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August 19, 2014 9 min read
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| NEWS | Teacher Beat

A War for Public Opinion Can Obscure Nuances of Tenure

Whoopi Goldberg is the latest celebrity to weigh in on teacher tenure, fueling what seems to be increasing national attention to the topic.

Her comments appear to be prompted by a lawsuit organized by former news anchor Campbell Brown against New York state’s tenure and dismissal rules. Fresh off her appearance on “The Colbert Report,” Brown has been making the early-morning talk-show rounds. (Not to be outdone, the American Federation of Teachers’ Randi Weingarten fought back on the MSNBC program “Morning Joe.”)

At this rate, tenure may exceed the Common Core State Standards as an education policy lightning rod, even as a possible wedge issue in the midterm and 2016 elections.

One thing’s for sure: There’s a war out there to win public opinion on the merits, or demerits, of tenure laws. Advocates like Brown are focusing on broad-brush arguments that tenure rules make it too difficult to get rid of poor teachers. Unions, alternatively, posit that tenure protects teachers from reprisals and that attacks on tenure are really attacks on organized labor and public education.

Given the conventional wisdom that perception is nine-tenths of the reality in political warfare, this back and forth makes sense. But it’s worth taking the time to remember that tenure laws—which prevent teachers from being dismissed without cause, typically established in a hearing—are actually complex, obscure, and context-specific. State legal codes on tenure go on for pages and pages, spelling out in detail such matters as the reasons constituting just cause for firing, the timeline for filing charges and hearing cases, the type of evidence that can be presented at hearings, the appeals process, and so on.

For cases of dismissal for incompetence, the picture is further complicated by disagreements about what constitutes an effective teacher and how to measure one. And, as with all laws, they can be implemented well or poorly.

–Stephen Sawchuk

| NEWS | State EdWatch

Possible Changes to Constitution Create Stir in Ohio’s K-12 Arena

A commission weighing proposed changes to the Ohio Constitution could soon consider whether to eliminate the language requiring a “thorough and efficient” system of public schools, a possibility that could generate a great deal of controversy.

The proposal comes from Chad Readler, a Columbus lawyer who is chairman of the education committee at the Ohio Constitutional Modernization Commission. Readler says his intention isn’t to eliminate the guarantee of a statewide system of schools accessible to everyone, or to create a “certain system” of public schools. Instead, he says he wants to eliminate the judicial system’s power over issues such as K-12 school finance.

“I think education policy is better set by educators and legislators than judges,” Readler said.

The “thorough and efficient” language is in a section regarding school funding. Readler wants to eliminate that language as well as any other reference to K-12 funding in the relevant portion of the constitution.

Some see something much more nefarious behind Readler’s idea, as StateImpact NPR reports: the chance for officials to scrap the state’s public school system entirely.

–Andrew Ujifusa

| NEWS | Rules for Engagement

Psychologist: ‘He Just Snapped’ A Myth in School Shootings

It’s become a cliché after school shootings: As the public searches for an explanation for the attack, news outlets quote family members or witnesses who say the shooter “just snapped.”

But “he just snapped” is a myth, Anders Goranson, a psychologist and threat-assessment specialist, said in a recent lecture at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association. The path to a violent mass attack often starts with a relatable frustration that grows through cultivation and study by the attacker, he said. And attackers usually experience “leakage” before they act, giving indications they are planning to do something.

That’s not to cast blame or to suggest that high-profile incidents of violence could have been predicted and stopped, Goranson said; but “it doesn’t go from zero to 60 with no other steps.”

Goranson used the example of Adam Lanza, who shot and killed 26 people in a Newtown, Conn., elementary school in December 2012 before turning the gun on himself. Lanza was “uniquely isolated,” so it’s difficult to analyze all the ways he might have demonstrated “leakage,” Goranson said.

But there were warning signs. Lanza had a shooting range in the basement of the home he shared with his mother. He obsessively edited Wikipedia pages about school shootings, and he played first-person shooter video games for as long as 14 hours a day. Lanza spent months not talking to his mother, communicating solely through notes passed under the door, a state investigation released after the shootings said.

Allowing the myth that shooters “just snap” to persist robs the public and the mental-health community of chances to learn from attacks and gather small pieces of insight that may further improve risk-assessment methods, Goranson said.

“Just snapped” are not “just words,” he said. The cliché serves to change the way society deals with marginalized and at-risk people, and it minimizes the value of intervention, he said.

“People don’t wake up and suddenly make a major shift in how they’ve been their entire lives and suddenly decide to kill others,” he said.

