Category Archives: Education

SBAC Results Suggest a Widening Gap Between High- and Low-Performing Districts

by Categorized: Data, Education Date:

Local school officials got something of a break this year from the ritualized hand-wringing that typically accompanies the release of the state’s standardized-test results. With the first statewide administration of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium penciltest, 2015 is a benchmark year, setting a baseline of scores that officials will be hand-wringing over in 12 months.

But while state officials correctly warn against comparing achievement scores on the SBAC test to the prior CMT and CAPT tests, there is a way of to get some insight into how schools and districts are progressing. The Courant conducted that analysis for 19 towns in the Hartford region, and the results offer some evidence of a widening gap between the highest- and lowest-performing districts in the state.

For the analysis, the Courant examined the percentage of students scoring at high achievement levels on the SBAC test (those who met or exceeded the target achievement level) and calculated how each district performed compared to the state average. We did the same thing for the CMT and CAPT tests in 2013 – the last year the tests were widely administered (looking at students deemed “at goal”). Then we looked at whether districts had improved their position relative to the state average, or whether they lost ground compared to the state as a whole.

For simplicity’s sake, we grouped elementary grades and middle-school grades, and we combined data for the reading and writing portions of the CMT and CAPT tests, as the SBAC test includes a single English-language test.

As shown in the graphs below, for nearly all subject/grade levels we analyzed – high school English was the only exception – there is a clear trend in which towns that outperformed the state as a whole in 2013 generally extended their margins over the state average on the SBAC test, and towns with achievement levels below the state average two years ago fell farther below the average this year.

To read the charts: Blue arrows indicate an improvement in a district’s position relative to the state as a whole, and orange arrows indicate a decline. Data points above the zero line indicates a performance exceeding the state average, and points below the zero line indicate performance lagging the state average.

So the first arrow below shows that 3rd, 4th and 5th graders in Avon had an at-goal percentage in math in 2013 that was 30 percent above the state average. That’s the bottom of the arrow. On the newly released SBAC test, the percentage of elementary students meeting or exceeding the target achievement level was 73 higher than the state average. That’s the top of the arrow.

For elementary school math, the chart shows that of the 11 towns that performed above the state average in 2013, all  but one extended their margins. Similarly, of the eight towns that lagged the state average two years ago, all but one lost more ground compared to the state average. Most of the other charts show a similar trend.

We’ll extend our analysis beyond these Hartford-area towns and see if the trend holds statewide. To explore SBAC scores for your town, see the chart and visualization created by my colleague Stephen Busemeyer.

E_Math

M_Math

H_Math

E_English

M_English

H_English

Fake Alumnus at “Life Experience” School Gets Yet Another New Job!

by Categorized: Education, Ethics Date:

Paul N. Johnson sure gets around.

After the Courant exposed that a degree-selling outfit calling itself Denton University was claiming Genentech CEO Ian Clark as a graduate, Denton Clark_Clark_Genentechrepeatedly reworked the online “alumni profile,” eventually swapping out Clark’s photo and claiming it was actually alumnus “Paul N. Johnson” who was the CEO of Genentech, a multi-billion-dollar drug company.

Wednesday, the profile was changed again, to delete any reference to Genentech. And now, Paul N. Johnson – who days ago was allegedly a biology graduate of Denton running a huge pharmaceutical company – has been re-imagined as a computer science graduate running an electronic medical record firm, among other things.

“Computer Engineer Alumnus Paul N. JohnSon has been Assigned as Cheif Executive Officer at Iros International, where He is managing also Lab Interface Projects,” the freshly rewritten profile now proclaims, complete with strange grammar, spelling errors and odd capitalizations. “Based in New york, he also heads EMR consultancy company name Allscripts which is also using genetic engineering research techniques in their labs and develop medicines with the help of Pharmaceutical Company.”

Iros International does not appear to be the name of any active U.S. company. Allscripts is a real company – although it’s based in Chicago, and its CEO and president is not named Paul Johnson.

The photo of Johnson in the fake alumni profile, meanwhile, remains that of a University of Minnesota student named Alfonso whose picture appeared in the student newspaper – before it mysteriously found its way to Denton’s website next to the name Paul N. Johnson.

