2011-2012 progress report (part 1)

On teacher quality, city has so far fulfilled few of last year's vows

Chancellor Dennis Walcott made several policy promises during a May 2012 speech to ABNY.

In the 2011-2012 school year, Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Dennis Walcott vowed to push forward an array of policy changes — from the way teachers are hired and fired to the ways schools prepare boys of color for graduation and college. So how did they do?

We’ve rounded up all of last year’s policy promises and checked up on the city’s progress on each. Today, we’re looking at proposals to bolster teacher quality, a longtime pet issue for the Bloomberg administration.

We found that the city has fulfilled one promise completely, to create a new Teaching Fellows program just for middle schools, but several others fell off the radar or were pushed to the margins by ongoing negotiations over new teacher evaluations. Each promise is in bold, followed by an explanation of how far the city has come toward meeting it.

In future posts, we’ll tally the city’s progress on creating new schools, engaging parents, helping high-needs students, and improving middle schools.

  • The city will adopt new teacher evaluations that adhere to the state’s new evaluation law.  (When: Many times)
    Anyone who hasn’t been living under a rock should know the answer: not yet, despite one close call and a helping hand from Gov. Andrew Cuomo. City and union officials are meeting regularly to negotiate an evaluation deal, this time in hopes of meeting the state’s January deadline. They say they are “optimistic” and “hopeful” they’ll reach an agreement in time to qualify for state funds.
  • Teachers with top ratings on teacher evaluations will get a $20,000 pay raise. (Bloomberg’s State of the City speech, January 2012)
    The city still has not adopted new teacher evaluations, so the proposal is moot. But the teachers union, a longtime opponent of individual merit pay, quickly passed a resolution opposing it, so its future prospects are not bright.
  • The city will repay up to $25,000 in student loans of teachers who are in the top of their college classes. (State of the City)
    With student debt at an all-time high, the teachers union has said it’s interested in this idea, but city-union relations have been so bad that it hasn’t advanced. Even so, the city recruited new teachers this year with the possibility of loan forgiveness. “More details on this opportunity will be available shortly,” the city’s recruitment website has read for months.
  • The city will give a retirement incentive to teachers who have spent more than a year without a permanent position. (Walcott’s ABNY speech, May 2012)
    The union is on board with the proposal — and said it had suggested the idea for dealing with the costly Absent Teacher Reserve years ago, when city officials favored a more punitive approach. Negotiations are underway but so far have yet to yield a buyout option. Union officials say one could still come this fall, and some members of the reserve pool are factoring the possibility into their job hunts.
  • The city will block elementary school students from being taught for two consecutive years by a classroom teacher rated “unsatisfactory.” (ABNY)
    Walcott said the policy would be a fallback option in case teacher evaluations were not in place this fall. They aren’t, so this policy should have kicked into effect this month. But asked shortly after school began whether the department had followed through with the plan, Walcott said a system is in the works to help schools execute it, but he could give no specifics. The change would not affect many students or teachers: The only students who would have been barred from being placed in a U-rated teachers’ class this year were the 4,000 students who had any of the 217 U-rated teachers last year.
  • The city will move to fire all teachers who get two consecutive unsatisfactory ratings. (ABNY)
    The city has always had the right to remove teachers with double U-ratings but has rarely used it, union officials said. The shift would apply to few people, although the number of teachers with two consecutive U-ratings nearly grew slightly between 2011 and 2012. The new policy would only apply to the teachers who were U-rated  for incompetence, as opposed to poor attendance or other factors. Some of them have already left the system, but many remain. UPDATED: Officials said the department plans to start the process of removing 250 teachers from the classroom over the coming school year, though not all will be removed at once.
  • A “new class” of Teaching Fellows will get training to work only in middle schools. (Walcott’s middle school speech, September 2011)
    Of the 900 new Teaching Fellows the city selected this year, 100 were picked to join a brand-new “apprenticeship” program just for middle schools, the Bronx Middle School Classroom Apprenticeship. From March until May, they worked in groups alongside existing teachers in Bronx middle schools while getting special training on how to tackle the unique issues that middle schools face.

Half-priced homes

Detroit teachers and school employees are about to get a major perk: Discount houses

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan is announcing an educator discount that will allow employees of all Detroit schools to buy houses from the Land Bank at 50 percent off.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan is getting ready this morning to announce a major effort to lure teachers and other school employees to the city of Detroit: Offering them half-priced homes.

