On a windy Monday last month, the main school campus in the small northeastern town of Haxtun quietly buzzed. Teachers walked the hallways heads together and deep in discussion. Lunch time was a rush of moving bodies.
But there were no students in sight. On this day, the teachers were the students and the instructors.
Teachers from ten rural districts in northeastern Colorado gathered in Haxtun, just 30 miles from the Nebraska border, to figure out how to translate the mandates of the Common Core to their classrooms.
The Common Core State Standards, a shared set of expectations about what students are supposed to know, are being rolled out across the state this year, and districts are finding implementation challenging.
The ten districts these teachers came from face an even bigger hurdle, as none had curriculum specialists and only one had any kind of written curriculum at all. Instead, teachers used textbooks to guide their instruction. Each classroom went at its own pace and even taught different material. The differences between districts were even greater.
So the group of districts decided to adopt the sample Common Core curriculum written by the Colorado Department of Education (CDE) and collaborate on training to teachers to use it.
All ten districts are members of the Northeast Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES), a regional consortium that coordinates shared services, including professional development and distance learning. The Northeast BOCES, which also includes two districts who are not participating, helps to coordinate this curriculum collaborative.
So every month, teachers and school administrators gather in Haxtun to familiarize themselves with the curriculum, write assessments and agree on grading standards.Writing the tests
The collaborative had to pick a starting point for curriculum training, so this fall the focus is math. Teachers in subjects other than math team up to work on their own area.
During this session, the expectation was that all groups would create the first test that they’ll give to their students based on the new curriculum. Teachers worked to write test questions that are aligned to the new standards and difficult enough to challenge students.
In a classroom of first grade instructors, a table of teachers worked on a unit on measuring and telling time.
One teacher suggested that students measure objects found in their desks. “Pick an object shorter than this pencil and longer than my thumb” was one possible instruction. But the logistics of how that would work under testing conditions got more complicated.
“How much do we want them digging in their desks?” said one of her table mates. They agreed to have students take the object out before testing started.
The group also stalled over the wording of a question about students’ ability to tell time. The question asked students when they got up for school. Then students had to construct a clock, fill in the hands to show their wake-up time and finally write that time on a digital clock (see the example assessment for similar questions).
“But what if it says 2 p.m.?” said one teacher. She said students might not know what time they got up or write when they want to get up.
“As long as the two answers match, it’s fine,” said Susan Rogers, the first grade teacher for Wray school district.
By 2:30 p.m., when the workshop ended, the first grade teachers had three new assessments to take back to their classrooms.
“If you lose that test, you’re walking home,” one Holyoke teacher said to her colleague, who had the master copy of their newly minted assessment.
Teachers said that the new standards presented a challenge for them, but that they thought the extra work was worth it.
“We’re free to teach it the way we want to teach it, but it’s good to know what the bottom line is,” said Kristie Pelle, a Holyoke first grade teacher. She said, especially in math, she has already seen benefits for her students.
“I felt like math was one of the things [where] we needed to change curriculum,” said Pelle.
She also anticipated that the change will smooth the transitions between grades. “When my first graders go to second grade, [the teachers] know where to pickup, they know where [the students] left off.”Beyond the core
Teachers in all subjects gathered for the training, including those not traditionally covered by testing. Since Monday was about assessments, figuring out how to apply the Common Core standards to grading outside of traditionally tested areas required creativity on the part of teachers.
In the group for arts curriculum, the teachers designing a curriculum to assess fifth grade art projects found themselves balancing the need for clear grading protocols and the desire to encourage creativity.
“Do we give it to the fifth graders?” asked another teacher. “I would not want to hand this to students and say welcome to fifth grade art.” No, they agreed, they would use a different ones for students to grade themselves.
The challenges of grading art projects was not lost on them. They struggled to find a balance of rewarding creativity and encouraging clarity.
“Does a spider have four or eight legs?” Rhonda Mehring-Smith, Holyoke’s art teacher, suggested for the kind of benchmark she would use for students.
She said she thinks there are still ways to encourage kids to use their imagination. “I intentionally never put up an example because then they just copy it instead of being creative.”Scheduling conflicts
The process leading up to this day of work has not been simple. Getting districts and teachers used to going their own way on the same path was difficult.
“As part of this consortium, [the districts] all had to get on the same path,” said Tim Sanger, the executive director of Northeast BOCES. One district left the collaborative because there wasn’t consensus among staff members.
The ten districts had to create a common calendar in order for all teachers to attend the trainings. The calendar, which included shared school breaks and TCAP testing windows, required uniting school districts who feel their local control has faded.
“That was the hardest thing,” said Sanger. He said schools had very different academic calendars, even down to how many days a week students were in school. Several school districts had four day school weeks. Another, Holyoke school district, hadn’t had spring break in years.
All these changes require considerable district support, which means that superintendents had to do a bit of marketing for the project.
“Superintendents going back to their staff and selling it is a huge piece,” said Sanger. But, he said, the results have been good. “Seventeen years and I’ve never seen anything like this.”The end of the day
By the end of the day, according to Miles, all of the groups completed at least one assessment and many had finished the entire math curriculum.
That meant the collaborative was a month ahead of their target and groups had time to work on other projects and even just chat. A group of kindergarten teachers, who rarely see each other, spent the afternoon sharing war stories and discussing how they manage their classrooms.
That collaborative spirit didn’t surprise Sanger. Rural districts, he said, work differently than urban ones.
“We’re a different animal, so to speak,” said Sanger. “We have to share more resources, we have to network more.”
The assessments teachers build this year will be used in classrooms right away but the collaborative will continue. Both teachers and administrators agree it will take more than a year to see results.
“Kids have gone through curriculum with different expectations,” said Carly Daniel, a first grade teacher at Holyoke School District. “So it’ll take some backfill.”
