getting to the core

Newly hatched Common Core curriculums get city endorsement

For the first time since 2003, the Department of Education has revised its curriculum recommendations for schools.

The new recommendations are meant to guide schools through the myriad curriculum options on the market to those that best reflect new learning standards known as the Common Core. Students across the state are set to take math and reading tests aligned to the tougher new standards in April.

After scrutinizing 40 programs produced by 19 companies that met the city’s basic standards, teachers and Department of Education officials endorsed elementary and middle school reading and math programs from three of the largest publishing companies, including Pearson, which is also producing the state tests. The city is also encouraging schools to consider adopting literacy curriculums that the state hired two nonprofit organizations, Core Knowledge and Expeditionary Learning, to produce.

Schools don’t have to take the department’s advice. They can use other curriculum programs, including the ones that they have already been using, or create their own materials. Currently, about 70 percent of schools opt to use the city’s recommended curriculums, which for most schools were originally required a decade ago in one of former chancellor Joel Klein’s earliest initiatives.

Teachers union president Michael Mulgrew, who has criticized the city and state for holding teachers accountable for adapting to the Common Core without giving them a curriculum based on the standards, said today’s announcement represented a major step forward.

“While it comes too late to help the kids for this year’s tests, the DOE’s announcement is a welcome acknowledgment that teachers need curriculum that will help their students meet the demands of tests based on the new Common Core standards,” Mulgrew said. But he said the union worried about the materials’ costs, quality, and availability in time for the new school year.

Department officials said they had considered those issues and addressed them. The programs that the city is endorsing were screened precisely for their quality and availability, they said, and purchasing them likely won’t cost schools more than they would spend on curriculum materials anyway.

The estimated $56 million price tag, which would be covered by a mixture of state textbook funding and city funds, is about the same that schools typically spend on similar curriculum materials, according to Shael Polakow-Suransky, the department’s chief academic officer. The money would go to Pearson, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and Scholastic, the three corporations that produced the recommended curriculums.

In contrast, the state is using federal Race to the Top funds to produce its materials in-house. “The city is going to be purchasing content curriculum from vendors, and while I applaud them, I want everyone to know who’s listening here or across New York State, that if you simply cannot afford to buy curriculum from Pearson, there is content and curriculum available free to every person in this state,” Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch said today at a forum about the Common Core.

But the state is providing only some of the materials schools would need to adopt its recommended curriculum options. The state has published the reading list for the Core Knowledge elementary school literacy program, for example, but schools would still have to buy the books and print the worksheets. “You can imagine the challenges just in the photocopying,” said Josh Thomases, the department’s deputy academic officer.

Principals have already gotten warnings that they should plan to devote their state textbook funds next year — about $60 per student — to Common Core-aligned materials. This week’s department newsletter told them to pour their remaining funds for this year into materials for other subjects.

Among the biggest advantages of the city’s recommended programs is that they will be ready in time for teachers to familiarize themselves with the materials before school resumes in September. The state’s curriculum materials won’t be complete until at least the end of the year.

“We think the sample units we’ve seen are really strong,” Polakow-Suransky said about the state’s materials. But he said, “In terms of schools making decisions and planning and preparing for next school year, it’s tricky to go with that timeline.”

Starting next week, the department will introduce principals to the new options. Later in March, the department will share its analysis of where curriculums that schools are already using match the standards, and where they fall short. Then, in April, schools will send teams to a citywide fair where curriculum providers hawk their products. By the end of May, schools will have made their purchasing decisions for next year, and in June, some of the materials are set to start arriving. Training will start over the summer and last into the school year.

Those materials were heavily influenced by the city’s own standards and by a 30-district pact not to buy curriculum materials unless they are truly aligned to the Common Core, Thomases said. In math, he said, the department was looking for fewer topics and an especially strong foundation in fractions. In reading, it wanted materials that included both fiction and non-fiction and required students to read texts multiple times, he said. In both subjects, the department was especially eager to identify curriculums that are versatile enough for New York City’s diverse student population.

Scholastic’s Codex program, which the department is recommending for middle school English classes, does a particularly good job of introducing vocabulary in a way that would be useful for English language learners, according to Nancy Gannon, executive director of the department’s Office of Academic Quality.

The department did not recommend any curriculum materials for high schools because a search did not turn up anything up to par, Polakow-Suransky said. But he said there was less urgency to roll out new materials in high schools because their exams are not yet being introduced. The first high school test to be tied to the Common Core will be ninth-grade algebra, next year.

At M.S. 244 in the Bronx, lead math teacher Scott Gallagher said he used an older version of the city’s new middle school math recommendations 10 years ago. “I can see why they’re recommending it for the Common Core,” Gallagher said today. “It emphasizes problem-solving as opposed to practicing math skills.”

“I definitely would be interested in revisiting,” Gallagher said. He said his teachers have found it challenging to cobble together Common Core-aligned material for every subject from different sources. It has been easy to find material on some topics — such as ratios and proportions — but harder for others, he said.

“If they have something that’s comprehensive and coherent under one program, that would make it more coherent for teachers and students,” he said about what the department is recommending.

But Polakow-Suransky said trading up to a curriculum that’s more closely aligned to the Common Core would not propel a struggling school to success by itself.

“Curriculum is not a magic bullet,” he said. “You can find plenty of schools across the country and plenty of districts across the country that have great curriculum, and kids don’t do well.”

He added, “It’s an important resource but let’s not overstate it either. It’s one of the pieces of the puzzle that’s going to be helpful as we make this transition.”

 

Ending the churn

A splintered system and lack of teachers have created instability for Detroit schools. Now, leaders are craving solutions.

Social studies teacher Aaron Ames learned that his former school took summer paychecks back from teachers who quit in August when money disappeared from his bank account.

Like many school leaders in Detroit, Danielle Robinson spent the month of August doggedly searching for teachers.

Robinson is the top Detroit official for Phalen Leadership Academies, a nonprofit charter school network that took over three Detroit schools from another manager in July.

By late August, with the start of school just days away, Phalen still needed 34 teachers to staff Murphy, Stewart and Trix elementary schools.

And there wasn’t much time.

“We did $5,000 retention bonuses,” Robinson said. “We did  $5,000 signing bonuses. We did $1,000 referral bonuses … We needed to make sure we had enough teachers because that’s a huge thing for students when they come back — a permanent teacher in the classroom. ”

Phalen’s challenge was extreme — a problem exacerbated by management changes and by the dissolution of the state-run recovery district that had been overseeing the three schools. They’re now overseen by a Detroit district unsure of its plans for charters.

But the schools’ scramble for teachers is hardly unusual in a city where liberal school choice laws, a decentralized school system and a shrinking pool of available teachers have so destabilized the teacher labor force that many school leaders say they’re constantly looking for new educators to hire.

“I’ve never seen anything quite like this in my career,” said Mark Ornstein who heads the seven-campus University Prep charter school network in Detroit. “There’s just not enough people to fill the number of vacancies …. We’re all seeing more and more teachers leaving in the middle of the year.”

So many schools are looking for teachers — in August, September and throughout the year — that educators can wait for bonuses and enticements to grow before accepting an offer. And every time a teacher takes an offer and leaves, that creates a vacancy likely to be filled by a teacher from another school. That other school then has a vacancy to fill.

As teachers leave, students suffer. Research shows that teachers hired during or just before the school year are less effective than those who’ve had more time to prepare and to properly learn their school’s curriculum.

Experts say the teacher churn is driven in part by the fierce competition between schools in Detroit that has intensified as charter schools have expanded — they now comprise nearly half of the city’s schools — and as more suburban schools actively recruit city kids. Parents often enroll in multiple schools while weighing their options and schools are left to guess how many students they’ll have and how many teachers they’ll need.

“It’s another consequence of this hyper-competition that has been created by our charter school programs and laws here in Michigan and it’s really working to the detriment of everybody involved,” said Mike Addonizio, a professor of education policy at Wayne State University.

“The schools are competing for students,” he said. “The students will dictate the revenues and that dictates their budget and therefore their ability to hire staff … And if a school is plagued with high teacher turnover, that makes it difficult for students. Outcomes won’t be good and as that information becomes public, those schools don’t do well in school choice decisions and enrollment will drop.”

Some Detroit schools are now pushing back on teachers who quit mid-year by putting financial penalties into teachers’ contracts that discourage them from leaving, but advocates say real solutions will require major changes.

Among them: improving conditions in schools so that teachers want to stay and creating partnerships between district and charter schools to minimize instability.

“In other states, schools set their budgets and know their enrollment so much further ahead that they can come to a [spring] job fair and know exactly who they need to hire,” said Karey Henderson, the director of the Metro Detroit Charter Center who was the assistant superintendent of a 10-school Michigan charter network called Global Educational Excellence.

In Michigan, enrollment “doesn’t really get fleshed out often until Count Day [in October],” Henderson said. “Teachers are nervous and they’re applying around …. We would be trying to train new teachers but then a public school would get more kids and need more teachers and our teachers would get a call … We would have to start out the year with long-term subs in the classroom.”

Then, if parents see a substitute in the classroom, they might move their child to another school — and the churn continues.

Much of the attention this year has focused on the difficulties facing Detroit’s main school district as it works to fill scores of vacancies  in its 106 schools, but the problem is playing out somewhat differently in charter schools where teachers tend to be younger and are more likely to change jobs — or to the leave the profession entirely — from one year to the next.

A recent report from the state education department found that charter school teachers are twice as likely to leave their jobs compared to teachers in traditional public schools. The same report found a higher teacher turnover in Michigan as compared to the national average and put the price tag of replacing a teacher at nearly $10,000.

PHOTO: Michigan Department of Education
A recent Michigan Department of Education report shows that Michigan teachers — especially those who work for charter schools — are more likely to leave their jobs than their peers across the country.

Another state report shows the problem for all schools could get even worse in coming years as the number of people applying for teacher certifications drops precipitously — much faster than the number of students who need a teacher.

School leaders say they’re taking steps to attract more teachers. Detroit school  superintendent Nikolai Vitti says he’s working to build a “teacher pipeline” that would encourage district graduates to go into education, do their training in Detroit and work here when they graduate.

Charter school leaders say they’re making similar efforts.

Grand Valley State University now provides scholarships to education students who do their training in Detroit charter schools overseen by Grand Valley, said Rob Kimball, who heads the university’s charter school office.  

Leaders from Grand Valley charter schools have also been meeting with their counterparts from schools overseen by Central Michigan University to discuss a “coordinated talent strategy,” Kimball said.

“There’s definitely an interest in coming up with a shared solution,” Kimball said. “We need to design a solution to really stabilize the marketplace for teacher talent and to develop a pipeline [for future teachers].”

PHOTO: Michigan Department of Education
A recent report from the Michigan Department of Education warns that number of new teacher certifications is dropping much faster than the number of students in the state.

In the absence of a citywide solution, individual schools are doing whatever they can to fill classrooms.

In the case of the Phalen Leadership Academies, Robinson, the top official, said her schools  applied for emergency certifications to put some people without teaching credentials into classrooms. The new teachers will get extra coaching to help them succeed, Robinson said, but it was a tough choice for an Indiana-based network that prides itself on hiring only highly qualified staff.

“None of our other schools in our network use emergency permits,” Robinson said.

Some charter schools have created bonus systems that require teachers to return for the next school year in order to collect last year’s bonus.

Others — including the University Prep schools — have contracts that don’t allow teachers to get their full summer pay unless they return for the new school year.

Social studies teacher Aaron Ames said he learned that the hard way when he resigned his job at the University Prep Academy Middle School on Aug. 18 to take a position with a different school.

Suddenly, he said, his last paycheck disappeared from his bank account.

“I looked at my bank account one day and saw a negative $900,” Ames said.

University Prep had paid him on Aug. 15 but took the money back when he quit three days later.

Ornstein said his teachers’ contracts begin on Aug. 1. If they resign before teacher training begins on Aug. 21, it means they didn’t do any work and shouldn’t have been paid.

Ames was furious. “It kind of make me want to quit teaching,” he said. “They should find a way to keep teachers honestly instead of trying to punish us for leaving.”

Contract provisions that seem designed to penalize departures are becoming increasingly common in Detroit charter schools, teachers union leaders say.

“At one charter school, the teachers call it the ‘death tax,’” said Nate Walker, an organizer and policy analyst with the Michigan chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, which represents teachers in the main Detroit district and in a handful of city charter schools. “They’re loading up penalties on teachers to try to deter them from leaving so close to the beginning of the school year … but that’s not going to fix the problem because the labor market in Detroit is destabilized and decentralized.”

Walker called for schools to give teachers contracts earlier in the year and to coordinate with each other so that teachers can know they’ll have income and health insurance over the summer even if they plan to change jobs in September.

The current structure encourages teachers to hold on to last year’s job until the insurance for next year’s job kicks in in August or September, Walker said.

“This is a lot easier said than done because of the multi-operator system that we have right now, but if employers were to make the commitment that any time they’ve given someone an offer to work in the fall, they’re also willing to turn on insurance for that employee, that could solve at least part of the problem,” Walker said.

The only way to fix the rest of the problem, Addonizio said, is to address the reasons that teachers leave in the first place.  

“The best thing that a school or a school district can do to combat the teacher turnover problem is to improve working conditions in the school,” Addonizio said. “For new teachers, their compensation might mean something, but more than anything, they want some mentoring, assistance from veteran teachers. They want some help.”

Henderson said schools need to find a way to start working together — instead of just poaching teachers from each other.

“Get everyone in the room,” she said. “I know everyone is protective over how they manage their schools and run their H.R. but if you get enough H.R. people together in the same room, I think you can come up with a solution.”

disaster ready

Here’s how New York City schools are preparing to serve students impacted by Hurricane Maria

Just weeks after Hurricane Maria traced a deadly path across the Caribbean, The New American Academy Charter School in Flatbush, Brooklyn got a call.

It was a family member looking for a school for two young relatives after their home on Dominica was wrecked, along with most of the small island.

Before long, the students were enrolled in kindergarten and first grade. The school quickly gave the family a scholarship for after-school care and provided free uniforms — even including new shoes, socks and underwear.

“They lost everything,” said Lisa Parquette Silva, the school’s headmaster. “As soon as I heard these two students needed a place, it was not a question.”

New York City is preparing to potentially welcome an influx of students fleeing Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands after the powerful hurricane struck in September, knocking out power grids and flattening homes. The leaders of the country’s largest school system insist they are ready for whomever comes.

“We are going to do whatever we can to support and accommodate them,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said at a recent press conference, “starting with our public schools.”

Hundreds of thousands could flee Puerto Rico. As home to some of the largest Caribbean communities on the mainland, New York City is a logical place for many of those people to land. They are likely to bring with them an untold number of children who need to enroll in schools — though officials say it’s hard to know how many until they actually arrive.

Already, the Orlando school system reported enrolling almost 300 students from Puerto Rico as of last week. In Miami-Dade, the number was around 200, according to The 74.

In New York City, schools have not yet seen a significant uptick in enrollment, officials said. The few students who have arrived have landed in Bronx and Brooklyn schools, they added.

Serving those students will likely require a host of extra resources. The Miami-Dade school system is expecting to spend $2,200 for every student the district takes in, according to the Wall Street Journal.

New York City schools chancellor Carmen Fariña said the city has sent representatives to Puerto Rico to understand how the situation there could impact schools. Meanwhile, the education department has begun to survey principals here to find out which schools have space to take in new students — and assured those schools that they would get extra funding. Guidance counselors are being trained to meet storm survivors’ unique needs.

“Money will be allotted to those schools to be able to service those children,” Fariña said at the press conference, “understanding in many cases there may be extra support needed for families and trauma.”

The state education department recently put out guidance for schools, saying children who have fled a disaster are likely protected by federal law for homeless students. Under the law, districts can waive documentation requirements for school enrollment — which the city is doing at its Family Welcome Centers — and students are eligible for free meals.

Nicholas Tishuk, executive director of Bedford Stuyvesant New Beginnings charter school in Brooklyn, said he is already fielding calls from people who are looking for schools as they consider whether to bring over family members from Puerto Rico.

The independent charter school recently packed a van with donated lanterns, batteries and water to be shipped to the island. School leaders have also put the word out that they are ready to enroll students impacted by the storm.

If the school runs out of space, Tishuk hopes it can still serve as a clearinghouse to put families in touch with other local options.

“A school can be a very powerful place to get extra resources,” he said, noting that New Beginnings has a bilingual staff that regularly collaborates with social-service agencies. “Even if it’s not our school, you should reach out to a school that can help you connect to those resources.”

Schools that take in displaced students will most likely have to offer bilingual classes and provide counselors who can support children who have been separated from their parents and are living in the city with relatives.

Eve Colavito, director of schools for DREAM charter school in East Harlem, said one of the most important things schools can provide is stability. The pre-K through ninth-grade school enrolled a middle school student from Puerto Rico this week.

“Our goal initially,” she said, “is to make school as normal and predictable as possible for them.”