for the sake of argument

At Dewitt Clinton, tackling progress report as informational text

Ann Near, right, looks over her school's progress report with teachers on teaching social activism.
Ann Neary, right, looks over her school’s progress report with teachers at a conference on education and social activism.

When it came time to teach her ninth graders to write a research paper, Ann Neary, a teacher at Dewitt Clinton High School, decided that rather than write about a topic distant from their lives, students would try to decipher the school’s city-issued progress report.

The idea formed in November, when the city announced that Dewitt Clinton was so low-performing it might be closed. The school had just received an F on its November progress report, Neary told teachers at a conference about education and social activism hosted by the Museum of the City of New York over the weekend.

The city ultimately opted not to close Dewitt Clinton, though the Panel on Education Policy voted last week to shrink the school and move two new schools into the building. But back in November, when it still looked like the school might close, students got to work.

“We were really rallying around this issue in the school,” Neary said. “So I adopted it as a way to teach research.” An assistant principal had just asked all Dewitt Clinton ninth-grade writing teachers to assign a Common Core-aligned research paper, Neary said, and urged them to focus on non-fiction texts that included graphs for students to analyze.

“It wasn’t an assignment I thought would be interesting to my students,” she said. “I thought the F would be more meaningful to them.”

She used the same grading rubric, but rather than focusing on the nutritional content of foods, as the assignment originally suggested, the 78 students in Neary’s three classes looked into how the school got its failing grade and what each element of the complex progress report meant.

Neary began her presentation at the conference the same way she began one of the early lessons in the research paper unit: She divided participants into small groups and handed out sections of the eight-page progress report, which the city uses to evaluate and compare schools.

Several teachers pointed to parts of the report that they weren’t sure how to interpret.

“This is hard text to break down. Even teachers have to work to understand it,” said Anna Staab, who teaches eighth grade at the Leadership and Community Service Academy. She said she was particularly struck by Neary’s description of information students were able to pull out of the text that their teacher had missed.

“If kids can decipher this text, the skills will be transferrable,” Staab said. She has also worked with students to research a topic connected to their school, in her case, the Integrated Co-Teaching model of special education. “We’ve done research on the history of ICT,” Staab said. “If kids come into ICT and don’t know what it is, sometimes they see a stigma attached to it.”

After the conference participants reflected on their efforts to make sense of the progress report, Neary described walking her students through five essential research steps.

Neary says all of her students wanted Dewitt Clinton to stay open, though they were only three months into their first year at the school. The step they found most difficult, she found, was understanding “claim and counter-claim.”

“They wanted their claim to be that you shouldn’t close our school, and they didn’t want to have anything that would speak against that,” she said. At first, they resisted the idea that showing that they understood opposing arguments — an integral part of the Common Core, and one that Department of Education Chief Academic Officer Shael Polakow-Suransky emphasized in a guest lesson at Bronx Academy of Letters last year — could strengthen their credibility.

Neary said two students chose to write a paper supporting the claim that Dewitt Clinton should in fact be closed as a personal challenge.

Students less comfortable with writing began the process by generating their claims as though they were posting a message on Twitter. “Let’s use your skills at tweeting by synthesizing your claim statement in 15 words or less,” Neary wrote on the assignment.

To help complete another research step, “thinking about diverse stakeholders,” Neary required students to attend an “early engagement” hearing at the school and take notes on the range of people for whom the issue seemed to matter.

The next three steps, “looking for evidence,” “highlighting support,” and “keeping logs,” made up the bulk of the project.

Neary said students’ first instinct was to look on Wikipedia for information about their school. Once they began to find information on the Department of Education’s website and in newspaper articles about progress reports and the school closure process, they got to work making sense of what they read. Students highlighted information that supported their claims and logged their findings, before ultimately packaging their research into a three-page paper.

One student focused on the B-rating the school received in “college readiness,” the only category in which it didn’t receive an F. She researched other schools that received a B rating and compared those schools to her own.

“That girl dug and dug and dug and dug,” Neary said. “And each day she’d get more excited, because she was getting more information.”

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.