A little help for the student. A lot of trouble for the teacher.

I did not know what a “whisper phone” is until my 11-year old grandson enlightened me.   I learned that it is a device whereby students can hear themselves reading aloud.  It’s an allowable accommodation for STAAR testing, and was allowed for the student in a case recently decided by the Commissioner.

Here’s how Ms. Sisk explained what happened:

My students had their allowable accommodations on their desks. And if I noticed a student that was off task, daydreaming, playing with their shoes, whatever, that I would pick up the whisper phone, for example, and—without saying anything and hand it to the student as a non-verbal reminder to stay on task because the students that I tested in small group they were very—they were easily distracted.

Question, Readers: How big a deal is that?  She did not directly tamper with the test.  She did not say a word.  Her non-verbal “suggestion” was to use an accommodation that the student was allowed to use.  Should a teacher with a continuing contract be fired over this?

The independent hearing examiner did not think so, but the school board did.  And now the Commissioner has affirmed the board’s decision. So long, Ms. Sisk. 

We learn three things from this decision.  First, when the hearing examiner labels parts of the decision as “Findings of Fact” or “Conclusions of Law” that label is not determinative.  Here, the board changed some things that were labeled as “Facts” to “Conclusions of Law.”  The board can do this, particularly when the “Finding of Fact” is about whether or not the district has established “good cause” to terminate a contract.

Second, “the board retains the authority to make the ultimate decision as to whether the facts establish a violation of board policy.”  The main thing the board did here was to take out the word “not” in several parts of the hearing examiner’s recommendation.  Where the recommendation said that the district “has NOT established that good cause exists to terminate” the contract, the board changed it to say that the district “has established….”  This is kosher.  The facts of this case were not disputed. The disagreement was over the significance of the facts, and that’s where the school board has the ultimate authority.

Third, it’s noteworthy that this was a termination of a continuing contract.  Under Chapter 21 of the Texas Education Code there are three types of contract available to teachers: probationary, term, and continuing.  The continuing contract offers the greatest protection.  A teacher under a continuing contract can be terminated only for “good cause” which is defined as “the failure to meet the accepted standards of conduct for the profession as generally recognized and applied in similarly situated school districts in this state.”  T.E.C. 21.156(a). 

The case is Sisk v. Klein ISD, decided by the Commissioner on December 16, 2019. It’s Docket No. 013-R2010-2019. 


Tomorrow: activity funds!