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Live blog of School Board meeting at noon: teacher evals and student attendance

Join me for a live blog of today's special School Board meeting at noon.

The board is expected to pass a resolution calling on the Buffalo Teachers Federation to drop its support for a student attendance clause in the teacher evaluation agreement with the district.

- Mary Pasciak

Finally, the state takes a position -- and so does Dixon

For weeks, one of the elephants in the room with teacher evaluations has been the issue of whether students with excessive absences should be counted.

The undercurrent from Albany had been that State Ed wanted all students -- regardless of attendance -- to count toward the local 20 percent measure of a teacher's evaluation. But pinning State Ed down on the issue was close to impossible.

That changed at the end of last week, when SED finally made clear that it would not approve a plan unless all students were counted in it.

That, in turn, led Interim Superintendent Amber Dixon to take a public position on the matter -- after declining for weeks to talk publicly about any aspect of the teacher evaluations.

Dixon sent an open letter this weekend to district staff, state legislators, school board members, and others.

It's still not clear what she thinks of the student attendance provision, as a matter of principle. But it is crystal clear that as a pragmatic issue, the provision needs to be eliminated so that the district can get its federal grant funding restored.

Here is the full text of her letter (the portion in bold was in bold in her original letter):

This is a volatile time for public education across the nation. The Race to the Top initiative, the core of the Federal education plan, reflects a new direction in expectations of student preparation and teacher/principal evaluation. The debate over this new direction, both locally and on the national level, is at times enlightening and at times contentious. The result we hope for from this debate is a strengthening of the U.S. public education system, so vital to our children's future and the future of this country.

Here in Buffalo, teacher and principal evaluations are the most current topic of concern. Funds directed to our lowest performing schools have been held up since January pending a submission of a revised agreement with our unions on evaluation of teachers and principals. During the eight weeks this occurred Governor Cuomo has stepped in directing changes to the evaluation system that will reflect student achievement data in determining principal/teacher quality.

Buffalo has worked with the NYS Education Department to renegotiate our original agreement with the unions to meet State expectations of rigor and accuracy, while respecting concerns on behalf of teachers for fairness and equity. The latest clarification we have received from the State is that a document which includes student attendance as a provision in the teacher evaluation process lacks sufficient rigor to adequately reflect classroom efficacy and will not receive NYSED approval. The last agreed upon Memorandum of Understanding between the Buffalo Public Schools and the Buffalo Teachers Federation had such a provision. It must be removed before the document is finally submitted for approval to the New York State Education Department if we expect approval and the restoration of School Improvement Grant funds. The Buffalo Public Schools will not agree to a final submission of a document with student attendance included, having been advised that such an agreement will be rejected.

That said, the District realizes the significant problem of low student attendance and has embarked on an aggressive plan to decrease chronic attendance. Initiatives in place include increased numbers of attendance teachers in our schools and working collaboratively with local and national partners on our attendance improvement pilot. Early data indicates we are moving in the right direction. Increasing student attendance is a problem to be solved, not an issue for negotiations.

Every day almost 40,000 Buffalo children attend our public schools. Every minute in school is a minute critical in building their futures. This is time that can't be wasted. Our children deserve an education that reflects our belief in their future. In a time of diminished resources and rising costs, we need to be focused clearly on the needs of our children. The students in our Persistently Low Achieving (PLA) schools, those schools where the School Improvement Grant funds are directed, are particularly affected by the loss, even temporarily of these funds. The SIG funds are used for staff to reduce class size, provide after school programs, and otherwise support the schools in their focused efforts on raising student achievement. Without restoration of SIG funds, there will be layoffs of personnel in these schools, and programs will end. Failure to reach agreement on this evaluation process will also put in jeopardy the funds which may have flowed to the 7 new PLA schools for which plans were submitted in December. As a community we cannot allow this to occur.

The children of this district must always be the primary concern of the adults in this city. We may disagree over whether a teacher and principal evaluation system should or should not be able to exclude some student scores, but we must not allow this disagreement to adversely impact our children. This is not the forum in which to engage in debate over education policy issues. This is instead the time to accept the language of rigor, as directed by the State, and to trust one another that we will resolve remaining challenges in time to come.

Our children do not have the luxury of waiting for court cases to be resolved. They need the resources that this lack of agreement is putting at risk. They need an agreement between the District and the Buffalo Teachers Federation that stands the State's test of rigor, leads to a strengthening of our schools, and allows the much needed Federal and State resources to keep flowing. They need us now.

- Mary Pasciak

Wondering where your student placement letter is?

At the end of November, a bunch of parents in the district made a fuss when the deadline came and went for applying for a seat in the Buffalo Public Schools for 2012-13 -- and many people of them weren't even aware that the deadline existed until it was too late.

