Let's Make Plans

During summer break, teachers find coveted collaboration time

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

Just after 9 a.m. last Friday, when the morning sunlight and a mild breeze practically demanded a day at the beach, about 30 teachers sat in a Brooklyn classroom with the lights off listening to a former principal talk about lesson planning.

The speaker was Nate Dudley, the head of the school-support network that organized two week-long course-planning workshops this month – Dudley called them bootcamps – for the teachers it serves. Spread out among the stripped-down summer classrooms at Williamsburg Preparatory High School, this latest group of teachers had spent their week assembling standards, assessments, materials, and activities into “unit plans” that would serve as roadmaps for several weeks worth of lessons.

“This is pretty substantial work,” Dudley told the teachers. If they could finish just one such unit plan by week’s end, Dudley added, “That’s pretty amazing.”

With the new Common Core standards and their associated tests, a new teacher-evaluation system, and new special-education policies that mix students with varying abilities, lesson planning may be more complicated and consequential than ever before. In high schools, where educators often create their own materials and course outlines, that’s even more likely to be the case. And yet, in many schools, teachers are left to do the lion’s share of planning alone.

So when Dudley’s network, known as N403, offered a paid opportunity for educators to plan together – even though it fell in the middle of summer – more than 100 teachers applied for the 70 spots. The alternative, explained Eddie Abdenour, a math teacher at the College of Staten Island High School, was certainly less appealing.

“It’s me,” Abdenour said of his normal planning routine, “in front of my computer, at home, on a Saturday morning.”

Dudley’s network includes 29 schools spread across the city – most are high schools and many are for older students who are behind in accumulating credits. The teachers who signed up for last week’s planning workshop started crafting their units by choosing a few of the Common Core standards, the knowledge and skills New York has decided that students should acquire by the end of each grade. Then they devised end-of-unit assessments for students to prove they had mastered the material.

For a unit on the Industrial Revolution, Michelle Sperandio, who teaches world history at Queens Metropolitan High School, decided to have students debate whether a certain developing nation should adopt capitalism, communism, or socialism.

Ramsey Ess, Caitlin Fagan, and Chris Fazio, who teach freshman and sophomore English at that school, modeled a quiz in their “Antigone” unit on the photo-sharing site Instagram. The students will write comments from the perspective of different characters from the ancient play as if they were chatting on today’s social media. The teachers offered an example from the viewpoint of Antigone: “Never felt so betrayed than by my sister. #disappointed.”

Nate Dudley (center), leads the school-support network N403. He organized two week-long workshops this summer where teachers could help each other plan their courses.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Nate Dudley (center), leads the school-support network N403. He organized two week-long workshops this summer where teachers could help each other plan their courses.

The teachers received feedback on their units throughout the week from network coaches and from colleagues. Fazio, for instance, wrote on another teacher’s plans: “Holy cow. Excellent tie to RL.3,” referring to a standard that asks students to track how characters change over time.

Several teachers said such support as they plan can be frustratingly rare.

“You get very isolated,” said Harmonica Kao, a math teacher at Professional Pathways High School in Brooklyn. As the state gradually rolls out new Regents exams tied to the Common Core standards, he added, some high school teachers are just beginning to grapple with how to prepare students for the new tests.

As the teachers at the workshop fashioned their units, they borrowed from each other and online sources, including the state’s Common Core website, Engage New York. Nine of the 11 math teachers working in one classroom on Friday said they regularly draw from the state’s materials. Still, many said the site’s plans must be modified because they often pack an unrealistic amount of material into lessons or include tasks that are too difficult for many students.

Barbara Niederhoffer, a calculus and trigonometry teacher at the College of Staten Island High School, said that more useful than any website is time spent poring over curriculum with colleagues. She had spent the week bouncing ideas off of Abdenour, the school’s algebra and geometry teacher who often spends his Saturdays lesson planning alone.

“One and one,” she said, as she and her colleague put the finishing touches on their plans, “is more than two.”

discipline paradox

Do charter schools suspend students more? It depends on how you look at the data.

PHOTO: Chris Hondros/Getty Images
A student reads on a dotted carpet where students often sit for class at Harlem Success Academy.

A few weeks ago, a government watchdog agency released an extensive report on discipline in U.S. schools. It drew headlines for underscoring how black students, boys, and students with disabilities are much more likely to be suspended.

But there was one question that the report helped answer that didn’t get much attention: are charter schools more or less likely to suspend their students?

It’s a fraught topic, particularly as so-called “no-excuses” charter schools across the country have been criticized for what some see as overly harsh discipline. And the answer turns out to be complicated.

