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Walcott: City won't wait for evaluations to tackle teacher quality

Even without a new teacher evaluation system, New York City will ramp up efforts to weed out teachers who “don’t deserve to teach,” Chancellor Dennis Walcott announced today.

In an early-morning speech to the Association for a Better New York, a business and political group, Walcott said the city would adopt new policies to insulate students from teachers deemed “unsatisfactory” under the current evaluation system. Under the new policies, no student will be allowed to have a teacher rated unsatisfactory multiple years in a row, and the city will move to fire all teachers who receive two straight U ratings.

“If we truly believe that every student deserves a great teacher, then we can’t accept a system where a student suffers with a poor-performing one for two straight years,” Walcott said. “One year of learning loss is bad enough — but studies indicate that two years could be devastating.”

The policies would go into effect if the city and union do not agree on new teacher evaluations by September, when the new school year begins. Under the existing evaluation system, two consecutive U ratings can trigger termination proceedings but do not have to. Two “ineffective” ratings on teacher evaluations now required under state law would automatically trigger termination proceedings.

Walcott also announced that the city would capitalize on a clause in its contract with the teachers union to offer a resignation incentive for teachers who have spent more than a year in the Absent Teacher Reserve, the pool of teachers without permanent positions. Buyouts would have to be negotiated for each teacher, and Walcott promised that the incentives would be “generous.” The move represents a shift in approach for the Bloomberg administration, which has previously sought the right to fire members of the ATR pool.

Walcott’s complete speech, as prepared for delivery, is below. We’ll have more on his proposals later today.

The following is text of Chancellor Dennis M. Walcott’s address as prepared for delivery at Association for a Better New York breakfast event on May 17, 2012

“Thank you, Mr. Mayor. It’s been an honor to serve in your administration for the last ten years. And thanks to Bill Rudin for your leadership and for making New York City a better place.

“Good morning. Let me start by thanking ABNY for hosting us today. It’s a pleasure to be joined by so many New Yorkers who share a passion for this great city, especially those who work hard on behalf of our students. I’ve attended my fair share of ABNY events over the years, so I am truly honored to speak to you this morning as your Chancellor.

“Today, I’d like to talk about the extraordinary work happening in our 1750 schools, and discuss some bold new ideas we believe will make a lasting impact on the lives of our students.

“Let me start with some perspective on the size and complexity of our school system. Everyone, please take out a piece of paper and sharpen your number two pencils. It’s time for a test. First, does anyone know how many meals we serve each day in New York City public schools? Eight hundred thousand. Other than the US military, no single organization buys more food than we do.

“Here’s another question: if our public schools were a large US city, how do you think it would rank compared to the population in other cities? 20th in the nation? 15th? The population of our public schools would make it the 10th – largest city in the United States, right behind Dallas.

“Think about this for a second: with over a million children in our schools, one in every 311 Americans is a New York City Public school student.

“I have one more question: how many languages are spoken by students in our public schools? Any guesses? By our latest count, it’s 184. Some of our fastest-growing languages include Punjabi, Albanian, Mandinka and Fon, to name a few.

“So with those facts in mind, let’s talk a little bit about how we got where we are today. I remember that summer day in 2002, at an East Harlem school, when I stood with Mayor Bloomberg to celebrate a pivotal moment in New York City history. State lawmakers had just voted to give control of New York City’s public schools to our elected Mayor.

“Remember that for decades, the quality of education in our schools was stagnant. Student performance was flat and high school graduation rates hovered at 50 percent. Only one in two students who started high school left with a diploma.

“In some corners of the city, jobs at schools were handed out as favors. A well-connected parent could make a phone call and get their child into a particular school. No one was held accountable. And I assure you, no one talked about a school’s college and career readiness rates.

“So in 2002, our first priority was to reform a broken system that didn’t serve our students. And that’s what we did. Under mayoral control, we have improved teacher quality and created schools that put students on a path to success. Instead of making excuses for those schools that graduated as few as one in four students, we took action.

“It wasn’t easy, but today, with higher standards, graduation rates are at an all-time high, and the dropout rate has been cut in half. We made our schools safer. Today, crime is down by almost 50 percent. Working together with the New York City Police Department, we have made our schools some of the safest of any large American city. We infused more money into our schools. Since 2002, the Mayor has increased funding for schools by more than $11 billion – that’s up over 100 percent.