The Courant’s original report a month ago found that some “life-experience” schools – loosely regulated businesses that offer advanced degrees with little or no academic work – routinely use inaccurate images and content on their websites. While Denton deleted references to Genentech and its CEO, other dubious portions of the website remain intact.

Denton still features “Ben Crawford” as a medical sciences degree graduate who raves about Denton’s classroom lectures – which do not exist. But the photograph of “Ben Crawford” is actually a stock image, and his testimonial about the school was lifted from a real alumni profile for a woman named Alison Wood, who appears on the website of the University of Birmingham, in England.

And a third alumni profile on Denton’s website, purportedly for a masters in education student named Amy Meehan, is actually a photograph of one graduate of Britain’s University of Southampton, with text taken from a profile for a different Southampton grad.

“I researched all of the opportunities for my specialism and Denton was not only local but also held a fantastic reputation. I spoke with colleagues and contacts within my field and they all agreed that Denton was by far the best option for me to pursue my academic studies,” the Denton website quotes “Amy Meehan” as saying – even though a representative acknowledged that Denton offers no academic studies.

That bears more than a passing resemblance to a quote by Lois Sellwood on Southampton’s website: “I researched all of the opportunities for my specialism and Southampton was not only local but also held a fantastic reputation. I spoke with colleagues and contacts within my field and they all agreed that Southampton was by far the best option for me to pursue my academic studies.”

The photo, meanwhile, is actually a picture of Southampton graduate Sophie Gaunt.

Gaunt, in particular, was easy to identify. On Denton’s website, the image Denton claims is Amy Meehan has the filename “Sophie-Gaunt-144×144.”

As they have in the past, Denton officials did not respond to an emailed request for comment.

A Transparency Advocate’s Legislative Wish List

by Categorized: Education, First Amendment, Government, Law Enforcement, Media, Politics, Public Safety, Transparency/FOI Date:

I recently obtained an internal email in which a lawyer for a public agency laid out the agency’s strategy for responding to a request for records under the Freedom of Information Act.

Step One was identifying the records the agency was willing to release.

Step Two was identifying the records the agency had no intention of releasing.

And then Step Three, almost as an afterthought, was determining whether there was actually an exception under the Freedom of Information Act that would provide a legal basis for keeping the withheld documents secret from the public.

“As we discussed we can always withhold a document even if there is no exception,” the lawyer wrote, with the understanding that the agency might have to concoct a justification for the illegal act if the requester was savvy enough to pursue an appeal to the Freedom of Information Commission.

It wasn’t the first such email I had been made privy to, and it reminded me of the need for vigilance in Freedom of Information matters and the importance of constantly reminding the public servants who work for us that they do, in fact, work for us. They’re paid by us, they’re sworn to serve us. And with rare exceptions, all of the paperwork and data they produce and collect while on our payroll belongs to us, and should be provided to us without a fight.

So as the Legislature gets down to business this week, here’s one transparency advocate’s wish list, for any lawmakers willing to champion the not-so-radical concept that the people’s business really is the people’s business. Continue reading

Claim Check: Foley on “Underperforming” Schools

by Categorized: Claim Check, Education, Politics Date:

claimcheck6

It’s been strangely quiet in the Claim Check cubicle lately, but not because candidates and PACs have suddenly abandoned political advertising.

Instead, Connecticut candidates took a break from specific boasts or specific accusations to focus on generic vote-for-me-I’m-a-nice-guy ads that defy fact-checking. So, for example, we saw congressional candidate Mark Greenberg’s clever analogyFoley_Education about barking dogs and we know that gubernatorial longshot Joe Visconti packs heat and rides horses. But neither of those spots had measurable claims that could be addressed in this space.

But at last, a recent Tom Foley TV spot, focusing on education, makes a single checkable assertion about the performance of Connecticut schools. The claim is based on an outdated report and the issue of school performance is more complicated than can be squeezed into a short ad. But overall, Foley’s assertion is justifiable. Continue reading

Is Jailed CCSU Poet a Good Professor? That’s None of Your Business.

by Categorized: Education, Law Enforcement, Transparency/FOI Date:

My colleague Kathy Megan reports this morning that the Board of Regents for the Connecticut State University system will reconsider Tuesday’s decision to grant full professorship to Ravi Shankar – a promotion that occurred while Shankar was behind bars at the Hartford Correctional Center.