Here’s the latest national snapshot, which comes from 2013-14 data. Overall, charter schools have a somewhat higher out-of-school suspension rate — meaning the percent of students who were suspended at least once — than traditional public schools. But when you break down suspensions by students’ race, charters actually post slightly lower rates in each major group.

Source: GAO analysis of Department of Education Civil Rights Data Collection Graphic: Sam Park

How can that be? It happens because charters and traditional public schools don’t have the same share of students in each student group. Charters serve a greater share of black students, for one, and those students are much more likely to be suspended than other groups in both sectors. (Statistics teachers, you can use this as a real-world example of what’s known as Simpson’s paradox.)

These findings highlight how complicated it is to fairly compare suspension rates across schools, and suggest that charter schools may have have similar — even lower — suspension rates than traditional schools, depending on how the data is sliced.

At the same time, some of the most-praised charters, particularly those in the “no-excuses” camp, really have been shown to post high suspension rates, even accounting for differences in student populations.

A 2013 study showed that attending a Boston charter school, often lauded for high test scores, substantially increased the amount of time students were suspended.

And to be clear, the GAO data show that black students at charter schools — and all kinds of schools in the report — still get suspended at a far higher rate than other charter students. Moreover, the report shows that charter schools are more likely to suspend students with disabilities than traditional public schools (12.9 percent vs. 11.6 percent).

Charters reported lower overall rates of in-school suspensions, referrals to law enforcement, expulsions, corporal punishment, and school-related arrests than traditional public schools.

All of this data describes what is happening, but it doesn’t explain why. And the report doesn’t look at other characteristics — like students’ motivation or academic performance — that may be related to their likelihood of being suspended.

Keep in mind that although the data that GAO relies on, the 2013–14 Civil Rights Data Collection out of the U.S. Department of Education, is widely cited, it has important limitations. In particular, some have found evidence in past data collections that schools, including charters, misreported discipline rates.

(The author of the GAO report noted in an email that the department had made efforts to catch data problems by flagging large districts that report zero suspensions. But since charters are usually relatively small, these checks may be less likely to catch errors among charter schools.)

Charter schools are also more likely to deliver instruction entirely through virtual programs, and those cyber charters may be unlikely to suspend students. A more appropriate comparison might be be between brick-and-mortar charters and brick-and-mortar traditional schools, but the data isn’t broken down that way.

This data is notable, in other words, but should be interpreted with caution.

Homework

The Detroit district’s first homework policy is in the works. See how much homework it recommends your child do every night.

Detroit students who are drowning in homework — or unable to complete it because of challenges at home — could soon find relief in a new policy.

The Detroit district on Tuesday proposed putting a cap on the amount of time students in different grade levels spend on homework. Kindergartners would be limited to 10 minutes of homework, while high school juniors and seniors would see their homework load capped at three hours total, across all subjects.

The proposed policy, which a school board subcommittee is now considering, would also prohibit schools from penalizing students who can’t do homework assignments in the allotted time. It would also prohibit teachers from assigning grades on homework assignments and limit how much they can count whether students completed homework to just 10 percent of their final grades.

The policy, which is the new district’s first attempt at a formal homework policy, may address educators’ concerns that a student’s ability to complete homework reflects how much or how little support she receives at home, not her academic abilities. Indeed, some research has suggested that homework can widen performance gaps between students from affluent and low-income families. Research has also found little benefit to homework for young students and diminishing returns for older students after a certain amount of time.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said he expects the policy to be welcomed by local families and educators.

“This will be a shift,” he said. “I think for parents this will be well received and for teachers it will be well received.”

But questions are already emerging about how the policy would be implemented — and whether it should be.

“I think that it’s awesome,” board member and former teacher, principal, and superintendent Deborah Hunter-Harvill said. “But is it realistic? I doubt it.”

Because a maximum number of minutes of homework time per night is for all subjects, board member Misha Stallworth questioned whether teachers would need to use more time to coordinate assignments with their colleagues, taking away from their own lesson planning.

District officials are still trying to figure out how to implement and enforce the new time limits, Vitti said.

They might discover that involved parents could be an obstacle. Dana Dacres, a parent of five children attending Burton International Academy, said she spends close to half an hour on homework every night with her kindergartner alone — time that she said is valuable.

“I can see the idea — they don’t want the kids coming home after spending six, seven, or eight hours in the classroom and then having to ‘take your work home with you,’” she said, “but the reality is that some kids need a little bit extra.”

Dacres said she does like that the policy might force students to work more efficiently.

“The idea is to get the work done within the allotted amount of time,” she said. “I like the idea of students becoming good time managers.”

The policies are heard first at the public subcommittee meeting where members can suggest changes. They are then read at a public school board meeting before being voted upon by the full board.

Find the maximum number of minutes of homework per grade below.