No more ‘fake classes,’ schools promise

Some students were assigned to “work experience” or “service” classes that required picking up trash, running errands — or nothing at all. Others were sent home early. To settle a class-action lawsuit, six high schools in Oakland, Los Angeles and Compton have agreed to end “fake classes” with no academic content, reports the Contra Costa Times.

One of the plaintiffs, Johnae Twinn, hopes for a career in medicine. As a senior at Oakland’s Castlemont High last year, she tried to sign up for physiology and debate. Both were canceled. Instead, she was given two “home” classes — that is, no class. Another class period was spent sitting in the library. That was called “Inside Work Experience,” though she received few assignments.

Jessy Cruz failed to graduate after his high school placed him in three content-less "classes."

Jessy Cruz failed to graduate after his Los Angeles high school placed him in three “fake classes.” 

Twinn is struggling in college because of her weak academic preparation, said Kathryn Eidmann, a staff attorney for Public Counsel.

Already behind, low-income students were cheated of instructional time, Eidman told Peg Tyre in an interview. “Jessy Cruz, a named plaintiff in the suit, was a foster kid who was not on track to graduate. He was assigned to three contentless courses. He was not able to graduate. He has not gotten his GRE. He has not gotten a job.”

Eric Flood, another plaintiff, was assigned to three service classes one semester at Oakland’s Fremont High. He had to take online credit-recovery classes after school.

At Jefferson High in Los Angeles, Jason Magaña was placed in graphics, a class he’d already taken and passed, and given two “home” periods. He couldn’t get into economics, which he needed to graduate.

And They Say There’s No Inflation

70%, 20%, 10%–add that up and it’s a pretty big increase.  I’d say that’s some inflation:

The bailout of the California State Teachers’ Retirement System enacted last year requires a 70 percent increase in pension contributions from school districts, a 20 percent increase from the state general fund and a 10 percent increase in teacher contributions. When the phased-in increases are complete in 2020-21, CalSTRS will get about $5 billion more a year than it now does, putting it on much firmer ground.

But even at a time when school funding has reached an all-time high, districts are apprehensive at having to spend so much more on pensions. This month, their strategy has become clear: establish separate, specific state funding for districts to cover their increased contributions.

If districts have to spend more on pensions there will be less available for raises.

[T]he education establishment expects to use the flexibility and extra dollars provided by the Local Control Funding Formula to pay for the higher pension costs. But that’s not what the change in how schools are funded was supposed to be about, according to its champion, Gov. Jerry Brown. The governor’s website contains a 800-word account of the signing of the LCFF law on July 1, 2013. It depicts the funding change as being solely about getting more help to struggling English-learners, the state’s “neediest students.”

Money doesn’t grow on trees.  If you had to bet who would get extra money,  students who don’t vote or teachers backed by powerful unions, on whom would you bet?

Madness? This. Is. PENNSYLVANIA!!!!

Field trip?
Permission slip.

Sex-ed videos?
Permission slip.

Rough contact sports?
Arguably permission slip.

Eating an Oreo?

A mother in Pennsylvania seems to have stirred up a teapot-sized tempest over one teacher’s having gone the extra mile in the great CYA-race (note that her tweets are protected, and only visible to confirmed followers):

Insanity. I have to sign a permission slip so my middle schooler can eat an Oreo. @FreeRangeKids
— Main Line Housewife (@mainlinewife) March 23, 2015

A copy of the letter that was sent home is available here, at, courtesy of Lenore Skenazy.

I understand the revulsion at this. I really do. But I think that calling it insanity is probably going too far. Just because your opponents on an issue are (or seem to you to be) insane does not thereby make everything that they do correspondingly nuts. I don’t think it’s crazy to check with a parent before giving their kid something to eat, particularly not when you’re acting in your official capacity as a teacher and a representative of the school. Because you can be damn sure that if some kid had an allergy, forgot about it, and died, that the school and the teacher would be in world of… doublestuff.

As it happens, the tool that the teacher has for making this sort of check-up with parents is the permission slip: it provides documented proof that the parent consented. Could there be a more elegant solution? Sure.

I’m a huge fan of so-called “free range” parenting — although I tend to recoil a bit at the name, because kids are not chickens. But whatever. I’m sympathetic.

But at the same time, I had a conversation with a very good friend of mine a few months ago about this — about how when we were teenagers (I’m only a little older than she) we had a lot of freedom that our students — this friend was also in graduate school at UCLA — don’t seem to possess. So you could all pile into the back of your friend’s pick up truck and just head up to the lake to hang out. No seatbelts, no helmets, no nothing except the radio and good times.

