Education Best of the Blogs


September 09, 2014 8 min read
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Do Evaluations Penalize Teachers of Disadvantaged Students?

It’s a disturbing but increasingly consistent pattern: Fewer teachers of needy students or students of color get the top ratings on newly established teacher-evaluation systems.

The phenomenon is raising the pressing, delicate, and so far unanswered question: Is there a problem with bias in these new rating systems, or is it symptomatic of the fact that such students are less likely to have high-quality instruction?

In an analysis of the situation in the District of Columbia, Matthew Di Carlo, at the Shanker blog, notes that teachers in low-poverty schools were far more likely to get the top scores on the district’s teacher-evaluation system and on each of the measures making up the score: test-score results and observations.

The Pittsburgh teacher-evaluation program shows similar results, according to a recently released federal analysis. In that report, teachers of low-income and minority students tended to receive lower scores from principals conducting observations and from surveys administered to students.

Critics have lambasted “value added” systems based on test scores as favoring teachers of better-performing students. But alternative measures, like observations and surveys, appear to be as susceptible.

All this leaves the current state of teachers’ evaluations in some flux.

–Stephen Sawchuk


Florida District Reverses Decision to Opt Out of State Testing

The Lee County, Fla., school system was a national leader in the anti-testing movement for six days. Then it changed its mind.

In a 3-2 vote last week , the school board reversed its Aug. 27 decision to opt out of all state-mandated testing. The reversal came at the behest of one member, Mary Fischer, who was a somewhat reluctant tiebreaker in the 3-2 vote to opt out. Fischer said she hadn’t been fully informed of the consequences the district could face—such as loss of a chunk of its funding—if it chose not to administer Florida’s FCAT and other required tests.

The 85,000-student district made national headlines with its first vote, so it came under the hot glare of a national audience with its second one. As board members gathered and audience members packed the board meeting room, the #LeeOptOut hashtag on Twitter lit up. Signups for public comment were instantly packed, with the maximum allotment of 60 speakers, each of whom was given one minute to speak.

During the public-comment session, one parent lashed out at Superintendent Nancy Graham, saying she had engaged in “fear mongering” by detailing the consequences the district faced by opting out of tests. Another parent described her daughter’s fear of testing, saying the girl vomited daily during testing time, the Fort Myers News-Press reported.

One opt-out opponent had harsh words for those who believe state-mandated testing should be halted, commenting in the News-Press live feed that the room “was apparently packed again with the Luddites,” and adding that Florida is one of the worst-performing states on the ACT.

–Catherine Gewertz


Standing Desks May Be the Next Classroom Trend

Standing desks may become more commonplace in classrooms in the next few years, with studies showing they help students pay attention while also fighting childhood obesity.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention funded a study this year on standing desks, offering Bryan Collegiate High School in Bryan, Texas, the choice of replacing traditional desks with standing desks. Thirteen classrooms accepted.

Principal Christina Richardson noticed the difference the standing desks made. “The kids who would normally be slouched down, half-asleep, or fidgeting in their chair were now standing up and paying attention,” she said.

Mark Benden, an associate professor of environmental and occupational health at Texas A&M University, started the study in 2011. He found that desks that encourage students to stand help burn a significantly higher amount of calories during the day.

On average, students who stood burned 11 more calories per hour than those who remained sitting. Students higher than the 85th percentile for weight—classified as overweight or obese—burned 32 more calories per hour than when sitting.

And teachers have noticed that students pay more attention, are more alert, and behave better with the introduction of the desks.

–Kristie Chua


Ariz. Chief Loses in GOP Primary, With Common Core a Key Issue

Arizona state education chief John Huppenthal fell to Republican challenger Diane Douglas in the Aug. 26 primary, largely because of his unpopular stance on the Common Core State Standards among conservatives, and a high-profile controversy in which he posted inflammatory comments to political blogs about welfare recipients, abortion, and more.