“We created the best school choice system in the nation, as recently recognized by the Brookings Institution. Ten years ago, a child could be forced to attend his or her neighborhood high school, no matter how bad it was. This is no longer the case.

“We empowered principals to manage their own budgets and become the CEOs of their buildings. Before 2002, the school system was designed around compliance and following the rules, and that stifled creative thinking. Now, principals are encouraged to innovate, problem-solve, and make hiring decisions to help their students succeed.

“We instilled a culture of accountability throughout our organization. Today, the conversation in schools and across America is focused on student achievement – that simply wasn’t the case ten years ago.

“We created 535 new public schools, including 139 charter schools. Together, they would make up a school district comparable to the size of Philadelphia. We will continue this strategy into next fall, bringing the total number of new schools created to 613. And our new small schools work: students in these schools are graduating at rates 20 points higher than graduates at schools they have replaced.

“Some of our most exciting new schools are Career and Technical Education models, or “CTE”.  Just two weeks ago, TIME magazine highlighted the positive impacts of CTE schools for students, businesses and communities. CTE schools are perhaps the best way to train students for the jobs that exist today and those that will be created tomorrow. That is why I am thrilled that we will be opening 12 new CTE schools in the next two years, on top of 18 we’ve opened since 2002.

“We’ve also recently taken on a problem seen throughout the United States: the lagging achievement of students in middle school. In the next two years, we will open 50 new middle schools and embark on a citywide campaign to improve literacy in those grades.

“And we’ve doubled down on efforts to make parents our true partners and find new ways to communicate with them through surveys, meetings, and online tools. Next fall, we will launch a Parent Academy to help parents reinforce learning and help their children with homework. And we will begin a new series of webinars for parents on a range of topics.

“To those of us who work in our schools, it’s clear that lawmakers made the right choice in 2002. And they did so again by renewing Mayoral control just a few years ago. It’s important to take stock of what this means for our students – and, more broadly, for New York City. We would not have been able to give students and families more options, make schools safer, and improve teaching and learning without this authority.

“But it’s still not enough. In some areas, we continue to do things the ‘old-fashioned way.’ We know that teachers are the most important factor in helping their students learn and grow. The data is clear: during the course of a school year, a student can learn three times as much material from a high-performing teacher as they would from a low-performing teacher. Even more: an above-average teacher can help their class earn an additional $400,000 over their lifetimes. That’s the effect of just one year of great teaching. If you expanded that to our entire city, we are talking about adding billions of dollars to the city’s economy, just by improving teaching.

“The facts speak for themselves: teaching matters. That’s why we’ve gone to great lengths to make New York City a more attractive place for aspiring educators. Mayor Bloomberg has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation, raising teacher salaries by 43 percent.”

“But if we can’t find a way to improve teacher quality even further, it will be impossible to ensure our students are being taught the skills to succeed beyond high school. Unfortunately, in many of our efforts, we have been unable to find a partner in our local teachers union, the UFT. In some cases, they have even stood in our way.

“But that’s no reason to stop trying. Today, I want to share a few key ideas that I believe will help greatly improve the quality of our teaching force.

“Right now, our teacher evaluation system is outdated. More than 97 percent of teachers get “satisfactory” ratings. The ratings offer no feedback to help teachers improve, and leave us unable to remove teachers who get low ratings in multiple years.

“The teachers union knows this. In February, the UFT committed to a new evaluation system that would allow us to identify great teachers and reward them accordingly, support those who are still developing, and allows us to remove those who are poor-performing. The UFT President celebrated this deal with Governor Cuomo in Albany, and I applauded him for it. Three months later, we have made little progress. As each day passes, we are still waiting for the UFT to return to the table and finalize this agreement.

“If you don’t know me, I’m an eternal optimist, and I am still hopeful we can complete this deal in time for next school year. But right now, the clock is ticking. Rather than come together on behalf of our students, the UFT takes every opportunity to stall, often suing us in court and complaining to a State panel when they don’t get their way.

