too soon

Tech-savvy principals give muted response to seat-time change

Principals are grappling with the implications of a state policy change that allows them to award credit for shorter courses that students take online.

A regulation passed in June by the Board of Regents allows city high schools to award credit in online courses or blended learning courses, where the class is conducted partly online and partly in a traditional classroom setting, regardless of how much time students actually spend in the classes. City Department of Education officials lobbied the Regents in support of the change.

A dozen principals discussed the new regulations today at the meeting of a monthly panel led by Alisa Berger and Sarah Scrogin, two principals who have spearheaded activities within the Innovation Zone, the DOE’s subset of technology-centered schools. (Notably, Berger’s high school, the iSchool, and Scrogin’s, East Bronx Academy for the Future, have worked together in the past on intra-city distance learning classes.)

As members of the Innovation Zone’s selective iLearn cohort, which numbered 40 last year but is jumping to 127 this fall, the principals who attend the monthly meetings have used technology to reshaped their schedules, supplies, and teachers’ workloads. When it comes to using technology to change teaching and learning, the principals usually have a lot to say.

But when Scrogin asked them how they were thinking about responding to the change in seat time rules, they were quiet.

Then the questions began. Would any online course count? (Yes.) And blended learning classes too? (Yes, again.) What does online learning look like inside a school? (That’s complicated, and pretty much up to principals.)

Schools at the vanguard of using technology have embraced the change. At the iSchool, Berger is considering asking her teachers to upload videos of their “mini-lesson” each day and requiring students to view it before coming to class. That way, direct instruction can take place outside of seat time and teachers can use time in school to work with groups of students formed around their shared comprehension — or lack thereof — of the day’s lesson.

But other principals expressed concerns about implementing the new policy. Some argued that some classes, such as gym, are best conducted offline. Others worried about making changes that would later be deemed unacceptable by the city or state. One pointed to recent news reports of schools that have been shown to have awarded credit to students who did not deserve it and worried that their schools would be lumped together. Another said she is already running a “three-ring circus” and could not imagine launching a completely new program.

And a middle school principal argued that the emphasis on seat time — the agenda of today’s meeting only because of the recent policy change — feels misplaced. She worried aloud that her school would be excluded from iLearn efforts that are focused on maximizing the change, because her students face no seat time requirement at all.

Taking advantage of the change won’t be easy, but it is important, Scrogin told the principals.

“It would be bad if we pushed hard to get the waiver and then we didn’t use it,” she said.

Berger said she thought the principals’ uncertainty not from a lack of interest but from the experience of suddenly being faced with a set of options that were impossible just a few weeks ago.

“Everyone sees it as an opportunity,” she said. “But it’s been there for so long. Now we’re starting to think — now that we’ve gotten rid of this arcane rule.”

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.