drop deadline

Facing own teacher eval deadline, charter schools just say no

NY - Albany: New York State Department of Education Building
wallyg via flickr

At the same time as the State Education Department is publicly pressuring school districts to adopt new teacher evaluations by next month, it’s also quietly demanding that charter schools turn in their teachers’ ratings from last year.

Charter school advocates are urging most school leaders to ignore the demand, even though state officials  have said it’s needed in order to fulfill its Race to the Top plan. The advocates say the demand would be hard to fulfill and impinges on charter schools’ autonomy.

The standoff has its roots in the state’s 2010 application for federal Race to the Top funds. In its application to the U.S. Department of Education for funding, New York State said it would require schools to rate teachers according to specific guidelines and would collect ratings for all teachers, even in charter schools.

Some charter schools committed to sharing their teacher ratings at the time in order to receive some of the state’s $700 million in winnings. But two thirds did not — and the state wants their teacher ratings too, according to a series of updated guidance memos that officials have issued over the last 18 months.

City and state charter school advocates have pushed back against the demands throughout that time.

“Both the New York City Charter School Center and the New York Charter Schools Association believe that this reporting requirement does not properly apply to non-Race to the Top charter schools,” Charter Center CEO James Merriman and NYCSA President Bill Phillips wrote in a strongly worded email to school leaders last month. They added, “Ultimately, it is up to you whether you choose to report this data.”

So far, few school leaders have made that choice. By the original submission deadline Nov. 30, just 30 of 184 charter schools in the state had handed over teacher ratings from last year.The state has extended the deadline for charter schools to Friday, but advocates say that doesn’t change the situation.

“It’s not the date,” said New York City Charter School Center CEO James Merriman. “It’s the data.”

The state is not asking charters schools to adopt the same kind of evaluation system that it wants district schools to. Instead, it wants data from each school showing only that the school evaluate teachers on a four-tiered system — and it wants the actual ratings for teachers, too.

Merriman said the state’s demand is unreasonable because many charter schools don’t necessarily evaluate their teachers based on those guidelines.

“They are, in essence, asking charters to manufacture data that they may not have,” Merriman said. “That’s what’s so troubling to us.”

State officials said they believe that charter schools can rate their teachers with the information that they do have, as long as they have some kind of evaluation system.

Several charter school leaders said that move is easier said than done.

“I tried to play around with the [state’s] system, but it’s so different from how we do ours,” said the leader of a Brooklyn charter school. “So the data would be pointless.”

Ken Wagner, an assistant commissioner at the department, said he expected that the request will present challenges for charter schools and that some first-year submissions might not be perfect. He said he would be was less understanding if schools ignore the request entirely and refuse to comply.

“I think we’ve been very clear on our position and the charter folks who disagree have been very clear on their position,” said Wagner, who could not say what the consequences would be for schools that don’t submit ratings.

The state is even having a tough time getting teacher evaluation ratings from the 61 charter schools that are participating in Race to the Top. As of Nov. 30, the state had received evaluations from just 11 schools that had received grants.

That list does not include five schools from the Achievement First network, which received roughly $275,000 through the grant program. A spokesman said that the evaluations were sent before the Nov. 30 deadline to the New York City Department of Education, which is in charge of collecting data from the city’s charter schools and sending it on to the state.

The spokesman, Mel Ochoa, said he initially thought Achievement First hadn’t been notified of the deadline, but later corrected his statement.

Some schools have withdrawn from the Race to the Top program to escape burdensome requirements like the one about teaching ratings, sources said. In the last year, at least 19 schools have forfeited the grant money.

The rejection of teacher evaluation requirements also comes from a sector that has sought greater accountability for teachers, principals and schools. In their letter to school leaders, Merriman and Phillips said standardized evaluation rules are not a good fit for charter schools because the schools are held accountable in other ways.

“In traditional schools and districts, which may fail students for years without being closed, prescriptive rules about teacher evaluation may be the best policy available,” they wrote. “It is neither necessary nor appropriate for charter schools.”

Struggling Detroit schools

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Watch the full Q&A with Vitti below.

Betsy DeVos

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

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

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

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

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

From the speech:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the location of the dinner.