Time Management

Educators question contract's bet on teacher training over student tutoring

PHOTO: Sarah Darville

The proposed teachers contract stakes a claim about the time educators spend with students: quality beats quantity.

The new agreement would upend a key provision of the 2005 contract, which added two-and-a-half hours to the school week so teachers could work with small group of students. Now, most of that time would be devoted to teacher professional development and some to parent outreach.

The idea behind the contract changes, officials explained, is that better-trained teachers will have a greater impact on students even if they spend less time with them.

“We have to train teachers so that the time they’re spending with students is much more effective and valuable,” said United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew. “Versus doing, once again, this political punch line — more time with the student. Let’s make it better time with the student.”

While that approach makes sense to many, others note that professional development can vary widely in quality, and they question whether teacher training ever trumps instructional time.

“I honestly have never met one teacher who thinks the solution to the educational crisis is less time with students and more time in PD,” wrote the author of the education blog, Doenuts.

The 2005 contract had most schools divide two-and-a-half hours per week, or 150 minutes, into four after-school tutoring or small-group sessions each week, with some exceptions. “Multi-session” schools that have staggered starts were allowed to spread those extra minutes throughout their normal school day. Also, schools could request to use some of that time for teacher-team planning rather than tutoring.

The new contract, which must still be ratified, would take back those 150 minutes and split them into three chunks: teachers would spend 80 minutes each Monday in school-based professional development, 35 minutes on Tuesdays collaborating with colleagues, and another 40 minutes each Tuesday communicating with parents in writing, on the phone, or through newsletters and class websites.

Not every school would be affected by the change. Multi-session schools will again be exempt from this default arrangement, though they will be expected to provide professional development and parent engagement, according to union officials. Also, schools that prefer their current arrangement with the extra instructional time could request an exemption that would allow them to keep some part of their schedule.

Chancellor Carmen Fariña said that schools could pay teachers to tutor students after-school or on Saturdays with money saved by running their own professional development rather than hiring outside trainers. Also, the new contract would allow up to 200 schools to restructure their school days, potentially freeing them to add more small-group time.

After details about the proposed contract emerged last week, some educators expressed concern about trading extra instructional time for teacher training, which might not be helpful.

Peter Lamphere, a high school math teacher in Washington Heights, said some school leaders carefully consider teachers’ needs and plan professional development where educators help each other improve. But other administrators run top-down, unhelpful trainings.

“Now they’ll have 80 minutes to do that rather than a faculty conference once per month,” he said. “So it could be torture for some people.” 

Others questioned whether the contract needs to set aside time for parent communication, which most teachers already find time to do without such provisions, said Evan Schwartz, principal of the Bronx’s Alfred E. Smith High School.

“It wasn’t like they were sitting around saying, ‘I have these great creative ideas, but it’s not in my contract so I’m not doing them,’” he said.

But other people who work in schools welcomed the extra time for training and collaboration.

Darlene Cameron, principal of P.S. 63 in the East Village, said the after-school time built into the current contract has helped some struggling students but is not a perfect system, since some students resist staying after the normal school day and some parents pick them up before the sessions end. She said now the school will find time to offer those students extra support during the school day and that the new training sessions could focus on ways to reach those students during class.

“I think in the end this will have a bigger impact for children all around,” she said.

Teacher committees at each school will help decide how to use the new training time, though a main focus will be on the Common Core standards and the city will offer some guidance, officials said. Fariña said teachers could spend some of the time writing curriculum or sharing best practices.

“This is peer-to-peer, teacher-to-teacher,” she said, “And it really is, to me, a dream come true.”

Research has shown that when teachers meet for about 90 minutes per week to plan lessons, analyze student work, or devise supports for students with special needs, it can boost student achievement, said Lynette Guastaferro, executive director of Teaching Matters, an organization that works with public schools to increase teacher effectiveness.

She added that the new learning standards place greater demands on educators and make regular professional development even more essential.

“When our entire educational force has to reboot because of the Common Core, it is essential that teachers have time to learn,” she said.