But that sort of freedom came with a cost: every year or so, some kid would die doing something ill-advised. It was like a tax — an offering to the Gods of freedom so that the rest of us could enjoy ourselves without care.

You can have a worry-free school where the teachers hand out Oreos willy-nilly, where people just go with the flow, and where students are able to leave campus for lunch without saying where they are going. You can have a childhood without bike helmets, without seatbelts, without car seats for 7-year olds.

But there’s going to be a cost. And picking one side or the other of this trade off isn’t “insanity”. And wanting to get a permission slip before distributing Oreos — however silly and fussy it may seem — isn’t quite madness.

It’s just Pennsylvania.

Pour encourager les autres

Back in 2011, Joanne blogged about the Atlanta teacher cheating scandal. She closed that post with the ominous line, “Some district officials may face criminal charges.”

I confess that I never believed anyone would actually be convicted of anything. Not, mind you, because I thought no one deserved to. I just figured, in my cynical way, that the unions would make such a big stink about this that no prosecutor’s office would have the stomach for the protracted public relations nightmare that I believed would ensue, and that even if the prosecutors had the moxie, no jury would ever convict.

The upside of being cynical is that it’s GLORIOUS when you’re wrong.

Eleven former Atlanta public school teachers and administrators were convicted of racketeering Wednesday for their roles in a widespread cheating scandal and face up to 20 years in prison, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.

* * * *

Because bonuses and raises were awarded to the educators based on the test scores, prosecutors charged the educators with violating the state’s RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) Act by engaging in a massive criminal conspiracy. It’s a criminal statute that law enforcement typically uses to prosecute those with ties to organized crime.

The jurors had to decide if the educators were, in fact, part of a vast scheme, committed lesser felonies, or, as defense attorneys argued, were merely pawns in a scheme masterminded by their former supervisors. The educators face sentencing next week.

Thirty-five people were indicted. Many reached plea deals.

I hate plea deals, honestly. I think that they are a perversion of justice that threaten to impose costs on the innocent for exercising their right to trial. If a prosecutor’s office doesn’t have the resources to prosecute all of their crimes, then they need to start sorting through the crimes and not prosecuting the small stuff.

On the other hand, I’m a huge fan of draconian punishments for people exercising dishonesty and/or corruption while holding public office. I don’t think that people take their jobs as public officials seriously enough, thinking somehow that being a public school teacher is the same thing as being a private school teacher, but with better benefits. It’s not, of course. As a public official — from governors and legislators to the lowliest DMV clerks and meter maids — you are being given the public trust to exercise an office on which the people of the state, country, or city have decided it is worth spending tax dollars, which are collected under penalty of imprisonment. I don’t care if all you did was change the answers on a few tests in order to get a bonus. That’s no longer “the small stuff” — it’s public corruption.

So I hope that the judge throws the book at these eleven.

You can see a rogue’s gallery of the convicted defendants here.

I confess, I was not aware that the defendants in this case were all visibly Black. I read a great deal about these cases, but never went in for the video reports or paid much attention to the pictures. I was somewhat taken aback when I clicked through to the link immediately above and saw that because in my mind’s eye I had always sort of imagined a bunch of Nice White Ladies working at underperforming schools, and I think that it changes the emotional texture of the story in some interesting ways. The color-blind anti-racist in me, however, gently reminds me that it doesn’t — or at least shouldn’t — matter.

Privacy in the classroom?

Via Instapundit, I am treated to the story of a student who was suspended for recording a teacher’s behavior in the classroom.

A Samuel Gaines Academy student was suspended this week after she says she was trying to defend a classmate.

Brianna Cooper, 11, says she took an audio recording in class of what she says depicted her teacher bullying a student.

Instead of receiving praise, Cooper says she was suspended for five days when the school said her video was illegal.

In legal terms… well, I’m not licensed to practice law in Florida, so I’ll leave this one up to the local police:

Law enforcement officers say recording someone without their knowledge can be legal so long as there is not an expectation of privacy.

So the questions to be asked here, it seems to me, are two:

First, does it matter at all whether the child’s recording was illegal or not? And second, if it does matter, is there an expectation of privacy in a classroom?

