language acquisition

In training, teachers learn new ways to talk about student work

Dennis Walcott joined principal Annabelle Martinez (standing) and teachers at P.S. 124 in Sunset Park for training on the Common Core standards.

Huddled around tables in their school library, three dozen teachers at P.S. 124 in Sunset Park got a taste for how new standards being rolled out across the city would reshape their work in the classroom this fall.

Principal Annabelle Martinez handed out photocopies of student writing samples and asked the teachers to evaluate the work according to the new standards.

For a team of third-grade teachers, that meant looking at a short essay about weather and determining whether the author used “informative and explanatory text to examine a topic and convey ideas and information clearly.”

At first, the teachers found strengths in the essay’s display of mechanics. One teacher pointed out that the student had used capitalization correctly.

“He knows his paragraphs,” another teacher said. “And he knows sentence structure too.”

Later, the teachers used a projector to present their notes to their colleagues. Under Martinez’s guidance, the teachers revised how they discussed the student’s strengths. Now, they called the essay “informative” and said it was organized well by topic and included a “clear introduction” and a “clear conclusion” — language that was more in line with the new standards.

Scenes like this were playing out in schools across the five boroughs this morning as part of an extra day of professional development given to staff before students start class tomorrow. The training sessions were specifically targeted at preparing teachers for the citywide rollout of the Common Core curriculum standards, designed to refocus expectations to be more in line with college and career readiness.

P.S. 124 was among 100 schools that tested the core standards waters as part of a citywide pilot last year. This year, all schools are expected to begin tying instruction to the new standards, and their first step is to identify the gap between what students currently know and what the Common Core demands of them. That means teachers will be reviewing samples of student work, using the same kind of scrutiny required in today’s training exercise.

“One of the things that we strive to instill with our staff is that it’s not good enough just to teach the curriculum,” said Chief Academic Officer Shael Polakow-Suransky, who is overseeing the city’s Common Core rollout. “You can teach something and still have half the kids not learning.”

He visited P.S. 124 today along with Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott. With the pair of top officials dropping in on the training session, teachers spoke excitedly about the new standards. But many of their comments were cut with a sense of caution.

“I feel an incredible amount of enthusiasm for the first time in eight years,” said one teacher. “I really just hope that we’re supported from the top on this.”

“We’re heading in the right direction, but there’s still fear,” another teacher remarked. “And that’s okay.”

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.”