Many parents complained that the district hadn't done a very good job of getting the word out -- a perennial complaint -- and initially won some sympathy from board members who were inclined to extend the deadline by a couple of weeks.

But then Jackie Ross Brown, the director of student placement, told them that if they extended the deadline, her office would end up delayed in sending out placement letters to families.

Student placement letters this year would go out around Feb. 15, she told them. That was to be about two months earlier than most years.

Most years, the BPS letters went out so late that many parents had already put down deposits at private schools -- so parents who might have wanted to enroll their kids in public schools decided not to, because the system was too slow to make its decisions.

Ross Brown hoped that this year, the BPS letters would go out early enough so parents would get the letters before the private schools' deadlines for submitting a deposit to hold a spot.

"We continually run into some difficulties with private and parochial schools," she said.

Well, it's a couple weeks past mid-February, and I've been hearing from plenty of parents who are wondering why they still haven't received a placement letter from the district -- and want to know when they'll actually find something in their mailbox.

The short answer is: If you haven't heard already, you should get a letter by mid-March, according to district spokeswoman Elena Cala.

As with so many things in the district, the student placement process is quite complicated.

When you get your letter depends on what grade your child is going into, first of all.

Two rounds of placement letters have already gone out to students who will be in high school in 2012-13. The first round -- that of students who were accepted to their first choice -- went out the week of Feb. 9, Cala told me.

The second round -- for high school students getting their second choice -- went out this week, she said.

The third round of high school placement letters will be going out in the next two weeks, according to Cala.

And placement letters for elementary school will be sent out in mid-March.

(One parent pointed out to me that the BPS website finally has some admissions information readily accessible on it -- a welcome development. But, as this parent told me, "it's all about a one-way flow of information -- when I need to get which information to them -- when the tests are, when the application has to be in." Nowhere on the website does the district indicate when the information -- student placement letters -- will flow in the opposite direction, back to parents.)

- Mary Pasciak

Additional forum set for superintendent search

A third forum has been added to gather community input on the superintendent search.

A district spokeswoman sent out a release this morning announcing that Cascade Consulting has added a forum at 6 p.m. Tuesday at Bennett High School, 2885 Main St.

That's in addition to the two forums scheduled for 6 p.m. tonight -- one at Waterfront Elementary, 95 Fourth St., and one at Hamlin Park School 74, 126 Donaldson Road.

Pretty much as soon as tonight's forums were announced, complaints arose about the lack of advance notice about the forums; lack of access to one of the sites via public transportation; and limited number of sessions, among other things.

- Mary Pasciak

Cuomo, King mute on critical issue for teacher evals

Two weeks ago, the governor, the state education commissioner, and the president of the statewide teachers union were thrilled to get up in front of the cameras and announce that they had struck a deal on teacher evaluations in New York State.

Everyone hailed Gov. Andrew Cuomo's leadership on the issue -- he had, just weeks earlier, after all, declared public education the most important of issues to the future of the state and proclaimed himself "the students' lobbyist."

And that was not long after the governor announced he was making schools' state aid increases in 2012-13 contingent on them implementing teacher evaluations that incorporate student performance -- leading some experts to say Cuomo had taken the boldest moves among governors to advance the federal government's education reform agenda.

Cuomo speechWell, it seems that education didn't manage to hold the governor's attention for too long.

A critical issue on those teacher evaluations is bubbling up here in Buffalo, with clear implications for the rest of the state, and Cuomo refuses to take a position on it -- a spokesman, in fact, said the governor is planning to wait a few months before he thinks it through.

Likewise, state Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. -- said by many to be exerting pressure behind the scenes on this particular issue -- will not take a position on it publicly.

What's it all about?

At the heart of the issue is a debate over whether teachers should be held accountable for the performance of all the students in their class, or just the students who show up consistently.

Buffalo is still waiting to find out whether the state will approve its 2011-12 teacher evaluation plan for six low-performing schools.

One of the key issues here is a provision in Buffalo's plan that says the performance students who miss 20 percent of the school year or more would not count toward a teacher's evaluation. For four of the six affected schools under the proposed plan (South Park, Bennett, Riverside and Burgard high schools), more than 40 percent of students missed that much school in a recent year.

Rumore2BTF President Phil Rumore says that's only fair -- if students don't show up, teachers can't be held accountable for how well those students do. Teachers can't control student attendance, Rumore says.

And I've heard plenty of teachers from low-performing high schools say that while their Regents exam passing rate looks awful on paper -- in many cases, well below 50 percent -- if you look just at the kids who showed up consistently, their passing rate is actually pretty good.