A study that the city Department of Education commissioned to boost the chances of having the next mayor continue the “network” school support structure concluded that while the theory is sound, the execution has not been.
Struggling schools have gotten too little support and communities and schools have had too weak of a connection under the networks, according to the report, released today by the Parthenon Group. One solution, the consulting firm suggests, is restoring some authority to district superintendents — whom the Bloomberg administration stripped of most power in 2007.
Networks replaced a system of school support that was linked to schools’ geographic districts. Instead of coaches and advisors giving professional development, curriculum, and budget help to all of the schools in a single area, they currently work with schools that choose their brand of support, no matter where the schools are located.
The new report comes at a time Mayor Bloomberg’s successor, Bill de Blasio, is deep into planning for his transition to City Hall. De Blasio has said he thinks districts should play a stronger role in school support, but he has so far offered few details about how he plans to change the way schools get help.
The report contains several ideas for de Blasio and his transition team. Before it got the contract to study networks, Parthenon secretly told the department that it would seek to identify “low-hanging fruit” that could be changed without overhauling the network structure entirely.
The group found that principals appreciate being able to select who gives them support and being able to work with schools other than those that happen to be located nearby. It also found decoupling support from evaluation allowed some principals to seek help more often.
But Parthenon also found validation for longstanding critiques of the network structure.
One critique has been that the structure allows low-performing schools to operate with little intervention. The report backs up the charge, concluding, ”The DOE today may provide too little empowerment for a set of schools that are high performing and experience little benefit from central supports, while offering too much latitude to principals who will not be able to figure out how to improve on their own.” It adds that when struggling schools have gotten intensive support, as the department has offered in recent years, they have usually gotten stronger.
The report suggests allowing superintendents, who must rate principals each year, to supersede network leaders for the worst-performing schools. “The formal authority of the superintendent is of greatest value when working with struggling schools that, without strong guidance, may not necessarily make the best use of their autonomy,” the report concludes.
Superintendents could also play a stronger role in helping communities feel connected to their schools, according to the report, which identifies community relations as a weakness under the Bloomberg administration.
“While the DOE points out that each district office has a family advocate position, there is a legitimate concern from parents that this position is disconnected from the day-to-day support, oversight, and resources that networks provide, and that district offices have few resources to act on their concerns,” the report concludes.
Staffing is another concern. The city does not have enough highly trained people to fill all of the difficult and specialized roles that networks must play, the report says.
“The current model, in which the DOE has to staff 56 network teams in addition to cluster teams and superintendents, has significantly increased the challenge of talent development and hiring for all of these positions, and left the existing talent base stretched fairly thin,” it says, adding that it might not even be realistic to find 56 strong network leaders. The staffing challenge is most acute in areas where network officials need specialized expertise, such as around special education, according to the report.
Shael Polakow-Suransky, the department’s chief academic officer, said Parthenon’s exhaustive interviews meant the report’s conclusions are worth considering. “I think it was a thoughtful report,” he said today.
From some principals, the possibility that the network structure might not survive into de Blasio’s tenure is a real concern, despite their drawbacks.
“I think that whoever is going to be in charge should be really mindful of not throwing the baby out with the bathwater,” said Donna Taylor, principal of the Brooklyn School for Inquiry, a citywide gifted school.
“Being able to go to a meeting and be able to walk into a room with 47 like-minded people means everything in the world to a principal and an [assistant principal],” Taylor added. “And without networks we wouldn’t have that. That’s big.”
Geoff Decker contributed reporting.
Parthenon’s complete report is below:
In the first of a series on recruiting, training and supporting teachers, Donnell-Kay fellow Sarah Jenkins describes her own choice to leave the teaching profession.
Among the ranks of Colorado transplants, conversation inevitably includes “Where are you from? What brought you to Colorado?” Along with the opportunity to brag on my alma mater, I get to share the experience that helped shape my identity and goals. “I am from Michigan; I moved to Colorado to join Teach for America; and I left the classroom after three years.”
Most people smile, nod, and change the topic. A few enthusiastic ones share their own passion for education.
Then there are those who are disgusted, naming me one of “those people,” selfish enough to leave the classroom before 35 years have passed. Unfortunately, they say, I left the classroom 32 years before completing my job.
Unfortunately, I say, the current education system does not adequately support teachers to reach and sustain excellence. In other words, within the existing system, I could not “complete the job” I had envisioned. Despite my pride in my students’ results and my development, I was unable to close the achievement gap in my classroom, regardless of weekends worked, feedback implemented, and interventions administered. I was no longer willing to be part of a system that demanded my best but failed to support me to strategically work towards extraordinary student achievement.
During my three years of teaching in two schools in the Denver Public Schools system, my eyes were opened to another factor that contributed to me leaving the classroom. I could not, and still cannot, believe the differences between schools within a single district. One school strove for order and excellence; the other was steeped in chaos and apathy.
My own efforts in the classroom could never change the fact that children all over the district, state, and country could spend all day in school, not learning. I needed to step out of the classroom, into a role where I could work relentlessly towards equalizing the system, giving students the opportunities that all children deserve. I left the classroom, but there is no way that I could leave education. I remain committed to the kids in the system and stand firm in my decision to work to improve their outcomes in other ways.
Now, after only a few months in the education policy world, I see that realizing an equal education system is a daunting task. In the classroom, my actions could directly lead to 33 students learning at a pace that would make up for previous gaps. Outside the classroom, it takes a certain amount of tenacity and political acumen to strive towards system-level solutions that may not show immediate victories. The reforms around standards, educator evaluations, testing, and turnarounds are crucial for eventual system improvement. As a former teacher, however, I want to see action that not only measures but improves the quality of teachers.
