lab schools

More schools to experiment with online work, schedule changes

Chancellor Joel Klein is expanding a pilot program that takes the experiments city schools often conduct behind closed classroom doors and brings them to other schools.

Called Innovation Zone, or iZone, the program began this year in ten schools and will grow to include 81 schools next year. At its core is a heavy emphasis on expanding online learning, a major focus of Klein’s tenure at the Department of Education.

Of the iZone schools, more than half will adopt the “virtual school” model. This involves using online Advanced Placement classes and credit recovery courses or simply combining online work and face-to-face instruction. Six schools will alter their schedules to make the school day or year longer and 35 will begin using software that’s designed to change instruction based on how much a student struggles or excels.

One of the six schools that will change its schedule next year is P.S. 50, an elementary and junior high school in East Harlem. A spokeswoman for The After School Corporation said the organization is in talks with P.S. 50 to extend the school day to 6 p.m.

Many of the ideas for iZone schools’ alterations came from public schools like Brooklyn Technical High School, which designed its own online courses, and the Brooklyn Generation School, which radically changed its schedule to create an 11-month school year.

“We know each of these innovations has significant research demonstrating its potential to accelerate student learning,” White said. “Those that have the most impact, we’ll work to scale throughout the system.”

A Brooklyn high school, Victory Collegiate, is going to adopt elements of the Brooklyn Generation School’s schedule, which staggers teachers’ vacations to lengthen the school year and front-loads the school day with core subjects, giving teachers afternoon time to prep.

Next fall, ten schools will begin offering online credit recovery courses. Some, such as Curtis High School, are big schools with students who fail and have to retake courses for innumerable reasons. Others like Chelsea Career and Technical High School are small, but have a proportionally high number of students who are held back because they don’t accumulate enough credits to graduate.

Arthur VanderVeen, who is tasked with overseeing the iZone for the DOE, said the current model of credit recovery isn’t working for many students. “If a student fails a course their options generally are to retake the course in summer school or after school, and usually without very effective results,” he said.

“Schools that use online credit recovery see it’s an alternative approach that’s very engaging. They’re [students] getting that individualized attention and that’s often the difference.”

Online credit recovery programs could also lend some credibility to the process of making up class work or completing extra assignments that sometimes inspires skepticism from critics who see the standards as being too lax.

“This is the kind of delivery system that lends itself to greater rigor, which is what credit recovery needs,” White said. “There are more controls around what a student is obligated to do.”

Twenty schools — many of them with too few high-achieving students to hire a teacher for Advanced Placement classes — will adopt online courses next year. Students at these schools will be able to discuss their work in chat rooms with students and teachers at other schools, VanderVeen said.

Two schools — I.S. 339 and I.S. 228 — are going to become pilots for the School of One program next year, which began as an after-school program in M.S. 131, a Chinatown middle school, last summer. School of One will become part of the day for all three schools next year. The program focuses on math instruction and creates a computer-generated “playlist” of lessons for students.

Nominated by their school support organizations, 110 schools applied to be part of the iZone, which is being funded in part through about $2 million in donations from Cisco Global Education and the Ford Foundation, $3.2 million in stimulus funds, and additional capital fund dollars. DOE officials would not disclose the project’s total cost.

money matters

Report: Trump education budget would create a Race to the Top for school choice

PHOTO: Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead
President Donald Trump and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos participate in a tour of Saint Andrews Catholic in Orlando, Florida.

The Trump administration appears to be going ahead with a $1 billion effort to push districts to allow school choice, according to a report in the Washington Post.

The newspaper obtained what appears to be an advance version of the administration’s education budget, set for release May 23. The budget documents reflect more than $10 billion in cuts, many of which were included in the budget proposal that came out in March, according to the Post’s report. They include cuts to after-school programs for poor students, teacher training, and more:

… a $15 million program that provides child care for low-income parents in college; a $27 million arts education program; two programs targeting Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian students, totaling $65 million; two international education and foreign language programs, $72 million; a $12 million program for gifted students; and $12 million for Special Olympics education programs.

Other programs would not be eliminated entirely, but would be cut significantly. Those include grants to states for career and technical education, which would lose $168 million, down 15 percent compared to current funding; adult basic literacy instruction, which would lose $96 million (down 16 percent); and Promise Neighborhoods, an Obama-era initiative meant to build networks of support for children in needy communities, which would lose $13 million (down 18 percent).

The documents also shed some light on how the administration plans to encourage school choice. The March proposal said the administration would spend $1 billion to encourage districts to switch to “student-based budgeting,” or letting funds flow to students rather than schools.

The approach is considered essential for school choice to thrive. Yet the mechanics of the Trump administration making it happen are far from obvious, as we reported in March:

There’s a hitch in the budget proposal: Federal law spells out exactly how Title I funds must be distributed, through funding formulas that sends money to schools with many poor students.

“I do not see a legal way to spend a billion dollars on an incentive for weighted student funding through Title I,” said Nora Gordon, an associate professor of public policy at Georgetown University. “I think that would have to be a new competitive program.”

There are good reasons for the Trump administration not to rush into creating a program in which states compete for new federal funds, though. … Creating a new program would open the administration to criticism of overreach — which the Obama administration faced when it used the Race to the Top competition to get states to adopt its priorities.

It’s unclear from the Post’s report how the Trump administration is handling Gordon’s concerns. But the Post reports that the administration wants to use a competitive grant program — which it’s calling Furthering Options for Children to Unlock Success, or FOCUS — to redistribute $1 billion in Title I funds for poor students. That means the administration decided that an Obama-style incentive program is worth the potential risks.

The administration’s budget request would have to be fulfilled by Congress, so whether any of the cuts or new programs come to pass is anyone’s guess. Things are not proceeding normally in Washington, D.C., right now.

By the numbers

After reshaping itself to combat declining interest, Teach For America reports a rise in applications

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Memphis corps members of Teach For America participate in a leadership summit in last August.

Teach for America says its application numbers jumped by a significant number this year, reversing a three-year trend of declining interest in the program.

The organization’s CEO said in a blog post this week that nearly 49,000 people applied for the 2017 program, which places college graduates in low-income schools across the country after summer training — up from just 37,000 applicants last year.

“After three years of declining recruitment, our application numbers spiked this year, and we’re in a good position to meet our goals for corps size, maintaining the same high bar for admission that we always have,” Elisa Villanueva Beard wrote. The post was reported by Politico on Wednesday.

The news comes after significant shake-ups at the organization. One of TFA’s leaders left in late 2015, and the organization slashed its national staff by 15 percent last year. As applications fell over the last several years, it downsized in places like New York City and Memphis, decentralized its operations, and shifted its focus to attracting a more diverse corps with deeper ties to the locations where the program places new teachers. 

This year’s application numbers are still down from 2013, when 57,000 people applied for a position. But Villanueva Beard said the changes were working, and that “slightly more than half of 2017 applicants identify as a person of color.”