Education reformers say that it is the school's -- and the teacher's -- responsibility to make sure kids are in school. If classes are engaging and schools are welcoming, they say, students will come.

Not including students with poor attendance in a teacher's evaluation lets teachers off the hook, they say. And, in a worst case scenario, they say, it could create an incentive for teachers to not try so hard to encourage struggling students to come to school.

What both sides can agree on, though, is that the decision on whether to exclude students with excessive absences is critical.

Will a teacher at Burgard, for instance, be evaluated based on the performance of all 28 students in class -- or only the 14 who show up regularly? The answer to that question will likely have a significant impact on the outcome.

John KingSo far, King has approved teacher evaluation plans for only five districts. (A total of 10 were required to submit them this school year, because they are receiving federal school improvement grants.) None of those five teacher evaluation plans included a provision excluding students with excessive absences.

Rochester, in fact, had initially included such a provision in its plan -- which the state rejected. In the final plan, which the state approved last week, there was no exception for student absences. Many have interpreted that as a strong signal that the state will not sign off on such an exception -- although it's hard to know for sure, seeing as King has not clarified where he stands on this issue.

Whether or not the state approves Buffalo's plan, which includes such an exception for absences, is a big deal -- and not just for Buffalo. It's a big deal for every district in the state.

If the state does approve Buffalo's plan -- as district administrators and Rumore keep insisting they will -- that opens up the doors for the other 700 districts to follow suit if they choose to. It would be a clear indication that the state is, in fact, willing to approve plans with such exceptions.

If the state refuses to approve Buffalo's plan, it will continue to fuel speculation that the state will not sign off on an attendance exception -- and it will signal to other districts that they should stay away from such a thing.

Local districts complain that either way, the problem is that they're left to read the tea leaves.

Buffalo district officials have long complained that the state has failed to provide clear directives on what is or is not acceptable on the evaluation plan -- a complaint the state has consistently rejected.

When I asked a state Education Department spokesman directly whether the state would approve a teacher evaluation plan that excludes students with excessive absences, I was told that the state reviews each plan individually.

After asking the question once or twice more, here's the answer I got from Jonathan Burman: "We look at each application individually. There isn't a general prohibition or acceptance. Each plan has to be reviewed individually."

How's that for clarity?

The state law on teacher evaluations, which went on the books in 2010, says nothing about this issue. Likewise, the teacher evaluation bill proposed in February by Cuomo -- which would take effect in 2012-13 -- also says nothing about whether schools may or may not exclude chronically absent students.

I talked to Matt Wing, a spokesman for the governor.

Wing told me to talk to the state Education Department instead. "This is really more their issue," he told me.

I reminded him that it was the governor who just submitted a teacher evaluation bill on this very issue.

Well, Wing told me he would get back to me with an answer by the end of the day.

After several hours, here's the entirety of the response I got: “When districts submit their individual plans for implementing our new national model for teacher evaluations, we will evaluate specific issues.”

In other words, the governor hasn't decided what he thinks about this critical issue. Buffalo and nine other districts already had to submit evaluation plans to the state -- in December -- for their low-performing schools.

And every district in the state -- under Cuomo's bill -- is supposed to submit a teacher evaluation plan to King for approval by July 1.

But the governor, according to Wing, plans to wait until after those 700 plans are submitted to decide where he stands on this issue.

- Mary Pasciak

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About School Zone

Denise Jewell Gee

Denise Jewell Gee

Denise Jewell Gee joined The Buffalo News in 2007 and currently covers education and suburban schools. She also writes a column for the City & Region section and previously covered government in Erie County and Niagara Falls. Gee graduated from Boston University with degrees in journalism and political science.

@denisejewellgee |

Tiffany Lankes

Tiffany Lankes

Tiffany Lankes joined The Buffalo News in 2013 and primarily covers the Buffalo Public Schools. She has written about education since 2003 at newspapers in Florida and New York. In 2008, she was a nominated finalist for The Pulitzer Prize. Lankes is an Amherst native and graduate of Sacred Heart Academy and Syracuse University. She started her journalism career writing for the News’ NeXt section.

@TiffanyLankes |

Sandra Tan

Sandra Tan

Sandra Tan has been a cityside reporter for The Buffalo News since 2000 and currently covers the Buffalo Public Schools beat. She previously covered the Williamsville school district and was a full-time education reporter for five years prior to joining The News. She graduated from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.

@BNschoolzone |

Deidre Williams

Deidre Williams

Deidre Williams began working for The Buffalo News in 1999 and currently covers Buffalo Public Schools. She formerly was a suburban reporter on the Northtowns beat and has been a cityside reporter covering communities since 2004. Williams has a mass communications degree from Towson University.

@DeidreWilliamsB |