As a fellow at the Donnell-Kay Foundation, I plan to write an ongoing blog because I want to widen the conversation around how we recruit, train, and support teachers. I want to see teacher involvement in the policy world expand, allowing educators to contribute to progressive, meaningful solutions that will dramatically improve outcomes for kids. In the coming months, I plan to raise questions, explore research, propose solutions, and encourage conversations that will promote educational equity by focusing on those who are closest to our students every single day: our teachers.About the author
Sarah Jenkins is a fellow at the Donnell-Kay Foundation. Before joining the Foundation, Sarah spent three years teaching kindergarten and first grade in two charter schools in the Denver Public School system.
A coalition of small high schools where students complete graduation projects rather than take most Regents exams could soon add several more schools to its ranks – if the state lets those schools skip the tests.
The New York Performance Standards Consortium is in talks with the state to get Regents-exam waivers for as many as 22 schools that follow the group’s instructional model and use alternative assessments, but currently must also administer the Regents tests. The schools, which have been part of a multi-year pilot, include several high schools in the Internationals and Expeditionary Learning networks. Many of them have staff members who worked at consortium schools in the past.
The consortium currently includes 28 public schools — 26 in New York City and one each in Rochester and Ithaca — where students are exempt from taking all Regents exams except for English. Instead, they must earn class credits and complete intensive projects to graduate.
The group and its supporters – which include the city teachers union and more recently the city Department of Education – have lobbied the state to let more schools trade the Regents tests for the long-term projects, citing data showing higher-than-average graduation and college-enrollment rates among consortium schools.
“I think it’s a disgrace that these schools have to apply for a waiver to do more work and prepare children better,” said United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew, adding that obtaining the state waivers is rarely easy. “We know every time we do it it’s a political battle.”
Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch declined to discuss the consortium or the waivers due to the ongoing talks. Ann Cook, the consortium’s executive director, also declined to discuss the talks but said she expected an answer from the state soon.
The consortium must ask the State Education Department to renew the test waivers for the schools that have them every few years, which the Board of Regents must approve. In the past, the consortium has sometimes needed to lobby lawmakers to get the waivers renewed, but Commissioner John King most recently granted the schools a three-year waiver extension in July.
The current negotiations are around whether the consortium can add new members, something that could be politically tricky for King to allow at a time when the state’s emphasis on standardized testing has come under fire. Some of the pilot schools have followed the consortium’s alternative-assessment model for years in hopes of getting their own waivers to stop administering Regents exams.
Students seeking diplomas at consortium schools skip the math, science, and social studies Regents tests. Instead, they complete a literary essay (in addition to taking the English Regents exam), social-studies research paper, applied-math project and science experiment, which they must defend before panels of teachers and outside observers. A student at the Institute for Collaborative Education, for instance, conducted a neurobiology experiment and wrote a 15-page paper comparing the writing of Ralph Ellison and Albert Camus for his assessment projects one year.
The city Department of Education gave the consortium funding a few years ago to train the pilot schools in its methods. Since then, it has pushed the state to offer those schools Regents waivers.
“We think this is very strong work that should be expanded,” said Shael Polakow-Suransky, the department’s chief academic officer. The school where Polakow-Suransky was the founding principal, Bronx International High School, is one of the consortium pilot schools.
The waiver wait has strained some schools. Jamie Munkatchy, a science teacher at Validus Preparatory Academy, a consortium pilot school in the Bronx, said that for the past six years she and her colleagues have attended consortium trainings, helped evaluate other schools’ graduation projects, and guided their own students to complete similar projects.
But still, their students must take and pass all five Regents exams required for graduation.
“You get tired of the consortium telling you waivers are going to come, but they never come,” Munkatchy said. “They would just say, ‘Be patient, it’s going to happen.’”
The situation changed recently for Validus. When consortium officials held a vote at the school to check for support of the alternative-assessment model, less than 80 percent of the staff voted for it. Now the consortium does not plan to seek a waiver for the school.
The consortium says it would like to secure waivers for all of the pilot schools that have participated in the trainings and where the entire staff backs the consortium model.
But some current and former pilot-school staffers have complained about a lack of transparency in the waiver process, where the consortium leaders lobby state education officials in private for the test exemptions on the schools’ behalf. Cook declined to provide GothamSchools a list of the pilot schools.
The consortium says it has asked the state to develop a more formal process for granting the waivers.
In the meantime, some pilot schools have struggled to balance the consortium-style project work with preparing students for the Regents.
“It’s kind of like dancing with two partners,” said Matt Brown, principal of Kurt Hahn High School, a pilot school that is part of the Expeditionary Learning network. “We feel like we would do a better job for our kids if we could focus on the performance-based assessments.”
Claire Sylvan, executive director of the Internationals Network for Public Schools, said of the network’s 15 New York City high schools, three are founding members of the consortium and the rest are consortium pilot schools.
“We do find that we can’t go as in depth in our performance tasks and portfolios in our schools that are required to do Regents as we can in our other schools,” Sylvan said, adding that she has not been informed if or when the pilot schools might receive waivers.
Leo Casey, executive director of the Albert Shanker Institute, who previously worked closely with the consortium schools when he was the UFT’s vice-president, said he did not expect any schools to adopt the consortium model simply as a way to sidestep the state tests.
“It shouldn’t be seen as an opt-out,” he said. “It’s taking on a great deal more work.”
Khadim Seck, a senior at Urban Academy, cited an art-criticism project where he analyzed the work of the Japanese artist Yoshitomo Nara — he creates “pictures that look cute, but there’s something dark lurking” — as an assessment that spurred learning in a way a typical test could not.
“Students are more than just a grade,” he said. “They’re actual thinkers.”
The newly-elected members of Denver’s Board of Education have a long to-do list: closing the achievement gap, negotiating teacher contracts, approving school renewals, setting the budget.
But no item may be as pressing as revising the Denver Plan, the supposed blueprint for the district’s reform efforts and goals.