“We don’t have time for stalling tactics. We need the UFT to finalize a citywide evaluation system before it’s too late. Until that happens, our 1.1 million students – the 10th largest city in the country – are stuck in this system. It is upon us to find another way.

“Early in this administration, we made a decision not to force any principal to accept a teacher they don’t want. We believe that principals should be empowered to make the best choices for their students. As a result, some teachers have ended up without permanent teaching jobs, and are placed in something we call the Absent Teacher Reserve, also known as the ATR pool.

“Unfortunately, we, the taxpayers, continue to foot the bill. If they can’t get hired by another principal – and even if they don’t try to find a job at all – we still have to pay their salaries. There have been over 3,600 teachers in the pool at some point this year, and that’s now down to 800.

“But those who remain will cost the city an estimated $100 million in salaries. That’s a huge, wasteful expenditure that doesn’t help our students succeed. More than a quarter of these teachers have been disciplined for bad behavior. Almost half of them have not even submitted a job application or attended a recruitment fair in the past year. That’s unacceptable.

“Think about that: when unemployment is still high and budgets are tight, we are spending more than $100 million on teachers who aren’t interested in teaching.

“Today, I am proposing an idea. If you’re a teacher who can’t find a permanent job in our schools after a year, we will offer you a generous incentive to resign and pursue another career. It would reduce a significant burden on our budget, allowing us to divert millions of dollars back to schools. Every dollar we save, we can use to benefit our students, instead of wasting it on teachers who probably chose the wrong profession. This buyout proposal will be more attractive than any we’ve seen across the nation—for teachers, and for the taxpayers of New York City.

“Of course, we can’t limit ourselves to focusing on teachers in limbo. We need to find a way to ensure every child has a good teacher right now, and support or remove those who can’t get the job done. But without a meaningful evaluation system that allows us to remove ineffective teachers, we are left with few options.

“Now, let me be clear: singling out bad teachers for the woes of education is a convenient, over-simplification of our problems, and I won’t stand for it. The vast majority of our teachers deserve our praise and support. Blaming them for our challenges is simply unacceptable. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t evaluate teachers based on how much our students are learning.

“When I think about the fact that a child’s future could be opened up to great opportunities – or closed off forever – by a single teacher in elementary school, I am both hopeful and worried. Teaching is just that important. Plain and simple: we need a way to ensure that no child gets stuck with one of the few teachers who are ineffective, especially in the early grades.

“So today, I am proposing a solution. If the new evaluation system isn’t in place by the beginning of next school year, I will implement a new policy that would protect these young students:  First, it would prevent any elementary school student from being taught for two consecutive years by a classroom teacher found to be incompetent.

“If we truly believe that every student deserves a great teacher, then we can’t accept a system where a student suffers with a poor-performing one for two straight years. One year of learning loss is bad enough—but studies indicate that two years could be devastating.

“Second, this new policy would set a trigger: after any teacher receives two consecutive unsatisfactory ratings for incompetence, we would remove that teacher from the classroom and seek their dismissal from our public schools. In my view, if you are one of the few hundred teachers who gets poorly rated two years in a row, you don’t deserve to teach in our schools and in front of our students.

“That’s the spirit of the new evaluation system—so we will move forward, whether or not the union decides to join us.

“The union and others would rather stay silent than cheer the progress our students have made since 2002. Some would even disparage the hard work of our students and staff these past few years.  So you have to wonder: with students doing better by every measure, who is the union trying to protect?

“We are focused on the students, and the reasons are obvious: The effects of these proposals will pay dividends now and well into the future. We know that higher levels of education lead to greater incomes for individuals and their families. And that’s true today more than ever.

“Over a lifetime, a high school graduate makes half a million dollars more than a dropout. And a college graduate makes even more than that. Only 11 percent of jobs today are available to those without a high school diploma—that’s way down from just a few years ago. And the fastest-growing industries – such as healthcare, engineering, and education – require college diplomas.

“So we’re not going to stop at high school graduation: in this economy, our students need to be ready for college and careers. That’s why we are hard at work introducing the new Common Core Standards in our schools. This year and next, students in every school will be exposed to more critical thinking, essay writing, and real world problem-solving.

