core values

As officials stress urgency, teachers raise standards concerns

Deputy chancellor of the New York City schools Shael Polakow-Suransky (left) and State Education Commissioner John King discussed the Common Core at a teaching forum.

As three of the region’s education policy heavyweights said last week that they were rolling out new curriculum standards with “incredible urgency,” educators asked them to slow things down.

The conversation took place Friday at WNET’s annual Celebration of Teaching and Learning conference, where State Education Commissioner John King, New Jersey schools chief Christopher Cerf, and city Department of Education Deputy Chancellor Shael Polakow-Suransky spoke on a panel discussion about new Common Core curriculum standards. GothamSchools editor Elizabeth Green moderated the panel.

Both New York and New Jersey are in the process of rolling out the new standards, which emphasize analytical skills, non-fiction literature, and mathematical word-problems. Every city school devoted a training day before the school year started to the standards, and all teachers are supposed to teach one unit this spring aligned to them.

But educators who attended the panel — some of whom cut out of school early to be there — said the Core’s introduction this year had become a point of anxiety as teachers are juggling multiple sets of expectations. They said the new standards were increasing pressure on them to revise their teaching methods at a time when they are already gearing up for performance evaluations tied to their students’ test scores for the first time.

Noah Heller, a high school math teacher, said he struggled to decide how to adjust to the new standards when the state is years from tying high school Regents exam scores to the Common Core.

“When we talk about teacher evaluations being tied more and more to high stakes testing, it seems not a tad bit problematic that we don’t know about the tests,” Heller said.

The state is scheduled to roll out Common Core-aligned tests in grades 3 through 8 next year. Regents exams are supposed to start reflecting the Common Core’s focus on real-world situations, problem-solving, and informational texts in the 2013-2014 school year. The state is also weighing whether to adopt brand-new, Common Core-aligned tests for the 2014-2015 school year that are being developed by a consortium of states that have adopted the new standards. If the state adopts those tests, students in grades 3 through 11 could face reading and math assessments as many as nine times a year.

Acknowledging the teachers’ concerns, King stressed that standards and assessments “must change together,” and said he wished the state tests could change faster.

“It’s true Regents exams are not as rigorous as we want,” King said. “We’re trying to make those exam changes quickly.”

A teacher who introduced himself as Mitch compared King’s approach to “putting down the train tracks while the train is going through.”

“What you guys are doing is a little comical,” he said, eliciting applause from the audience. “How do we not pilot this system for two or three years before we put in place? We can’t do it all at once. We have to pilot it, and then really make it successful.”

Other teachers who attended the panel said they still had little sense of how the standards would affect instruction in science and social studies classes or where to find materials to help them incorporate the standards into their classrooms. One said that the sample lessons provided by the city were only of limited use because they are not tailored to every grade level 0r subject area.

In response, King noted that as a city teacher, he once had a physical and mental “file cabinet” full of lessons he and his colleagues had prepared in years past. But teachers have few such resources to draw from now because of the newness of the curriculum.

“We at the department need to develop more materials,” King said.

Until the state develops more assessment and instructional materials, Polakow-Suransky said the city is discouraging educators from buying books and lessons that claim to be Common Core-aligned. Instead, he points them toward the Common Core Library, an online trove of teaching materials hosted by the city. He said the city is also encouraging teachers to get creative, and write their own lessons inspired by the Common Core guidelines the city has provided. And the city hired 100 teachers to serve as Common Core Fellows, guiding instructional changes inside their school buildings.

Polakow-Suransky said the city is trying to be cautious by introducing the new standards to schools relatively slowly to make up for shortfalls. This year, teachers were asked to align just one unit per class to the new standards, which city and state officials said would privilege critical thinking over rote learning. He said some of those changes are already visible.

Thanks to the emphasis on analytical essay-writing and non-fiction reading, he said, “We’re seeing kids writing much more, and being asked to defend their ideas.”

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.”