The plan, a 68-page document outlining the district’s core beliefs and goals, is widely accepted as inapt and in need of a complete overhaul, several DPS board members and observers said last week.
Board director Anne Rowe, who has been quietly laying the groundwork throughout the year in anticipation of a fresh start with a new board, said the work on the Denver Plan will begin in earnest immediately.
Three new members, former Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien, Mike Johnson and Rosemary Rodriguez, will be sworn in Nov. 22, one day after the current board term ends.
The new members replace Mary Seawall, Jeannie Kaplan and Andrea Merida.
Landri Taylor, who was appointed to the board earlier this year, won a full term in last week’s election as well.
Revisiting the plan, which was first written in 2005 and updated in 2010, has been an item on the board’s agenda since February 2012. It was then that reform-minded education advocacy nonprofit A-Plus Denver, in a letter to DPS’ board, dubbed the framework “poorly established” and said its goals were “disjointed.”
Those goals, spelled out in-depth on the second to the last page of the document include that “all students will graduate from the Denver Public Schools prepared for postsecondary success” and that “the number of high-performing schools as measured by the School Performance Framework will increase.”
An update to the plan has remained unfinished largely based on the inability of the current board to have constructive conversations, Rowe said. She believes the new members, who are expected to establish a 6-1 majority generally unified in support of the current administration’s goals, will be able to engage in a different debate that will yield a plan by June of 2013.Problems with the plan
Rowe likes to point out there are parts of the plan that are working. But even before she was elected to the school board in 2011, she had her eyes on improving the urban school district’s vision.
“The Denver Plan can become more robust with regards to setting measurable goals,” she said. “We really need to articulate what we’re focusing on. The Denver Plan has a lot in it. But there needs to be some vision, core beliefs, theory of action, high level goals, strategies, and the measurements to show (the community) we’re going in the right direction.”
She hopes a revised plan will be a document district stakeholders — students, parents, teachers, administrators and the community at large— can use to hold the system accountable.
“I think that to provide a great education to kids, you not only have to do it well, but you have to articulate it well,” she said. “We need to have accountability: how do we know we’re going in the right direction. Without a plan going forward, it would be very hard for me to measure any organization whether they’re successful or not.”
The current plan has made it impossible to understand the district’s successes and failures because the across the board goal outlined in the plan — a 3.5 percent annual growth in state assessment scores, graduation rate and growth — is arbitrary, said A-Plus Denver chief Van Schoales.
And, as Schoales pointed out, the district is having a hard time meeting those goals, however unmethodical they are.
“There are too many objectives and it’s not focused,” said Schoales of the cumbersome document. “We believe a strategic plan is crucial for the district to improve.”Path to the plan
In the nine months leading up to last week’s election, the board contracted the Panasonic Foundation, which specializes in evidence-based accountability in high poverty school districts, to act as a facilitator while it retools the Denver Plan, Rowe said. The board has also hosted several retreats which have centered around two questions: what is a great education, and what should a DPS graduate know and be able to do after graduation, Rowe said.
“The new board will dive in,” Rowe said. “Our intent is to work collaboratively with the district, find best practices, talk to various organizations and, most importantly, reach out to the constituents in our community — both the people who work in our schools and the parents and students who go to our schools. There will be an inclusive discussion around this, because that’s how we’re going to get the best plan.”
Schoales believes the board should have a working draft for public comment by early spring. And while an utilitarian blueprint is paramount, Rowe said the board is not going to rush the process.
“We’ll engage the new board as quickly as possible,” Rowe said. “Coming up with a revised Denver plan that is engaging, that is thoughtful, will take some time.”
But, Rowe believes, the discussions moving forward will be more advanced than the ones in the past.
“We would spend a lot of time discussing whether a school was a charter school or not,” Rowe said. “Opposed to what is happening in a school to create a high level of achievement.”
Kaplan, one of three board members who regularly and publicly criticized the district’s administration and its trajectory, was partnered with Rowe to secure a consultant and lead the conversation among board members.
She dismissed the claim the minority held up the process.
“It’s puzzling to me how the minority could have stopped anything,” she said. “I don’t think we were able to stop anything significant.”
Kaplan said the 6-1 supermajority will be entirely accountable to the success of a new Denver Plan.
“There will be no excuses,” she said.
The lone opposing voice to the broad reform agenda backed by the new, expanding board majority is taking a combative wait-and-see approach.
“They have all power,” said board member Arturo Jimenez, who represents northwest Denver. “They can silence me at meetings if they wish to. They can do whatever they like. It’s really in their court, to either include the voice of northwest Denver or not. I do plan on being more of a watch dog. I do plan on speaking out more.”
Each weekday morning, we search websites of various media, comb through RSS feeds and peruse Google alerts to bring you a roundup of the day’s top education headlines, in Colorado and across the country, by 8 a.m. If you’d like to suggest a story we’ve missed or a source we should add to the list, please email us at email@example.com.
The global electronics and engineering conglomerate Siemens hosted its 10th HBCU Scholarship Reception on Friday, during which 300 Chicago Public School students were promised millions of dollars in scholarships to historically black colleges and universities from across the country. (Diverse: Issues in Higher Education)
VALLAS RETURNS: Gov. Pat Quinn named former Chicago Public Schools chief Paul Vallas as his running mate Friday in a political stunner that mystified African-American politicians and angered union leaders who derided Vallas as the “wrong” choice for the job. Vallas, a $1,200-a-day state consultant until last summer who ran the city’s schools from 1995 to 2001 and narrowly lost the 2002 Democratic primary for governor, was a little-known finalist on Quinn’s short list of running-mate possibilities.
