grading the grading

UFT protests Regents grading issues; UFT downplays concerns

UFT President Mulgrew and Council of Supervisors and Administrators, a principals union, outside Stuyvesant High School this morning.
UFT President Mulgrew and Council of Supervisors and Administrators, a principals union, outside Stuyvesant High School this morning.

A top Department of Education official said Friday that effects from delays caused by city’s new electronic grading system were “overblown” and estimated that only a small percentage of students would participate in graduation ceremonies without knowing their final grades.

“Every kid will have their diploma before the end of [the school year], no one’s being kept from walking,” Chief Academic Officer Shael Polakow-Suransky said at International High School at Lafayette in Brooklyn, shortly before taking stage to speak at the school’s graduation ceremony.

“I know that it’s stressful and I feel bad for the kids that it’s stressful,” he said, then added, “I do feel like it’s a little bit overblown.”

Polakow-Suransky’s comments came following days of complaints from teachers about the grading process of four of the most-taken Regents tests — Living Environment, Global Studies, U.S. History, and English. The exams are being scored electronically this year through a “distributed scoring system” to improve the efficiency and accuracy of the process used in previous years, which involved teachers grading their own students’ exams.

McGraw-Hill, the vendor administering the process, was tasked with collecting the exams at schools, transporting them to a scanning site in Connecticut, and then distributing answers one by one to teachers stationed at computers in city grading centers.

But the process was significantly delayed by scanning glitches and teachers said this week that often they’ve only been able to grade just a few dozen tests for an entire day. As a result, tens of thousands of Regents exams have not been graded and many students who are preparing for their graduation ceremonies still aren’t sure if they scored high enough to receive their diploma. The city is rushing to hire teachers to grade over the weekend in order to complete the scoring.

Polakow-Suransky downplayed the concerns, saying he expected the grading to be done by Monday and he estimated that less than 4 percent of students will have walked in graduation ceremonies without knowing what their final grades are.

He also criticized the United Federation of Teachers, which held a press conference early this morning at Stuyvesant High School, one of the city’s grading sites. UFT President Michael Mulgrew railed against the Department of Education for its handling of the process.

“Who was the genius who decided that it was a good idea to take all the tests that the children take and put them in trucks and send them to Connecticut to get scanned into systems so they can send them back here?” Mulgrew asked.

Mulgrew said he supported electronic scoring, but that the department made mistakes in its oversight of the contract with McGraw-Hill. When the education department awarded the $9.7 million contract to the publishing giant last year, officials said that part of the discounted deal included a promise from McGraw-Hill to develop a new web application that it didn’t previously have.

“Open up the books and be transparent and just say, listen we messed up, we shouldn’t have done this,” Mulgrew said.

In response, Polakow-Suransky said he believed the union was unnecessarily politicizing the issue.

“It’s ugly to be using this for political gain,” he added.

The shift to online distributed scoring is part of a roll out that began last year. It comes as the city prepares the need to administer and grade tests that include more open-answer questions to reflect Common Core standards. Officials have said that the system makes its easier to more accurately grade essays and other written responses.

Bruce Matthews, a teacher at Bard High School Early College who joined Mulgrew for the press conference, agreed that the concept behind the grading system was promising.

“If they can work out the kinks in this program, I think it’s great,” Matthews said. “But there’s been no input from people in the trenches who do this.”

the end

A 60-year-old group that places volunteers in New York City schools is shutting down

PHOTO: August Young

Citing a lack of support from the city education department, a 60-year-old nonprofit that places volunteers in New York City schools is closing its doors next month.

Learning Leaders will cease operations on March 15, its executive director, Jane Heaphy, announced in a letter to volunteers and parents last week.

In the message, she said the group had slashed its budget by more than a third, started charging “partnership fees” to participating schools, and explored merging with another nonprofit. But the city pitched in with less and less every year, with no guarantee of consistency, she said.

“This funding volatility has created insurmountable challenges to the long-term viability of our organization,” Heaphy wrote. “We regret the vacuum that will be created by our closure.”

The group — which began as part of the city school system but became its own nonprofit in the 1970s — says its volunteers work with more than 100,000 students in more than 300 schools every year, many of them faithfully. When then-84-year-old Carolyn Breidenbach became the group’s 2013 volunteer of the year, she had been helping at P.S. 198 on the Upper East Side daily for 12 years.

