Over the objections of teacher unions, the Freedom of Information Commission ruled Wednesday that there’s no reason to keep secret the fact that New Milford school officials think about three-quarters of their teachers are accomplished and one quarter are exemplary.
If that doesn’t sound like the sort of information that calls for breaking out the lawyers to keep under wraps, welcome to the strange world of teacher evaluations – the only public-employee evaluations in Connecticut that are kept confidential by law.
Thirty years ago, the legislature cut off public access to “records of teacher performance and evaluation,” swallowing the argument that without secrecy, parents would engage in “teacher shopping” by poring over personnel files and then harassing principals to pair their kids with the “good teachers.” I don’t know how silly that argument sounded three decades ago, but every time I mention it in casual conversation these days, the universal response is, “But everyone already knows who the good teachers are.”
Nevertheless, it’s been the law since 1984 that the public shalt not see a teacher’s performance review (and by “teacher,” the legislature decided that term should apply to librarians and reading specialists and assistant principals and every other certified school professional except the superintendent.)
But the Commission Wednesday permitted a tiny peek under the tent, ruling unanimously that the law protecting records of teacher performance was intended to apply to an individual, identifiable teacher’s evaluation, and not to anonymous, aggregated data for an entire district.
That is a victory for John Spatola, who was turned down when he asked the New Milford school system to release data related to the state’s far-from-perfect effort to uniformly assess the competency of the state’s teaching force. The state plan established a variety of criteria that placed teachers into one of four categories; exemplary, proficient, developing and below standard. (New Milford substituted the term “accomplished” for “proficient.)
So Spatola, a former member of the New Milford Board of Education, asked for data showing the number of local teachers who were placed in each of the four categories. New Milford officials were reluctant to release the data without some assurance that they could do so without breaking the law. The local and state teachers’ unions, meanwhile, intervened and urged the FOI Commission to keep a cloak on the numbers, saying their release would be illegal and would harm teachers.
The legal argument is built on the broad language of the statute, which cuts off public access to “any” record of teacher performance and evaluation. The unions argued that that language covered the aggregated data Spatola was seeking. The Commission disagreed, adopting a hearing officer’s finding that the law was meant to shield records related to individual teachers. “The requested records, which do not identify individual teachers or individual schools,” the hearing officer wrote, “cannot be used for ‘teacher shopping.’ ”
While Spatola hails the ruling as a triumph for transparency, it was somewhat academic; New Milford’s numbers, and those of many other school districts, had already come to light when they were entered as an exhibit in an ongoing lawsuit against the state Department of Education. But the data that came out of that case was heavily redacted, with some information missing for two-thirds of the state’s districts, and all information missing for nearly half.
Given the FOI Commission’s ruling, I’ve sent a request to the State Department of Ed for an unredacted copy of the data. I’ll keep you posted.
In the meantime, isn’t it time for the legislature to remember that it’s the public who ultimately employs the state’s public-school teachers? And to rethink a law that prevents the public from seeing performance evaluations for some of its most important employees?
For years, it has been the policy of the state Department of Education to give school superintendents an advance peek at their district’s standardized test scores, a week or so before the high-stakes numbers are released to the public. And for roughly as long, transparency advocates have groused that such a policy seemed to put the public-relations concerns of insiders above the rights of the public to have prompt access to the government records they own.
But it took an enterprising reporter from the Journal Inquirer of Manchester to actually do something about it.
Last Aug. 19, a deputy commissioner at the education department sent an email to every superintendent in the state, announcing that aggregate district-wide data for the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium test would be made available to them later that day, but that the data was not to be shared with the press or discussed at a board of education meeting.
“As a courtesy, the embargoed results are made available for districts before results are made public,” the email stated. And breaking that embargo, the email warned, “jeopardizes your district’s access to future embargoed releases.”
Michael Savino, the J-I’s Capitol reporter, caught wind of the Aug. 19 email and immediately requested a copy of the district-by-district data the Department of Education had distributed to districts. The department declined, explaining that the data would be released to the public only after a “final quality control check” was completed.
“We set a high bar regarding accuracy of information that we generate and the public should expect nothing less from us,” a department official wrote in rejecting the request.
Nine days later, the data that had been released to the superintendents was released to the public. And two months after that, the press and the state squared off before a hearing officer with the Freedom of Information Commission to determine whether that nine-day delay was legal.
The department argued that an advance copy of the test data – including student-by-student results – is sent to local school districts so superintendents can notify the department of any anomalies that might indicate errors. The department’s chief performance officer testified that the participation of superintendents is an important part of the department’s verification process.
“In essence,” wrote Attorney Kathleen K. Ross, the hearing officer, “the [department officials] argued that the record containing the aggregate district-wide test results was a ‘preliminary draft’ at the time it was requested because such results had not been verified by the superintendents and the department.”
But Ross wasn’t buying it.
“The Commission does not credit the testimony of the [chief performance officer] regarding the superintendents’ role in verifying the test scores, in light of the conflicting evidence that the aggregate district-wide test results were sent to the superintendents ‘as a courtesy’,” Ross wrote in a proposed decision released last week. Moreover, she said, there was no evidence that the department had asked superintendents to verify the data and report any problems, and no evidence that any superintendents had in fact provided feedback on the results.