IN THE NATION
MAYORS' MARK: Control over public schooling in Boston and New York City promises to look different in both cities after voters last week anointed new mayors who have pledged to move quickly to make their imprint on K-12 education. (Education Week)
TWITTER TALK: As certain high school seniors work meticulously this month to finish their early applications to colleges, some may not realize that comments they casually make online could negatively affect their prospects. In fact, new research from Kaplan Test Prep, the service owned by the Washington Post Company, suggests that online scrutiny of college hopefuls is growing. (The New York Times)
What happens as a new small school grows up? We’ve covered the road bumps and results for years here at GothamSchools.
Now, we have “The New Public,” a documentary film follows students at teachers at Brooklyn Community Arts and Media High School from the day the school opened in 2006 through the graduation of its first senior class.
We’re teaming up with the film’s producers for a special screening Nov. 15 that includes a panel discussion with Kevin Greer, the school’s founding English teacher; Lyntonia Coston, an assistant principal; and Earlene Tribble, the mother of one of the students featured in the film. (Find details about the screening, at Maysles Cinema in Harlem, and RSVP here.)
Panelists will discuss how the first few years challenged teachers’ and parents’ expectations, the changes they made in the moment, and what they would do differently if they could do day one all over again.
BCAM — one of hundreds of small, themed high schools created during the Bloomberg era — opened with 104 freshmen and eight teachers. Four years later, the staff had grown grown to 50 and the school to 450, but almost half of the senior class had dropped out or transferred to other schools.
“There were also kids that got lost,” the school’s social worker says toward the end of the film. We’ll be asking the panelists to explain that counter-intuitive statement: What does it mean for students to get lost in a small school?
We’ll also want to hear how the school’s culture evolved over time. Greer says early on in the film that some schools imprint their culture on students, but that he and his colleagues were trying to do something different. Four years later, an English teacher suggests that BCAM students get away with too much and says, “The idea is it’s not an authoritarian environment, but you’ve got to be realistic.”
The film showcases the shift. When Tribble’s son Moses is asked as a freshman to describe his school, he replies, “It’s fun, small, and it’s loose.” Later on, another student has a very different assessment: “We got away with a lot in ninth and 10th grade.”
Watch and discuss “The New Public” at the Maylses Cinema in Harlem at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 15. RSVP here.
With a new mayor who opposes school closures headed to City Hall within weeks, the Department of Education won’t move to shutter any low-performing schools this year for the first time in more than a decade.
“Closure or phase-out is not part of our agenda,” Chancellor Dennis Walcott said on a school visit in Brooklyn today, adding that his successor could carry the torch once he and Mayor Bloomberg leave office at the end of the year: “We’ll see what the new chancellor will do.”
Bloomberg has closed 164 schools since he took over the school system in 2002. The schools have been replaced with more than 650 new schools staffed with different principals and teachers, an aggressive — and controversial — intervention that has been a signature policy in Bloomberg’s brand of education reform.
This year’s closure reprieve doesn’t mean that the city is giving a free pass to schools that meet its closure criteria. Walcott said department officials still plan to meet with schools that earned low letter grades on their annual progress reports, which are set to be released next week for a sixth straight year.
“You’ll see a very rigorous approach … to address shortcomings at those schools,” Walcott added.
Since 2010, the department has held “early engagement” meetings with parents at dozens of schools earning F’s, D’s, or three consecutive C’s on their progress report for the previous school year. Department officials consider comments from the often heated public meetings alongside other data when deciding which schools to close.
Last year 60 schools met those criteria, 22 of which the department ended up closing.
Walcott had previously indicated that closures could be option on the table this year as well, despite progress reports being based on a tumultuous 2012-2013 school year that included Superstorm Sandy and plummeting proficiency scores on new standardized tests.
But chances of that happening seemed to fade this year, with progress reports being released more than a month later than usual. That leaves just seven weeks separating the school grades and the end of Mayor Bloomberg’s tenure, a tiny window of time for the city to comply with the lengthy legal process required to close a school.
Rushing through that process now — as the city did for dozens of proposals to open and co-located schools in recent months — could also be a bad way to start off the government transition process between Bloomberg and Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio, which began this week after de Blasio’s landslide victory in the mayoral election. De Blasio has criticized the Bloomberg administration’s use of school closures and committed to halting school closures once he’s in office.
Speaking of the transition today, Walcott said his staff is “fully mobilized” to begin working de Blasio’s team, adding that the sides haven’t met yet. He said that the rollout of new Common Core standards, teacher evaluations, and emergency preparedness, were among the briefing priorities.
“I know the mayor-elect, I’ve known him for years and I am confident he is fully cognizant of all the implications of governing and what it actually means,” Walcott said.
Teacher David Guy was about to set two-dozen first-graders loose in the Simla School gym to play “capture the cones,” when he asked, “How do you treat people when you win?”
In unison, a chorus of high-pitched voices replied, “Nice!”
“It’s not just nice,” said Guy patiently. “It’s about treating them fairly, right? It’s about treating them respectfully. We always have to do that.”
The lesson took only five seconds, but it hit on one of the essential messages of TrueSport, a curriculum created by the United States Anti-Doping Agency in Colorado Springs. It’s that message, among others, that appealed to Guy and several other teachers from the Big Sandy school district when they attended an informational summit on the program last February.
It also appealed to the Big Sandy School Board, which adopted the curriculum at a meeting that same night, after technology teacher Sue Snyder rushed back from the summit to present on the topic.
“It passed with flying colors,” she said. “We were using it the next day with our junior high kids.”
While the overnight adoption of TrueSport is perhaps unique to tiny districts like the 360-student Big Sandy, the creators of the curriculum, are eager to see its widespread use, not just in Colorado but across the country.
“Broadly, we think of it as a movement,” said Erin Hannan, communications and outreach director for the United States Anti-Doping Agency, or USADA.What is it?
At its most basic, TrueSport is an effort to promote health and ethics among youth.
“It uses sport as the vehicle to deliver that,” said Hannan.
