Growing pains

Common Core has teachers rethinking text, swapping strategies

6th graders at Kipp Infinity Middle School discuss a poem.
Sixth graders at KIPP Infinity Middle School discuss a poem. On Tuesday, educators visited the charter school to learn about how it is adjusting to the Common Core standards.

A song by rapper Jay-Z, a poem by Joyce Kilmer, and an essay by Elizabeth Alexander all got a close reading by sixth-graders at KIPP Infinity Middle School on Tuesday.

Students didn’t realize they were on the front lines of their school’s transition to new Common Core literacy standards in reading. But the visiting teachers and principals in the back of the classroom did, and they were paying close attention.

The teachers and principals were taking part in a “School Study Tour” organized by NYC Collaborates, a nonprofit that seeks to facilitate conversation and collaboration across charter-district lines. KIPP Infinity was the 13th school toured since the program piloted in June, and the first in a series of three this month that focus on the new standards.

Tuesday’s visit focused on close reading, a skill that the standards emphasize. Sayuri Stabrowski, KIPP Infinity’s dean of literacy, spoke to the visitors about techniques for teaching the skill, then ushered them into classrooms to see instruction about it in action.

Stabrowski walked visitors through two rounds of reading a poem, one Common Core-aligned and one not. The difference?  In the Common Core-aligned version of the lesson, she opened with specific questions about two characters’ points of view and the meaning of an object reference in the poem, then asked participants to back up their answers with specific lines from the text.

“Try telling kids you’re going to read like writers,” she suggested. “Why these words? Why is this sentence shorter and that sentence longer?”

Before teachers could adjust to the approach to reading that the Common Core standards demand, she said, “We had to change the way [they] thought about text. … Teachers needed to change their planning and get to know their texts really well.”

She also encouraged visitors to teach close reading in all classes, not just English. In college, she said, “Whatever the major, students will be asked to tackle complex texts.”

Principal Allison Willis Holley said the Common Core-aligned texts she and her colleagues now teach are harder than any their students have faced before. (Holley and Stabrowski both teach reading alongside their leadership responsibilities.)

And they are challenging for teachers, too, she said. With a focus on textual evidence under the new standards, Holley said, “there’s a real ‘right is right’ approach that I’ve never felt as an ELA teacher.” Under this new approach to close reading, she explained, questions often have a single right answer, as opposed to the range of interpretations students might give in response to more open-ended questions about the meaning of a poem or essay as a whole.

Visiting educators drew a wide range of lessons from Tuesday’s presentation and classroom visits. Some of the lessons reflected ongoing uncertainty about the impact of the new standards, a year into the city’s rollout.

Visitors swap observations and check out hallway bulletin boards.
Visitors swap observations and check out hallway bulletin boards.

School of the Future Principal Stacy Goldstein said she still has questions about the instructional approach modeled during the visit, in which teachers guide students by providing very specific questions and feedback.

“I’m interested to see how we could fold in more close reading,” she said. “But I also have concerns about the dependence it brings.” Goldstein said it’s important that schools train students to tackle texts on their own after receiving such close guidance early on.

But Earl Brathwaite, principal of I.S. 339 in the Bronx, had an entirely different takeaway. What stood out to him was “the way the students are taking the leadership role in the lesson,” he said.

“The teacher is prompting and coaching as compared to direct teaching,” Braithwaite said. “I like the part where the teacher has more of a coaching role and the student goes in depth with the content.”

Responding to a fellow visitor who noted that the approach means students will get the wrong answer sometimes, Braithwaite said, “And that means teachers giving up control. That’s hard.”

Other visitors said their morning at KIPP Infinity had given them ideas to take back to their schools and classrooms.

“I wouldn’t have thought close reading was something you did in math,” said Tyler Moore, who teaches fourth grade at Voice Charter School in Queens.

His colleague, Ellen Constal, who teaches fifth grade, said the visit gave her new ideas for the questions she’ll ask students to focus on when they read a new text. “Creating the questions is something we haven’t focused on a lot in our school,” she said. “The focus on questions could be really helpful to us.”

“The example texts and lesson samples — that is huge,” said Johanna Powell, the reading program coordinator at Inwood Academy for Leadership, a charter school. “What I find difficult is figuring out where to find examples of this kind of text, of how to format them and how to align them with the curriculum standards.” Stabrowski said finding texts is one of the hardest parts of adapting classes to the new standards.

“It’s a welcome relief to hear that this school is struggling with the same issues we all are with introducing the Common Core,” said Letta Belle, principal of the National Heritage Academy in Brooklyn. She said KIPP Infinity’s focus on “making sure teachers are familiar with the standards” is something other schools can learn from, especially given that “no one knows what the test is going to look like.”

Elementary and middle school students will take state tests that are aligned to the Common Core for the first time next month.

A student's worksheet in Frances Olajide's 6th grade writing class. The subway poem is in the 5th row.
A worksheet in Frances Olajide’s sixth-grade writing class includes a poem about the subway and other texts about New York City.

In Frances Olajide’s sixth grade writing class, visitors watched students work to figure out the meaning of a tricky line in Kilmer’s famous poem about the city’s subways. After annotating the poem on a worksheet that included excerpts from several other texts about New York City — fiction, nonfiction, and poetry — and discussing the purpose of the poem as a whole, students turned to the last line, “Each one the pleasant outdoor sunshine leaves.”

“This is so hard,” Olajide told her students. “I’m so excited. Turn to tell your neighbor if you think you know what it means.”

After students talked in pairs, a few students wagered guesses  in front of the whole class. After a few wrong answers — which Olajide cheerfully identified as incorrect — she said, “I’m not looking for a guess right now. I’m looking for: I have a thought that is clear; this is what I’m trying to show.”

Hands shot up. After a few close-but-not-quite answers, a student said, “It’s dark in the subway! There’s no sunshine.”

That was the answer Olajide was looking for. “It’s showing us something about the subway,” she said. “Isn’t that a cool sentence?”

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.