Should the Federal Government Be Determining How States Evaluate Teachers?

Senator Lamar Alexander, chair of the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, held another hearing this week on the potential reauthorization of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act, since 2002 called No Child Left Behind (NCLB). The subject of this week’s hearing was federal requirements for evaluating school teachers. While it is early yet to predict any sort of outcome for the NCLB deliberations, Lauren Camera of Education Week speculates: “Although members of the Senate education committee agreed at a hearing Tuesday that teacher evaluations are essential for a thriving public education system, it’s unlikely that the forthcoming reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act will include specific requirements.”

Removing requirements for tying evaluation of teachers to students’ test scores would be a radical shift in federal policy. The Obama administration conditioned qualification for its competitive grant program Race to the Top on states’ basing evaluation of school teachers on their students’ standardized test scores.  And the Obama Department of Education’s waivers from the onerous punishments of NCLB have also been contingent upon states agreeing to connect teachers’ ratings to their students’ standardized test scores.

Describing Tuesday’s hearing of the Senate HELP Committee, Camera continues: “Republicans, including Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said Washington shouldn’t mandate such policies, while Democrats, including ranking member Patty Murray, D-Wash., were wary of increasing the role student test scores play in evaluations and how those evaluations are used to compensate teachers.  The lack of language in the reauthorization requiring teacher evaluations will likely stop in its tracks the Obama administration’s efforts to push states to adopt evaluation systems based in part on student test scores and performance-based compensation systems, both of which were at the heart of U.S. Department of Education’s NCLB waivers.”  Camera reports on testimony presented to the Senate HELP Committee by Terry Holliday, Kentucky’s education commissioner, that evaluation of teachers should be collaborative and “not done to teachers and leaders.”

Coincidentally, the day after the Senate HELP’s hearing on evaluation of teachers, I attended a packed meeting here at home where a panel of teachers from my own school district’s elementary and middle schools and our high school spoke about how their teaching practice has been affected by standardized testing and the evaluation of teachers based on their students’ scores.  All of them were able to examine these relatively new experiences in the context of long careers that stretch before the passage of No Child Left Behind.

Natalie Wester was chosen as Ohio’s teacher of the year in 2010, but she told the crowd that she worried even as she received the award, because that year only 4 of her third grade students had passed the autumn practice exam leading up to the official state test. In the spring only 50 percent of her students achieved the “proficient” rating. What the state’s examination did not recognize and what no official rating will ever show is that every student in her class that year grew two or three performance levels. The test, like all the standardized assessments since the passage of NCLB, recognizes achievement only when children cross the passing benchmark. If a non-reader enters a third grade classroom in the fall, learns to read, and becomes a second-grade-level reader in that one year, the child still counts as a failure according to the assessment that credits success only when a child reads at grade level. Wester declared, “I fear that in a very real sense we are squashing dreams, confidence, and children’s belief in themselves through testing.”

Another teacher reported he is working this year with a small group of third graders whose reading test scores are so low the students are likely to fail the state mandated Third Grade Reading Guarantee test. Students who fail will be required to repeat third grade. This teacher says he watches his students “shut down” when they realize how far behind they are. “I see that spark of wanting to learn dying in my students. I feel we are abusing our students.”

A high school teacher of special education worried that some of her students are so far below the basic level at which the standardized test is constructed that the testing experience itself is emotionally defeating.  All of the teachers who spoke affirm the value of informal quizzes and check-ins with students—formative assessments—that provide the teachers with feedback to plan interventions, support students, readjust the lesson, and add extra challenge as the lesson is expanded.  Very often, according to all the speakers, standardized test scores come back a semester or a year after the test, long after a particular teacher can use the data to address challenges faced by the students who are no longer enrolled in their classes.

A teacher from a neighboring school district framed the evening by explaining the details of the Ohio Teacher Evaluation System, created as a requirement when Ohio applied for the federal Race to the Top competition and included as a requirement for the state to receive a federal waiver from some of the worst problems in NCLB. This system evaluates teachers in large part based on their students’ standardized test scores.  In the context of listening to a panel of professionally expert teachers speaking to their long experience working with children, it was almost baffling to try to follow the details of the plan by which Ohio’s teachers are rated “accomplished, skilled, developing or ineffective.” Teachers are spending hours filing reams of data about their teaching and their students. These reports along with formal observations of their classes count for 50 percent of their evaluation with another 50 percent from their students’ standardized test scores. A new revision of the Ohio Department of Education’s evaluation rubric will allow a school district to create alternative components for 15 percent of the overall rating and then award 42.5 percent on reports and observations and another 42.5 percent for students’ test scores.