“New York City is leading the way in these efforts. While most states are waiting until 2014, our work has been underway since 2010. Next year, we’ll expand it even further. Today, I am proud to announce that the GE Foundation has decided to renew their commitment to our students with a gift of $14.3 million. This gift will build upon GE’s previous investment and help give our students the tools they need for college.

“So, increasing graduation rates isn’t just about data—it means thousands of families being put on the path to economic-self sufficiency. And as more and more New Yorkers earn their high school diplomas and complete college, New York City’s workforce will become more globally competitive.

“Now, this is really personal for me. I am the son of a high school dropout, a city worker who enabled me to stand before you today. As many of you know, I am a graduate of New York City public schools. I still live approximately two miles from the elementary school I attended as a child.

“Every morning, when I see children in my neighborhood and across the city attending our public schools, I think about their futures. I know that the workforce and the economy today are far different than they were when my father dropped out of high school. If he was navigating today’s job market, his prospects would be bleak.

“So my message to you today is this: if we’re going to make college and careers a reality for all our children, we need to continue our bold approach to reforming education. I know that some adults might not like it. The teachers union may stand in the way. But the best interests of our students need to come first.

“We can’t rest until every family in New York City can send their children to an excellent public school. I believe, and I hope you do too, that a better school system today will mean a better New York City tomorrow.

Thank you.

Training time

Common Core is out. Tennessee Academic Standards are in. Here’s how teachers are prepping for the change.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Karyn Bailey (left), a facilitator from Williamson County Schools, coaches elementary school teachers during an exercise on Tennessee's revised standards for English language arts as part of a two-day training at La Vergne High School, one of 11 training sites across the state.

Teachers poring over Tennessee’s revised academic standards are mostly breathing a sigh of relief as the state prepares for its third change in eight years of what students are expected to learn in each grade.

The Tennessee Academic Standards for math and English language arts, which will reach K-12 classrooms this fall, aren’t dramatically different from Common Core standards used in Tennessee since 2012. But numerous tweaks are sprinkled across the standards — mostly word adjustments for clarity and changes in presentation to make the standards more user-friendly. Some standards also have been moved to different grades and courses for the sake of progression and manageability.

About 6,000 teachers got a two-day crash course on the changes during trainings last week at 11 sites across the state. The Tennessee Department of Education organized the sessions, attended by educators from more than 90 percent of Tennessee’s 146 districts.

“This is the third time I’ve gone through this, and it’s the best one from my perspective,” said John Lasater, a Sumner County math teacher who attended sessions at La Vergne High School near Nashville.

Lasater, who teaches at Westmoreland High School, was thrilled that some standards have been moved out of standards-heavy algebra classes into higher-level math courses. “It was just too much, especially Algebra II,” he said. “Our teachers just never seemed to be able to cover everything.”

Diving into her manual for English language arts, Rutherford County teacher Leila Hinkle liked seeing a greater emphasis on early writing skills, as well as the embedding of language standards in foundational literacy standards.

“I think the new standards are clearer; they’re clarifying,” said Hinkle, who will teach fourth grade this fall. “You can see better where students were supposed to be and where they’re going.”

Standards are foundational because they set learning goals that dictate other education decisions around curriculum and testing. In Tennessee, they are usually reviewed every six years.

The trainings are part of the last major step in a transition that began in 2014 when Gov. Bill Haslam ordered a review after Common Core became embroiled in political controversy over charges of federal overreach, in part because of incentives the Obama administration offered to states that adopted them. Eighteen months of review and revisions followed, with the State Board of Education approving the newly minted Tennessee Academic Standards last year.

The changes aren’t as drastic as in 2011 when Tennessee switched to Common Core. That’s because the committee of educators charged with the overhaul used the Common Core as a foundation rather than starting from scratch. Both sets of standards emphasize critical thinking and analysis and de-emphasize memorization of facts.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said many of the changes, while seemingly subtle, are no less substantive.

“A word change can be significant in terms of standards. If you change the word know to explain as far as what students must be able to do, that’s significant. That’s two different levels of understanding,” she said.

The trainings and training resources are costing the state about $3 million over the course of a year, far less than the $23.5 million in federal Race to the Top funds spent on Common Core trainings across three years.