Beyond that challenge to the department’s testimony, Ross wrote that the data did not meet the legal definition of a preliminary draft, and that the department violated the Freedom of Information Act when it delayed releasing the data to Savino.
After Ross’s proposed decision was released, an education department spokeswoman told the Journal Inquirer: “We are strong proponents of transparency, but we are also bound by our duty to ensure the information we present to the public is accurate.”
If the full Freedom of Information Commission adopts Ross’s findings at its Feb. 24 meeting, the department will know which of those two interests is paramount.
The state Department of Education took extraordinary measures last week to prevent even the slightest risk that you might find out how qualified your kid’s teacher is.
If that sounds ridiculous, it’s not entirely the department’s fault. A three-decade-old state law exempts from disclosure all records of teacher performance and evaluation (because why would taxpayers care about the quality of the teachers they employ?). So when the state submitted aggregate school-by-school data on teacher ratings as part of a court case last week, they suppressed more than half the data points to make sure there was no possible way anyone could link a particular rating to a particular teacher.
The data show the number of teachers who fell into each of four categories in a new and controversial assessment of the state’s teaching force. The department did release statewide figures, showing that about a third of teachers were rated as “exemplary” by their school districts, a little under two-thirds were deemed “proficient,” and fewer than 2 percent were labeled “developing” or “below standard.”
But when reporting the data at the school level, the state withheld at least some of that information for nearly 7 out of 10 schools. For just under half the state’s schools, all of the numbers were suppressed. And all in service of making sure no one outside of the school system knows which teachers are extraordinary and which are struggling.
The department used an exceptionally strict suppression strategy, hiding the numbers if a particular category had been assigned to between one and five teachers at a school. The thinking apparently was that if four teachers at a school were rated exemplary, and they all knew each other’s rating, then they would know that no other teacher at the school had received that rating. To keep that category’s number secret, they also blacked out the number for the next-highest category. And by the time they were done, most of the numbers had been suppressed.
There are, for example, 66 teachers statewide rated “below standard.” But what schools they’re assigned to is a mystery; not one of the schools with a below-standard teacher is identified in the data.
There is plenty of reason to question the validity of the rankings, as reported by my colleague, Kathy Megan. But this is the teacher-performance scheme the state has imposed on its teachers, and taken $13.5 million from its taxpayers to implement. Does the public have no interest in seeing what the ratings revealed?
As The Scoop has written before, the secrecy surrounding teacher performance dates to 1984, when the legislature was hoodwinked into shutting off access to evaluations of public school teachers, purportedly to thwart teacher-shopping by parents. The law, however, applied to every certified school official below the superintendent, and before long, was extended to professors throughout UConn and the state university system as well.
While the statute was initially seen as a way to keep written performance reviews secret, educational leaders are afraid that releasing even anonymous data will put them on the wrong side of the law. That’s what’s behind a Freedom of Information Commission case in which a New Milford Board of Education member was turned down when he asked for the breakdown of teacher ratings for his district. The local board of ed is wary of releasing the data without direction from the FOI Commission. The teachers union, meanwhile, has intervened to try to keep the numbers from seeing the light of day.
While the Commission’s eventual ruling may resolve the issue for other school boards, the New Milford numbers came out in the court exhibit submitted by the state. Here’s what the union was trying to keep secret: Of the 346 New Milford teachers evaluated under the new system, 72 percent were deemed proficient and 28 percent were deemed exemplary. Not a single one was rated developing or below standard.
Does that sound like the sort of information that should be kept out of the hands of the public by the force of law?
A year ago, The Scoop published “A Transparency’s Advocate’s Legislative Wish List,” with eight suggestions for improving the public’s access to government records. In the 2015 session, legislators resolved one of the issues, fixing a confusing statute covering what arrest information police agencies must release. The other seven options are still on the table, including addressing that 1984 law that exempts teachers from the same level of accountability to which every other public employee is held. This year’s short session will be dominated by the budget. But there’s no reason our lawmakers can’t multitask.
So, legislators: Anyone care to step up in favor of government transparency?
Last week, we wrote about an analysis of the newly released standardized test scores that offered some evidence of a widening gap in the Hartford area between historically high-performing school districts and those that have traditionally had below-average scores.
We’ve now expanded that analysis to all school districts in the state, and have found the same general trend: For most subject and grade groupings, school districts that exceeded the statewide average on a key measure of achievement in 2013, reported scores on the 2015 test that were even farther above the state average. Likewise, schools with below-average performance generally lost ground, falling farther below the statewide average.
In elementary school math, for example, among the 20 highest-performing districts two years ago, 18 had scores this year that were farther above the state average. Among the 20 lowest-performing districts two years ago, 16 dropped farther below the average.
Put another way, the above-average districts in 2013 outperformed the state by an average of 16 percent, while the below-average districts lagged the statewide figures by an average of 11 percent. But in 2015, the higher performing schools had widened their margin to 29 percent above the state average, while the lower-performing schools had dropped to 25 percent below the state average.
That’s what the numbers show. Divining what the numbers mean is a far harder task. Continue reading
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 test, 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.
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 repeatedly 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.”
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
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 analogy 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
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 of 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.”