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October 16, 2013
Mixed feelings for N.Y. teachers as Common Core fully launches
New York City's Common Core Fellows collaborated last year to design curriculum materials for the new standards. This October many high school students around New York State are taking an Algebra I quiz with some unusual and very tough questions. In one, students are asked about how much water is used in the tallest skyscraper in the world during a 24-hour period. But the problem set forth in this mid-unit exam doesn’t include any set amounts; students are asked to estimate the numbers for the equation themselves and solve the problem based on their guesses. There isn’t one correct answer. Students must also write explanations of why an equation is right or wrong, instead of just solving it. The quiz is part of a new set of state-sponsored curriculum materials that many schools across New York are adopting in full for the first time this fall as they try to meet the new Common Core State Standards in math and English. (New York students were tested on the Common Core for the first time last spring, even though many schools had not yet connected all their lessons to the new standards.) The curriculums and the tests put New York ahead of the pack among the 45 states that have signed on to the standards, which are meant to increase critical thinking and problem-solving skills in the nation’s elementary and secondary schools and prepare more students for college.
April 12, 2013
Q&A: UFT chief Mulgrew readies his union for a “seismic shift”
UFT President Michael Mulgrew addresses Florida’s Retired Teacher Chapter at the chapter's annual luncheon. (Photo by Miller Photography)United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew runs the largest teachers union local in the country, representing the teachers of New York City. Like many teachers union affiliates nationwide, the UFT has been sparring with policymakers over issues such as merit pay, school closures, and charter schools, which pose a threat to union strength and which union leaders argue harm public education. Even as some national experts predict that teacher union power is waning, the UFT has won victories and its political influence remains strong. The Hechinger Report and GothamSchools spoke with Mulgrew at the union’s headquarters near Wall Street in downtown Manhattan about the biggest challenges facing the union and what the future looks like for the UFT. What was the biggest challenge you thought the union was facing when you started this job?
March 22, 2013
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.
March 19, 2013
For teachers, the perks of union membership can get personal
The public face of the New York City teachers union is often that of a political heavyweight engaging in battle with opponents like…
March 4, 2013
UFT grapples with change while staying a political powerhouse
For decades, the United Federation of Teachers, the largest teachers union local in the nation, held the city in its sway. The UFT’s powerful get-out-the-vote efforts influenced mayoral elections. Its political power kept Albany legislators on a tight leash. And the city’s education policies sometimes mirrored the union’s agenda. But in recent years, that power has been under threat, both locally and nationally. Across the country, local teachers unions have been fending off attacks against basic labor rights, such as laws that repeal collective bargaining, and trying to defeat or water down scores of state-level bills that would tie teacher evaluations to student test scores, establish merit pay, or abolish tenure. And in New York City, a billionaire mayor with no need for union dollars or endorsement has reshaped the city school system and picked fights with the union over its top priorities, including teacher tenure and job protections based on seniority. Continuity and change Together, the attacks have cut into the formidable might the UFT has wielded since it began representing all city teachers in 1962.
December 19, 2012
Advice, caution from early adopters of new teacher evaluations
New York City teachers discussed preparations for new teacher evaluations with Chancellor Dennis Walcott in September 2011. In Washington, D.C., officials shortened a new teacher evaluation checklist after complaints from teachers and principals that it was too long and time-consuming. In Memphis, Tenn., after a year of piloting new evaluations and a summer of training, some principals and teachers remained confused and overwhelmed. In Louisiana, one expert warned of lawsuits as the state began to roll out a truncated observation system without first testing it. But in New Haven, Conn., union officials and reformers alike have praised a collaborative effort to help teachers improve under the city’s new rating system. As New York City officials and union leaders wrangle over the design of new teacher evaluations due to roll out citywide next year, the experiences of other states and districts offer both inspiration and lessons about what not to do.
April 23, 2012
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.
March 1, 2012
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.
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