Eight core principles, such as “Be Courageous” and “Fair Play or No Way” anchor the program, which includes a K-12 curriculum that is aligned with Colorado’s state physical education and health standards, a pre-K activity book, an online training for coaches, a parent handbook, and code of conduct forms that can be printed out and signed by players, coaches and parents. The program also enlists well-known athletes like Olympians Peter Vanderkaay and DeeDee Trotter to visit participating schools as “TrueSport Ambassadors.”
The goal, Hannan said, is to shift the prevailing winning-is-everything attitude to one where healthy choices and integrity govern behavior on and off the sports field. Given USADA’s role as the country’s enforcer of anti-doping rules among Olympic and other high-profile athletes, the push to imprint the sports heroes of the future with a strong moral compass makes sense.
But, in a hyper-competitive world where three-year-olds can play team sports and some parents redshirt their five-year-olds in the hopes it will give them an athletic advantage in high school, no one thinks it’s going to be easy.
“We recognize we’re absolutely going against the tide,” said Hannan.
Still, among the teachers and coaches that use TrueSport materials, enthusiasm runs high. In addition to the emphasis on character education, they like that it’s got a contemporary feel with real-world examples, often taken straight from the headlines of the past few years.
Perhaps best of all, it’s free.
“To be honest, that’s what we need. We don’t have a big budget,” said Caroline Weinberg, a health teacher at the 1,400-student Mesa Middle School in Douglas County. “It’s nice to get something new and fresh.”
Already this year, she’s used her classroom set of TrueSport workbooks to talk about decision-making and role models, and she plans to use it for upcoming units on nutrition and performance-enhancing drugs. The alternative, she said is an ancient textbook that few teachers use.
Weinberg said she also appreciates that TrueSport talks about the dangers of super-caffeinated energy drinks.
“Obviously, that’s not in our textbook,” she said. “I see kids all the time with their Monster drinks.”
While TrueSport curriculum is often covered in health or physical education classes, and perhaps less formally in after-school sports, it has found its way into other kinds of classes, including biology and language arts.
Snyder, who also coaches girls volleyball at Simla, uses the program in her high school computer applications class. Students use TrueSport content to practice with blogging platforms and create digital presentations. On a recent morning, she led a discussion from chapter three of the TrueSport workbook on maximizing mental and physical performance in a healthy way.
“There’s a lot that you can do to be mentally tough,” she said to the 10 students sitting around the computer lab. “Set specific measurable goals…So, measurable goals would be what?”
“Gain ten pounds during the season,” said one boy.
“Win state,” said another.
“Catch the ball,” said a third.
For most of the students in the class, which was mostly boys and included several student athletes, the discussion seemed to touch on both their interests and personal experience. Nevertheless, TrueSport leaders stress that students don’t have to be athletes to benefit from the program’s focus on healthy choices and lifestyles.
Simla High School senior Cheryl Clonts, doesn’t play sports, but said she enjoys the TrueSport discussions during computer applications class.
”I think they can apply to more than just sports, but real life as well.”
Brett Smith, a senior on the girls volleyball team, doesn’t take any classes that cover TrueSport this year but said the presence of the program pushes the school’s athletes, coaches and even spectators to have higher standards.
“There’s just sportsmanship, even in our crowd, where we’re not yelling at the refs or we’re not arguing a lot….We don’t get in the face of refs and we don’t try to change their opinion as much as other schools.”
“TrueSport’s helped with that,” she said. “It’s kind of like a motto for us.”Small but growing
While TrueSport officials have ambitious plans for the program, only about 10 Colorado schools currently use the curriculum. Nationally, the numbers are harder to come by. USADA has received requests from schools in 47 states, but does not track whether the curriculum is actually implemented. A few districts in Texas, as well as others around the country have implemented the curriculum in a robust way, according to TrueSport officials.
One district that doesn’t use TrueSport is Colorado Springs 11, the largest district in the vicinity of USADA offices. District Athletic Director David Eichman said the district uses a newly revamped physical education curriculum that has been written by district staff over the last couple years to align with state’s physical education standards. In addition, the district uses the “SPARK” physical education curriculum to augment the district’s program. Eichman said teachers are welcome to use TrueSport materials, but he doesn’t know of a single one who has.
One factor contributing to TrueSport’s relatively small footprint may be its youth. Although USADA began offering a similar curriculum targeting a narrower age range called “100 percent Me” in 2006, the full K-12 program and TrueSport brand didn’t come out until early 2012.
“My perception is they’re kind of feeling their way…There hasn’t been a big hard launch,” said Judy Sandlin, an associate professor in the college of education and human development at Texas A&M University. She helped create parts of the TrueSport curriculum and now serves as one of TrueSport’s “educational ambassadors.” Some day, Sandlin hopes TrueSport will become as well known as Race for the Cure.
In the case of Weinberg, who works in the 65,000-student Douglas County district, she made a personal decision to use TrueSport in her classes because she heard about it through a casual friend who works for USADA.
“I wouldn’t have ever known about it unless I was friends with this girl on Facebook,” said Weinberg, who hopes to introduce the curriculum to other health and p.e. teachers at her school as well as to the district’s health education coordinator.
In addition to being a young program, TrueSport also faces a market crowded with physical education and health curriculums.
Eichman said while he thinks TrueSport is “all really good stuff,” he added, “You can go on the Internet and get tons of resources.”
A good illustration of this may be the California Healthy Kids Resource Center Library, an extensive online compilation of health-oriented curricula and programs. While TrueSport earned a listing, it is among a whopping 179 programs listed in the “nutrition” category and among 124 listed in the “alcohol and other drugs” category. It is not among the 32 “research-validated” listings in the nearly 800-item library.Rewarding sportsmanship
Back in Dave Guy’s p.e. class, the first-graders, thirsty and flushed, finished up their game and lined up in the hall. Before Guy, who also teaches high school science and coaches boys basketball, sent the kids back to their classrooms, he did something that has become an after-class ritual this year: He picked the TrueSport of the day.
