New York

Grassroots groups funded by the union often join its causes

Families organized by the nonprofit New York Communities for Change stand behind teachers union president Michael Mulgrew at a September 2011 press conference criticizing the Department of Education's response to toxins in schools. It’s a familiar scene: United Federation of Teachers president Michael Mulgrew taking the podium on the steps of City Hall to decry school closures or toxic school buildings while parents and activists from grassroots groups like New York Communities for Change are waving signs behind him. Or crowding into offices in Albany to lobby legislators to vote their way on the budget. Or marching against larger societal problems like income inequality during the Occupy Wall Street protests. Teachers unions are not only generous to their members and politicians, they also give to outside groups whose political views and activities mesh with their own. Last year, the United Federation of Teachers gave $1.4 million in grants and contributions to groups including Planned Parenthood, the anti-standardized testing group Fairtest, and the Brooklyn Children’s Museum. New York State United Teachers gave nearly $760,000 to the American Cancer Society, Empire State Pride Agenda, and the New York Immigration Coalition, among others. Some of the biggest beneficiaries are two grassroots organizing groups who receive hundreds of thousands a year from the unions and who often show up arm-and-arm with the state and city unions at protests, Lobby Day, and other political events: New York Communities for Change and the Alliance for Quality Education.
New York

Federal teacher evaluation mandate's impact felt across country

New York City’s controversial school turnaround proposals represent a tiny piece of a sweeping effort, funded by the U.S. Department of Education, to overhaul the country’s lowest-performing schools. In the last of three articles about the reform effort produced by Education Week, The Hechinger Report, and the Education Writers Association, Sarah Garland looks at the  national impact of a federal requirement — tougher teacher evaluations — that has tripped up School Improvement Grants in New York. GothamSchools was one of four news organizations to contribute to the reporting. Elliott Elementary in Lincoln, Neb., struck off on its own last year when it became the only school in the city to win money through the federal School Improvement Grant program. Winning wasn’t something to be proud of, though: It meant the school qualified as one of the worst in the nation. About a third of fifth-graders at Elliott were proficient on state reading tests when the reforms began, compared to 80 percent in Lincoln as a whole. Winning also meant a lot of work for teachers and administrators. One of the biggest tasks was overhauling the way teachers at the school are evaluated. Elliott was the only school in the city making the change, which meant it had to come up with a new way of rating teachers mostly on its own. “The challenge was connecting it to student achievement,” said Jadi Miller, named the principal at Elliott after a longtime principal was ousted to comply with the grant’s mandate of new leadership. “That was certainly very new for us.” In the Obama administration’s new push to turn around the bottom 5 percent of schools nationwide, the vast majority of districts chose the reform option that seemed the least invasive: Instead of closing schools or firing at least half of the teaching staff, schools could undergo less aggressive interventions, such as overhauling how teacher performance is measured and rewarding teachers who do well. But the teacher-evaluation requirement has turned out to be a major stumbling block for many schools in the SIG program.
New York

City's value-added initiative early entrant to evolving landscape

New York City schools erupted in controversy last week when the school district released its “value-added” teacher scores to the public after a yearlong battle with the local teachers union. The city cautioned that the scores had large margins of error, and many education leaders around the country believe that publishing teachers’ names alongside their ratings is a bad idea. Still, a growing number of states are now using evaluation systems based on students’ standardized test-scores in decisions about teacher tenure, dismissal, and compensation. So how does the city’s formula stack up to methods used elsewhere? The Hechinger Report has spent the past 14 months reporting on teacher-effectiveness reforms around the country and has examined value-added models in several states. New York City’s formula, which was designed by researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has elements that make it more accurate than other models in some respects, but it also has elements that experts say might increase errors — a major concern for teachers whose job security is tied to their value-added ratings. “There’s a lot of debate about what the best model is,” said Douglas Harris, an expert on value-added modeling at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who was not involved in the design of New York’s statistical formula. The city used the formula from 2007 to 2010 before discontinuing it, in part because New York State announced plans to incorporate a different formula into its teacher evaluation system.