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.”

the end

A 60-year-old group that places volunteers in New York City schools is shutting down

PHOTO: August Young

Citing a lack of support from the city education department, a 60-year-old nonprofit that places volunteers in New York City schools is closing its doors next month.

Learning Leaders will cease operations on March 15, its executive director, Jane Heaphy, announced in a letter to volunteers and parents last week.

In the message, she said the group had slashed its budget by more than a third, started charging “partnership fees” to participating schools, and explored merging with another nonprofit. But the city pitched in with less and less every year, with no guarantee of consistency, she said.

“This funding volatility has created insurmountable challenges to the long-term viability of our organization,” Heaphy wrote. “We regret the vacuum that will be created by our closure.”

The group — which began as part of the city school system but became its own nonprofit in the 1970s — says its volunteers work with more than 100,000 students in more than 300 schools every year, many of them faithfully. When then-84-year-old Carolyn Breidenbach became the group’s 2013 volunteer of the year, she had been helping at P.S. 198 on the Upper East Side daily for 12 years.

Heaphy’s full message to volunteers is below:

Dear [volunteer],

It is with a heavy heart that I write to inform you Learning Leaders will cease operations on March 15 of this year. This organization has worked diligently over the last few years to sustain our work of engaging families as Learning Leaders, but the funding landscape has become too challenging to keep our programs going. While we have been able to increase our revenues from a generous community of funders, we have ultimately come to the conclusion that without a consistent and significant base of funding from the NYC Department of Education, we cannot leverage foundation grants, individual donors, or school fees sufficiently to cover program costs.

In the face of growing financial challenges, Learning Leaders reduced its costs as thoughtfully as possible — and in ways that did not affect our program quality. Rather, we sought to deepen and continually improve our service to schools and families while eliminating all but the most necessary costs. These efforts reduced our budget by more than 35 percent.

At the same time, we sought greater public support for our work with schools and families across the city. We are grateful to the foundations and individual donors that have believed in our work and provided financial support to keep it going. We were gratified when schools stepped up to support our efforts through partnership fees. While these fees only covered a portion of our costs, the willingness of principals to find these funds within their extremely tight school budgets was a testament to the value of our work.

Throughout an extended period of financial restructuring Learning Leaders advocated strongly with the Mayor’s Office and the DOE [Department of Education] for a return to historical levels of NYC DOE support for parent volunteer training and capacity building workshops. While we received some NYC DOE funding this year, it was less than what we needed and was not part of an ongoing budget initiative that would allow us to count on regular funding in the coming years. Several efforts to negotiate a merger with another nonprofit stalled due to the lack of firm financial commitment from the DOE. Over time, this funding volatility has created insurmountable challenges to the long-term viability of our organization.

We regret the vacuum that will be created by our closure. If you have questions or concerns about opportunities and support for family engagement and parent volunteer training, you can contact the NYC DOE’s Division of Family and Community Engagement at (212) 374-4118 or [email protected].

On behalf of the board of directors and all of us at Learning Leaders, I offer heartfelt thanks for your partnership. We are deeply grateful for your work to support public school students’ success. It is only with your dedication and commitment that we accomplished all that we did over the last 60 years. We take some solace in knowing that we’ve helped improve the chances of success for more than 100,000 students every year. The Learning Leaders board and staff have been honored to serve you and your school communities.
Sincerely,

Jane Heaphy
Executive Director

Rise & Shine

While you were waking up, the U.S. Senate took a big step toward confirming Betsy DeVos as education secretary

Betsy DeVos’s confirmation as education secretary is all but assured after an unusual and contentious early-morning vote by the U.S. Senate.

The Senate convened at 6:30 a.m. Friday to “invoke cloture” on DeVos’s embattled nomination, a move meant to end a debate that has grown unusually pitched both within the lawmaking body and in the wider public.

They voted 52-48 to advance her nomination, teeing up a final confirmation vote by the end of the day Monday.

Two Republican senators who said earlier this week that they would not vote to confirm DeVos joined their colleagues in voting to allow a final vote on Monday. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska cited DeVos’s lack of experience in public education and the knowledge gaps she displayed during her confirmation hearing last month when announcing their decisions and each said feedback from constituents had informed their decisions.

Americans across the country have been flooding their senators with phone calls, faxes, and in-person visits to share opposition to DeVos, a Michigan philanthropist who has been a leading advocate for school vouchers but who has never worked in public education.

They are likely to keep up the pressure over the weekend and through the final vote, which could be decided by a tie-breaking vote by Vice President Mike Pence.

Two senators commented on the debate after the vote. Republican Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who has been a leading cheerleader for DeVos, said he “couldn’t understand” criticism of programs that let families choose their schools.

But Democrat Patty Murray of Washington repeated the many critiques of DeVos that she has heard from constituents. She also said she was “extremely disappointed” in the confirmation process, including the early-morning debate-ending vote.

“Right from the start it was very clear that Republicans intended to jam this nomination through … Corners were cut, precedents were ignored, debate was cut off, and reasonable requests and questions were blocked,” she said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”