As I listened to  the description of the burdensome evaluation system set up by the Ohio Department of Education, I know I was not the only person thinking about Natalie Wester’s students.  Each one of them gained at least two or three performance levels in her class, but only 50 percent of her children passed the state’s proficiency benchmark that year. Even if they have made substantial academic progress, children’s failures to reach a particular cut score affect not only them and their confidence and will to persist, but also shape the formal state evaluation scores of their teachers—even for Ohio’s teacher of the year.

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Ohio Auditor’s Report on Low Attendance at Dropout Recovery Schools Confirms Long Trend

Last October, Ohio State Auditor, Dave Yost sent staffers unannounced to 30 charter schools across the state to see if the headcount of students present matched the number of students the schools had declared were enrolled this year.  Yost announced on January 22, 2015 that, “Out of the 30 schools reviewed, seven were identified as having unusually high variances in students counted by AOS (Auditor of State) staff versus the number of students the schools reported to ODE (Ohio Department of Education).  For example, when AOS staff went into the Academy for Urban Scholars in Youngstown, they found zero students in the school where 95 students were supposed to be enrolled… All seven schools are classified as Dropout Recovery and Prevention schools by ODE and serve predominantly dropout recovery students.” The state reimburses the schools at a per-student rate, based on the number enrolled.

Akron Beacon-Journal reporter Doug Livingston puts the new report from Auditor Dave Yost in context: “According to October enrollment figures self-reported to the Ohio Department of Education, the 30 charter schools were on track to receive $54,592,383 in taxpayer funds to educate 6,985 students.  The auditors, however, counted only 5,524 students.  The more than 1,400 missing students, if they were absent for an entire year, could cost taxpayers $12 million for empty seats…. That $12 million represents 8 percent of the support going to Ohio’s 381 charter schools.  The lowest attendance rates were found at charter schools that enroll students who already have dropped out of a traditional public school and are at least a year behind.  These ‘dropout recovery’ schools had, on average, a 50 percent attendance rate,” when Yost’s staff made their unannounced visit last October.

According to Yost’s January 22 report, one of the problems is that “dropout recovery” schools are permitted in state law to use a strategy called “blended learning,” “the delivery of instruction in a combination of time in a supervised, physical location away from home and online delivery where the student has some element of control over time, place, path or pace of learning.  The combination of on-site and online instruction for community schools, offering blended learning opportunities increases the risk of noncompliance with enrollment documentation requirements.”

Yost’s office explains that the charter schools that offer blended learning opportunities “must carefully document both the physical attendance of students as well as their participation in online learning opportunities as verified by log in records.”  And that is where one is reminded of Ghost Schools, a very similar report by Scripps Howard News Service back in 2008Ghost Schools tracked poor attendance at Ohio’s “dropout recovery” schools, which had at that time been around for a decade.  “The dropout-recovery school movement began in 1998 in Ohio, and in recent years has been averaging about $30 million a year in state payments for absent students.  Taxpayers have paid more than $100 million in the last five years through this system.”

Ghost Schools focuses on David Brennan’s White Hat “dropout recovery” schools as those with the worst record for both attendance and performance.  “The Ohio Department of Education requires schools to take action if absenteeism exceeds 7 percent, although dropout-recovery schools have been exempted from the rule… The Ohio schools with the worst attendance are the 17 Life Skills Centers run by the for-profit company White Hat Management, founded by Akron, Ohio businessman David Brennan.  The company operates 20 more Life Sills Centers in Arizona, Colorado, Florida and Michigan, many of which also have high levels of absenteeism.”

The Scripps Howard reporters explain, “Under Ohio law, truant students must be dropped from the enrollment lists after missing 105 hours of instruction.  But former employees and students at Life Skills Center schools said habitually truant students were kept on the active enrollment lists.  Former employees said they were routinely sent to students’ houses to obtain written excused absences using a standard form the company developed.  Then the absence became ‘excused’ until another 105 hours were missed.”  A supervisor for the Ohio Department of Education told the reporters, “the auditing methods used to determine how many full-time equivalent students (FTEs) are actually attending a school does not allow for any challenge of the accuracy of excused absence forms, other than to confirm that they exist.”

Back in 2008, the Scripps Howard reporters conducted the same kind of  headcount repeated by Yost last October, and with similar results: “The Ohio Department of Education during the 2007-2008 school year paid White Hat Management $1.5 million to teach 264 students enrolled at the Columbus school.  But a headcount by Scripps Howard News Service found that only 122 teenagers and young adults actually went to class on May 1, a typical school day.  It’s a figure school officials didn’t challenge.  Similar checks at Life Skills Center campuses in Akron and Cleveland also found that less than half of enrolled students actually went to class.”