Guy explained that during “capture the cones,” he thought he saw a student tag opponents a couple times, but more than once, the tagger admitted that he’d missed.
“For that honesty and playing the game the right way and being respectful, Trevyn is the True Sport of the day,” said Guy.
With that, there was a sing-song chorus of “Trevyn” and a jumble of kids crowded around a little boy in an orange hoodie to deliver a spontaneous group hug.
Each weekday morning, we search websites of various media, comb through RSS feeds and peruse Google alerts to bring you a roundup of the day’s top education headlines, in Colorado and across the country, by 8 a.m. If you’d like to suggest a story we’ve missed or a source we should add to the list, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The nation’s fourth- and eighth-graders made incremental progress on math and reading tests administered earlier this year by the federal government, according to results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, released Thursday. Known as the Nation’s Report Card, it’s the country’s most consistent measure of K-12 academic progress. (The Washington Post)
THE FINGERPRINT FILES: Chicago Public Schools wants fingerprints on file of all parents and others volunteering at schools, and volunteers will have to travel to one of four locations to have their prints taken. Accurate Biometrics will be paid $650,000 a year through 2014 to do all fingerprinting and will control the data for the first year before it is transferred to CPS, according to a contract approved by the board in June 2012. (DNA Info)
MORE TEACHING, LESS TESTING: The Chicago Teachers Union Thursday urged its members and parents to take a stand against standardized tests. CTU President Karen Lewis announced the “Let us Teach” campaign in Chicago as similar measures were rolled out in cities across the country. Lewis was joined by three mothers who oppose standardized tests and who have opted their kids out of some testing. Chicago Public Schools said it has cut back on standardized testing. (Sun-Times)
IN THE NATION
SEGREGATION RESURGES: Almost six decades after the landmark 1954 United States Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education led to school integration, new trends are creating more racially-segregated schools, according to a new study. Research published in the American Sociological Review contends that these trends --including fewer white students in majority-minority schools and more separate but unequal schools than there were in the pre-Brown v. Board of Education era -- are among the factors leading to more segregated schools. (PBS Newshour)
CHARTER GAP REVIEWED: A recent study analyzed the lower enrollment rates of children with disabilities in charter schools in New York City and concluded that disparities in enrollment patterns are attributed to lower application rates and not active measures by charter schools to push or "counsel" out students with special needs. An academic review finds limitations to the study and calls attention to the need for further analysis of enrollment imbalances of children with special needs in charter schools. (Great Lakes Center)
Jeffco Schools Superintendent Cindy Stevenson told the school board Thursday night that she’s retiring effective at the end of the school year, next June 30.
The superintendent was diplomatic in an interview with EdNews, saying, “When you have a major change on the board they have their own plans. I just feel like it’s time. Twelve years is a long time. … I have eight months yet. … We’re going to have a great transition. We’ll have everybody ready for a great new world.”
Choking up a little over the phone, Stevenson said, “It’s been a great run; I’ve loved every day.”
Stevenson, who started as a kindergartener at South Lakewood Elementary School, has spent her entire professional life in the district, including stints as a teacher, principal and multiple jobs in the district’s central administration.
She’s been superintendent since 2002 and has been prominent in state education groups and circles.
“The past 12 years have been the best years of my life. This is an exceptional school district and it’s been my honor to lead an amazing staff of talented people. I’d like to thank my team, the community and our students – they have made my life joyful,” Stevenson said in a statement.
In recent years she’s been increasingly criticized by conservative citizen groups, most recently over the district’s pilot use of inBloom, a data system that can aggregate student personal and academic information and link such data with online instructional materials that teachers can use to personalize teaching.
Shortly after Stevenson’s announcement, the board voted to sever the district’s arrangement with inBloom, an initiative that has been pushed and funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Those groups also have criticized district spending and expenses under Stevenson.
Jeffco has had the state’s largest enrollment for many years, but its student population has been stagnant in recent years as the county population has aged and changed. Jeffco is expected to be passed in enrollment this year by the Denver Public Schools. That stagnant enrollment has created tensions in parts of the district where the administration had considered closing schools.
The district administration also has had a close and collaborative working relationship with the county teachers union, the Jefferson County Education Association. Kerrie Dallman, former head of that group, now is president of the statewide Colorado Education Association.
On Tuesday conservative candidates Julie Williams, John Newkirk and Ken Witt won three open seats on the board by comfortable margins. All had been endorsed by the county Republican Party, and an independent committee named Believe in Better Schools reported spending $22,804, most of it in support of those three candidates. Spending was on newspaper and social media advertising and on direct mail.
The group received its funding from Jeffco Students First Action, a group that has been critical of district policies but which itself doesn’t have to report its contributors.
The three winners actually were outspent by their opponents, Tonya Aultman-Bettridge, Jeff Lamontagne and Gordon Van de Water, who were considered to have closer ties to district administration and who were supported by the union. (See this story by EdNews partner 9News.com for more background on the Jeffco election.)
A former Jeffco board member and prominent Jeffco business leader told EdNews Thursday that he thought the three conservative candidates’ opposition to Amendment 66 also helped them win. That proposed $950 million tax increase for education was defeated with a 64.6 percent no vote statewide and had a 65.3 percent no vote in Jeffco.
Under the formula in A66’s companion legislation, Senate Bill 13-213, Jeffco would have received only a 9.6 percent increase in per-pupil funding, compared to an 11.6 percent average increase statewide, and Jeffco residents would have paid more in increased income taxes than the district would have received in additional funding.
A slate of GOP candidates made a run at Jeffco board seats two years ago but were unsuccessful.