–Evie Blad

| NEWS | State EdWatch

As Race for Governor Heats Up, K-12 Takes Spotlight in Wisconsin

Ever since Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker survived a 2012 recall election triggered by public-employee labor unions’ anger that he successfully pushed to squash most of their collective bargaining power, the GOP governor has only grown in political stature. He’s now mentioned as a presidential-candidate-in-waiting for Republicans.

Democrats in America’s Dairyland would like nothing better than to put Gov. Walker out to pasture before he even gets a White House run off the ground, by ensuring that their candidate defeats his re-election bid on Nov. 4.

Mary Burke, an executive at a bicycle-manufacturing company founded by her father and a member of the Madison school board, won the Aug. 12 Democratic primary against state Rep. Brett Hulsey.

It’s clear that the Burke-Walker race is a very close one. According to RealClearPolitics, the most recent aggregate of polls shows Gov. Walker with a lead of less than 1 percentage point. And Ms. Burke has been closing the gap since the spring.

The showdown features two candidates with sharply different takes on key education-related issues. They include Gov. Walker’s signature accomplishment, the 2011 law that curbed most public-employee unions’ collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin (Ms. Burke has been highly critical of that law); the Common Core State Standards (the governor wants to dump them in Wisconsin; Ms. Burke supports them); and school funding (Ms. Burke has slammed what she called the “historic cuts” under Gov. Walker in the 2011 budget, though funding has increased in recent years).

But it remains to be seen how those issues—and Ms. Burke’s somewhat nuanced position on the collective bargaining law, for example—play out in the campaign. To the extent that Ms. Burke can make the common core a notable issue in the campaign, it could help her mobilize teachers and others who back the standards but fear that the governor’s anti-common-core push will succeed if he’s re-elected. It could also help her build bridges to unions that may not be entirely thrilled with her stance on the collective-bargaining law.

–Andrew Ujifusa

| NEWS | Politics K-12

GOP Senators Question Criteria For Spec. Ed. System Evaluations

Senate Republicans on the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee are upset about the U.S. Department of Education’s recent decision to evaluate states’ special education systems based in part on the academic performance of students with disabilities.

“This is clear influence and coercion, if not direct control,” the GOP committee members wrote to U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan in a letter dated Aug. 4. “It is troubling that the department made unilateral changes to the [Individuals with Disabilities Education Act] compliance framework without seeking legislative approval, disregarded congressional intent, and appears to have violated the clear letter of the law.”

In June, the department rolled out a revised evaluation process that emphasizes results-driven accountability. The 2004 reauthorization of the IDEA requires that states submit data to the federal Education Department about how students with disabilities are doing.

But before this year’s annual report, states were only graded on what are called “compliance” indicators, such as whether students were evaluated for special education in the appropriate amount of time, or whether due process complaints were resolved in a timely fashion. Now, in addition to compliance, states are being checked on factors such as test scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, and the gap between those scores and the scores of children in the general population.

“The changes spelled out in your ‘Results-Driven Accountability’ framework clearly amount to federal influence on the standards and assessments states and school districts use to direct the education program of students with disabilities and would give the federal government authority to use students’ proficiency as measured by NAEP to evaluate and either reward or sanction school districts,” the Republicans wrote.

The Education Department plans to use NAEP scores only temporarily until all states adopt new assessments, according to a department official. The official also said that out of the 42 possible points a state may receive on the results and compliance matrices, only 12 are related to NAEP.

The letter joins in a long list of Republican charges that the Obama administration has overstepped its legal authority on a variety of education initiatives, including No Child Left Behind waivers and its signature competitive-grant program, Race to the Top.

–Lauren Camera

| NEWS | Teacher Beat

Kansas Teachers’ Union Files Suit Over New Law Curbing Tenure

The Kansas branch of the National Education Association has filed a lawsuit against the state, saying lawmakers impermissibly added provisions eliminating teacher tenure to an appropriations bill.

The bill in question removed due process rights from teachers certified to work in school districts. But the union says that the legislation violates the clause of the state constitution stating that no bill can contain more than one subject. It’s petitioning the Shawnee County district court to strike that section from the budget bill.

Importantly, the lawsuit’s thrust is largely procedural, rather than on the substantive merits of tenure. A similar tactic was used by Louisiana unions to overturn parts of a law revamping teacher tenure and pay in that state.

–Stephen Sawchuk

A version of this article appeared in the August 20, 2014 edition of Education Week as Blogs


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