The Shocking Testing Scandal in Atlanta

Posted on Categories Education & Law, Media & Journalism, Milwaukee Public Schools, Public2 Comments on The Shocking Testing Scandal in Atlanta

I don’t think “Bad Teacher,” the movie currently playing in theaters, is going to do damage to the reputation of teachers or education in general across the United States. It may be gross, dumb, tasteless, and a lot of other things, but it’s a movie.  People can grasp that it’s not a documentary.

But the current test-score cheating scandal in Atlanta is a different matter. It is pretty much the most disturbing and shocking single episode in American education that I can think of in the last decade. This is a case of teachers and administrators being shown in real life to have engaged in vividly discrediting educational practices. 

I heard or read often in recent years about the successes of the Atlanta public schools. Test scores had risen, the elected school board was a model case for those who opposed mayoral control of schools, and Superintendent Beverly Hall was one of the most honored and respected school leaders in the country. I remember then-MPS Superintendent William Andrekopoulos telling me several years ago what a great person Hall was, and that view was definitely in the mainstream of educators.

All of that makes the scandal that has been unfolding in Atlanta for months all the more stunning. The Atlanta Journal Constitution deserves a lot of credit for pushing hard to bring to light a sweeping culture among teachers and their superiors, right up to Hall, in which doctoring students’ test scores sheets was done routinely, almost openly, and with indifference to both the rules and to children’s actual education needs. A culture of cheating, with a partner culture of intimidation of those who might resist it, pervaded Atlanta’s school system.  Hall has resigned and is now considered highly discredited, the school district has fallen into turmoil, and criminal charges may lie ahead.

The Journal Constitution’s story about a special investigative report released by the governor’s officeTuesday, summarizes the scandal in revolting detail.

Critics have long argued that standardized testing is a bad way to judge kids and, among other problems, leads to cheating by educators who have strong incentives to show good results for their students. My guess is even few of the critics thought there was a scandal of the dimension now unfolding in Atlanta. From now on, the word “Atlanta” is going to be to debate about high stakes testing what the word “Columbine” is to discussions of student violence.

Will the Atlanta situation change the course of the movement that has made standardized testing a key part of accountability around  the US? My guess is that overall, it won’t. But it certainly should cause everyone to think deeply about how to make testing a constructive step. That includes more work on improving test security, creating climates of ethical practices around testing, and monitoring the pressures being put on educators to come up with good results.

Results on state standardized tests for Milwaukee school children may be discouraging, but at least they are, to the best of my knowledge, generally honest. I’m only aware of one real cheating scandal in Milwaukee Public Schools in the last decade or so. It involved one school a few years ago, and, while MPS succeeded in keeping most of the details from public view (it was labeled an employee discipline matter), best as I could tell, the district dealt with it reasonably well.  (By the way, speak up if you know differently, not only with MPS but any school or district.)

I used to think it would be nice if Milwaukee had Atlanta’s record when it came to rest results. Obviously, it is time to think the reverse, especially when it comes to integrity.

Child Support, Contempt of Court, and (Maybe) Lawyers

Posted on Categories Family Law, Public, U.S. Supreme Court31 Comments on Child Support, Contempt of Court, and (Maybe) Lawyers

This week, the US Supreme Court handed down a decision in Turner v. Rogers, a case involving a non-custodial parent who was jailed for nonpayment of child support.  Failure to pay child support is a violation of a court order to pay, and is thus handled as a civil contempt of court case.  A finding of civil contempt in these cases is predicated on nonpayment when the defendant is financially capable of paying, and a defendant can always avoid jail time by either paying the amount owed, or by showing that he is incapable of paying.  Turner had been ordered to pay $51.73 per week for the support of his child and had been sentenced to jail time on several previous occasions for failure to pay.  He was not represented by counsel at the hearing where he received a 12-month sentence, which he served in its entirety.  At the hearing in question, the judge sentenced Turner without making an express finding that Turner was financially capable of paying the support owed.  On appeal, Turner argued that the US Constitution entitled him to counsel at his hearing because, although the contempt proceeding is civil in nature, the potential for incarceration triggered a Due Process Clause-based right to be represented.  Although Supreme Court cases have consistently found that the Sixth Amendment right to counsel in criminal cases does not apply to civil cases (not even civil contempt cases), there was a split in the circuits over whether a defendant has a right to counsel under the Due Process clause in civil contempt proceedings enforcing child support orders.

