Time Management

Educators question contract's bet on teacher training over student tutoring

PHOTO: Sarah Darville

The proposed teachers contract stakes a claim about the time educators spend with students: quality beats quantity.

The new agreement would upend a key provision of the 2005 contract, which added two-and-a-half hours to the school week so teachers could work with small group of students. Now, most of that time would be devoted to teacher professional development and some to parent outreach.

The idea behind the contract changes, officials explained, is that better-trained teachers will have a greater impact on students even if they spend less time with them.

“We have to train teachers so that the time they’re spending with students is much more effective and valuable,” said United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew. “Versus doing, once again, this political punch line — more time with the student. Let’s make it better time with the student.”

While that approach makes sense to many, others note that professional development can vary widely in quality, and they question whether teacher training ever trumps instructional time.

“I honestly have never met one teacher who thinks the solution to the educational crisis is less time with students and more time in PD,” wrote the author of the education blog, Doenuts.

The 2005 contract had most schools divide two-and-a-half hours per week, or 150 minutes, into four after-school tutoring or small-group sessions each week, with some exceptions. “Multi-session” schools that have staggered starts were allowed to spread those extra minutes throughout their normal school day. Also, schools could request to use some of that time for teacher-team planning rather than tutoring.

The new contract, which must still be ratified, would take back those 150 minutes and split them into three chunks: teachers would spend 80 minutes each Monday in school-based professional development, 35 minutes on Tuesdays collaborating with colleagues, and another 40 minutes each Tuesday communicating with parents in writing, on the phone, or through newsletters and class websites.

Not every school would be affected by the change. Multi-session schools will again be exempt from this default arrangement, though they will be expected to provide professional development and parent engagement, according to union officials. Also, schools that prefer their current arrangement with the extra instructional time could request an exemption that would allow them to keep some part of their schedule.

Chancellor Carmen Fariña said that schools could pay teachers to tutor students after-school or on Saturdays with money saved by running their own professional development rather than hiring outside trainers. Also, the new contract would allow up to 200 schools to restructure their school days, potentially freeing them to add more small-group time.

After details about the proposed contract emerged last week, some educators expressed concern about trading extra instructional time for teacher training, which might not be helpful.

Peter Lamphere, a high school math teacher in Washington Heights, said some school leaders carefully consider teachers’ needs and plan professional development where educators help each other improve. But other administrators run top-down, unhelpful trainings.

“Now they’ll have 80 minutes to do that rather than a faculty conference once per month,” he said. “So it could be torture for some people.” 

Others questioned whether the contract needs to set aside time for parent communication, which most teachers already find time to do without such provisions, said Evan Schwartz, principal of the Bronx’s Alfred E. Smith High School.

“It wasn’t like they were sitting around saying, ‘I have these great creative ideas, but it’s not in my contract so I’m not doing them,’” he said.

But other people who work in schools welcomed the extra time for training and collaboration.

Darlene Cameron, principal of P.S. 63 in the East Village, said the after-school time built into the current contract has helped some struggling students but is not a perfect system, since some students resist staying after the normal school day and some parents pick them up before the sessions end. She said now the school will find time to offer those students extra support during the school day and that the new training sessions could focus on ways to reach those students during class.

“I think in the end this will have a bigger impact for children all around,” she said.

Teacher committees at each school will help decide how to use the new training time, though a main focus will be on the Common Core standards and the city will offer some guidance, officials said. Fariña said teachers could spend some of the time writing curriculum or sharing best practices.

“This is peer-to-peer, teacher-to-teacher,” she said, “And it really is, to me, a dream come true.”

Research has shown that when teachers meet for about 90 minutes per week to plan lessons, analyze student work, or devise supports for students with special needs, it can boost student achievement, said Lynette Guastaferro, executive director of Teaching Matters, an organization that works with public schools to increase teacher effectiveness.

She added that the new learning standards place greater demands on educators and make regular professional development even more essential.

“When our entire educational force has to reboot because of the Common Core, it is essential that teachers have time to learn,” she said.

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.