Sunday, November 11, 2007

HB 259: Hiding a devil in the details of revoking teacher liscenses

This bill, sponsored by Representative Joseph Miro (R-Pike Creek), is currently in the Hosue Education Committee. Hopefully it will not leave until someone excises certain pieces of arbitrary authority that the Department of Education has been attempting to slip into law for the past decade.

This bill would provide the Secretary of Education with “the discretionary authority” to deny or revoke teaching licenses under certain conditions. The conditions listed in the bill’s synopsis include those of teachers or applicants convicted of violent felonies and the like—something nobody would seriously argue.

Not listed in the bill’s synopsis, and carefully buried, however, is a provision that both strengthens DOE’s authority with regard to teachers and the dreaded DSTP, and significantly weakens the civil protections of our public school teachers and administrators from arbitrary suspension.

Meet the devil in the details:

Currently, Paragraph 174 (“Civil Sanctions for Violations”) of Subchapter IV (“Student Testing Program Security and Violations”) of Chapter One, Title XIV, Delaware State Code, provides the following penalty for teachers and administrators who compromise the “security” of the DSTP:

An individual other than a student who knowingly violates any of the provisions of this subchapter shall be subject to the following:
(1) Such personnel sanctions as might otherwise be imposed by the individual's employer for an act of misconduct;
(2) A hearing conducted by the Professional Standards Board to determine revocation of any license issued to such individual pursuant to the provisions of Chapter 12 of this title; and
(3) Payment of any costs incurred by the State or Department as a result of the violation. (73 Del. Laws, c. 81, § 1.)

HB 259 subtly changes this provision, providing directly to the Secretary of Education the following:

The Secretary may suspend, revoke or limit a license that has been issued to any person pursuant to this Chapter, for the following causes:

… Knowingly violating any of the provisions of the Student Testing Program set forth in § 172 of this Title….

The new construction allows the individual whose license has been suspended to request a hearing before the Professional Standards Board within 30 days, as noted below:

The Secretary shall not take action against a person under subsections (a) or (b) of this Section without providing the person with written notice of the charges and with an opportunity for a full and fair hearing before the Standards Board. Notice shall be sent to the person’s last known address. The license holder shall have 30 calendar days from the date the notice of the charges was mailed to make a written request for a hearing. Unless otherwise provided for in this Section, the burden of proof in a license disciplinary action shall be on the agency taking official action to establish by preponderance of the evidence that the license holder has engaged in misconduct as defined by subsections (a) and (b) or otherwise has failed to comply with the applicable laws and regulations relating to the retention of the license. If no written request for a hearing is received by the Standards Board, the license holder’s license shall be deemed to be revoked, suspended or limited and the holder shall be so notified.

But here’s the rub: in the formulation on the books, teachers are absolutely entitled to a hearing by the Professional Standards Board, which is the only entity that may choose, after the results of such a hearing, to suspend their licenses.

In the new version, the Secretary of Education has the unilaterally power to suspend or revoke a license and the teacher must appeal to the Professional Standards Board to reverse that decision.

Under current law, a public school teacher is entitled to a hearing before his/her license can be suspended.

Under HB 259, a teacher only gets a hearing (if he/she asks for one) after the license has been suspended.

This grants a broad, new arbitrary power to the Secretary of Education, and at the same time substantially weakens the due process rights of our teachers.

What kind of law allows for you to have your hearing after you’ve been sentenced?

While we’re at it, we should discuss just what’s at issue with DSTP “security.”

The current law speaks of undermining the tests by giving students assistance, revealing test materials, interfering with correct reporting, etc.. etc. Why is this such a big deal?

You might be tempted to believe (and DOE would encourage this belief) that this is necessary to protect the reliability and validity of the testing program.

And, in part, that’s true.

However, the dirty little secret about the DSTP is that portions of it are so seriously flawed as to be next to useless.

The original content standards in Math, English/Language Arts, Science, and Social Studies were developed by curriculum frameworks commissions between 1992-1995, and have been only moderately revised since. These standards, according to the charge given by then-Governor Mike Castle and then-State Superintendent “Pat” Forgione, were to be standards primarily assessable by what is called “performance assessment.”

Performance assessment (or “authentic assessment” as it was sometimes known) is a testing methodology that requires students not to take a traditional test, but to demonstrate subject mastery in some sort of practical manner. Don’t just use a pencil and paper to prove you understand three-dimensional geometry: build a scale-model house. That sort of thing.

Problem: performance assessment is prohibitively expensive. So the General Assembly, then-Governor Tom Carper, and several different state education heads copped out. They didn’t change the standards, they simply ordered a much more traditional pen-and-paper test to be developed at a much lower cost.

So the first thing you need to know is that the standards and the DSTP don’t match up all that well in certain places.

Take a concrete example: the History portion of the Social Studies DSTP. The History standards were written around three skills (chronology, analysis, and interpretation) and mastery of specific historical content. (In case you’re wondering how I know this, I co-chaired the commission that wrote them.)

Unfortunately, when the test development began, DOE imported an “expert” who was not a historian, and who believed that only “skills”—and not mere “facts”—were worth testing. Thus Delaware ended up with a History portion of the Social Studies test that evaluates students’ ability to work with chronology, analysis, and interpretation, BUT NOT their knowledge of any historical content (i.e. George Washington, Fort Sumter, or the Voting Rights Act).

In essence, DOE created a history-free history test, which we still use.

Worse, the earliest versions of this test were written without the input of, or correction by, any real historians, and thus contained massive errors, as well as multiple choice questions with more than one possible answer and questions based on content not even taught at the grade level being tested.

(Exercise for the student: visit the DOE website and look at the “sample” history questions and see if you can find what’s wrong with them. Hint: study the graph on women in the work force really carefully, and when you’re looking at student responses, be sure to check on the internet for when the modern feminist movement really began.)

Teachers and administrators complained about some of these horrible gaffes. Guess what? DOE had many of them investigated and even went after their licenses. Without the protection that only the Professional Standards Board can revoke a teacher’s credentials for criticizing a flawed test (which, strictly speaking, violated “test security”), DOE would have happily destroyed the careers of some of the states’ best educators.

Should there be penalties for teachers who help students cheat on these tests? Certainly.

Should an arbitrary power of suspension meant for serious criminal violations be handed to the Secretary of Education that can be used equally to squelch legitimate criticism of the testing process?

You make the call.

DOE has been asking for this power since as early 1997 (the first time I ever saw it in a draft legislative proposal). No session of the General Assembly has seen fit to hand it over yet, and there’s no compelling reason to do so now.

Protect your child’s teachers from the arbitrary suspension or revocation of their licenses without benefit of a pre-suspension hearing: tell your representative to demand that this section of HB 259 be junked or rewritten.

Coercion is not good public policy.

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