Why Exactly Do We Keep Teacher Ratings Top Secret?

by Categorized: Data, Education, Government, Transparency/FOI Date:

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 teacherof 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?

Secret Severance Deal For Public Officials? Not In My State.

by Categorized: Government, Politics, Transparency/FOI Date:

Elected officials in Newington were so eager to be rid of former Town Manager John Salomone that they offered him tens of thousands of dollars of other people’s money to get him to leave.

But they also didn’t want everyone in town to know the details of the whole messy affair, so they did JohnSalomonewhat politicians too often do: They added a confidentiality clause to the severance deal, and then said they were barred from releasing a copy of the signed agreement.

There are two things wrong with this approach. One, it’s generally bad public policy to keep people in the dark when you’re spending their money. And two, in Connecticut anyway, it’s illegal.

Or more particularly: Politicians in Connecticut can draft confidentiality clauses all they want; they just can’t keep them confidential.

That’s been the law of the land here for nearly a decade, but it’s a statute public officials sometimes have trouble remembering. So as a public service, The Scoop offers the following refresher: Connecticut General Statutes 1-214a – appropriately titled “Disclosure of public agency termination, suspension or separation agreement containing confidentiality provision” – specifically mandates just that: the disclosure of public employee separation agreements, notwithstanding a confidentiality clause. Under the law, any termination agreement between a public agency and and an employee “that contains a confidentiality provision that prohibits or restricts such public agency from disclosing the existence of the agreement or the cause or causes for such termination … shall be subject to public disclosure.”

So when the Courant’s Christopher Hoffman asked for a copy of the severance agreement earlier this month after the Newington Town Council approved it 8-0, he should have promptly received a copy. Instead, according to Hoffman’s story, Mayor Roy Zartarian “said that the town had negotiated a severance package with Salomone but declined to reveal its contents, saying both parties had agreed to keep it confidential.”

That’s not what the statutes allow. And to Zartarian’s partial credit, when advised of his obligations under the law, he did ultimately provide a copy of the agreement, while continuing – as he is at least legally entitled to do – to refuse to talk about the town’s actions.

So town residents are still partly in the dark about why their public servants doled out tens of thousands of dollars to the outgoing Town Manager, but at least they now know that’s where their money went. And through Hoffman’s diligence, they now know the extraordinary effort all parties took to assure that the whole messy affair would stay as much in the shadows as possible.

The signed deal, for example, assures that Salomone won’t share any thoughts he might have about whether the public is being ill-served by the town. The agreement bars Salomone from disparaging or criticizing the town and specifically prohibits him from saying anything to the press about his departure “other that what is agreed to by the town.”

Likewise, town officials agreed not to speak openly and honestly with anyone about their opinion of Salomone’s professional abilities or personality, and further barred every Newington town employee from saying anything negative or critical to a potential future employer of Salomone’s. That means, presumably, that no one had anything bad to say about Salomone to representatives of the city of Norwich, which just hired Salomone as their new city manager.

Under the separation deal, Newington officials agreed to give Salomone seven months’ pay while he isn’t working for the town. That’s a month longer than he’s entitled to under a provision in his contract that gives him six month’s salary if the town votes to terminate him. City officials won’t say why they gave him the extra month’s pay – about $12,000 of taxpayer’s money.

“This is a personnel matter and as such, I can make no statement on the issue,” Zartarian told the Courant. In fact, there is nothing in Connecticut law that bars public officials from making statements on personnel matters, and the only thing forcing Zartarian to keep mum is the agreement he chose to sign.

Download (PDF, 298KB)

For CT FOI’s Birthday: A (Mostly) Good-News Story

by Categorized: Government, Law Enforcement, Legal Affairs, Transparency/FOI Date:

Connecticut’s Freedom of Information Act turns 40 years old today, and in honor of that milestone, let’s write about a transparency success story – the tale of an agency that received a request for public documents and actually produced the records with no delays, no phony FOI_Grassoroadblocks, and even no cost.

This is not a fictionalized fantasy; it really happened, and it involved the City of Hartford Corporation Counsel, which, under prior regimes, was not always so agreeable when it came to giving, to the public, records that belong to the public.

