performance pushback

Risking disciplinary action, International teachers refuse to administer eval-linked test

PHOTO: Geoff Decker

A group of teachers boycotted a required part of their school’s teacher evaluation plan on Thursday, breaking from the city education department, the teachers union, and their principal and raising questions about whether they will face disciplinary action.

Standing in a park across the street from International High School at Prospect Heights, more than a dozen teachers held up signs and criticized the increased role that tests have played in their school. They argued that a city-created reading and writing test now being administered in city high schools was developed with little consideration for their students—most of whom recently moved to the United States and are still learning English.

“We believe that the tests should be designed for the students who are being tested,” said Steve Watson, a math teacher and the school’s union chapter leader. “And the students that are being tested are not standardized, so we do not believe that one size fits all.”

International High School at Prospect Heights is part of a network of schools serving immigrant students. Most students in the school had already opted out of the test, but the protesting teachers said they would refuse to give tests to those who still planned to take them today.

Still, their protest didn’t actually stop any students from taking the tests, according to Department of Education officials who said that the school’s principal, Nedda de Castro, still planned to administer the exams. (De Castro did not respond to requests for comment on Thursday morning.)

But the protest did reflect a new side of the anti-testing sentiment that has bubbled up across the city this year.

Unlike other anti-testing demonstrations, the International High School protest was focused not on state tests but on a new, separate test required to measure student learning for use in the new teacher evaluation formulas.

Similar tests were given earlier in the year to establish “baselines” for student growth, prompting pushback in some schools. Elementary school teachers refused to administer some tests to their youngest students, and some students at Stuyvesant High School publicly refused to take them.

Those tests were less significant than the ones teachers were protesting today because they could be replaced with other kinds of student progress data, like student work from the beginning of the year. The exams the protesting teachers would have administered today, on the other hand, are schools’ only option for assessing student growth for evaluations.

That put the boycott on shaky legal ground, since the framework for the teacher evaluation system is a part of the teachers union contract.

The United Federation of Teachers distanced itself from the event, though it was organized with help from the Movement of Rank and File Educators, a political caucus within the union. A union spokesman said that while the UFT agreed with the demonstrators’ anti-testing sentiments, teachers are “under a legal obligation” to abide by rules of the evaluation system.

“The UFT believes that our schools have been the victims of a testing culture that has focused far too much attention on test prep and too little on strategies that will actually lead to student learning,” the spokesman said. “However, this protest is not a union-sponsored event.”

A spokeswoman from the Department of Education said the city was looking into the situation and potential disciplinary action against the protesting teachers.

Ironically, though the teachers were defying the union and the city with their protest, they all have all raised similar concerns about over-testing students.

The rules of the teacher evaluation system were handed down last year by State Education Commissioner John King. Both the city and the teachers union have said they don’t like his decision to require the contested performance assessments, and the union and the city have both recently asked the state to allow some flexibility around how schools can measure teacher performance. But the state has placed the blame on the city, saying it could have chosen a different way to measure student learning, but opted for the performance assessments instead.

The protesting teachers have also sent a letter to schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, asking that she allow schools to use different types of assessments that better fit their students’ language needs. In particular, they said, student learning should be based on portfolio-style assessments, which are intensive projects that require students to complete a series of assignments.

In her first months on the job, Fariña has spoken out about a need to better serve the city’s English Language Learners. But a department spokeswoman said that was unrelated to today’s protest.

“At the International High School at Prospect Heights, these assessments have no stakes for students, and as DOE policy mandates, these students should receive all the accommodations they require,” the spokeswoman said.

Detroit week in review

Week in review: The state’s year-round scramble to fill teaching jobs

Miss Michigan Heather Heather Kendrick spent the day with students at the Charles H. Wright Academy of Arts and Science in Detroit

While much of the media attention has been focused this year on the severe teacher shortage in the main Detroit district, our story this week looks at how district and charter schools throughout the region are now scrambling year-round to fill vacant teaching jobs — an instability driven by liberal school choice laws, a decentralized school system and a shrinking pool of available teachers.

The teacher shortage has also made it difficult for schools to find substitutes as many are filling in on long-term assignments while schools try to fill vacancies. Two bills proposed in a state senate committee would make it easier for schools to hire retirees and reduce the requirements for certifying subs.  

Also, don’t forget to reserve your seat for Wednesday’s State of the Schools address. The event will be one of the first times in recent years when the leader of the city’s main district — Nikolai Vitti — will appear on the same stage as the leaders of the city’s two largest charter school authorizers. For those who can’t make it, we will carry it live on Chalkbeat Detroit.

Have a good week!

– Julie Topping, Editor, Chalkbeat Detroit

STATE OF THE SCHOOLS: The State of the Schools address will pair Vitti with the leaders of the schools he’s publicly vowed to put out of business, even as schools advocates say city kids could benefit if the leaders of the city’s fractured school system worked together to solve common problems.

LOOKING FOR TEACHERS: The city’s teacher shortage mirrors similar challenges across the country but the problem in Detroit is exacerbated by liberal school choice policies that have forced schools to compete with each other for students and teachers.

Hiring efforts continue at Detroit’s main school district, which is planning another job fair. Head Start centers are also looking for teachers. Three new teachers talk about the challenges, rewards and obstacles of the classroom.

WHOSE MONEY IS IT? The state Senate sent a bill to the House that would allow charters to receive a portion of property tax hikes approved by voters. Those funds have historically gone only to traditional district schools.

UNITED THEY STAND: Teachers in this southwest Detroit charter school voted to join a union, but nationally, union membership for teachers has been falling for two decades.

COLLEGE AND CAREERS: A national foundation based in Michigan granted $450,000 to a major Detroit business coalition to help more students finish college.

High school seniors across the state will be encouraged to apply to at least one college this month. The main Detroit district meanwhile showed off a technical center that prepares youngsters and adults for careers in construction, plumbing and carpentry and other fields.  

STEPS TO IMPROVEMENT: A prominent news publisher explains why he told lawmakers he believes eliminating the state board of education is the right thing to do. An advocate urged Michigan to look to other states for K-12 solutions. And one local newspaper says the governor is on the right track to improving education in Michigan.

This think tank believes businesses should be more engaged in education debates.

LISTEN TO US: The newly elected president of a state teachers union says teachers just want to be heard when policy is being made. She wrote in a Detroit newspaper that it takes passion and determination to succeed in today’s classrooms.

A PIONEER: Funeral services for a trailblazing African American educator have been scheduled for Saturday.

Also, the mother-in-law of U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, died in her west Michigan home.

FARM-TO-SCHOOL:  A state program that provides extra money to school districts for locally grown produce has expanded to include more schools.

BETTER THAN AN APPLE: Nominate your favorite educator for Michigan Teacher of the Year before the 11:59 deadline tonight.

An Ann Arbor schools leader has been named the 2018 Michigan Superintendent of the Year by a state group of school administrators.

MYSTERY SMELL: The odor from a failed light bulb forced a Detroit high school to dismiss students early this week.

EXTRA CREDIT: Miss Michigan encouraged students at one Detroit school to consider the arts as they follow their dreams. The city schools foundation honored two philanthropic leaders as champions for education.

And high school students were inspired by a former college football player. 

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.