four in 1750

Identifying a weakness, Explore Schools shifts focus to literacy

A group of Explore teachers listen to a teaching training session on cognitive engagement in literacy at Brooklyn College on Wednesday.
A group of Explore teachers listen to a teaching training session on cognitive engagement in literacy at Brooklyn College on Wednesday.

When second-year teacher Alyssa Reyes saw her fourth-graders’ state exam scores, she was surprised. Math was a lot higher than she thought it would be and literacy was lower than she expected, she said.

The Explore Excel Charter School teacher attributed the disparity to the fact that last year her school didn’t have a literacy coordinator, while it had a full-time math coordinator who was “exceptional.”

“She really challenged me as a first-year teacher to not only get good at planning but also be much more reflective about execution and coming back to help students with different learning styles,” Reyes said.

Explore Schools picked up on this network-wide weakness in literacy and has responded by adding full-time literacy coordinators to join the ones in math and increasing the time that teachers have to work together. It is also strengthening its shared literacy curriculum and pushing teachers to tackle bigger-picture goals like “cognitive engagement” in their classrooms.

New York schools have known about the new Common Core standards for nearly three years now and were supposed to tie their instruction to the new standards for the first time last year. But the results of the state tests released earlier this month have made the changes a reality, and educators across the city are spending the waning weeks of summer considering how to adjust their teaching in light of the scores.

At Explore, which convened all teachers for five full days of training this week and new teachers for an additional week, network officials said they had planned a renewed focus on literacy before the test results were released. But the network’s scores — the four schools posted math scores higher than the state and city averages, but fell far short in reading, in keeping with a trend at city charter schools — reinforced that choice.

At the heart of the literacy focus is an overhaul to the network’s literacy curriculum and the way it is delivered. The network has had a single math curriculum for a few years, which has allowed teachers to focus on tailoring lessons to meet students’ needs rather than creating lessons from scratch, said Miriam Barry, the network’s literacy coordinator. Now, the network’s standard literacy curriculum will be augmented with additional materials created by network educators and others. The same will go for the literacy curriculum, she said: Instead of having to waste time hunting down the perfect text, they’ll be able to draw on resources that have already been compiled.

In a network that is still adding grades at most of its schools each year, the more robust curriculum materials will also let new teachers put their energy into how they teach, rather than what they teach, Barry said.

That emphasis will carry over into the network’s new “professional learning communities.” In previous years, teachers would have a 45-minute weekly meeting to plan lessons, but the conversations never went into depth about how the lessons would work or could be better, according to Marni Greenstein, the network’s director of curriculum and instruction. So now literacy teachers will work together in three 45-minute weekly sessions. Math teachers will have one 90-minute weekly meeting.

In these meetings, Greenstein said teachers will be talking about or rehearsing the actual lesson they will teach instead of just planning it. The idea is to help teachers learn from each other and collaborate more.

“Some teachers are really into the theoretical side and then you don’t see it in the classroom. And some teachers are natural and intuitive in the classroom, so we want to get them talking about how they’re thinking about it, and meld that with teachers who are more theoretical so it transfers into practice,” Greenstein said.

The additional scrutiny on what makes lessons work — or fall flat — is meant to allow teachers to strive for more than just academic knowledge among their students. The network has also set a goal of achieving “cognitive engagement,” or essentially getting all students to pay attention and think deeply about the work they’re doing.

In a math training session on Wednesday, Greenstein drew a cloud around the words “Cognitive Engagement” and asked the teachers what it meant to them. The group of Explore teachers shouted out words such as curiosity, ownership, grappling, investment and minds on (as opposed to hands on).

The brainstorm continued for another half hour until Greenstein organized everyone’s thoughts into a single definition: “Cognitive engagement is when all students are constructing and deepening understanding of content for themselves and others. This is evidenced through ‘minds-on’ work where students are synthesizing, grappling, applying and reflecting on content.”

Later, teachers watched videos of math and literacy lessons and pointed out what they observed that indicated students were “cognitively engaged,” and what the teacher could done differently. They also spent time talking about the tension between engaging students and getting through the material they need to cover in the time they have.

Mitha Nandogopalan, a fifth-grade literacy teacher in her second year, said the session made her realize she wants to focus on making her students do more of the thinking.

“Particularly as a new teacher, it’s easy to spend a lot of time thinking about how you’re presenting the material … because that feels like it’s in your control,” she said. “But if you aren’t stepping back and letting students do the work and doing the thinking, you can explain it beautifully and it will not have penetrated their heads.”

Greenstein said that while teachers get excited talking about this kind of learning, it takes a lot of practice to actually make it happen in the classroom, which is why the professional learning communities will play an important role.

And in a nod to the pattern that so often plays out in schools, in which big plans fade as teachers retreat into their own classrooms and the nitty-gritty of the school year gets underway, Barry began the literacy session by telling teachers that Explore’s emphasis on cognitive engagement “is not an initiative.”

“It’s not one of those things we’re going to talk a lot about and then stop talking about it when it gets hard,” she said. “This is how we’re going to reach that excellent instruction for our children.”

after douglas

Betsy DeVos avoids questions on discrimination as school safety debates reach Congress

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos prepares to testify at a House Appropriations Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies Subcommittee hearing in Rayburn Building on the department's FY2019 budget on March 20, 2018. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos fielded some hostile questions on school safety and racial discrimination as she defended the Trump administration’s budget proposal in a House committee hearing on Tuesday.