Election Forum

Tennesseans are about to get their first good look at candidates for governor on education

PHOTO: TN.gov
Former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen speaks as his successor, Gov. Bill Haslam, listens during a 2017 forum hosted by the State Collaborative on Reforming Education. Tennesseans will elect their next governor in November.

For almost 16 years, two Tennessee governors from two different political parties have worked off mostly the same playbook when it comes to K-12 education.

This year, voters will choose a new governor who will determine if that playbook stays intact — or takes a different direction from the administrations of Bill Haslam, a Republican leaving office next January, and Phil Bredesen, the Democrat who preceded him.

Voters will get to hear from all but one of the major candidates Tuesday evening during the first gubernatorial forum televised statewide. Organizers say the spotlight on education is fitting since, based on one poll, it’s considered one of the top three issues facing Tennessee’s next governor. Both K-12 and higher education are on the table.

Candidates participating are:

  • Mae Beavers, a Republican from Mt. Juliet and former Tennessee state senator;
  • Randy Boyd, a Republican from Knoxville and former commissioner of Economic and Community Development and a Republican from Knoxville;
  • Karl Dean, a Democrat and former mayor of Nashville;
  • Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, a Democrat from Ripley and minority leader in the Tennessee House of Representatives;
  • Rep. Beth Harwell, a Republican from Nashville and speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives;
  • Bill Lee, a Republican businessman from Williamson County

The seventh major candidate, U.S. Rep. Diane Black, a Republican from Gallatin, is in the midst of a congressional session in Washington, D.C.

The next governor will help decide whether Tennessee will stay the course under its massive overhaul of K-12 education initiated under Bredesen’s watch. The work was jump-started by the state’s $500 million federal Race to the Top award, for which Tennessee agreed to adopt the Common Core academic standards for math and English; incorporate students’ scores from standardized tests in annual teacher evaluations; and establish a state-run turnaround district to intervene in low-performing schools at an unprecedented level.

Tennessee has since enjoyed steady student growth and watched its national rankings rise, but the transition hasn’t been pain-free. Pushback on its heavy-handed turnaround district led leaders to widen school improvement strategies. They also ordered new academic standards due to political backlash over the Common Core (though the revised standards are still basically grounded in Common Core).

A major issue now is whether the next governor and legislature will retain Tennessee’s across-the-board system of accountability for students, teachers, schools and districts. Snafus and outright failures with TNReady, the new standardized test that serves as the lynchpin, have prompted some calls to make the assessment just a diagnostic tool or scrap it altogether. Haslam and his leadership team have stood firm.

“We as Tennesseans made the right call — the tough call — on the policies we’ve pursued,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen told Chalkbeat recently. “Nearly every other state has compromised in some way on some of these core foundational components of policy work, and we have not.”

The State Collaborative on Reforming Education, an advocacy group that works closely with Tennessee’s Department of Education, is a co-host of Tuesday’s forum. Known as SCORE, the group has sought to shape the election-year conversation with priorities that include teacher quality, improving literacy, and developing school leaders — all outgrowths of learnings during Tennessee’s Race to the Top era.

SCORE President David Mansouri said the goal is to maintain the momentum of historic gains in student achievement from the last decade. “The next administration’s education policy decisions will be crucial in determining whether Tennessee students continue to progress faster than students in other states and whether they graduate ready for postsecondary success,” he said Monday.

The one-hour forum will delve into a range of issues. College and career readiness, education equity, and school funding will be among the topics broached before each candidate is allowed a one-minute closing statement, according to David Plazas, a Tennessean editor who will help moderate the discussion.

“It will be really exciting,” Plazas promised. “We’re hoping the candidates are prepared to talk substantively on the issues and to avoid slogans.”

The event begins at 7 p.m. CT at Nashville’s Belmont University. Along with SCORE, it’s being co-hosted by USA TODAY NETWORK and Nashville’s NewsChannel 5. You can livestream the event here and learn more about attending or watching here.

Tennessee’s primary election is set for Aug. 2, with the general election on Nov. 6.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at [email protected]

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede