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Dorn & Duncan Threaten to Destroy the Careers of 185 Teachers Over a Clerical Error!

Ohanian Note: A teacher's future hangs by the thread of the way clerks fill out government forms and the inability of state functionaries to stand up to federal bullying.

by David Spring

UPDATE 10 PM August 3rd: It turns out it was only 181 teachers. I still say it's an outrage against our teachers and must be stopped!

On Saturday, August 1, 2015, KIRO News in Seattle Washington reported that the careers of about 200 highly qualified and highly experienced teachers in the Kent School District were being placed at risk due to a clerical error. Here is their report.

Keep in mind that teachers (and students and parents) in Washington state are already forced to deal with among the lowest school funding and highest class sizes in the nation. School funding is so low in Washington state that in September 2014, the Washington State Supreme Court held the State legislature in "Contempt" for failing to follow our State Constitution which calls funding schools the "Paramount Duty" of the State legislature.

Also because of this extremely low level of school funding, teacher Cost of Living Adjustments have been canceled by the legislature nearly every year since the 1990s. This is despite the fact that voters approved an Initiative requiring the legislature to at least give the teachers a cost of living adjustment and recently passed another Initiative to lower class sizes in our schools. So the legislature is ignoring the state constitution and the will of the voters and the direct order of our Supreme Court. And because of all of this, teachers today are making about 30% less in buying power than they made in the 1990s while they are responsible for teaching in much larger classes. So our teachers in Washington state are already being hammered.

Now, we learn that 185 to 200 of our dedicated but already hammered Washington state teachers are having their careers put at risk due to a clerical error. Tell me this is not true. So I looked into it. Sadly, it is true. In fact, I hope you will keep reading as this story sounds like it is straight out of Alice in Wonderland. We will let you figure out who is playing the part of the Mad Hatter.

To be fair, I contacted both the President of the Kent Education Association and the Superintendent of Public Instruction to get their views on what the problem was. How could the careers of hundreds of teachers be put at risk due to a clerical error? And what is being done to help them?

First here is the email I received from Christie Padilla, the President of the Kent Education Association (note that she is also a teacher in the Kent School District):

"You are correct that the Kent School District did not file the correct information with OSPI regarding the Highly Qualified status of some of our most experienced teachers. According to the district, somebody from OSPI helped with the district's own internal audit, and missed some key pieces of information as well. Once the errors were discovered, it is my understanding that district appealed to OSPI to reopen the window, and the appeal was denied. The district has filed several appeals, and each time they were denied. Apparently, OSPI has drawn a line in the sand with this issue. The unfortunate part is that the teachers are being punished through no fault of their own. They are devastated and demoralized."
So a couple hundred teachers are devastated and demoralized and having their careers put at risk due to a misunderstanding between the Kent School District and the State Superintendent's Office? In other words, these teachers did everything right and their career is still going to be put at risk? This just did not seem right.

Here is how, Chris Loftis, Director of Communications for the Kent School District explained the clerical error. He said the problem was the result of a clerical error made in 2012 by the Human Resources Department at the Kent School District headquarters.

"We had folks entering data into the OSPI (Office of Public Instruction) website regarding the status of our teachers, whether they were highly qualified in their content area. And for 181 of those teachers, it was incorrect. Our HR (human resources) department did an internal audit and found 181 mistakes were made in a batch of those in 2012⦠OSPI's initial response was there are some waivers you can get ...There are a couple of times during the year where you can say, 'We screwed this up. We need to fix this record,' and that had already passed. Our response is 'yeah, we know it has already passed but we didn't know there was a problem.' It is not like we missed the deadline. We didn't even know we had a problem to apply for a deadline in the first place⦠The district learned on July 24 that the teachers would need to take the exam."

That was when the Kent School District sent out the letters to the teachers.

So next I contacted the Superintendent's office and spoke with Nathan Olson, the Communications Manager for OSPI. According to Nathan, this whole problem of teachers being held responsible for a clerical error was due to a federal law called "No Child Left Behind" passed in 2002. One of the requirements of this law was that all teachers had to be "highly qualified" in order to teach. Up until 2006, all this really meant was that school districts needed to fill out a form called a HOUSSE form (more precisely called a High Objective Uniform State Standard Evaluation form) . This basically meant having a Bachelor's Degree and a Teachers Certificate and "demonstrating competency" in a manner determined by the State.

But then, in 2007, the federal government decided that merely filling out this HOUSSE form was not good enough. All new teachers, but not existing teachers, would have to take a test in order to be highly qualified. The test was written by a Multinational Corporation called Pearson and each of these tests cost teachers and or tax payers about $500. So test one million teachers and Pearson makes $500 million. There are about 50 questions and there are different tests for different subjects. Rumor has it that the federal law requiring the test was written by Pearson lobbyists. But whoever wrote it, Pearson is now making a boat load of money.

The ironic part of this new test requirement is that it was imposed on teachers at the same time that the federal government allowed fake teachers with only five weeks of training (so-called TFA teachers) to be classified as "highly qualified." Prior to this lowering of the bar, real teachers had five or more years of training. Rumor has it that the TFA section of the law was written by the lobbyists from TFA. TFA is also making a boat load of money ripping off the tax payers. Meanwhile, the average TFA recruit teachers less than one year before quiting.

Here in Washington state, TFA was not very popular. OSPI continued to use the HOUSSE forms and the existing teacher training programs until about 2010. Then the federal Department of Education under Arne Duncan decided to "crack the whip." Arne Duncan told Randy Dorn that no more HOUSSE forms would be allowed after August 31, 2014. This is when our state started testing new teachers with the Pearson test. School districts, including the Kent School District, were told that they were going to have to fall in line.

The good news is that existing teachers were still grandfathered in. They did not have to take the Teacher Test. But the school districts did have to fill out the correct form to allow them to be exempted or opted out of the federal teacher test. Sadly, August 31, 2014 rolled around and the Kent School District and others did not file the correct paperwork to confirm that these experienced teachers were exempt from the new federal teacher test. These school districts were then given two more extensions of time with the last extension ending on June 30 2015. According to the Kent School District, someone from OSPI audited their books and did not find this clerical error. The Kent School District thought they were in compliance and had followed all of the rules. They claimed this was why they missed the deadlines. Thus, they were not ignoring Randy Dorn or Arne Duncan. They simply misunderstood the rules.

But according to Nathan Olson, what happened was that the Kent School District committed a "coding error." The 185 teachers were coded as having taken and passed the Pearson Teacher Test -- when they should have been coded as being exempt from the test due to their high level of experience. In other words, had the school district filled out the paperwork correctly, the teachers would have been exempt from the Teacher Test. Keep in mind that these teachers are among the most experienced and qualified teachers in the Kent School District. Many of these highly qualified teachers have 15 to 20 years worth of successful teaching experience in Kent's extremely overcrowded classrooms.

Also please keep in mind that school districts in Washington state are required to turn in hundreds of forms to OSPI every single month. So this was not the only form that the school district had to fill out and turn in. It seems ridiculous that due to a misunderstanding about a single entry on a single form that 185 teachers are now having their careers put at risk.

But apparently, the No Child Left Behind Law is being interpreted to mean that these highly experienced teachers may be fired and somehow this severe disruption of an entire school district is going to benefit the kids living in Kent. Something is clearly wrong with this picture.

Nathan Olson admitted that he and Randy Dorn understood that the teachers had done nothing wrong. The view of Nathan and Randy is that the Kent School District made an error. The view of the Kent School District is that it was a misunderstanding and they thought that OSPI was OK with the manner in which they had filled out the paperwork. Both OSPI and the Kent School District seem to have a point. My point is that the teachers should not be held accountable for a dispute between OSPI and the Kent School District. Perhaps everyone at OSPI should be required to take the Test and anyone who flunks should lose their job? No, that is not right either.

So I asked Nathan, why not just have Randy Dorn give the school district one more extension of time and help them fill in the correct box on the form. Nathan said that Randy had certified to Arne Duncan in August 2014 that he would force the school districts to use the Teacher Tests (or fill out the paperwork correctly) and so "Randy Dorn's hands were tied." According to Nathan, despite the injustice of it all, the 185 teachers were all just going to have to take the test. Otherwise Washington state would not be in "compliance" with a federal regulation and Arne Duncan might inflicted some sort of punishment on the Kent School District.

I pointed out to Nathan that Washington state has a history of not complying with what Arne Duncan wants. In fact, several states have not complied with what Arne wants. Not a single state has been denied a single penny of federal funding simply because they failed to do what Arne Duncan wants. Arne did get mad at Washington state in 2014 and forced Randy Dorn to send a letter to every parent in our state telling them that every school in Washington state was a failure. But not many parents believed Arne -- in part because on recent national tests (called the NAEP test), Washington students came in SECOND IN THE NATION on the math test (right behind Massachusetts). So it is hard to convince parents in Washington that our schools are all failing.