The tone for the hearing was set early by ranking Democrat Rep. Rosa DeLauro, who called aspects DeVos’s prepared remarks “misleading and cynical” before the secretary had spoken. Even the Republican subcommittee chair, Rep. Tom Cole, expressed some skepticism, saying he was “concerned about the administration continuing to request cuts that Congress has rejected.”

During nearly two hours of questioning, DeVos stuck to familiar talking points and largely side-stepped the tougher queries from Democrats, even as many interrupted her.

For instance, when Rep. Barbara Lee, a Democrat from Texas, complained about proposed spending cuts and asked, “Isn’t it your job to ensure that schools aren’t executing harsher punishments for the same behavior because [students] are black or brown?” DeVos responded by saying that students of color would benefit from expanded school choice programs.

Lee responded: “You still haven’t talked about the issue in public schools as it relates to black and brown students and the high disparity rates as it relates to suspensions and expulsions. Is race a factor? Do you believe that or not?” (Recent research in Louisiana found that black students receive longer suspensions than white students involved in the same fights, though the difference was very small.)

Again, DeVos did not reply directly.

“There is no place for discrimination and there is no tolerance for discrimination, and we will continue to uphold that,” she said. “I’m very proud of the record of the Office of Civil Rights in continuing to address issues that arise to that level.”

Lee responded that the administration has proposed cuts to that office; DeVos said the reduction was modest — less than 1 percent — and that “they are able to do more with less.”

The specific policy decision that DeVos faces is the future of a directive issued in 2014 by the Obama administration designed to push school districts to reduce racial disparities in suspensions and expulsions. Conservatives and some teachers have pushed DeVos to rescind this guidance, while civil rights groups have said it is crucial for ensuring black and Hispanic students are not discriminated against.

That was a focus of another hearing in the House on Tuesday precipitated by the shooting last month at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican, falsely claimed in his opening statement that Broward County Public Schools rewrote its discipline policy based on the federal guidance — an idea that has percolated through conservative media for weeks and been promoted by other lawmakers, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Utah Sen. Mike Lee. In fact, the Broward County rules were put into place in 2013, before the Obama administration guidance was issued.

The Manhattan Institute’s Max Eden, a leading critic of Obama administration’s guidance, acknowledged in his own testimony that the Broward policy predated these rules. But he suggested that policies like Broward’s and the Obama administration’s guidance have made schools less safe.

“Faced with pressure to get the numbers down, the easiest path is to simply not address, or to not record, troubling, even violent, behavior,” he said.

Kristen Harper, a director with research group Child Trends and a former Obama administration official, disagreed. “To put it simply, neither the purpose nor the letter of the federal school discipline guidance restrict the authority of school personnel to remove a child who is threatening student safety,” she said.

There is little, if any, specific evidence linking Broward County’s policies to how Stoneman Douglas shooter Nicholas Cruz was dealt with. There’s also limited evidence about whether reducing suspensions makes schools less safe.

Eden pointed to a study in Philadelphia showing that the city’s ban on suspensions coincided with a drop in test scores and attendance in some schools. But those results are difficult to interpret because the prohibition was not fully implemented in many schools. He also cited surveys of teachers expressing concerns about safety in the classroom including in Oklahoma CityFresno, California; and Buffalo, New York.

On the other hand, a recent study found that after Chicago modestly reduced suspensions for the most severe behaviors, student test scores and attendance jumped without any decline in how safe students felt.

DeVos is now set to consider the repeal of those policies on the Trump administration’s school safety committee, which she will chair.

On Tuesday, DeVos said the committee’s first meeting would take place “within the next few weeks.” Its members will be four Cabinet secretaries: DeVos herself, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, and Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen.

on the run

‘Sex and the City’ star and public schools advocate Cynthia Nixon launches bid for N.Y. governor

Cynthia Nixon on Monday announced her long-anticipated run for New York governor.

Actress and public schools advocate Cynthia Nixon announced Monday that she’s running for governor of New York, ending months of speculation and launching a campaign that will likely spotlight education.

Nixon, who starred as Miranda in the TV series “Sex and the City,” will face New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in September’s Democratic primary.

Nixon has been active in New York education circles for more than a decade. She served as a  longtime spokeswoman for the Alliance for Quality Education, a union-backed advocacy organization. Though Nixon will step down from that role, according to a campaign spokeswoman, education promises to be a centerpiece of her campaign.

In a campaign kickoff video posted to Twitter, Nixon calls herself “a proud public school graduate, and a prouder public school parent.” Nixon has three children.

“I was given chances I just don’t see for most of New York’s kids today,” she says.

Nixon’s advocacy began when her oldest child started school, which was around the same time the recession wreaked havoc on education budgets. She has slammed Gov. Cuomo for his spending on education during his two terms in office, and she has campaigned for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

In 2008, she stepped into an emotional fight on the Upper West Side over a plan to deal with overcrowding and segregation that would have impacted her daughter’s school. In a video of brief remarks during a public meeting where the plan was discussed, Nixon is shouted down as she claims the proposal would lead to a “de facto segregated” school building.

Nixon faces steep competition in her first run for office. She is up against an incumbent governor who has amassed a $30 million war chest, according to the New York Times. If elected, she would be the first woman and the first openly gay governor in the state.