One suspects that the records described in Yost’s new audit— of time spent in “blended learning” computer study outside of class—are not any better verified than the absence excuse forms Ghost Schools reported were collected and filed back in 2008.

The lax regulation of Ohio’s “dropout recovery” charter schools is widely believed to derive from the political power of White Hat Management owner David Brennan.  According to a recent report from Innovation Ohio and the Ohio Education Association, Brennan and his wife, Ann, have contributed more than $4 million in campaign donations since 1998 to Ohio legislators and other state officials.  One wonders if we will read the same report eight years from now about tax dollars being redirected out of Ohio’s public school education budget into the coffers of the huge charter operators whose profits help them buy weak regulation of Ohio’s charter sector.

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Charter Titans’ Political Contributions Keep Ohio Charters Unregulated

In Policy vs. Politics: Which Will Prevail in the Looming Ohio Charter School Reform Fight? researchers from the Ohio Charter School Accountability Project examine the connection between political contributions made by David Brennan and William Lager—Ohio’s two largest charter profiteers—to prominent Republican state legislators and the passage of Ohio laws that keep Ohio’s charter schools unregulated. The Ohio Charter School Accountability Project is a joint effort of the Ohio Education Association and Innovation Ohio.

The new report documents the profits reaped by Brennan and Lager and the size of their political donations over the years: “Between the two of them, they have contributed about $6.4 million to Ohio politicians and committees since 1998. Of that, less than 3 percent went to Democrats…. Since charters were launched in Ohio in the 1998-1999 school year, taxpayers have sent charter schools $7.3 billion.  Of that, $1.76 billion have gone to schools run by Brennan and Lager.  Schools run by these two men have collected 1 out of every 4 dollars ever spent in Ohio since charter schools first opened.”

Founded by William Lager, the enormous Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT) serves 14,561 students, reports the Columbus Dispatch. “ECOT, whose students take classes from home on a computer, grew by 122 percent during Ohio’s eight-year moratorium on new online charter schools. Some of its strongest growth was in elementary grades, including kindergarten.  ECOT now has more students than Canton, Dayton, Dublin or Westerville schools. It is the state’s 10th-largest district. And growth came for ECOT despite its consistently low state report-card results: It ranks among the worst-performing schools in the state.”  While the average high school graduation rate across Ohio’s school districts is 77 percent, ECOT’s graduation rate is only 38 percent. The Dispatch reports that 90 percent of funding for ECOT—$112.7 million last year—comes from Ohio tax dollars.  Here is how ECOT spends some of that money: ECOT paid $21.4 million in 2013 to the two for-profit companies Lager established to provide all services to the school—IQ Innovations and Altair Learning Management. Plunderbund has documented that Lager has earned profits of over $100,000 million from these companies (via Ohio tax dollars) since 2001.

David Brennan owns White Hat Management, the for-profit company that provides all services for 32 supposedly non-profit Life Skills Academies and Hope Academies in Ohio.  In what Pro-Publica has called a “sweeps contract,” privately held White Hat collects—up-front—over 95.5 percent of the funding for the schools it manages, leaving a very small percentage of the state’s money under the oversight of the board.  Ten schools managed by White Hat were forced to sue the management company, a case not yet decided.  They wished to fire White Hat and choose new management companies.  They were forced to sue to try to recover equipment purchased with state funds, but White Hat Management claims ownership of the equipment it says it has purchased.  The Akron Beacon Journal adds that, “Because White Hat had trademarked school names and bought up real estate through affiliate companies, the renegade boards couldn’t force White Hat out of the building.”

The Ohio Charter School Accountability Project’s new analysis connects the political influence of Lager and Brennan to specific laws that have protected charter schools from regulation.  For example: “Perhaps the most insidious example is one Brennan had the legislature institute for dropout recovery schools—of which his Life Skills centers constitute the state’s largest group.  Life Skills had been consistently the worst-rated schools in the state…. However, the state couldn’t close them because they had been exempted from the state’s closure law…. Brennan will have no difficulty living up to state standards.  That’s because a loophole in the law allows a dropout recovery school to stay open even if it doesn’t meet state standards as long as the school improves its graduation rate by 10 percent a year for two consecutive years.  However, that would mean Life Skills of Northeast Ohio would only need to improve to a 1.52 percent graduation rate, or graduate 2.4 students rather than 2 out of 155.  In other words, Bernnan doesn’t have to graduate even a single new student to meet this ‘standard.’”  And as reported by Brent Larkin in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, in the state budget correction bill passed in 2014, the legislature inserted language that allows such students to continue at White Hat Life Skills Academies and the state’s other designated “dropout recovery schools,” at state expense, until they are nearly 30 years old.

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Good Man, Good Deeds – Making a Difference

We all have the power to make a difference in the world, but it doesn’t always feel like it.

Shaul Janes

I would like to take a moment to brag a little bit about my husband, Shaul Janes.

Shaul and I moved to Cleveland Heights just over two years ago from Jerusalem. It has not been an easy move for him. I dragged him back to the States after he’d finally achieved a dream of his, to make aliyah and live in Israel.

I had to come back to the States to work and if we were going to build a life together, he would have to come back with me.

But as difficult as that was, that perhaps wasn’t the hardest thing. Shaul has many skills and talents, from being a trained chef to painting and restoration, and more. Beyond that, Shaul is a people person. He likes to talk with people, help people and generally be of service to others. However, it was difficult to find a job here in Cleveland that could utilize his skills and also be something he could make a living from. Finally he got a break at Motorcars Honda.

Being a car salesman has got to be one of the toughest jobs out there. People come in with the expectation that there will be a huge markup on the car, but that isn’t the case anymore, not with everything being on the Internet; the prices are all pretty much the same. And yet people feel the need to haggle.

We don’t haggle over the price of our dinner, or our groceries but for some reason, with cars we do. And it isn’t the dealership that suffers; it’s the little guy, the salesman. Shaul frequently will put in many hours for a customer only to make a little bit on the sale.

When we arrived, Shaul immediately went to Montefiore to volunteer in hospice. This was something he had for done many years and enjoyed doing. Again, giving back to others is truly his gift. He was assigned a family in our neighborhood in Cleveland Heights that had a dying mother at home. He has gone regularly for a couple of hours every week to give the daughter a few hours’ break. Hospice is something that is generally seen as short term. This has gone on for 16 months.

And then it happened: The two worlds came together, and Shaul could do what he does best, make a difference.

Chuck Gile, owner of Motorcars Honda, told his employees that he would like to be a Secret Santa to someone in the community. Did anyone know someone who was in need? Shaul seized the opportunity to help the family that he had been working with. Having a dying mother at home had been a strain on the family both physically and financially.

Here is a snippet of the letter that Shaul wrote:

“The bed-bound mother suffers from dementia and has spoken no more than a few words since I began working with her. The daughter (her mother’s primary caregiver), who is in her mid to late 60’s, requires a walker, wheelchair, and a scooter to get around. Last week she was being fitted for leg braces! The daughter’s husband has been in physical rehab followed up with vocational assistance, but is still unable to work. To make matters worse, the boiler [for the heater] in their home is out of order and they now rely on space heaters to heat individual rooms. I can’t imagine what their electric bill will be! Additionally, the roof recently developed a leak, which adds to their daily misery. Also, they drive a twenty-year-old car that has been falling apart, and they are not sure how much longer it will last. Of course they know that I work at Motorcars Honda and have asked me about the cost of an oil change – I told them between $25-30. She then told me that they would have to save up for it and just hope the car can make to the dealership.

I can go on and on about their increasing plight, but I think you get the picture. I plan on re-gifting the Honey Baked ham that you are so kind to give me to them which will make a difference, but your generous Secret Santa could really make a much bigger impact on these people who are in desperate need.”

And Chuck came through! Chuck read the letter and saw that this family was truly in need of a helping hand. Chuck approached Shaul and together they were off.

A roofer was on his way to repair the roof. The boiler would be fixed as well. Shaul made sure that the repairmen showed up and the work got done. How about a Christmas tree? Perhaps Shaul was not the best person for that job; Chuck’s wife would handle that!

And then Chuck decided that this wasn’t enough. A car was a necessity. He found good car for the family and delivered it to their doorstep, again with every step of the process being overseen by Shaul to make sure that it was all handled properly.

The news spread to the other co-workers and they too got into the giving, raising a cash donation on top of everything else that Chuck matched and turned into a larger-than-expected gift card for Giant Eagle.

Shaul wrote in a follow up email:

“I delivered the car last night and the daughter was overwhelmed; she is truly grateful. Your generosity lifted a dark cloud that was hovering over her home and filled her heart with joy and hope for the future. While visiting today, she had the brightest smile I have ever seen. Your Secret Santa is a success!”

Will this make a difference in this family’s life? You betcha! Will it solve all of their problems? No.

