implementation mess

At Common Core talk, a principal says his reality includes vomit

Joseph McDonald, a professor of English education at NYU Steinhardt, (pictured far left) was the moderator for Friday morning's NYU Steinhardt Education Policy Breakfast Series. Pictured from left to right: Randi Weingarten (president, American Federation of Teachers), James Cibulka (president, National Council for Accreditation of Teaching Education), Okhee Lee (professor of teaching and learning at NYU Steinhardt) and Ramon Gonzalez (principal of M.S. 223).
PHOTO: Megan Quitter
Joseph McDonald, a professor at NYU Steinhardt, (pictured far left) moderated Friday morning’s NYU Steinhardt Education Policy Breakfast Series Common Core discussion. From left to right: Randi Weingarten (American Federation of Teachers president); James Cibulka (president, National Council for Accreditation of Teaching Education); Okhee Lee (NYU Steinhardt professor) and Ramon Gonzalez (M.S. 223 principal).

Principal Ramon Gonzalez has been a principal for ten years, but this week, he said, he’s experienced a lot of firsts.

“I’ve had my first experience of students vomiting on a test. After we cleaned off the test, we had to call testing security to make sure it was still valid,” he said. “I have to tell you, I was happy to submit that test to the testing authorities.”

Gonzalez, the principal of M.S. 223 in the South Bronx, joined education policy makers at an NYU Steinhardt breakfast meeting Friday morning to talk about the Common Core learning standards. Some presenters talked about standards’ role and development, but Gonzalez focused on his frustration with implementing the new standards and the shock that students and teachers faced this week when they saw the first Common Core-aligned state exams.

“They didn’t know it would be a test of endurance. They thought it would be a test about what they knew,” he said. Teachers were visibly upset by the test’s length, he said, and some students cried because of the exams.

Gonzalez began implementing the Common Core at his school two years ago and started a summer “bridge” program last year to give students more time to adjust to the higher standards. He said he supports the more rigorous standards but thinks important other issues, such as how to teach to the standards and assess them, were not carefully thought out.

He also said the way the standards are written is so dense that he had to hire consultants to help explain what they mean.

“I wonder who was at that table, who wrote the standards, because it sure wasn’t folks like me,” he said.

Another panelist, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, also supports the standards but has been vocal in her criticism of New York’s implementation of the Common Core.

“What has happened here is we have the cart before the horse,” she said. “How do you put $350 million of federal money into assessment development and not put any money directly into preparing teachers to do this?”

Her question was met with applause as she went on to single out New York and Kentucky — the first two states to tie their exams to the Common Core — as doing the worst job of implementing the standards.

“Frankly, no one in business would ever do this if they were rolling out a new product,” she said. “No one would just say to employees, ‘Just do it.’ No one would say to customers, ‘Oh, by the way it’s really not gonna work the first time.'”

Weingarten said she would release a survey of AFT members’ opinions on the Common Core next week. That survey included an extra-large sample of New York teachers.

During the question and answer period, former State Education Commissioner David Steiner defended his successor, John King, and King’s implementation of the Common Core. Steiner listed some steps the state took under King’s leadership to try to help teachers better understand the new standards, such as creating free Common Core curriculum materials and training educators during multiple summer sessions.

“My concern is the effort is never enough,” Steiner said. “Are we going to lose the reform because we can never do enough? I urge us for the sake of underprivileged children … not to let this go because we haven’t done enough.”

For now, principals such as Gonzalez have to figure out how to get their anxious students through the next week of testing, this time in math.

“I don’t think we really understood how stamina was going to play  a role in this test,” he said. He added, “I wasn’t expecting to deal with all the emotions. That surprised me.”

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.