Here, the Court held that “where as here the custodial parent (entitled to receive the support) is unrepresented by counsel, the State need not provide counsel to the noncustodial parent (required to provide the support).”  However, the Court added the caveat that “the State must nonetheless have in place alternative procedures that assure a fundamentally fair determination of the critical incarceration-related question, whether the supporting parent is able to comply with the support order.”  Since Turner did not receive clear notice that his ability to pay – or not – was crucial in deciding whether he would be jailed, and since the court did not make an express finding that Turner was able to pay, his incarceration was found to have violated the Due Process Clause, and his case was remanded.  The dissent agreed that there should be no right to counsel in civil contempt cases for nonpayment of child support, but would not have vacated the state court judgment on the grounds that there were not sufficient procedural safeguards to protect Turner.

My colleagues who specialize in constitutional law, criminal law and sentencing will doubtless have other insights about this case.  Here, I would like to offer just a few observations from a family law perspective. Continue reading “Child Support, Contempt of Court, and (Maybe) Lawyers”

Education Round-up: More New MPS Principals and More Changes in Detroit

Posted on Categories Education & Law, Milwaukee, Milwaukee Public Schools, PublicLeave a comment» on Education Round-up: More New MPS Principals and More Changes in Detroit

The second wave of new principals in Milwaukee Public Schools is going to hit shore tonight at a meeting of the Milwaukee School Board’s finance committee. This time, it is slated to bring new principals to 19 schools. Last month, the first wave brought new leaders to 21 schools.

The two waves – and there will be at least a few more new principals before September – are both a major opportunity and a major concern. Principals are crucial to a school and, if the new batch has good impact overall, that will be a big plus for MPS. But the unusually large number of new principals means almost a quarter of all MPS schools will be under new leadership, which can be a stressful development for a school.

Assuming the committee and, next week, the full school board approve, the new group will include five current MPS principals who are being trasnferred to new assignments and 14 people who are being hired for or promoted to principal jobs. Among the newcomers to the ranks of MPS principals will be Peter Samaranayke at Rufus King High School, the most prestigious high school school in the system; Michael Cipriano at Hamilton High; and Brian Brzezinski at Pulaski. Cynthia Eastern, who has been principal of Pulaski the last several years, will become principal of the School of Career and Technical Education, which is being created as part of the overhaul of Custer High School.

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Avoiding the “Every School Left Behind” Inevitability

Posted on Categories Education & Law, Milwaukee Public Schools, PublicLeave a comment» on Avoiding the “Every School Left Behind” Inevitability

Maybe, in 2001, it seemed like 2014 was too far away to be worth much worry. In 2011, it’s not so far away. Not that it’s clear what is going to be done now about what was one of the more idealistic, well-intended, but ridiculous, notions ever put into federal law.

In 2001, and with strong bipartisan support, Congress approved the No Child Left Behind education reform law. Amid its complex notions, there were some clear intentions: Congress and the president (George W. Bush at that point, but Bill Clinton and Barack Obama would say much the same) were tired of putting a lot of money into schools across the country and not seeing much to show for it. They wanted to see the American education world buckle down to work especially on improving the achievement of low income and minority students. And they wanted every child to be reading and doing math on grade level by – oh, pick a date far away – 2014.

So they called the law No Child Left Behind. A wonderful idea – are you in favor of leaving some children behind? I’m not.

But given the real state of children, the obstacles so many face, the entrenched depth of so many issues, and the simple realities of what could be accomplished, it was an unrealistic idea. Even if everything went great, we were never going to reach 100% proficiency by 2014, or by any date.

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Pension Concessions Request Puts MPS Union in an Unhappy Place

Posted on Categories Education & Law, Milwaukee, Milwaukee Public Schools, Public1 Comment on Pension Concessions Request Puts MPS Union in an Unhappy Place

The Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association, the union for Milwaukee Public Schools teachers, had two lines of defense against making  concessions as the financial squeeze on MPS tightened.

The first was that, due to langauge in the bill backed by Gov. Scott Walker and Republican legislators, if the MTEA agreed to any changes in its contract, which goes through June 2013, the entire contract would be wiped out. The second was that the union had already made concessions when it settled in September 2010 and just wasn’t going to make any more. 

The first line of defense stands to be erased in the light of changes made by the legislature’s joint finance committee that would allow the MPS contract to be changed without bringing down the roof.

And the Milwaukee School Board, as described ina Journal Sentinel story,  put the question squarely to the union last week of whether it is going to stick by the second response. The board asked that the union to agree to have teachers pay 5.8% of their salaries toward their pensions. Although that is technically the way the system works now (with MPS paying a matching amount), MPS and many other school districts have paid both shares of the pension payments for many years. Continue reading “Pension Concessions Request Puts MPS Union in an Unhappy Place”

Correction: Make That Milwaukee Montessori

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I made a sloppy error in the section of the blog item posted Monday rounding up some recent education news. I named Downtown Montessori as a voucher school where many parents opted to have their children not take Wisconsin’s standardized exams. I meant to say Milwaukee Montessori, a private school on the west side that takes part in the voucher program. Downtown Montessori, on the south side, is an independent charter school where all the students take part in the state exams, Virginia Flynn, the head of school, said. My apologies. The blog item should have read like this:

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Education Round-Up: Union Leader Out, Voucher Testing In

Posted on Categories Education & Law, Milwaukee, Milwaukee Public Schools, Public3 Comments on Education Round-Up: Union Leader Out, Voucher Testing In

So much going on. It’s hard to keep up. So here’s a round-up of a few things on the local education scene that are actually pretty important, but haven’t gotten much attention in recent days:

MTEA executive director is out: Stan Johnson, the executive director of the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association, is out, continuing a period of difficulties and instability in leadership of the union.  Johnson resigned last week “for personal reasons,” according to a union spokesman who said there would be no further comment. But Johnson’s abrupt departure suggested it was not an amiable matter.

Johnson was previously president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council, the union organizations which has been at the heart of education politics in Wisconsin in recent decades. He was one of the most widely known teachers’ union figures in the state.

 In a period when all teachers’ unions have been facing a lot of challenges, the MTEA has had had the complication of continuing leadership issues.  Tom Morgan was named executive director in 2007, succeeding long-term union leader Sam Carmen. But Morgan died of a heart attack while on a vacation cruise in March 2010. Since then, the union went through several interim directors and a search for a new executive director that ended with no candidate being selected Carmen came out of retirement for  several months and it was during Carmen’s return that the MTEA reached a four-year contract agreement with the Milwaukee School Board. Johnson was hired after Carmen returned to retirement last fall.

With Johnson gone,  long-time union staffer Sid Hatch has been named acting executive director. Separately, the union is installing a new president this week. Mike Langyel, who was president the last two years (and was president from 1991 to 1993 as well), has retired and Bob Peterson, a veteran teacher who is nationally known for his work on social justice issues and his founding of the Rethinking Schools education publication, is the new president.

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New Counsel, Continuances, and the Sixth Amendment — Lawyers Don’t Always Have to Take the Case as They Find It

Posted on Categories Criminal Law & Process, Public, Seventh CircuitLeave a comment» on New Counsel, Continuances, and the Sixth Amendment — Lawyers Don’t Always Have to Take the Case as They Find It

The Seventh Circuit had an interesting new decision a couple weeks ago on the Sixth Amendment right to choice of counsel, United States v. Sellers (No. 09-2516).  Among other notable aspects of the case, former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor sat on the panel.

