Competitive advantage

Cuomo floats competitive grants to urge more learning time

The state will underwrite costs for schools that keep students in class an extra 300 hours per year, according to a top proposal floated today in Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s third “State of the State” address.

Extended learning time was one of several proposals Cuomo mentioned during the education section of his speech, which lasted more than an hour and covered a variety of non-education issues, including a strict ban on assault weapons, decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana, raising the minimum wage and a new plan to build casinos in upstate New York (the revenue of which will mostly go toward state school aid).

The proposals were part of a “more and better” approach to education reform that Cuomo is crafting for 2013, a year after he targeted education “lobbyists” and school bureaucratic inefficiencies. Cuomo said he also wants to invest in expanding early education programs and creating schools that provide health and social services for poor communities.

Cuomo is making the funds available in the form of competitive grants, which he has used in the past in an attempt to fast-track education reforms. The grants would only be eligible to districts and schools that craft plans that adhere to best practices prescribed by Cuomo.

The previous grants have encountered resistance, both from union officials, the Board of Regents and State Education Commissioner John King. They all agreed that a $250 million mini-Race to the Top grant would be be better used if it were redistributed into the state’s general school aid formula.

Update: Officials from the state education department did not respond to requests for comment. New York State United Teachers President Dick Ianuzzu and United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew praised the proposals.

“We … applaud Gov. Cuomo for proposing a way for school districts to increase learning time for students through a creative grant program, one that districts could use to restore their enrichment programs in music and the arts,” Mulgrew said in an emailed statement.

For the second straight year, Cuomo also touted the importance of boosting and rewarding teacher quality. He proposed a plan to give accomplished “master teachers” $60,000 bonuses over four years to train other teachers. Cuomo said he’d seek to replicate the model used by the New York City-based Math for America,  a fellowship organization that boast 380 math teacher fellows.

All of the education proposals were previewed last week, when an education reform commission that Cuomo convened last year released a preliminary round of recommendations. Cuomo touched on all of the recommendations in today’s speech.

It was the extended learning time proposal that Cuomo headlined with his education speech. The proposal was based on a Massachusetts initiative that added 300 instructional hours to 19 schools since 2006. Students from those schools who participated in the initiative saw their math scores spike 20 percent and their English scores  increase by 8 percent.

In New York City, which extended its 6.5-hour day by an additional 37.5 minutes on most days for many students, schools have for years been able to extend and rearrange their day if teachers agreed to do so.  Brooklyn’s Generation School added an extra 20 days to its school year by staggering work schedules and vacation periods so that no teachers work more than the legally-required minimum of 180 days. Another school, Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School, voted to extend school periods to 65 minutes and eliminate the five minute hallway break between periods.

Cuomo’s proposal will reward schools that submit similarly-creative plans, which are designed to minimize costs. Cuomo did not mention how much it would cost, but the extended learning initiative in Massachusetts costs the state about $1,300 per student per year, 7.5 percent of the average per pupil cost, according to National Center on Time and Learning, which oversees the initiative.

Chris Gabrieli, chairman of NCTL, said most schools with extended learning models “found their own way to doing this” and applauded the top-down policy directive that Cuomo was putting forward.

Cuomo gave himself a pat on the back for creating a law that tied state funding to districts that hammered out deals on evaluation plans before a Jan. 17 deadline. New York City, which has 40 percent of the state’s 2.7 million public school student, is among the nine districts out of 700 that hasn’t submitted a plan. Without mentioning New York City’s absence, Cuomo declared the funding incentive “a success story,” as getting districts to come to a deal.

FINAL 2013 State of the State

the

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.