To keep costs down, the state is changing its approach away from dependence on department-led trainings.

Erin McGill, a facilitator for trainings organized by the Tennessee Department of Education, dives into the revised standards with high school math teachers. (Photo by Marta W. Aldrich)

“We’re encouraging districts to identify teams to train with us and then to re-deliver the trainings in their own districts,” said Robbie Mitchell, the department’s executive director of academic strategy and operations. “It’s more about empowering and equipping districts to make their own decisions about what’s best for their district.”

The state plans to use the same training model for the rollout of new science standards in 2018 and social studies standards the following year.

Lasater said he found this year’s trainings productive and worthwhile.

“Before, the trainings were ‘here’s a standard, now let’s work a problem.’ This time, we were challenged to take a standard and develop a question that would fully assess a student’s mastery of it. We weren’t just working a problem; we were creating a problem. That’s a huge shift.”

You can find Tennessee’s new standards for math and English language arts on the Education Department’s website.

An education U-turn

Carmen Fariña wants to help New York City teachers get better at teaching. But some of her own reforms are getting in the way

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
The math team at P.S. 294 in the Bronx discuss a recent lesson during the 80 minutes of professional development time carved out by the city's most recent contract with the teachers union.

It was a Monday afternoon and school was out at P.S. 294. But there was plenty of learning happening inside the blue-and-yellow building in the Bronx.

Teams of teachers were gathered in classrooms on almost every floor. One group discussed a recent math lesson on how to identify patterns; another analyzed which questions had stumped students during recent statewide tests. A third was thinking about new ways to encourage discussion in the classroom.

In each huddle, they were learning a valuable lesson from each other: how to become better teachers.

What’s happening at P.S. 294 is what Carmen Fariña envisioned when she became chancellor of the country’s largest school system. Among the veteran educator’s most deeply held beliefs is that school improvement starts in the classroom — by helping teachers get better at teaching.

“To me, everything that happens in the classroom is the most crucial thing in the building,” Fariña told Chalkbeat.

Many of Fariña’s reforms reflect that vision, including the city’s contract with the teachers union, which carves out time for professional development each week. But another set of changes Fariña made — overhauling the education department bureaucracy — has sometimes worked at cross purposes, taking power away from those who know schools best.

Strapped superintendents and staffers sidelined in support centers now oversee much of the training teachers encounter. Fariña herself acknowledges it has sometimes been a struggle to meet the diverse needs of schools under the new system.

One Bronx principal said he sees that struggle firsthand.

“What some people call ‘supporting instruction with professional development,’ other people would call ‘bloated bureaucracy,’” the principal told Chalkbeat. “I have no interest in their professional development, and they don’t know my school.”

***

Like much of what has happened at the education department under Mayor Bill de Blasio, the chancellor’s emphasis on teaching the teachers marks a radical shift from the preceding administration.

Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein wanted great teachers in every classroom, too. But their position was that it was easier to hire top talent than cultivate it. Instead of pouring resources into teacher improvement, they set about measuring teachers to weed out those who were ineffective.

“Joel didn’t believe in professional development at all,” said Eric Nadelstern, who served as deputy chancellor for school support and instruction under Klein. “His question was, ‘Is it easier to change the teacher — or to change the teacher?’” Klein himself did not agree to be interviewed for this story.

When Fariña took the helm, educators took heart that one of them was in charge again. With 50 years of experience in New York City classrooms, she was the first chancellor in more than a decade who didn’t need a waiver, which the state requires when a school leader does not have the experience set by law for the job.

“When de Blasio named Fariña chancellor, it was a message,” said Norm Fruchter, a researcher at New York University who previously served as a de Blasio appointee to the Panel for Educational Policy. “The pendulum was going to shift back towards valuing instruction.”

In one of her first moves as chancellor, Fariña helped hammer out a contract with the United Federation of Teachers, the union that had clashed for years with Bloomberg and Klein. Among its most significant changes: giving teachers 80 minutes after school every Monday to work on improving their craft. The contract also created new leadership positions that gave extra pay to skilled teachers who agreed to take on coaching roles in their schools.