According to a press release that’s expected to be released at an event this morning, the mayor plans to announce that all Detroit school employees — whether they work for district, charter or parochial schools — will now get a 50 percent discount on houses auctioned through the Detroit Land Bank Authority.

That discount is already available to city employees, retirees and their families. Now it will be available to full-time employees of schools located in the city.

“Teachers and educators are vital to the city’s future,” Duggan is quoted as saying in the release. “It’s critical to give our school employees, from teachers to custodial staff, the opportunity to live in the communities they teach in.”

If the effort can convince teachers to live in the city rather than surrounding suburbs, it could help a stabilize the population decline that has led to blight and neighborhood deterioration in many parts of the city.

For city schools, the discounts give administrators another perk to offer prospective employees. District and charter schools in Detroit face severe teacher shortages that have created large class sizes and put many children in classrooms without fully qualified teachers.

Detroit’s new schools superintendent, Nikolai Vitti, has said he’s determined to make sure the hundreds of teacher vacancies that affected city schools last year are addressed by the start of classes in September.

In the press release, he’s quoted praising the discount program. “There is an opportunity and need to provide innovative solutions to recruit and retain teachers to work with our children in Detroit.”

The Detroit Land Bank Authority Educator Discount Program will be announced at an event scheduled for 10:45 this morning in front of a Land Bank house in Detroit’s Russell Woods neighborhood.

The Land Bank currently auctions three homes per day through its website, with bidding starting at $1,000.

 

try try again

Why this Bronx middle school believes in second — and third — chances

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Vincent Gassetto, the principal M.S. 343, hugs a staff member after winning the Teaching Matters prize in July 2017.

Teachers at M.S. 343 in the South Bronx had a problem: Their lessons weren’t sticking.

Students initially would test well on fundamental concepts — such as multi-digit long division or calculating the rate of change. But that knowledge seemed to melt away on follow-up exams just months or even weeks later.

The solution that teachers developed, based on providing constant feedback to students and encouraging regular collaboration among staff, has helped M.S. 343 beat district averages on standardized tests. It has also landed the school a $25,000 prize.

This week, M.S. 343 won the Elizabeth Rohatyn Prize, which is awarded to public schools that foster great teaching. Presented by the nonprofit Teaching Matters, the award money will go toward building a digital platform that students and teachers can use to track their progress from anywhere, at any time.

The work at M.S. 343 starts with determining which skills teachers will emphasize and test throughout the year. Working together, teachers draw on what they already know about which concepts are most likely to trip students up, contribute to success in later grades or appear on standardized tests. A key concept could be understanding ratios in sixth grade or mastering scientific notation by eighth grade.

“It’s all in the teachers’ hands,” said Principal Vincent Gassetto.

Students are regularly tested with “learning targets.” But they’re also given three chances to prove they’ve mastered the skills. Gassetto said the approach is backed by neuroscience, which suggests the best way to learn is to use the knowledge multiple times, instead of cramming for a single test.

“That actually tells the brain: You’re being tested on this, it’s important. And that stores it in a part of the brain that’s easily retrievable,” he said.

Only the highest score will be recorded, which serves a different purpose: boosting students’ confidence in themselves as learners.

“We’re celebrating their progress, not necessarily the end result,” math teacher Lola Dupuy explained in a video the school produced. “It can be very confusing for a student to receive a failing grade and very discouraging for them if they don’t know … what they’re doing wrong and what they need to do to improve it.”

In between tests, each department comes together to analyze students’ answers. They zero in on common misconceptions and come up with a list of questions for students to ask themselves when reviewing their work.

Using the questions as a guide, it’s up to the students to figure out where they went wrong, often by working in groups with peers with varying skill levels.

“Students are more engaged in their work and the outcomes are better because they’re self-reflecting,” Dupuy said.

M.S. 343’s approach also gets at a common knock on testing: The results are rarely used to improve teaching and students often don’t have the opportunity to learn from their mistakes. At M.S. 343, teachers spend entire weeks meeting as a team to go over results and fine-tune their instruction. That time, Gassetto said, is a valuable resource.

“Most of the time, when you give a big assessment,” Gassetto said, “you’re testing, but for what purpose? We don’t do that. If we’re going to ask kids to sit down and take an assessment, we need to look at it and get it back to them right away, so it’s useful.”