In seeking to distance Shankar’s legal troubles from his classroom duties, regents spokesman Michael Kozlowski said he has heard that Shankar, the school’s poet in residence, “has tremendous student ratings, they like him very much, and that his academic record, at least as far as I know, is quite good.”

We’ll have to take his word for it.

As I’ve noted before, there is a strange lack of transparency surrounding the assessment of public university professors in Connecticut, with all records of their performance and evaluation off limits to the taxpayers who employ them. But that cloak confidentialstampof secrecy is yet more stark for faculty employed by the State University System, where the entire contents of personnel files are closed to any outside scrutiny.

Those aren’t my words; that’s the actual language of the faculty union contract, which was given the force of law years ago by the legislature. “The entire contents of personnel files,” the contract reads, “shall be considered private and may not be opened to any outside scrutiny except when ordered by a court of law.”

Those personnel files contain a faculty member’s application for employment, payroll records, disciplinary actions, job-related correspondence with university administrators and “all other relevant personnel actions.”

That unmatched secrecy would typically run afoul of the state’s Freedom of Information laws, which recognize that public accountability is part of the deal when the public pays your salary. But under Connecticut law, when the legislature approves a collective-bargaining agreement, the provisions of the contract supersede any conflicting state law.

So in 1997, the union asked for wholesale secrecy, negotiators for the state agreed, and legislators let it become law.

“One the biggest potential threats to public accountability is a state law (Gen. Statutes section 5-278) that is being used to allow public employee contracts ratified by the legislature to trump FOI statutes when it comes to releasing information in employee personnel files,” the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information wrote in their Agenda for Open Government last year. “The executive branch should refuse to negotiate, and the legislature should refuse to accept, such back-door assaults on accountability in the state’s union contracts.”

The current state-university contract expires next year and negotiations will begin anew. We’ll see if there are voices in state government willing to stand up for transparency. In the meantime, it’s anyone’s guess whether or not Professor Ravi Shankar’s academic record is in fact “quite good.”

A Sunshine Week Question: Why Are Evaluations of Public University Professors Kept Secret?

by Categorized: Education, Employment, Government, Law Enforcement, Media, Public Safety, Transparency/FOI, UConn Date:

I began teaching a journalism class at Central Connecticut State University this semester, with the taxpayers and students’ families picking up the tab for my modest salary. At some point, I imagine the school will evaluate my performance, and when that happens, it will be the official policy of the state legislature that it’s none of the taxpayers’ business whether I’m doing a great job or a crummy job.

If you teach in a public school in Connecticut, from Kindergarten to a Ph.D. program, state law deems that records of your “performance and evaluation” are off-limits to the public that pays your salary. I was given a stark reminder of that today, just as transparency advocates are wrapping up “Sunshine Week,” a national campaign highlighting the importance of open government.

Today happened to be the day I was provided with a large number of documents I had requested from the University of Connecticut, which included the draft of a review of Robert Miller, the former UConn music professor now under the microscope for allegations of sexual misconduct that spanned decades.

The evaluation runs 28 pages – 19 of which have been blacked out completely, and the rest of which have no more than a sentence or two visible. There is a list of “Dr. Miller’s Strengths” and another of “Dr. Miller’s Weaknesses” – but they have been almost entirely blacked out. There is a section marked “Comments from the Faculty” – immediately followed by a page and a half of black boxes. Under “PERSONALITY ISSUES,” the report notes that neither the review committee members nor those interviewed are trained psychologists, but the rest of section, taking up nearly two pages, is completely redacted.

This isn’t the university getting overly exuberant with a magic marker; it’s just following the law.

As I’ve written before, a move to keep teacher evaluations secret began 30 years, resulting in the passage of a law titled “Nondisclosure of records of teacher performance and evaluation,” which made teacher evaluations in local public schools exempt from the state’s Freedom of Information Act. Legislators were persuaded that parents would use evaluations to shop for the best teachers and pressure schools to place their children accordingly – though every parent I’ve ever talked to already knows who the great teachers are in their schools.