Mr. Huppenthal, once an ardent supporter of the standards, was forced to walk back his enthusiasm after Ms. Douglas slammed the standards as a federal intrusion, the more popular GOP stance. Mr. Huppenthal, who had previously characterized some conservative common-core foes as “barbarians at the gate,” executed a complete about-face. He even went so far as to tell the Arizona Republic he’d “never” supported the standards.

In 2010, Arizona adopted a slightly altered version of the common core, which it calls Arizona’s College and Career Ready Standards. They were implemented last school year.

On the Democratic ticket, David Garcia won the nomination for state education chief with 54 percent of the vote.

Mr. Garcia, currently an associate professor at the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at Arizona State University, has a long résumé in education policy. He’s served as the state associate superintendent of public instruction for standards and accountability, director of research and policy for the Arizona Department of Education, research analyst for the Arizona State Senate Education Committee, and as a peer consultant for the U.S. Department of Education.

–Lauren Camera


Fla. Officials to Fight U.S. Ed. Dept. Over Testing of English-Learners

Florida Gov. Rick Scott last month joined state education Commissioner Pam Stewart and Miami-Dade County schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho in calling for the U.S. Department of Education to back down from its decision that the state must include test results for its newest English-language learners in its accountability system.

In an Aug. 27 news conference, the three officials said they would formally ask U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to rescind his department’s denial of a key part of the state’s application to extend its waiver from portions of the No Child Left Behind Act. They want Mr. Duncan to agree that English-learners who have less than two years in U.S. schools would not have their test scores factored into school grades. Under federal law, English-learners who’ve been in U.S. schools for one year are to be tested in reading and math and have their results factored into state accountability systems.

While federal education officials did approve the state’s overall waiver extension, they refused to greenlight its proposed testing timelines for students who are still learning English. Florida has traditionally allowed ELLs two years of instruction before including their test results in school grades, a practice that it codified in a new state law.

To date, federal officials have been willing to be flexible on other waiver issues, such as the timelines for implementing teacher evaluations. It remained unclear as of late last week whether they would be open to hearing Florida make more of a case for being flexible on the ELL testing timeline.

–Lesli A. Maxwell


N.H. High Court Tosses Challenge to Tax Credits for Tuition Aid

New Hampshire’s highest court has thrown out a challenge to the state’s program of tax credits for businesses that contribute money to organizations offering tuition scholarships at private schools.

The New Hampshire Supreme Court held that a group of taxpayers who challenged the program lacked standing because they weren’t personally injured by it. And the court struck down as a violation of the state constitution a 2012 measure that aimed to give standing to such taxpayers.

The bottom line of the 5-0 decision in Duncan v. New Hampshire is that the state high court declined to rule on the state constitutionality of the tax-credit program, but tossed the challenge before it and made it much more difficult for anyone else to bring such a challenge.

Eight taxpayers and one business, backed by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union, challenged the New Hampshire tax-credit program. They argued it violated the “no aid” clause of the state constitution, which says that “no money raised by taxation shall ever be granted or applied for the use of schools or institutions of any religious sect or denomination.”

A state trial judge ruled in their favor last year, holding that the tax credits for private school scholarships divert tax payments to private religious schools.

The state was joined in its defense of the program by a group of intervening private school parents backed by the Institute of Justice in Arlington, Va.

In the Aug. 28 decision, the state supreme court wrote that “because the [challengers] fail to identify any personal injury suffered by them as a consequence of the alleged constitutional error, they have failed to establish that they have standing to bring their constitutional claim.”

“Although some of the [challengers] have school-aged children or are public school teachers, at best, this establishes that those petitioners have a special interest in education,” the court added. “Moreover, the purported injury asserted here—the loss of money to local school districts—is necessarily speculative. Even if the tax credits result in a decrease in the number of students attending local public schools, it is unclear whether, as the [challengers] allege, local governments will experience net fiscal losses.”

–Mark Walsh

A version of this article appeared in the September 10, 2014 edition of Education Week as Blogs of the Week


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