Taken together, those moves helped create a structure for helping teachers improve within their own schools.

“The thing with the most value in schools is time,” said Phil Weinberg, deputy chancellor of the department’s Division of Teaching and Learning. “The biggest thing that we’ve done is to honor the fact that learning has to happen by creating time.”

Share your thoughts on the quality of New York’s professional development for educators in our short survey.  

***

In the education world, there is much debate around whether professional learning really works. Plenty of research suggests that typical models do not. Educators have their own disparaging vocabulary to describe those models: drop-and-go, spray-and-pray, even drive-by professional development. The idea is that one-off lectures and workshops are rarely effective in changing teacher practice, let alone improving how much students are learning.

However, recent research suggests there are ways to get it right. A review of 35 different studies, released in June by the Learning Policy Institute, found common themes in professional learning programs that actually improve student performance. Those programs provide coaching, are collaborative and typically happen on the job — much like what’s happening at P.S. 294.

P.S. 294 The Walton Avenue School serves students who are traditionally among the city’s lowest-performing — those who are homeless, learning English, or have disabilities. Yet it outperforms the city average on standardized tests.

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Daniel Russo (center) working with the math team at P.S. 294

The school has taken on Algebra for All, a de Blasio initiative that helps schools change the way they teach math. P.S. 294 also has teacher leaders paid to share their knowledge with teams of their colleagues. Those teams then work together in the 80 minutes each week reserved for professional development. All of that comes together under a principal, Daniel Russo, who makes sure teachers get the feedback they need to improve their practice.

“We come back every couple of months and say, ‘How are we doing on this? What fell by the wayside and what are ways that we can do better?’” Russo said. “Everyone is going to contribute to, and benefit from, the greater knowledge that there is in the room.”

For all its ambitions, the 80 minutes don’t always work as planned. In about a dozen interviews with teachers and principals, many school staff said they appreciate that the Monday sessions have provided time and space to think about their practice. But others said that time can feel wasted or forced.

“Everyone is very busy at our school, and that’s just another meeting that has to take place to plan more meetings,” a Bronx high school teacher told Chalkbeat. (The teacher, like many educators interviewed for this story, agreed to speak only on the condition of anonymity.)

“A lot of times we’re not really sure what we’re going to do on a given day,” the teacher said. ”It’s not very focused throughout the year.”

***

Why, then, are some schools making good use of the new training time and at others, teachers feel like it’s being frittered away?

One factor: changes to the way principals are supervised and how schools get support.

Under Bloomberg and Klein, principals who needed help turned to dozens of “networks” scattered throughout the city. Principals opted into networks based on their schools’ needs, regardless of where the school or network were located in the city. The network providers were expected to solve problems for schools, or principals could vote with their feet and join different networks.

"That’s the system-wide idea of support now: taking people away from kids."David Baiz, former principal of Global Technology Preparatory

As chancellor, Fariña took a different approach. She promptly rebuilt the department’s Division of Teaching and Learning, which had been dissolved after she left the DOE in 2007. Once again, there was an office at the Department of Education’s central headquarters dedicated to actively helping schools decide what and how to teach.

She also empowered superintendents, calling them the “instructional leaders” of their districts, and upped the years of experience required to land the job. They evaluate principals but are also responsible for making sure schools get the support they need.

In the place of networks, Fariña opened “field support centers,” which serve hundreds of schools but don’t hold supervisory power. Unlike networks, most centers only work with schools located in the same borough. Superintendents and support centers are expected to work together to help schools improve teaching.

Crucially, that doesn’t always happen. The result can work against the 80 minutes, by distancing decision-making about professional development from schools — and complicating it, too.

Our principal is “held with her hands behind her back,” said Corey Taylor, a music teacher at P.S. 33 in the Bronx. “She has to do what she’s being told by her higher-ups.”

Now, principals are expected to ask their superintendents for help, who then turn to field support centers. Some principals and support centers do work directly together, though Weinberg said that’s not the preferred system.

“The ideal thing is that you’re in constant conversation with your superintendent,” he said. “It would be hard for each borough field support center to hear 145 different requests every day, from each of their schools.”