And even while the bill was pitched as a way to prevent teacher-shopping, the final language covered all professional staff in a public K-12 school except the superintendent. Assistant superintendents, principals, librarians – all covered by the law putting their performance evaluations off limits.

Before long, that sort of secrecy started looking good to those in higher education. And in 1989, a similar statute was put on the books blocking public access to performance records for the faculty and professional staff at UConn, the state university system and the state’s technical colleges.

And that’s why the document below is mostly black boxes.

Transparency advocates would like to change that. I’ll start with my eval. If and when CCSU gauges my performance, I’ll be happy to send a copy to anyone interested in reading it.

Miller Evaluation (Text)

Affidavits Tell Sad Tale of Collapse of Hurley Scholarship Foundation

by Categorized: Education, Government, Legal Affairs, Non-profits, Uncategorized Date:

The inevitable dissolution of the battered Doc Hurley Scholarship Foundation came a step closer Thursday with Judge Carl Schuman’s order barring the foundation from engaging in any official acts while he considers the fate of the once-revered scholarship fund.

On April 7, barring objection – and no objection has been registered so far – Schuman may formally eliminate the organization Walter “Doc” Hurley dreamed up four decades ago to help needy high school students reach their college dreams. The foundation – which held more than $1 million in assets seven years ago – is now penniless, and Hurley’s daughter, Muriel, is facing a civil suit brought by the attorney general accusing her of looting the charity.

The collapse of the Hurley foundation is on stark display in a series of affidavits filed by nine Hurley scholarship winners who didn’t receive the money they were promised. As part of the Courant’s investigation of the foundation, we tracked down more than a dozen winners who were shortchanged, and lawyers for the state then soon followed up.

Utsarga Bhattarai was awarded a $2,000 scholarship when he graduated from West Hartford’s Hall High School in 2008. But he said the money never came. “On multiple occasions, up and through my junior year of college, I contacted the Foundation through multiple telephone calls and e-mails, but never was contacted by the Foundation,” he wrote.

That sentiment is repeated over and over. “I sent multiple e-mails and made multiple telephone calls to the Foundation and left messages, but never received e-mails back or any return telephone calls,” wrote Alyssa Cusano, who received $500 of the $2,000 she was promised.

Brittany Cavaliere left phone and e-mail messages after her aid stopped. So did Jermaine Thomas and Amanda Trothier. And several other students. But they said they either received no response, or were assured that the scholarship money was on its way. But it never arrived.

The affidavits are included in the dissolution lawsuit merely to bolster the state’s case that the Hurley Foundation was no longer operating as a charitable organization and should be shut down. There is no means through that process to make the students whole.

State officials aren’t foreclosing the possibility of recovering assets that could be distributed to past scholarship winners. But the foundation’s bank accounts are empty, and finding any seizable assets is proving to be a difficult feat.

The students’ affidavits are below:

HurleyExhibits (Text)

In Connecticut Schools, Strange Law Fosters Strange Secrecy

by Categorized: Education, Employment, First Amendment, Government, Non-profits, Politics, Transparency/FOI, Uncategorized Date:

The folks who run the state university and college system have decided to reward top performers by taking more than half a million dollars in taxpayer funds and distributing it as merit raises to some or all of 279 eligible managers and administrators.

And as my colleague Kathy Megan reported, education officials are declining, for now at least, to tell the public which of the public’s employees have been awarded additional chunks of the public’s money. In fact, they say, it would violate state law to do so.

That assertion has not been tested by the Freedom of Information Commission or the courts. topsecretBut it is the latest strange outcome of a strange series of laws that have kept taxpayers in the dark about teacher evaluations for nearly 30 years.

It began, somewhat fittingly, in 1984, with the passage of a law titled “Nondisclosure of records of teacher performance and evaluation,” which made teacher evaluations in local public schools exempt from the state’s Freedom of Information Act. The law was pitched, in the words of a later court case, as a way to “prevent parents from ‘teacher shopping’ in public schools by looking at evaluations and then demanding that their children be placed with one specific teacher.”

