academic performance

'Roundtable' discussions put students and teachers on the spot

Students discussed foreign policy during roundtable discussions at East Side Community High School.

While students across the city hunkered over bubble sheets and short answer questions during last month’s Regents exam period, seniors at East Side Community High School were deep in conversation.

In one corner of Ben Wides’s American Foreign Policy classroom, two students huddled with a university professor talking about the role of altruism in foreign policy. Three desks over, another group discussed the role of public opinion in policy decisions, and across the room, a student told a student teacher why he found the Mexican-American War so interesting.

The conversations were part of “roundtable” discussions that are a crucial early step in East Side’s assessment program. As a member of the New York Performance Standards Consortium, the school exempts students from most of the exams the state requires for high school graduation. The students instead demonstrate competency by completing extensive research projects and presenting their findings to teachers and outside evaluators.

Wides’s students will write and defend original historical research papers at the end of the year in a process that he likened to a graduate thesis defense. Last month’s roundtables gave students an opportunity to practice discussing class material and defending their interpretations, he said, and they also gave him one more way to gauge mid–year what material still hadn’t sunk in.

“The idea is really being able to use information, to dig deep into text and things that you’ve learned, and then being able to use that information to make arguments, to back them up, and to be part of an adult, mature dialogue,” Wides said.

Currently, just 24 city high schools belong to the performance standards consortium, out of more than 500 in total. But performance assessments seem poised to arrive at more schools soon, particularly as pushback against standardized testing mounts and the new Common Core standards require that students be able to stake out positions and support them with evidence.

The city could also use performance assessments in addition to other exams to satisfy the “local assessments” portion of required teacher evaluations. Some policymakers, including City Council Speaker and mayoral candidate Christine Quinn, are pushing for more schools to adopt non-test-based assessment systems.

East Side Principal Mark Federman said he thinks meeting the standards set by Regents exams do not ensure that students will succeed in college and beyond.

“Throughout the semester, [East Side Students] know they’re going to talk in public, they’re going to be accountable to strangers,” he said. Students who start at East Side in sixth grade have presented their work to outsiders more than 50 times by graduation.

In Wides’s classroom, students discussed foreign policy with a CUNY professor, two East Side teachers, three student teachers, a consultant on peer mediation, a graduate student, a paraprofessional, and a teacher from another school whose classes were suspended for Regents week.

Speaking with a classmate and the professor, one student argued that altruism is a nice idea, but it is unrealistic to expect governments to make foreign policy decisions based on anything but their own best interests. Even decisions that look altruistic might not be, she said: The government decides whether to enter a war “based on what they think is best, but they cover it up with a story that would be acceptable to the public.”

The other student pushed back, arguing that altruism should play a role in shaping foreign policy. Wides asked for a hypothetical example of what an altruistic foreign policy decision would look like. “If the U.S. had entered World War II earlier, because so many people were suffering, then that would have been an example of altruism,” the student suggested.

Not every conversation reflected the same level of engagement. In a talk about public opinion on foreign policy, one student struggled to explain the relationship between the two.

“He wasn’t right there saying, what the public thinks matters because they elect the leadership in a democracy. He got there, but he got there through a lot of prompting,” Wides said. “That was a little painful for me, but that was also good feedback. It was valuable for me to hear that a relatively strong student wasn’t making that connection as facilely as I would have liked.”

He said he would revisit the topic in the second semester but would not count the challenge against the student. Unlike regular classwork and end-of-year historical research papers, roundtables are not meant to test students’ knowledge of specific facts.

“This does not substitute to me as an assessment,” he said. “What students are assessed on in the class is the work that’s in their portfolio…I’m not using the roundtable to figure out what kids know.”

Wides said the roundtables also keep teachers on their toes, because in addition to observing his students, “guests are in here observing me.” Teachers acting as guests in each other’s roundtables offer feedback and take notes on what they might do in their own classrooms. They also see how their colleagues are grading student work, preventing teachers from adopting wildly disparate grading scales.

In preparation for the roundtables, each student wrote a cover letter, which guests read alongside student portfolios just before engaging in conversation. In the cover letters, students made historical arguments and drew connections using examples from class material. They also offered personal reflections on their experiences in the class, which became part of their conversations.

“You wrote a lot of criticism, a lot of self criticism, which I thought was really wonderful to be that candid about saying, well, I wasn’t really organized,” Matthew Guilden, a former East Side dean who now consults on discipline and peer mediation with the school, told a student. “How are you going to fix that? Because you’re going to go to college next year.”

East Side senior Gabriella Castillo said after the class that roundtables push her to organize her thoughts and review what she learned during the whole first semester.

“I think if it’s a test, I’ll probably just make flash cards, memorize a few dates, and then it’s over,” she said. “But when you really get to discuss something, discuss all these topics that you’ve learned about and researched and stuff, this knowledge is going to come with you forever. Even right now, I’m still thinking about some questions that they asked me.”

Wides said the roundtable help him explain to students why they are learning certain topics.

“In a lot of schools, the answer is you’re learning this because it’s going to be on the Regents,” he said. He described a “Countdown to the Test” poster displayed prominently at Norman Thomas High School, where East Side was relocated for several months this year due to structural issues with the building.