The first question seems fairly straightforward. In general, I think that most people would agree that behavior doesn’t need to be illegal to warrant suspension. Students get suspended all the time for doing things that are not in violation of any criminal (or even civil) statute. It’s not illegal, after all, to throw one’s book at the chalkboard in frustration, or to call one’s teacher a worthless sack of ignorance fit only for target practice. Yet these things will surely lead to suspension. So it doesn’t seem to me that it’s absolutely NECESSARY that the behavior be illegal in order for it to lead to a suspension. It may, however, be sufficient. I don’t think it’s crazy to say that a student who breaks the law at school is liable to be punished to some *lesser* extent by the school, through disciplinary procedures.

Now, the school appears to have stated that the reason for the suspension was that the behavior was illegal. But one could reasonably interpret that claim as arguing, essentially, “The student is being suspended for the behavior, and by the way this is entirely reasonable because the behavior in question is so bad that it’s illegal.”

Let’s give the school the benefit of the doubt for a moment, and assume that the behavior is not, and need not be illegal at all. Can the school punish this student anyway?

I don’t think so. Even in the rights-impoverished climate that is the American public school, students have First Amendment rights. Is the exercise of those rights significantly curtailed by case law supporting the school’s ability to keep order and look after the student body’s welfare? Sure. But the rights still exist. I’m not a First Amendment lawyer of any stripe, but it strikes me that where the photographing or recording is being used for communicative purposes, or to gather information about what public officials are doing on public property, the First Amendment is squarely implicated. This certainly seems to be such a case.

That means, if I remember my Educational Con Law correctly, that in order to ban this behavior — even if it’s not illegal — that a school needs to show that there’s a reasonable concern that there will be a “substantial disruption of or material interference with school activities” — the Tinker standard. There are a few other exceptions, but I don’t think they are relevant here.

So now let’s give me the benefit of the doubt, and say that I’m right and that the school does need the behavior to be illegal in order for the suspension to be righteous. Then the question becomes one of whether there is an “expectation of privacy” in the classroom. There’s a reasonable, albeit somewhat politically motivated discussion, of the relevant statutes here, discussing the recording of Mitt Romney’s remarks in Florida in 2012. The gist seems to be, with respect to the Florida statute anyway, that there are a lot of factors that can go into establishing or destroying an expectation of privacy:

One Florida appellate court has held that it did not violate the Florida wiretap act for a subordinate law enforcement officer to record his supervisors’ statements in a disciplinary interview; the court held that there was no reasonable expectation of privacy because of the number of persons present (five, the subordinate and four senior officers), the location of the interview (in a sergeant’s office at a police station), and the nature of the interview (a disciplinary matter). Dept. of Agriculture & Consumer Servs. v. Edwards, 654 So. 2d 628, 632-33 (Fla. 1st DCA 1995); contrast Horning-Keating at 447 (legitimate expectation of privacy in communications between clients and attorney in attorney’s office).

Here, it’s a classroom. It’s a public building — one with restricted access for safety reasons, but a public building nonetheless. The teacher is a public employee carrying out her duties, in front of twenty or thirty other people who are sitting there watching.

Additionally, it does not strike me that the classroom is really a place of privacy: observers constantly come into classrooms to, well, you know… observe. Principals worth their salt regularly do walkarounds. Teachers themselves record their teaching when they are trying to get nationally certified, or sometimes for performance reviews. Certainly the students don’t have an expectation of privacy at a school that could easily be covered by CCTV cameras and teachers watching their every move. And from the student’s point of view, the classroom is not much different from the rest of the school. I don’t see why a teacher should have an expectation of privacy in a situation in which a student would not.

So my tentative conclusions are (1) that it probably does matter that the student’s behavior was illegal (assuming that the statute is Constitutionally sound), and (2) that there probably isn’t a reasonable expectation of privacy in a classroom. And frankly, I’ve long thought that I’d *want* cameras recording everything that happened in my classroom if I were a public school teacher, both for my own edification and my legal protection. I can see why parents would want to be able to see what is happening in their child’s classroom, to verify or dispel the child’s complaints about school and about teachers. I think it’s not crazy to believe that principals should be able to flip a switch in their office and see what’s happening in their school’s classrooms.

So even if there is a reasonable expectation of privacy in a public school classroom — and I am skeptical of that claim — there probably shouldn’t be.

Private schools, on the other hand… are a different beast. Let them set themselves up however they want, and if parents like the monitored school, they can choose it. If teachers want a monitored classroom, they can take the job at the monitored school. And if they don’t, they can pick a school with a more reverent approach to classroom privacy.

High school sports support academics

Schools with strong athletic programs have higher test scores and lower drop-out rates, write Daniel H. Bowen & Collin Hitt in The Atlantic. Amanda Ripley’s cover story, The Case Against High-School Sports, is a lot of hooey, they argue.

Success in sports programs creates “social capital” — or reflects the fact that it’s already there, they theorize.

The success of schools is highly dependent on social capital, “the norms, the social networks, and the relationships between adults and children that are of value for the child’s growing up,” wrote sociologist James Coleman.

The need to build trust and social capital is even more essential when schools are serving disadvantaged and at-risk students. Perhaps the most promising empirical evidence on this point comes from a Chicago program called Becoming A Man–Sports Edition.

In this program, at-risk male students are assigned for a year to counselors and athletic coaches who double as male role models. In this partnership between Chicago Public Schools, Youth Guidance, and World Sport Chicago, sports are used to form bonds between the boys and their mentors and to teach self-control. The usual ball and basket sports are sometimes played, but participants are also trained in violent sports like boxing at school.

Applicants were chosen by lottery.  According to a 2013 evaluation, the sports program “creates lasting improvements in the boys’ study habits and grade point averages. During the first year of the program, students were found to be less likely to transfer schools or be engaged in violent crime. A year after the program, participants were less likely to have had an encounter with the juvenile justice system.”

If schools dropped sports teams, middle-class kids would have opportunities to play sports out of school, Bowen and Hitt conclude. Affordable access would be limited for low-income students.

Special ed is a mess

Special education is “a litigious mess,” writes lawyer Chris Borreca in The Atlantic. When IDEA, the disability rights law, is reauthorized, Congress should adopt a dispute resolution system using specialist courts, he suggests.

A threshold requirement of mandatory mediation before a lawsuit may be filed could be added. A reasonable cap on attorney fees should be explored. Clarity of the very legal rights described should be added to the statute itself.

In other words, a degree of common sense added to the entire system — with an emphasis on services received rather than an unending amount of due process provided for every alleged wrongdoing — would go a long way toward serving the original intent of the law.

Miriam K. Freedman, also a lawyer, tackles reforming special ed in the University of Chicago Law Review.

The current system favors wealthy parents, writes Dr. Manhattan, who likes Romney’s plan to make federal disability dollars follow the student.

Desegregation is dead…

so says Professor David Kirp (Public Policy, Berkeley) in this morning’s New York Times.  It’s a piece that begs, I think, of a firm response.  And because it’s about desegregating schools, I think it’s appropriate material for this blog.  Here’s how his piece gets under way, though you should read the whole thing.

AMID the  ceaseless and cacophonous debates about how to close the achievement gap, we’ve turned away from one tool that has been shown to work: school desegregation. That strategy, ushered in by the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, has been unceremoniously ushered out, an artifact in the museum of failed social experiments…. But as the anniversary was observed this past week on May 17, it was hard not to notice that desegregation is effectively dead. In fact, we have been giving up on desegregation for a long time. In 1974, the Supreme Court rejected a metropolitan integration plan, leaving the increasingly black cities to fend for themselves.

A generation later, public schools that had been ordered to integrate in the 1960s and 1970s became segregated once again, this time with the blessing of a new generation of justices.

The balance of Professor Kirp’s essay, which laments the fading of court-ordered desegregation orders, can be summed up as follows:

(1) Desegregation/integration produces empirical academic benefits for Black students.

(2) Desegregation/integration produces no empirical injuries or drawbacks for White students.

(3) Therefore Desegregation/integration is a good thing.

(4) The courts should support good things.

(5) Therefore the courts should support Desegregation/integration.

To be fair, this is my summary of his work.  I could be misrepresenting it, though I obviously don’t think I am.

Now I’m willing to grant him (1) and (2); he’s a public policy expert and presumably he’d know better than I would whether the evidence supports these things.  I’ll even grant him (3), so long as we keep it at “a good thing” and not “an unqualifiedly good thing, all-in.”  If something gives relevant benefits, and doesn’t have the most obvious sorts of drawbacks one might suspect, odds are that it’s a good thing.

But I seriously question what I’ve presented as his implicit premise (4).  Kirp seems to lack a certain understanding of how the law works, as demonstrated by the fact that he has linked to Milliken v. Bradley (418 U.S. 717 (1974)), but doesn’t seem to actually understand what the case is about.  That’s a serious charge to level at an academic, so let me explain.  Along the way, I think it will become clear both why I think (4) is wrong, and that Kirp does indeed hold it as a view.