In addition, I pointed out to Nathan that Arne's attempts to control education here in Washington state was almost certainly in violation of both the US and Washington State Constitutions. The Washington Constitution in particular clearly puts the management and control of all of our public schools in the hands of the Washington State Superintendent of Public Instruction. I also pointed out that Congress is currently re-writing the federal education laws to specifically prohibit Arne Duncan from denying schools funding simply for not complying with his rules. So wouldn't it be better to tell Arne to jump in a lake rather than disrupting the lives of hundreds of teachers and thousands of students in our state?

Nathan said it was not that simple. Apparently, Arne had just written a nasty letter to the State of New Jersey threatening to do something bad to them if they did not up their numbers on the required Common Core tests. Apparently, the Opt Out Movement was so strong in New Jersey that less than 95% of the students had taken the Common Core tests. According to Nathan, Randy Dorn did not want to push Arne too hard because here in Washington state, less than 90% of the students had taken the Common Core tests. So Arne Duncan is already mad at Washington state for several things we are not doing to his liking. Apparently Randy Dorn does not want to add any more fuel to the fire.

After my phone call with Nathan, I went to the Department of Education website to read the threatening letter Arne Duncan wrote to New Jersey about their punishment for having so many kids opting out of their high stakes tests. Ironically, there was no threatening letter. Instead, the latest letter from Arne Duncan to New Jersey, dated July 23, 2015, was a letter telling them what a great job they were doing and that Arne was going to grant them another 3 year waiver from No Child Left Behind regulations. You can read all of Arne's letters to New Jersey here.

So it appears that the "threat" either to New Jersey or to Washington state for the thousands of the parents opting their students out of Common Core testing is nothing but smoke and mirrors. Perhaps instead of worrying about Arne, Randy Dorn should be listening to the 63,000 parents in Washington state who opted their kids out of the SBAC tests.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am one of the leaders of the Opt Out movement here in Washington state. I have a website called Opt Out Washington.org where parents can download forms to opt their kids out of the SBAC test. The US Supreme Court has ruled that parents have a fundamental right to opt their kids out of any test that the parent believes is harmful to their child. So the fact that Washington State leads the nation in opting out of Common Core tests is in my opinion a good thing not a bad thing. The Common Core SBAC math test is clearly not a fair or accurate test because it failed 71% of our high school students this past year. These are the same students who came in second in the nation on the NAEP national math test. More than 80% passed the NAEP national math test. So the fact that only 29% of them passed the SBAC math test simply means that the SBAC math test is absurd.

But regardless of how you feel about high stakes tests, I hope you will agree that it is way past time for Randy Dorn to stand up to Arne Duncan and protect the teachers and students of the Kent School District from this terrible situation. Instead of caving to whatever Arne Duncan wants, Randy Dorn should be taking Arne Duncan to court for overstepping and violating both the US and Washington State Constitution. And if Randy Dorn will not honor and uphold the Washington State Constitution, then the teachers themselves should take both Randy Dorn and Arne Duncan to Court.

No 50 question test should ever be used to destroy the career of a teacher who has been teaching for 20 years. No 50 question test is even capable of separating highly effective teachers from those who think that learning is simply about getting the right answers on silly bubble questions. These teachers have already passed the real test -- which is working with students in over-crowded classrooms year after year for the past 20 years. As a parent, that is the test I value most. It is time we all started respecting our teachers. It is time we all stood up to Arne Duncan. It is time we insisted on fair pay and lower class sizes. It is time we fully funded our public schools. As Bernie Sanders says, "Enough is enough."

If you want to help the Kent teachers, I hope you will email Randy Dorn and let him know that the Kent School District should be given one more chance and Arne Duncan should be told to mind his own business. As always, feel free to email me with your questions and comments.

David Spring
Coalition to Protect our Public Schools

UPDATE: Randy Dorn announced that he will be asking Arne Duncan for a one year waiver for these teachers (whatever that means). So now we need to share this article with teachers around the nation and ask them to put pressure on Arne Duncan to do the right thing and respect these 181 teachers!

— David Spring
Coalition to Protecct Our Public Schools





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