Heaphy’s full message to volunteers is below:

Dear [volunteer],

It is with a heavy heart that I write to inform you Learning Leaders will cease operations on March 15 of this year. This organization has worked diligently over the last few years to sustain our work of engaging families as Learning Leaders, but the funding landscape has become too challenging to keep our programs going. While we have been able to increase our revenues from a generous community of funders, we have ultimately come to the conclusion that without a consistent and significant base of funding from the NYC Department of Education, we cannot leverage foundation grants, individual donors, or school fees sufficiently to cover program costs.

In the face of growing financial challenges, Learning Leaders reduced its costs as thoughtfully as possible — and in ways that did not affect our program quality. Rather, we sought to deepen and continually improve our service to schools and families while eliminating all but the most necessary costs. These efforts reduced our budget by more than 35 percent.

At the same time, we sought greater public support for our work with schools and families across the city. We are grateful to the foundations and individual donors that have believed in our work and provided financial support to keep it going. We were gratified when schools stepped up to support our efforts through partnership fees. While these fees only covered a portion of our costs, the willingness of principals to find these funds within their extremely tight school budgets was a testament to the value of our work.

Throughout an extended period of financial restructuring Learning Leaders advocated strongly with the Mayor’s Office and the DOE [Department of Education] for a return to historical levels of NYC DOE support for parent volunteer training and capacity building workshops. While we received some NYC DOE funding this year, it was less than what we needed and was not part of an ongoing budget initiative that would allow us to count on regular funding in the coming years. Several efforts to negotiate a merger with another nonprofit stalled due to the lack of firm financial commitment from the DOE. Over time, this funding volatility has created insurmountable challenges to the long-term viability of our organization.

We regret the vacuum that will be created by our closure. If you have questions or concerns about opportunities and support for family engagement and parent volunteer training, you can contact the NYC DOE’s Division of Family and Community Engagement at (212) 374-4118 or [email protected].

On behalf of the board of directors and all of us at Learning Leaders, I offer heartfelt thanks for your partnership. We are deeply grateful for your work to support public school students’ success. It is only with your dedication and commitment that we accomplished all that we did over the last 60 years. We take some solace in knowing that we’ve helped improve the chances of success for more than 100,000 students every year. The Learning Leaders board and staff have been honored to serve you and your school communities.
Sincerely,

Jane Heaphy
Executive Director

Rise & Shine

While you were waking up, the U.S. Senate took a big step toward confirming Betsy DeVos as education secretary

Betsy DeVos’s confirmation as education secretary is all but assured after an unusual and contentious early-morning vote by the U.S. Senate.

The Senate convened at 6:30 a.m. Friday to “invoke cloture” on DeVos’s embattled nomination, a move meant to end a debate that has grown unusually pitched both within the lawmaking body and in the wider public.

They voted 52-48 to advance her nomination, teeing up a final confirmation vote by the end of the day Monday.

Two Republican senators who said earlier this week that they would not vote to confirm DeVos joined their colleagues in voting to allow a final vote on Monday. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska cited DeVos’s lack of experience in public education and the knowledge gaps she displayed during her confirmation hearing last month when announcing their decisions and each said feedback from constituents had informed their decisions.

Americans across the country have been flooding their senators with phone calls, faxes, and in-person visits to share opposition to DeVos, a Michigan philanthropist who has been a leading advocate for school vouchers but who has never worked in public education.

They are likely to keep up the pressure over the weekend and through the final vote, which could be decided by a tie-breaking vote by Vice President Mike Pence.

Two senators commented on the debate after the vote. Republican Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who has been a leading cheerleader for DeVos, said he “couldn’t understand” criticism of programs that let families choose their schools.

But Democrat Patty Murray of Washington repeated the many critiques of DeVos that she has heard from constituents. She also said she was “extremely disappointed” in the confirmation process, including the early-morning debate-ending vote.

“Right from the start it was very clear that Republicans intended to jam this nomination through … Corners were cut, precedents were ignored, debate was cut off, and reasonable requests and questions were blocked,” she said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”