[Read more…]

Lawsuits on the western front

It seems like it’s a tougher time today than in days past to be a teachers’ union.   They are on the defensive all over the country.  From the public union battle royale in Wisconsin, to New York’s release of value-added data over union howls of rage (with the accompanying spectre of an implemented evaluation process), to the revolt of the urban mayors… teachers’ unions are under various sorts of legal, political, and institutional attack all over the country.

Out here in California, Students Matter has launched a lawsuit to strip away many of the institutional protections that teachers possess.  Howard Blume tells us all about it:

A Bay Area nonprofit backed partly by groups known for battling teachers unions has filed a lawsuit seeking to overturn five California laws that, they say, make it too difficult to dismiss ineffective teachers.

The suit, filed on behalf of eight students, takes aim at California laws that govern teacher tenure rules, seniority protections and the teacher dismissal process.

* * * *

The group behind the legal action is the newly formed Students Matter. The founder is Silicon Valley entrepreneur David F. Welch and the group’s funders include the foundation of L.A. philanthropist Eli Broad.

The suit contends that teachers can earn tenure protections too quickly — in two years — well before their fitness for long-term employment can be determined. The suit also seeks to invalidate the practice of first laying off less experienced teachers during a budget crisis, rather than keeping the best teachers. And it takes aim at a dismissal process that, it alleges, is too costly, too lengthy and typically results in ineffective teachers holding on to jobs.

I’m uneasy about litigating what are essentially public policy questions in courts.  It’s not really what they’re designed to do, and they generally don’t do a good job of it.  (See, e.g., the consent decree for San Francisco public schools.)  But at the same time, sometimes it’s the only option left to people.  It’s difficult, if not impossible, to push too heavily against public employee union interests here in California.

Blume does an able job in his article tying this lawsuit to the overarching issue of teacher quality, and implying (correctly, I think) that this is part of a larger pushback against unions in general.

It’s not clear to me that these sorts of protections are going to help with teacher quality, though.  Procedural changes will only get you marginal improvements here and there.  If teacher quality is a serious concern (and I’m not 100% sure it’s a problem, though it seems plausible) then what you should really do is address the substantive issue: get a different sort of teacher ex ante.  To use an analogy: if the cars you build are not loved by the consumer, you have two options: increase your quality control, or design a better product.  And the unions wouldn’t have as much political leverage if you tried to tighten up teacher qualifications — indeed, they might support it so long as you grandfathered in all the existing teachers.  I’ve never met a union that didn’t like barriers to entry.

A hazy shade of pledging

Michael Winerip had a fairly long article in the NY Times yesterday about collegiate fraternity hazing.  The article is structured as if it were written by committee, but it’s worth reading anyway.  It centers on the death of a Cornell student, George Desdunes, and uses a detailed discussion of that tragedy as an indirect way of raising larger questions about fraternity hazing and collegiate alcohol policy generally.

There was one vexing sentence (vexing for me, anyway) in his article, though, which I think needs to be flagged, if for no other reason that it makes for interesting discussion:

ALCOHOL is often the not-so-secret ingredient that turns pledging into hazing.

Does alcohol really turn pledging into hazing?  Or does it turn hazing into something dangerous?  Does Winerip mean to say that when pledging is dangerous, as it might be when alcohol is involved, it then becomes hazing?  That would be a fairly narrow view of hazing, something more akin to the legal definitions that are commonly used which rely on concepts such as “substantial risk of physical injury”.  Many anti-hazing advocates and several universities, however, use much broader definitions that include as hazing things like risks of “emotional harm”, “humiliation”, or “degradation”.  That’s a very, very different set of behaviors.

Winerip never actually tells us exactly what he means by hazing, but his discussion seems to indicate that he’s primarily concerned with the narrower, more dangerous phenomenon.  That’s probably a good thing, though I think that there are probably some further lines that can and should be drawn across that particular territory — rugby, for instance, creates a “substantial risk of physical injury” by most actuarial definitions, but no one seems to think that the Chi Psi pledges shouldn’t have to play the brothers in a few games as part of their initiation.

In any case, I think we always should be careful to be very specific about what we’re talking about when we discuss things like hazing, harassment, bullying, or other behaviors that we want to inhibit, prohibit, or punish in our schools and colleges (or anywhere else, for that matter).