on the basis of IMPACT scores also came into controversy. Last month, the Washington Teacher’s Union took issue with Rhee’s numbers indicating they were over-inflated perhaps to maintain her “take-no-prisoners” image. It appears that of those 165 teachers said to have been fired on the basis of IMPACT performance, only 76 were actually deemed “ineffective” in those evaluations. Of the total 241 terminations, 75 were reported to have been over mere licensing issues. The majority of the 165 low-IMPACT-score teachers, were deemed “minimally effective.” However, their terminations were also not a direct result of their IMPACT scores, those teachers were simply excessed, which appears to be no more than school lay offs. Those excessed teachers are in fact still qualified to find work in other D.C. public schools if there is room for them on another staff. Essentially, it appears just 76 teachers have lost their jobs for being ineffective teachers as measured by a formal district-wide system of teacher evaluation, in the three years Rhee has been chancellor.

Ultimately, there has been some evidence of improvement among student scores in D.C. schools under Rhee however, the findings usually come with a caveat. It seems clear that improving schools and school systems will simply take time. The IMPACT system itself just finished its first full year of implementation. One year would yield only one subject in a study on IMPACT’s ability to effect student improvement in D.C. Even that would require the presumption that the student evaluations used by IMPACT are a good measure of student learning. I hope that Oprah’s hosting Rhee will not serve as a tacit endorsement of Rhee’s fitness to hold her position, or worse, to intrinsically serve as proof that education reform, and certainly the slash-and-burn education reform measures advocated by Rhee and others, are conclusively working.