Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Letter To The New York State Education Department

Following the last School Board meeting of the year, with no word on how the board is planning on moving forward with the allegations of "testing irregularities" and two of our teachers left in limbo for the remainder of the summer with little hope of being able to return in September, some parents decided to write to the Commissioner of the New York State Education Department. Since the board is unlikely to make any changes or announcements until after the new school year starts, we're hoping that the state will investigate and set things right. (Please sign the petition.)

Here's the letter I wrote:

Dr. John B. King, Jr.
Commissioner of Education
New York State Education Department
89 Washington Avenue
Albany, NY 12234

Dear Commissioner King,

I'm writing to you to bring to your attention an incident that occurred in the final weeks of the 2012/13 school year at Osborn Elementary School in Rye, NY.

On Friday, May 24, 2013 our school district was informed that two of our school’s teachers had been placed on administrative reassignment due to an allegation of possible testing irregularities made by a parent.

One of these teachers was my son’s fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Carin Mehler. I am deeply troubled by the way this situation has been handled. Please note the following:

• The allegations against the two teachers at Rye both came from one parent with a child in each of the two teacher's classes. This parent wanted special services for her children and was concerned that state exam results could impact her ability to get the services she wanted so she brought her concerns to Principal Garcia.

• While the school has a mandatory requirement to report and investigate any allegations of impropriety, they do not have a mandatory requirement to remove teachers from the classrooms based on these allegations. Yet these teachers were not only removed during the investigation, but they were kept on administrative reassignment for the remainder of the school year despite parent’s concerns and pleas.

• Principal Garcia led Superintendent Alvarez to believe that the classes were provided with a substitute as soon as their teachers were reassigned and that the classes were able to immediately resume their academic curriculum. However, Mrs. Mehler's 4th grade class had a total of six substitutes and it was weeks before any normal academic curriculum was returned to the classroom. Superintendent Alvarez denies this, but he only includes actual substitutes and not teachers and aids acting in a substitute capacity. You can see why parents wanted their children’s teachers reassigned to their classrooms.

• By the school's own admission they wrongly questioned a student about the testing allegations without the consent of the child's parent. When the school did inform the parents, Principal Garcia lied to parents as to the nature and seriousness of the questioning, which led many parents to allow their children to be questioned without their presence. This is a choice that those parents have come to regret. The manner in which the investigations were conducted left children feeling that they were responsible for their teacher's removal.

• When the children were questioned no one recorded or officially documented the conversations in their entirety. Principal Garcia was able to select the answers which were documented, and there are no witnesses to challenge her interpretation of the questions or responses. So if/when these children were asked "did your teacher help you with the test?" we have no way of knowing the context of the questions. We have no way of knowing whether they were speaking of any “improper coaching,” or simply acknowledging that yes, their teacher had been helping them prepare for these tests for 8 months. We will never know.

The unfortunate silver lining is that these 3rd and 4th graders have learned some valuable life lessons. They learned that people lie, even the people that are in positions of authority. They’ve learned that administrations are self serving. They’ve learned that bad things happen to good people. I just wish they didn't learn that in the 3rd and 4th grades.

I’m hoping that you can set things right. When my son first started fourth grade I was actually not impressed with his teacher. (I'm not easily impressed.) But as the days and weeks passed I realized how creative and dedicated his teacher was. I grew more and more impressed by her ability to engage her class with fun, new ways to learn. She kept introducing different methods to teach her class in incredibly imaginative ways that surpassed anything I've seen before from a teacher. Throughout the year she kept us informed of every day's events. Eventually I felt like we were her biggest fans. We felt that she loved our son and that we, as parents, had a very special relationship with her.

When she was reassigned we realized that we were not alone. It became apparent that she had cultivated this relationship with practically her entire class. I heard stories from all over - from her current class and classes prior - about how much she helped children strive, overcome obstacles and thoroughly enjoy learning. As the state tests approached I was amazed when I read how stressed everyone seemed to be. All the media was abuzz about how stressed students, parents, teachers, principals, superintendents, etc. were.

Meanwhile her class seemed to take it all in stride. They seemed prepared and just glad to get a break from homework for the week. Mrs. Mehler had managed to guide them without inducing the stress that seemed to proliferate everywhere else. I was even more impressed.

Please consider that the allegations against these teachers are that they improperly coached a small number of students. It makes me wonder "why would they do such a thing?" If they did - and that's a big if - were their intentions benign, or selfish?

If they made an innocent mistake, born out of a desire to help children they had been helping for 8 months, is removing such talented teachers the correct response? Does that best serve the community? What message does it send to the children?

On the other hand, does anyone really think they coached children out of some selfish motivation? We all know that state test results have a significant impact on teacher evaluations, but they also have a significant impact on school and district evaluations. Does anyone think that a teacher would help a single student for some personal gain? After all, how much does a teacher have to gain from one child's test results?

These teachers did not want to proctor their own classes’ tests. The district made this decision in spite of all the news of corruption surrounding state tests (and they have a lot more to gain than a teacher). Does it really matter that the state does not mandate that teachers don't proctor their own tests? A simple teacher swap could have potentially prevented this entire fiasco. Shouldn’t whoever decided that teachers would proctor their classes’ tests also be culpable? However, I don't believe there was any wrongdoing, much less anything worth reassigning such rare and talented teachers. There is just no evidence to support it.

The state exams have obviously presented a lot of bumps in the road and a lot learning opportunities. Rather than exacerbate this awful situation and pursue everyone who may have been at fault, I hope we can learn from our mistakes and move on in a way that is best for everyone, especially next year's students.

In a few years, when my daughter is old enough, I want her to be in Mrs. Mehler's class. I’m hoping that you will find the time to look into this situation and do what you can to set things right for the best of our community.

Thank you.

Eric Kamander
P.S. You can watch videos of the Rye City School Board of Education meetings where the parents discussed their concerns:

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