“Here, I can say, you need to learn this because someone’s going to ask you about that at the roundtable,” he said. “But what that really means is that some adult is going to come in and take an interest in your ability to answer a real question, take a moral stand, or have a really thoughtful idea about cause and effect in history.”


early dismissals

Top Newark school officials ousted in leadership shake-up as new superintendent prepares to take over

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Incoming Newark Public Schools Superintendent Roger León

Several top Newark school officials were given the option Friday to resign or face termination, in what appeared to be an early move by incoming Superintendent Roger León to overhaul the district’s leadership.

The shake-up includes top officials such as the chief academic officer and the head of the district’s controversial enrollment system, as well as lower-level administrators — 31 people in total, according to documents and district employees briefed on the overhaul. Most of the officials were hired or promoted by the previous two state-appointed superintendents, Cami Anderson and Christopher Cerf, a sign that León wants to steer the district in a new direction now that it has returned to local control.

The officials were given the option to resign by Tuesday and accept buyouts or face the prospect of being fired by the school board at its meeting that evening. The buyouts offer a financial incentive to those who resign voluntarily on top of any severance included in their contracts. In exchange for accepting the buyouts, the officials must sign confidentiality agreements and waive their right to sue the district.

Earlier this week, León submitted a list of his choices to replace the ousted cabinet-level officials, which the board must approve at its Tuesday meeting. It’s not clear whether he has people lined up to fill the less-senior positions.

It’s customary for incoming superintendents to appoint new cabinet members and reorganize the district’s leadership structure, which usually entails replacing some personnel. However, many staffers were caught off guard by Friday’s dismissals since León has given little indication of how he plans to restructure the central office — and he does not officially take the reins of the district until July 1.

A district spokeswoman and the school board chair did not immediately respond to emails on Friday about the shake-up.

Some staffers speculated Friday that the buyout offers were a way for León to replace the district’s leadership without securing the school board’s approval because, unlike with terminations, the board does not need to sign off on resignations. However, it’s possible the board may have to okay any buyout payments. And it could also be the case that the buyouts were primarily intended to help shield the district from legal challenges to the dismissals.

León was not present when the staffers learned Friday afternoon that they were being let go, the employees said. Instead, the interim superintendent, Robert Gregory, and other top officials broke the news, which left some stunned personnel crying and packing their belongings into boxes. They received official separation letters by email later that day.

The people being ousted include Chief Academic Officer Brad Haggerty and Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon, who oversees enrollment. Also included are top officials in the curriculum, early childhood, and finance divisions, among others, according to a list obtained by Chalkbeat.

In addition to the 31 being pushed out, several assistant superintendents are being demoted but will remain in the district, according to the district employees.

There was concern among some officials Friday about whether the turnover would disrupt planning for the coming school year.

“I don’t know how we’re going to open smoothly with cuts this deep,” one of the employees said. “Little to no communication was provided to the teams about what these cuts mean for the many employees who remain in their roles and need leadership guidance and direction Monday morning.”


What you should know about the White House’s proposal to merge the education department into a new agency

PHOTO: Gabriel Scarlett/The Denver Post

The White House is proposing the federal education department merge with the labor department to form the Department of Education and the Workforce, officials announced Thursday.

It’s an eye-catching plan, given how relatively rare changes to the Cabinet are and the current prominence of Betsy DeVos, the current head of the education department who has proven deeply unpopular with educators since her confirmation hearings last year. Education Week first reported the proposed merger on Wednesday.

Here’s what we know so far about what’s going on and why it matters.

The news

The Trump administration announced a big-picture government reorganization Thursday, and the education-labor merger is one part of that.

The new department will have four main sub-agencies: K-12; higher education and workforce development; enforcement; and research, evaluation and administration.

It comes after DeVos proposed acquiring programs from the labor department that have to do with educational programs for unemployed adult workers, reintegrating ex-prisoners, and “out-of-school” youth, according to the New York Times.

The two departments already work together on some adult education and vocational training programs, according to the the Wall Street Journal. In an interview with the Associated Press, director of the Office of Management and Budget Mick Mulvaney said that there are currently 40 different job training programs spread over 16 agencies. This merger would be one attempt to change that.

DeVos said she supports the plan.

“This proposal will make the federal government more responsive to the full range of needs faced by American students, workers, and schools. I urge Congress to work with the Administration to make this proposal a reality,” DeVos said in a statement.

The implications for K-12 education

Today, the department distributes K-12 education money and enforces civil rights laws. It’s small for a federal agency, at 3,900 employees. On a symbolic level, a merged department would be de-emphasizing education.

The existing set of offices overseeing K-12 education would move into the new agency, according to the document, which says those offices will be “improved” but not how.

The education department’s Office of Civil Rights will become a part of the new department’s “enforcement” sub-agency.

The plan doesn’t mention any cuts to the agency or its offices, though Secretary DeVos has proposed cuts in the past.

Why this might not happen

The proposal would require congressional approval, which will likely be a difficult battle. Past attempts to eliminate the Department of Education in the 1980s and 1990s didn’t gain any traction, and both lawmakers and unions have expressed skepticism toward the new plan.

Sen. Patty Murray, the ranking Democrat on the Senate labor and education committee, quickly put out a statement criticizing the plan.

“Democrats and Republicans in Congress have rejected President Trump’s proposals to drastically gut investments in education, health care, and workers — and he should expect the same result for this latest attempt to make government work worse for the people it serves,” she said