First, some background: On Nov. 14, 2012 a Hartford man named Lamonte Brown was walking with his dog Boomer on South Marshall Street when police officers investigating a noise complaint confronted him and, he says, beat him, shot him with Tasers, and impounded his dog, which was later euthanized.

Those events led to a lawsuit against the officers in federal court and then, in August, to a formal settlement – with Brown agreeing to drop the suit and city officials agreeing to write Brown a check for $7,500. The settlement was later reported by the Associated Press, in a story that included this curious line: “Brown’s lawyer, John Q. Gale, said he couldn’t discuss the case because of a confidentiality agreement.”

Such confidentiality agreements are common in lawsuit settlements. They are also controversial, with a continuing debate over whether the potential benefit of that secrecy (the ability to settle more cases without the fear of inviting more litigation) outweighs the potential harm (keeping the public in the dark about, say, especially dangerous doctors or dangerous products or serial rapists).

But when it comes to public agencies – at least in Connecticut – that debate is mostly muted. Our Freedom of Information Commission – an independent agency that is the jewel of the law turning 40 today – has consistently held that when government officials settle lawsuits, they can’t keep taxpayers in the dark about the terms of the settlement – unless there are special circumstances that compel a a judge to take the extraordinary step of ordering the settlement sealed.

Which brings us back to Lamonte Brown’s case. Continue reading

Racial Profiling Report Just Another “Race Baited Article by the Liberal Courant”?

by Categorized: Data, Law Enforcement, Race/Ethnicity Date:

For all the data analysis conducted by The Courant, no other topic comes close to generating the reader reaction we receive when looking at apparent racial disparities in policing.

That was evident once again this week with the release of fresh police-stop data showing – as previous releases have – that statewide, black and Hispanic motorists are stopped and ticketed at higher rates than white drivers.

That led to a flurry of comments on The Courant’s website – more than 100 at last count – most of which took exception to any implication that police officers might be treating minority drivers more harshly. Some were simply self-disproving diatribes – posts that used overtly racist slurs in arguing that racism was non-existent. But others took aim at the statistical methodology applied, some raising legitimate points, others misinterpreting or making incorrect assumptions about the analysis applied.

So, as we have in the past, here’s a primer on the data collected by the Connecticut Racial Profiling Prohibition Project and on the Courant’s analysis of post-stop behavior, along with responses to the most frequent issues that are raised whenever we dig into this data. Continue reading

Bronin-Segarra Vote Shows City Divide

by Categorized: Data, Politics, Race/Ethnicity Date:

Hartford Mayor Pedro Segarra often insisted that race was not an issue in his unsuccessful battle with Luke Bronin for the Democratic mayoral nod. But balloting in Wednesday’s primary election suggests otherwise,with voting patterns highlighting the city’s division along racial and ethnic lines.

As the election map below illustrates, Bronin, represented by the green shading, Broninwas strong in precincts in the northern half of the city, while Segarra, represented by orange, did well in the south. The maps farther below, drawn from Census data, show that the city has a similar division racially and ethnically, with most black residents concentrated in the North End, and most Latinos in the South. (Click shaded areas in the election map for vote information and the Census maps for demographic details.)

While the final vote spread was 55 to 45 percent, voting in individual precincts was far more lopsided. Where the candidates won, they won big. Out of 24 precincts in the city, Bronin won seven with more than 70 percent of the vote. Segarra topped 60 percent in five precincts.

So  Bronin captured the nomination by winning  – and winning decisively – in predominantly black precincts, overcoming Segarra’s generally strong support in precincts with large numbers of Hispanics. Bronin also did well in the West End districts that are home to large concentrations of white residents.

On the campaign trail, Bronin frequently promised an administration that would work “for all of Hartford’s residents.” Wednesday’s vote could be an indication of how difficult it may be to unify all of the city’s constituencies.


Population concentrations in Hartford for Hispanics (above left), blacks (above right), and whites (below).

