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May 13, 2014 9 min read
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| NEWS | Teacher Beat

N.Y. Teachers’ Union Pickets Advocacy-Group Meeting

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten joined officials from the New York State United Teachers this month to protest a retreat hosted by Education Reform Now, an advocacy group supporting charter schools, tougher teacher evaluations, and the Common Core State Standards.

ERN is the nonprofit, 501(c)3 and (c)4 wing of Democrats for Education Reform, a political action committee that seeks to elect politicians receptive to its ideas.

NYSUT is painting the meeting, which ran through May 6, as another example of hedge-fund folks and millionaires trying to profit from public schools.

Forget the photo-ops and megaphone speeches occasioned by this protest: This is yet another reflection of the rapid proliferation of new centers of power in education policymaking—one that has been increasingly in conflict with teachers’ unions. The collision of these forces has dominated headlines and policy debates for the last four years and seems likely to continue.

NYSUT, interestingly enough, has been dealing with some internal squabbling over these issues. A recently executed (and rare) overthrow of its president, Richard Iannuzzi, was partly caught up in power dynamics with other New York unions over how much support to lend to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, and how forcefully to push back on so-called education reform priorities.

–Stephen Sawchuk

| NEWS | Rules for Engagement

Pop-Tart Guns Now Permitted in Fla. Schools, But No Real Guns

Florida lawmakers finished the 2014 legislative session after approving a law that bans schools from punishing students for chewing Pop-Tarts into imaginary guns, and after failing to pass another bill that would have allowed some trained and screened employees to carry guns in schools.

The so-called “Pop-Tart bill” actually covers a broader range of actions that may have been previously banned under some school zero-tolerance policies.

Actions that are now allowed include “brandishing a partially consumed pastry or other food item to simulate a firearm or weapon” and “using a finger or hand to simulate a firearm or weapon.” If the legislation sounds kind of silly to you, that’s because it should, said some Florida lawmakers, who said overzealous school leaders were disciplining students for such offenses.

Pop-Tarts have actually played a pretty prominent role in the rollback of zero-tolerance policies around the country. Frequently cited in support of Maryland’s new state school discipline policy is a two-day suspension issued to an 8-year-old Anne Arundel County boy last year after he chewed a pastry into the shape of a gun at school. A local Republican group later gifted the boy with a lifetime membership to the National Rifle Association.

A bill that would have allowed some people to carry real guns in schools passed in the Florida House but failed in the Senate.

–Evie Blad

| NEWS | Education and the Media

Amid Outcry, Cable Channel Cancels ‘Bad Teachers’ Documentary Series

One of the Discovery cable TV channels has canceled “Bad Teachers,” a documentary series highlighting educators who had illicit sexual relationships with their students, after just one episode aired.

The cancellation was welcomed by the national teachers’ unions and may have come about in part from pressure from teachers.

“Bad Teachers” was meant to be only a three-episode series featuring real-life teachers involved in sex crimes, running on the Investigation Discovery channel.

The episode of “Bad Teachers” that aired April 22 was titled “Teacher’s Pet.” It featured an Alabama high school teacher who underwent gastric-bypass surgery and “experienced a renewed self-confidence,” according to a press release. “Not long after the procedure, she seduced a 17-year-old student, and they soon engaged in a dangerous and illicit sexual affair,” it says.

After the first episode aired, complaints from teachers rolled in on Twitter and elsewhere.

“Just cancelled both my .@Discovery and .@DiscoveryID channels! I am beyond disgusted w/ #badteachers program!” said one tweet.

“Stop bashing teachers, 99.99% are good!” said another.

But it seems apparent that executives of Discovery Communications Inc. also heard from the company’s own education unit, Discovery Education, which provides curricular materials to schools based on the cable company’s many lines of programming. A week after the episode aired, the company announced that “Bad Teachers” was being canceled.

–Mark Walsh

| NEWS | Teacher Beat

Florida Teacher-Evaluation System Found Unfair, But Legal: Union Vows to Continue Fight Despite Ruling

A federal judge in Florida has ruled that the state’s new teacher-evaluation system is legal, even though he is persuaded that it has been poorly implemented and is unfair.

The National Education Association and its Florida affiliate sued in 2013 to overturn the law creating the new system because some teachers in nontested grades and subjects are judged in part by the test-score progress of students they don’t teach.

The pressure was worrisome enough that lawmakers made some legislative fixes to the system.