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Teachers at a training for Computer Science for All, a citywide initiative

Relationships between superintendents and support centers don’t always run smoothly, and both are tasked with overseeing many schools. Superintendents have staffs of around six people, yet may be responsible for dozens of schools. Support centers work with up to 323 schools, with an average caseload just below 200.

With superintendents acting as a filter between schools and support centers, many principals report a divide between what they’re offered and what they want to learn.

“There’s a disconnect between the reality of what’s going on in classrooms, and the offerings,” one Manhattan principal told Chalkbeat. “It usually comes down to: Teachers need to learn, very specifically, techniques, tips, philosophies that affect their own practice.”

When they work well, support centers might send staff to a school to provide targeted help requested by its principal. But, faced with heavy caseloads, the centers often respond to schools’ needs by creating borough-wide professional development sessions that can vary in quality. In the city’s most recent survey of principals, only 73 percent said they were satisfied with the support they get from the centers.

One Manhattan teacher said she went to sessions offered by the support center last year and was disappointed with what she found. The presenters led a lesson on “guided reading,” a technique that includes introducing vocabulary and breaking students into groups, but they seemed fuzzy on how to execute the practice in the classroom.

“Teachers were actually correcting them,” the teacher said. “They’re removed and they forget what it’s like to be a teacher.”

***

Despite Fariña’s emphasis on classroom-based learning, many of the support centers’ professional development sessions are happening outside schools, while class is in session. At three separate support centers, almost all the trainings for teachers offered during the month of May were held during school hours.

"We’ve set aside the time. We’ve set up the space. Can we just manage it?"Michael Mulgrew, president of the teachers union

That wouldn’t have happened under Bloomberg, according to Nadelstern, the former Klein deputy. He said his policy was that teachers and principals should not be pulled away from schools while students are in the building.

“That’s the system-wide idea of support now: taking people away from kids,” said David Baiz, the former principal of Global Technology Preparatory in East Harlem. “That’s not really the best way that adults learn: to sit in a meeting away from the context of their work environment and then try to come back and incorporate it.”

In addition to out-of-office professional development, superintendents host monthly meetings, pulling principals out of their schools for the entire day. In some cases, they include meals paid for by vendors who present professional development sessions based on educational products they’re selling.

“There’s just this feeling among almost every principal that I know,” a Bronx principal told Chalkbeat. “Like meeting after meeting after meeting and requirement after requirement are being added, and really drowning out the time needed for real collaboration.”

In an interview with Chalkbeat, Fariña admitted that professional development run by outside vendors is “not that effective.” She also acknowledged there have been growing pains as the superintendents and field support centers try to meet the needs of all the schools they serve.

“It’s been more of a struggle in some places where there was a more diverse need,” she said.

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Schools chancellor Carmen Fariña looks over a card from students in her office.

To address that, Fariña said the centers have been working on “modules” based on different areas of need. A module may highlight effective strategies for teaching students who are learning English, for instance, and come with a series of professional development courses that can be run over a period of multiple weeks.

“Each principal can adapt it as they see fit,” Fariña said.

***

Weinberg said it is easy, in a system as large as New York City, to point to “random” weak points.

“What our real goal is, is continuous improvement,” he said. “I think that we make mistakes, oftentimes, by looking at one anecdotal example as a way of disproving a larger movement.”

Michael Mulgrew, president of the teachers union, said the department needs to pay closer attention to how schools are using the resources that are now available. While the the 80 minutes of professional development time is a game-changer, he said, it can also vary in usefulness depending on school culture, principal leadership and how well superintendents and the field support centers can provide help.

“We’ve set aside the time. We’ve set up the space. Can we just manage it?” Mulgrew said. “The fact that the chancellor made this a priority when she came in is the reason why you see the school system moving forward. My fear is, have we reached a plateau?”

It may be tricky, however, to balance the kind of oversight that Mulgrew envisions with the personalization that teachers and principals say is necessary for effective professional development. But the city is evaluating its own work to make sure it’s hitting the mark for teachers and schools.

“Teaching is really fascinating and difficult work,” Weinberg said. “We need to approach this hard job with the humility that says we have the ability to learn more — and we want to learn more.”

Chalkbeat reporters Monica Disare and Alex Zimmerman contributed to this report.