Grand Experiment?

Contract’s plan to fuel school experimentation sparks debate

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

The proposed teachers contract would cost the city at least $6 billion and impact tens of thousands of educators. But a provision that involves no new funding and covers only a fraction of schools is one officials say could transform the school system.

The plan would let educators at up to 200 schools design and carry out experiments in school improvement: from lengthening the school day to swapping out tests for projects to having teachers help evaluate their peers. In an echo of the charter-school model, those schools would be released from certain contract rules but held accountable to new performance targets, all while acting as innovation incubators for the rest of the school system, city and union officials said.

That has worried some union members who fear the proposal would weaken protections for teachers and send the message that union contracts inhibit innovation. Meanwhile, union critics claim the plan will not loosen contract rules enough to foster successful charter school-style experimentation.

Even proponents of the plan have raised questions about it: Without funding for the program, how will the city help schools make big changes? And will the initiative spark new innovation, or simply spotlight schools that are already experimenting?

“I’m not sure I totally understand the incentive,” said a middle school principal who spoke on the condition of anonymity, adding that he still plans to apply to the program. “I don’t know if it will be worth it, but I’m definitely going to try.”

The plan, called Progressive Redesign Opportunity Schools for Excellence, or PROSE, will go into effect if union members ratify the proposed teachers contract. It would allow schools to alter their schedules, class sizes, student assessments, teacher evaluations, and more.

According to the city-union contract agreement, a mix of low and high-performing schools will be encouraged to propose such changes. Teachers and administrators must develop the proposals together, and parent leaders must sign off on them. If a joint Department of Education-United Federation of Teachers panel approves a proposal and 65 percent of a school’s unionized staff ratifies it, then the school will be freed from any rules that would restrict the proposed changes.

Mayor Bill de Blasio said the PROSE program would let schools "reinvent themselves."
Mayor Bill de Blasio said the PROSE program would let schools “reinvent themselves.”

“The last thing that should happen,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said when the deal was announced, “is to have either the chancellor’s regulations or UFT work rules stand in the way of innovation that everyone agrees on.”

The program would save schools that already bend the contract rules from having to do so in secret or having to vote on annual contract modifications known as School-Based Options, or SBOs, union officials noted. The new program would also allow schools to propose changes that are not permitted by SBOs, such as longer school days or peer evaluations. And while SBOs last for one year, schools would remain in the PROSE program for five years, unless the authorizing panel decides a school “is not succeeding,” the agreement says.

“I took the SBO idea and I said, ‘Let’s amp it up,'” UFT President Michael Mulgrew told Chalkbeat.

Still, debate has broken out about whether PROSE would give schools too much leeway to experiment or not enough.

Department of Education officials have emphasized that there are “no limits” to the changes that schools can propose. But in a recording obtained by Chalkbeat, Mulgrew told teachers at a closed-door meeting that the union would not allow schools to do away with seniority protections for teachers or to alter the union’s salary system, which bases pay on experience and education.

Jenny Sedlis, executive director of StudentsFirstNY, an advocacy group that frequently criticizes the teachers union, said it’s clear that schools in the program will have less “freedom to innovate” than charter schools, most of which are not bound by the city-union contract. In particular, she questioned whether schools would be permitted to adjust how teachers are paid or fired, among other changes.

“The greatest levers you have to make change in a school will not be on the table,” she said.

But some teachers said they worry the program could serve as an end run around contract protections for teachers, and that PROSE schools could come to resemble charter schools.

Tina Collins, a UFT official who researches charter schools for the union, will help run the PROSE program for the union. But Mulgrew called any suggestion that the program will turn traditional schools into charters “bogus,” and noted that schools have long been offered contract flexibility through SBOs.

Other teachers questioned why more school-level experimentation is necessary when there is already wide agreement within schools that certain policy changes, such as smaller class sizes and more robust social services, would benefit students.

“There are plenty of things we know work for kids,” said Julie Cavanagh, a teacher at Brooklyn’s P.S. 15 who has been critical of the proposed contract. “Why aren’t we doing those things?”

Even as debate over the plan continues, officials are already identifying possible PROSE schools.

The contract deal sets a goal of establishing 200 such schools over the next five years. In order to give schools time to plan over the summer, officials want teachers in the first batch of PROSE schools to vote on their proposals by the end of June — just weeks after the contract is expected to be ratified.

UFT President Michael Mulgrew called any suggestion that the new program would turn traditional schools into charters "bogus."
PHOTO: Rob Bennett for the Office of Mayor Bill de Blasio
UFT President Michael Mulgrew called any suggestion that the new program would turn traditional schools into charters “bogus.”

The union has already started reaching out to schools it thinks may be interested. This week, union officials met with teachers from a group of schools that substitute performance-based assessments for most standardized tests.

Meanwhile, several school leaders who have reviewed the PROSE plan said they found it appealing, since it would provide some stability as they continue to experiment. But it remains to be seen whether the program will attract schools that have not already started to make changes.

Nigel Pugh, principal of Manhattan’s Richard R. Green High School of Teaching, said he liked the PROSE idea, especially its call for teacher-administrator collaboration. But he said that he would hesitate to propose a major change, such as a longer school day, when teachers are still adjusting to new standards, special-education reforms, and evaluations.

“There’s a limit to how much you can ask them to do,” he said.

It is also unclear what type of technical and financial support PROSE schools will receive to help them enact their plans.

Schools will be able to request extra funding, but none is guaranteed, according to the agreement. The mayor also did not set aside any money for the program in his budget proposal, though union officials said the city could seek state or federal funding.

Both city and union officials have promised that the schools will receive support based on their particular needs, but offered few specifics. Schools making similar changes may be able to pool resources or share best practices, union officials said.

What is clear is that schools tend to require intensive assistance when making big changes.

The Bronx Writing Academy, or P.S. 323, created staggered start times for teachers, adjusted the lengths of classes, and incorporated online learning through the city’s iZone program over the last few years. IZone paid for new computers and Internet infrastructure for the school, and connected it with at least three other groups that helped it plot out the changes, said principal Kamar Samuels.

“We had a lot of support around how to manage change and innovation,” Samuels said. “I think that will be a real key piece of PROSE.”

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.