In the 18-page ruling issued May 6, federal District Court Judge Mark Walker noted that the evaluation system stands to affect teachers’ pay, promotion, retention, and even reputation, given Florida newspapers’ penchant for publishing the value-added ratings. But the bottom line, the court said, is that the system is legal.

“Needless to say, this court would be hard-pressed to find anyone who would find this evaluation system fair to [teachers in nontested subjects], let alone be willing to submit to a similar evaluation system,” Walker wrote. “This case, however, is not about the fairness of the evaluation system. The standard of review is not whether the evaluation policies are good or bad, wise or unwise, but whether the evaluation policies are rational within the meaning of the law.”

The suit, brought by seven teachers, charged that the law violates teachers’ constitutional equal-protection and due-process rights. But Walker said that the classification of employees into different categories—some judged using test scores of students not in their classes—wasn’t made to discriminate, but was rather a “practical consequence” of the lack of uniform measures for assessing student-achievement growth across all subjects and grades.

The Florida Education Association promises that the fight isn’t over.

“This evaluation system is clearly unfair and isn’t a valid measure of the teachers in our public schools,” FEA President Andy Ford said. “We will continue to point out this unfairness and we will continue to work to find an evaluation system that is fair, open, and provides a sensible way to properly evaluate our public school teachers.”

Rulings in other cases challenging value-added evaluation systems in Tennessee and Texas are pending.

–Stephen Sawchuk

| NEWS | Politics K-12

U.S. Dept. of Education Backs Affirmative Action Policies Following High Court Ruling Upholding Michigan Ban

Colleges and universities, as well as K-12 schools, can still use race-based admissions policies as long as they don’t run afoul of state law, despite a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that upholds a ban on such policies at Michigan universities, Obama administration officials say.

That includes “appropriately tailored programs that consider the race of individual applicants as one of several factors in an individualized process to achieve the educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body,” according to the joint letter from the federal education department and the U.S. Department of Justice.

The May 6 letter came on the heels of the Supreme Court’s ruling last month in Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action (Case No. 12-682) that upholds a ballot initiative passed by voters that bars Michigan’s universities from using race-based preferences in admitting students. The Supreme Court justices voted to uphold that initiative 6-2.

But the “Dear Colleague” letter, from Assistant Secretary Catherine Lhamon in the U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil rights, along with the Education Department’s Deputy General Counsel Philip Rosenfelt and the Justice Department’s Jocelyn Samuels, stresses the court’s prior rulings that uphold the importance of diversity in breaking down racial isolation and stereotypes.

And it adds, “To be successful, the future workforce of America should transcend the boundaries of race, language, and culture as our economy becomes more globally interconnected.”

The letter also highlights previous guidance from the federal education department on racial diversity from 2011 for both K-12 and higher education.

–Andrew Ujifusa

| NEWS | State EdWatch

Group Blasts Attacks From ‘Far Right’ on Common Core As Effort to Destroy Public Education

Extreme conservative attacks on the Common Core State Standards—including claims that they will indoctrinate students into becoming “green serfs” in a “New World Order"—are really part of a broader attempt by various far-right groups to undermine public schools, according to a report published May 7 by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The center, an advocacy and research organization that tracks hate groups and discrimination, discusses the conservative backlash against the common core in detail in “Public Schools in the Crosshairs: Far-Right Propaganda and the Common Core State Standards.” Various players in conservative media and policy, the SPLC says, are determined to undermine the standards in over-the-top attacks so that the U.S. Department of Education can be dismantled, public schools are starved of revenue through the growth of vouchers and tax-credit scholarships, and teacher tenure is ended.

The organization also says that, contrary to the claims of some critics, the Obama administration didn’t strong-arm states into adopting the standards, since it didn’t spell out that states had to adopt them in order to obtain federal Race to the Top grants or No Child Left Behind Act waivers."You see attacks on the common core first to eventually destroy public education,” said the SPLC’s Heidi Beirich in a conference call with reporters. “The attacks are not benign.”

SPLC’s work involving public schools includes its Teaching Tolerance project. This initiative takes place in schools nationwide “with lessons to counter the bigotry and extremism that children hear in the media and even from people who are supposed to be role models.” The project is designed to show students that they are “global citizens in a diverse society.”

As it happens, in the SPLC’s home state of Alabama, a new political action committee, Stop Common Core, has been formed by conservative activists opposed to more mainstream GOP politicians in the state. It has reportedly collected more than $700,000 in donations to put to work in elections.

–Andrew Ujifusa

A version of this article appeared in the May 14, 2014 edition of Education Week as Blogs


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