So Shaul will continue to go over there every week and sit with a woman who simply is hanging on to life, and give support to those who support her. His is an under-acknowledged job – I wanted to take a moment to recognize the differences he has made and continues to make to those around him.

 

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Citizens Police Academy – Part VII: Wrapping It Up

I had every intention of wrapping up my experience with the Cleveland Heights Citizens Police Academy back when it ended last fall. But I didn’t know what to say.

That is until a Cleveland Heights resident named Samuel Taylor allegedly led police on a brief car chase through a residential neighborhood here. Then, after he reportedly stopped his car and ran in the police officer’s direction, he took great umbrage that the police officer briefly drew his gun while sizing up the situation.

The incident occurred three weeks after Tamir Rice was killed by a Cleveland police officer, and the bulletin board at Cleveland.com was still afire with comments that the boy brought the shooting on himself by failing to follow police instructions.

Taylor’s story lit up the bulletin board again with some people writing that the officer never should have raised his weapon when a white-skinned man in the suburbs made the same mistake that turned out to be a death sentence for a 12-year-old black kid in the ‘hood. 

I’m not going to rehash the incident further; you can read all about it here and here and here.

But I bring it up because it says something about the relationship between the community and the CHPD.

  • We expect our police to prevent crime, solve crime and discourage incursions by criminals from other communities. But we also expect them to be warm, friendly and non-menacing.
  • We embrace our diversity but believe police officers should know at an instant – and even bet their lives on it – whether a fleeing suspect is a bad guy or a library-card-carrying middle-class home-owner.
  • We want idyllic, safe, tree-lined streets, but we resent aggressive traffic enforcement that deters speeders, drunk drivers, drug traffickers and itinerant thugs.
  • We want urban chic but small-town policing.

We think of Cleveland Heights as a small place, but with 45,000 residents it’s the largest city on the East Side except for Euclid (48,000). It’s Ohio’s 24th-largest city – way bigger than Massillon, Kent, Wooster and Sandusky, to name a few places we think of as significant urban areas. Also much larger than Shaker Heights (27,900), South Euclid (22,000) and Beachwood (11,900).

So what we really seem to want is Andy Taylor to keep the peace in Gotham.

That’s not possible, and it may be that the biggest problem we have with the CHPD is our own expectation.

City Hall bears some responsibility for that. For years, from the police chief to the city manager to the mayor and other members of city council, there wasn’t much appetite to engage citizens with the harsh realities of policing Cleveland Heights. As the environment was changing, they were OK if the rest of us went on thinking we were living in Mayberry.

But that’s changed. All of the key positions have turned over in the last few years. Since becoming police chief in 2011, Jeffrey Robertson has opened several doors and windows to the community – Facebook, Twitter, Thursday evening Meet the Police open houses, publication of current crime data and the new Citizens Police Academy.

This city’s police department has never worked with more transparency than it does today, and more is coming; before 2015 is over, every officer on the street will be equipped with a body camera.

If all of that still isn’t enough, residents need to provide some direction on what else we expect from our city and our public safety force. The police department is looking to create better connections with the community for improved trust, confidence and understanding. Rather than just complain or live with a sense that something is wrong, the populace needs to show up for the conversation too.

Before my experience at the Citizens Police Academy, I had a few big concerns about the way we manage public safety in Cleveland Heights – like the idea that police are too busy writing parking tickets to mind the muggers and copper thieves. (If you scroll through some of my older posts here, you’ll find more about them.)

But after my experience, I have a clearer sense of where policing ends and governing takes over. I realize some of our gripes – parking tickets as a prime example – are really policy issues that need to be addressed through public participation and good governing.

I also realize our police department does a better job than many residents imagine. If an officer appears to you as too aggressive or somewhat threatening, that’s the way he likely appears to bad guys too. And having spent 40 hours with the police department over eight weeks last fall, I know now that they deal with a lot more bad guys than I ever thought possible.

That’s not to say the CHPD is perfect. It has more than 100 officers and I’m sure legitimate grievances arise regularly.

But I also know that the worst crimes we had last year were solved within days or even hours. And I’m sure many other crimes never occurred exactly because of the way our police officers carry themselves.

And Samuel Taylor walked away from his incident with nothing worse than a bruised ego and a couple of citations.

As residents, if we want to be more satisfied with the our police department, we need to understand it better. That’s why I signed up for the Citizens Police Academy, and I’m glad I did.

A second Cleveland Heights Citizens Police Academy will be held sometime during 2015 with participants selected through a brief application process. Look to the Heights Observer and and the CHPD website for more information as it becomes available.

 

 

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