Here’s what happened:

Sellers initially retained attorney David Wiener to represent him against the drug and gun charges.  Apparently, shortly after Sellers engaged Wiener, Wiener approached attorney Michael Oppenheimer and asked him to appear as secondary counsel. Oppenheimer, by all indications, was a stranger to Sellers, having never been hired by him. Nevertheless, Oppenheimer filed an appearance, Wiener did not. (3)

Trial was set for May 12, 2008.  On May 7, Sellers requested a continuance so that he could proceed with counsel of his choice, David Weiner, who was scheduled to try another case in state court on May 12.  The district judge ultimately moved the federal trial back to May 19, but that conflicted with yet another case Weiner was scheduled to try in state court.

On May 16, Sellers informed the court that he wished to fire Oppenheimer and retain new counsel.  On May 19, the date trial was supposed to begin, Sellers informed the court that he had a new lawyer, but the new lawyer would only file an appearance if a continuance were granted so that he could adequately prepare for trial.  The court denied this request, requiring Sellers either to proceed pro se or with Oppenheimer.  Sellers chose Oppenheimer, and he was convicted and sentenced to fifteen years in prison.

The Seventh Circuit, however, held that the denial of a continuance violated Sellers’s right to counsel of his choice.

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Tony Evers: Trying to Throw High Heat at Voucher Schools

Posted on Categories Education & Law, Milwaukee, Milwaukee Public Schools, Public3 Comments on Tony Evers: Trying to Throw High Heat at Voucher Schools

Tony Evers, the state superintendent of public instruction, has been making waves by going on the offensive against proposals to expand the use of private school vouchers in Wisconsin. In addition to what has been said in news stories such as this one in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, I’d offer three thoughts that struck me as I read the lengthy memo Evers offered to members of the legislature’s Joint Committee on Finance this week.

One: Legally and politically, this is almost surely idle thinking, but what if the private schools that are in Milwaukee’s voucher program had to face the same kind of consequences for getting weak results that charter schools and, of late, conventional public schools face?

Charter schools, which are independently operated, publicly funded schools, are generally given five-year contracts by a government body. (In Milwaukee, charter contracts are granted by the School Board, city government, or the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.) It is not unusual for a charter school to be closed if it is not getting good results at the end of five years, or sometimes sooner.

In the conventional Milwaukee Public Schools system, school closings are becoming common. Tightening finances and declining enrollments are key reasons, but getting bad results is also a factor. And a list of schools, including several major high schools, are under orders, based on federal policies, to take steps such as overhauling their programs and staffs and getting new principals because of low student success.

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A New and Important Wave of MPS Principals

Posted on Categories Education & Law, Milwaukee Public Schools, Public1 Comment on A New and Important Wave of MPS Principals

Milwaukee Schools Superintendent Gregory Thornton has released the first wave of his selections for new principals for Milwaukee Public Schools. As I described in a Journal Sentinel column a few weeks ago, Thornton is facing an unusual number of principal vacancies, in large part because of retirements triggered by the changes Republican Gov. Scott Walker is making to educational spending and public employment benefits.

One high-profile position on the new list: Mike Roemer was chosen to be principal of Ronald Reagan High School. The south side school, with its full international baccalaureate program, has been one of the brightest success stories in MPS in the last decade. Its high-profile founding principal, Julia D’Amato, retired several months ago. Roemer was the assistant principal under D’Amato and has been acting principal since she left. The school community lobbied hard for him to get the job.

Overall, the list of new principals includes four existing principals who are getting new or amended assignments and 17 people being promoted or hired to principal positions. The reassigned principals are appointed at Thornton’s discretion, but the promotions and new hires have to be approved by the School Board. A board committee will take up the recommendations at a meeting Tuesday.    

The list can be viewed by going to this Web page and clicking on “5-24-11 AFP Blue Book Advance Copy” on the right side of the page. Then click on Item 3 on the left hand side of the document that comes up.

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