Remember before 1984, when hordes of parents would crowd into Main Offices across the state, poring over every 2nd Grade teachers’ evals before demanding that their child’s schedule be customized accordingly?

Me neither.

Parents, of course, have never needed to scour performance reviews to know who the great teachers are in their schools. But even if tamping down on teacher-shopping were the true intent of the law, let’s dig a little deeper into the statutory language. The law protects “records of teacher performance and evaluation.” But the legislature then added this bit of linguistic gymnastics: “For the purposes of this section, ‘teacher’ includes each certified professional employee below the rank of superintendent.”

This, presumably, was intended to stem the epidemic of parents engaging in principal-shopping and librarian-shopping and assistant-superintendent-shopping, as all of their performance evaluations were placed off-limits as well.

The bottom line of that strangely expansive language is that in a state with more than 51,000 certified public-school educators, the people of Connecticut are entitled to review the performance of exactly 166 of them.

The 1984 law covered only K-12 schools. But that didn’t last.

Five years later, professors in the state’s higher education system decided they’d like the same sort of confidentiality enjoyed by their elementary and high school colleagues. So a nearly identically worded statute was put on the books blocking public access to performance records for the faculty and professional staff at UConn, the state university system and the state’s technical colleges.

It is unlikely that law was passed to prevent students from “professor-shopping” and trying to secure a spot with the best teachers, since that is exactly what students do when registering for classes in college.

In the current controversy, the state will ultimately reveal which employees received merit raises and in what amounts; at worst, that information will be deducible once new paychecks – which are public records – start going out.

But if you were curious, for example, about what any particular employee did to earn, say, the maximum merit increase, then sorry – it’s the official policy of the state of Connecticut that taxpayers have no business asking.

310 Million Americans. Three Dozen Fun Facts.

by Categorized: Census, Data, Education, Employment, Politics Date:

Housing values are down. Household sizes are up. Marriages are down. Unemployment is up. Manufacturing is down. College degrees are up.

Annual estimates from the Census Bureau in hundreds of categories became publicly releasable early this morning, and my colleague Mara Lee has a story looking at how Connecticut is getting older – but not appreciably faster than the nation as a whole, suggesting concerns about an aging workforce may be unduly alarmist.

Beyond those big-picture tales hiding in the numbers, however, there are scores of interesting data points capturing the gradual shifts and natural waves of a fluid society. Below are three dozen selected Census figures for the United States and Connecticut, showing the 2012 figures just released and figures for the same categories in 2008, along with the percent change for both the national and state figures.

The numbers, drawn from the American Community Survey, an annual sampling of the nation’s 310 million residents, paint a numerical tapestry of the country through questions on labor, housing, income, ancestry, education and even what portion of the labor force walks to work. (2.8 percent nationwide; 3 percent in Connecticut).

To dig into countless gigabytes of other Census Bureau data, log on to American Factfinder, the bureau’s online search tool.

In New Britain Schools, Drugs Are Bad, but Swearing Might Be Even Worse

by Categorized: Data, Education Date:

If New Britain schools Superintendent Kelt Cooper goes forward with his pledge that students caught swearing at faculty members this year will be “out of school for five to 10 days,” it would make foul language just about the most severely punished offense a New Britain student can commit, at least based on the district’s past history of sanctions for misconduct.

The harsh penalty – announced at a rousing convocationsoap at which Cooper summarized his goal for improving student comportment with the memorable catchphrase “Don’t talk smack, don’t show crack” – would see potty-mouthed students facing tougher sanctions than are typically imposed for stealing or fighting, and would put them at least on par with students punished for drug- and weapons-related offenses.

Below is a chart showing the average length of sanctions imposed on New Britain students involved in 2,866 assorted incidents during 2010-2011 school year, according to state Department of Education data. Note that not all of the sanctions involved out-of-school suspensions, with students sent home in 44 percent of the cases.

As my colleague Don Stacom reports, Cooper is sending the message that school officials have had it with disrespectful behavior by students. To underscore that resolve, students booted for profanity will be sent home, Cooper said, with a bar of soap.

NewBritain_Discipline