Statewide SBAC Scores Offer Evidence of Wide Achievement Gap

by Categorized: Data, Education, Race/Ethnicity, Uncategorized Date:

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 Printgroupings, 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

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

Yet Another Effort to Keep the Public in the Dark about the Public’s Business

by Categorized: Government, Law Enforcement, Legal Affairs, Transparency/FOI Date:

It is extraordinarily well-settled law in Connecticut that personnel records related to the official conduct of our civil servants are public records that must – with rare and well-delineated exceptions – be released to members of the public, who employ those civil servants.

And yet, decades after the state Supreme Court resolved any serious question about the obligation oftopsecret public agencies, the dockets of the Freedom of Information Commission are routinely clogged with cases in which one town or another is trying – through ignorance or willful law-breaking – to keep personnel files secret.

Usually, the arguments are worn and tired, but occasionally an agency will come up with a novel, if misplaced, justification for skirting the law. That’s the case with a complaint brought against the Ansonia Police Department, which refuses to release personnel records for one of its officer. Continue reading

Secrecy-Obsessed Bureaucrats Battle for Coveted “Golden Padlock Award”

by Categorized: First Amendment, Government, Law Enforcement, Legal Affairs, Media, Transparency/FOI, Uncategorized Date:

When the Boston Globe sought records related to crashes involving Massachusetts State Police cars, the agency said it would be happy to comply – for a fee of $62,200. The agency was also willing to release a log of public-records requests – for $42,750. And the Staties told a reporter for the Bay State Examiner that he would have to pay a $710.50 “non-refundable research fee” just to find out how much the agency would ultimately charge for copies of internal-affairs documents.golden_padlock

For “habitually going to extraordinary lengths to thwart public records requests, protect law enforcement officers and public officials who violate the law and block efforts to scrutinize how the department performs its duties,” the Massachusetts State Police was named one of four finalists for the Golden Padlock Award, a slightly tongue-in-cheek honor bestowed annually by the journalism organization Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE).

“It normally takes months or longer to respond to news media FOI requests. Requests for basic documents routinely produce refusals, large portions of blacked out documents or demands for tens of thousands of dollars in unjustified fees,” IRE gushed in announcing the department’s nomination. The news organization also quoted a 2013 story in the Worcester Telegram & Gazette that declared: “The Massachusetts State Police is a habitual offender – verging on a career criminal – when it comes to breaking a state law intended to ensure government is accountable to the people it serves.”

This is the third year IRE has led the hunt for “the most secretive government agency or individual in the United States.” Last year, the award was shared by the U.S. Navy FOI office, which not only stymied efforts by a reporter to obtain information on a shooting spree at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C., but also accidentally sent the reporter an internal memo outlining the plan to keep records secret; and the governors of Oklahoma and Missouri, who went to extraordinary lengths to keep the public in the dark about problems with prison executions.

Joining the Massachusetts State Police as finalists this year are the Colorado Judicial Branch, which keeps records of its spending and disciplinary actions under wraps; The Texas Department of Public Safety, which tried to block inquiries into the validity of its border-security program; and the U.S. Department of Defense, which has stonewalled efforts to learn more about the massacre of 16 civilians in Afghanistan by an Army staff sergeant.

“There is a unique brand of courage displayed by public officials who deny, delay and circumvent the public’s right to know with a straight-faced sense of duty,” said Robert Cribb, a Toronto Star reporter and chair of IRE’s Golden Padlock committee. “They carry forward a rich tradition of undermining open records laws with ingenuity, commitment and condescension deserving of our acknowledgement.”

The winner will be announced at IRE’s annual conference this weekend.

Charity Fraud Charges: Four Down, Hundreds to Go

by Categorized: Consumer Affairs, Ethics, Government, Law Enforcement, Non-profits Date:

The fraud case brought against four spectacularly inefficient cancer charities is welcome news to watchdogs who have studied the fleecing of generous donors by Donateunscrupulous nonprofits. But it is only the tip of the iceberg.

Americans donate hundreds of billions of dollars each year to more than 1.5  million tax-exempt organizations. The great majority are legitimate operations. But some – hundreds for sure – are little more than conduits that funnel money to professional fundraising firms while devoting pennies on the dollar to charitable purposes.

And there is often little the government can do about it. Continue reading