In addition to retaining control in Dougco and gaining it in Jeffco, it appears that conservative candidates now control the Thompson school board and have a strong minority in the Greeley district. But a GOP-endorsed slate was defeated in the Grand Junction-based Mesa 51 district.
Overt partisan involvement in school board races first surfaced in Douglas County four years ago, when a slate of GOP-endorsed candidates took control of the board. That majority since has expanded school choice options in the district, ended the contractual relationship with the county teachers union and approved a voucher program, which currently is being challenged in the courts.
On the National Day Against Testing, the Chicago Teachers Union called on parents to "opt out" of standardized testing. At a press conference on Thursday, the union announced the launch of the “Let Us Teach” campaign, to not only urge parents to refuse to let their children take part in tests but also to call on CPS to stop giving any standardized exams to children in kindergarten through 2nd grade.
In addition, the CTU is telling its members to take action with the goal of curbing the time spent on testing-- ask parents to complain to CPS officials, file grievances regarding paperwork associated with tests and advocate to their principals that the number of tests be limited.
This is the first time that the union has participated in the National Day of Action On Testing, a campaign led by public school teachers in six major cities, including New York and Los Angeles, who want to limit the time spent on high-stakes testing.
CPS officials responded to CTU’s announcement by saying that district leaders have heard and responded to concerns about the over-testing of students. CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett announced last summer a change in the district’s assessment policy, cutting the number of required exams to the literacy assessments for primary grades, the annual state tests given in the spring and the assessments used for teacher evaluations.
In all, CPS officials said they eliminated 15 tests.
However, CTU President Karen Lewis said the change in policy has since been followed by the introduction of more benchmark performance assessments that are aligned with the Common Core State Standards that CPS is implementing. And while these tests may not be officially required, Lewis said that the network offices are pressuring schools to administer some of them.
CPS officials say that the Common Core exams must be given, but teachers can create their own and do not have to use those that the district provides. “For many schools, teachers collaborated over the summer to create an assessment that measured the skills taught within that unit,” according to a CPS official.
CPS acknowledged that parents have the right to opt out, but they emphasized that these benchmarks and standardized tests give teachers information that will help them determine how to adjust their teaching.
But Lewis said the benchmark assessments being pushed by the district are questionable. A school system that is already “budget challenged” shouldn’t be spending money on consultants and test prep materials that end up taking away from valuable classroom instructional time, she said.
“These tests are not used to inform instruction, but to rank schools and stigmatize school communities,” said Lewis.
Tara Mack, a parent at Peirce Elementary in Edgewater, said the back-and-forth between what is required and what is not required has added to the confusion for parents trying to navigate these tests. It “further erodes” the relationship between them and CPS, she said.
“There’s an absence of trust between parents and CPS,” Mack said. “I feel like I don’t know what they’re really doing surrounding this, and it makes parents feel like they have to be the expert.”
Lewis said parents need to know what tests are mandatory and how or whether they help their child. Some of the exams are “age-inappropriate,” she said. For example, it is not good to test young children using computer-based tests that get harder as the child progresses, she said. These types of tests are “horrendous,” especially for children as young as 5, Lewis said.
If a large enough group of parents opt out of standardized testing, it sends a message to district leaders and may push the district to make more dramatic changes. Lewis pointed to New York City’s Castle Bridge School, a primary grades school that canceled its multiple-choice standardized tests after more than 80 percent of parents opted to have their children sit out of the exam.
The mass teacher layoffs this year that resulted from school closings and budget cuts have focused more attention on the district’s relationship with Teach for America and the growing presence of its teachers in CPS schools.
Though some talk swirled in the broader school community that cheaper TFA teachers would replace laid-off veterans, those concerns appear to be for the most part unfounded. The majority of TFA teachers end up in charter schools and fewer than 10 percent land in schools run by Academy for Urban School Leadership. AUSL runs a majority of turnaround schools, where one can most easily make the argument that they are “replacing” seasoned teachers let go as part of the turnaround.
About 24 percent end up in other schools.
Though the number of TFA teachers remains small compared to the size of the district-wide teaching force, CPS is steadily increasing the numbers—and the size of its TFA contracts.
This summer, CPS upped its contract to $1.6 million, from $1.3 million in 2012 and just $600,000 in 2011. The money pays for a “referral fee,” a payment to TFA of about $3,000 for every teacher who is hired by a Chicago principal.
Data provided by TFA show that 313 first- and second-year corps members – 59 percent of all TFA teachers in the district – work in charter schools. Among TFA alumni, 50 to 60 percent are in charters – another 450 teachers.
TFA also has 58 alumni who are principals in Chicago, eight of whom work for the Noble Network of Charter Schools.
Josh Anderson, director of Teach for America—Chicago, says there are two factors driving the trend. One is that charter schools hire earlier. Another is that layoffs in the summer of 2010 wiped out the jobs of 95 percent of Teach for America teachers who were in neighborhood schools.
Anderson says that 90 percent of TFA teachers complete their first two years in the program, and two-thirds of those stay for a third year – adding up to an overall three-year retention rate of 60 percent. (Teachers in the program are required to serve for two years.)
What’s more, Anderson says, teachers who start in charters actually have a higher retention rate in the profession than those who start in neighborhood schools. That may be because they see a pathway to increased responsibilities or are more likely to feel that charter schools have a “performance culture,” he says.
Including charter, neighborhood and turnaround schools, the largest share of TFA corps members teach in several West Side neighborhoods. But plans to hone in on fewer neighborhoods – with the goal of placing larger clusters of TFA teachers in a small group of schools– did not come to fruition because of the slow pace of hiring in the district.
Neighborhoods with the most Teach for America members
EAST GARFIELD PARK
NEAR WEST SIDE
GREATER GRAND CROSSING
LOWER WEST SIDE
SOURCE: Teach for America – Chicago