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.”

Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community. 

poster campaign

How one Memphis student is elevating the conversation about school discipline

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Posters created by junior Janiya Douglas have amplified student voices about the culture of White Station High School in Memphis.

Now in her third year of attending a premier public high school in Memphis, Janiya Douglas says she’s observed discipline being handed out unevenly to her classmates, depending on whether they are on the college preparatory track.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Janiya Douglas and Michal Mckay are student leaders in Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

“We’re heavily divided in an academic hierarchy,” said Janiya, a junior in the optional program for high-achieving students at White Station High School. “It’s obvious students are treated differently if they are in traditional classes.”

Janiya also has observed racial disparities in how students are disciplined, and the state’s data backs that up. White Station students who are black or Hispanic are suspended at significantly higher rates than students who are white.

Frustrated by what she’s seen, Janiya took her concerns last Friday to the hallways of White Station and hung 14 posters to declare that “our school doesn’t treat everybody equally.”

By Monday morning, the posters were gone — removed by school administrators because Janiya did not get prior approval — but not before other students shared images of some of the messages on social media.

Now, Janiya is seeing some fruits of her activism, spawned by her participation in Bridge Builders CHANGE, a student leadership program offered by a local nonprofit organization.

In the last week, she’s met with Principal David Mansfield, a school counselor and a district discipline specialist to discuss her concerns. She’s encouraged that someone is listening, and hopes wider conversations will follow.

The discussions also are bringing attention to an online petition by the education justice arm of Bridge Builders calling for suspension alternatives across schools in Memphis.

White Station often is cited as one of the jewels of Shelby County Schools, a district wrought with academic challenges. The East Memphis school is partially optional, meaning some students test into the college prep program from across the county.

But Janiya and some of her classmates say they also see an academically and racially segregated school where students zoned to the traditional program are looked down upon by teachers. Those students often get harsher punishments, they say, than their optional program counterparts for the same actions.

“Our school doesn’t treat everybody equally. A lot of groups aren’t treated equally in our school system,” junior Tyra Akoto said in a quote featured on one poster.

“If we get wrong with a teacher, they’ll probably write us up. But if a white student was to do it, they’ll just play it off or something like that,” said Kelsey Brown, another junior, also quoted in the poster campaign.

A district spokeswoman did not respond to questions about disciplinary issues raised by the posters, but offered a statement about their removal from the school’s walls.

White Station is known for “enabling student voice and allowing students to express their opinions in various ways,” the statement reads. “However, there are protocols in place that must be followed before placing signs, posters, or other messages on school property. Schools administrators will always work with students to ensure they feel their voices are heard.”

PHOTO: @edj.youth/Instagram
Members of the education justice arm of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program

To create the posters, Janiya interviewed about two dozen students and had been learning about about school discipline disparities as part of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

State discipline data does not differentiate academic subgroups in optional schools. But white students in Shelby County Schools are more likely to be in an optional school program and less likely to be suspended. And statewide in 2014-15, black students were more than five times as likely as white students to be suspended.

White Station reflects those same disparities. About 28 percent of black boys and 19 percent of black girls were suspended that same year — significantly higher than the school’s overall suspension rate of 14 percent. About 17 percent of Hispanic boys and 7 percent of Hispanic girls were suspended. By comparison, 9 percent of white boys and 2 percent of white girls were suspended.

Shelby County Schools has been working to overhaul its disciplinary practices to move from punitive practices to a “restorative justice” approach — a transition that is not as widespread as officials would like, according to Gina True, one of four specialists implementing a behavior system called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS.

“The whole goal is to not get them suspended, because we want to educate them,” said True, who met this week with Janiya and several other students from Bridge Builders. “When students are cared for emotionally, they perform better academically. As counselors, that’s what we’ve been saying for years.”

Janiya acknowledges that she didn’t follow her school’s policy last week when hanging posters without permission at White Station. But she thinks her action has been a catalyst for hard conversations that need to happen. And she hopes the discussions will include more student input from her school — and across the district.

“Those most affected by the issues should always be a part of the solution,” she said.

Correction: April 10, 2017: A previous version of this story said Janiya put up 50 posters at her school. She designed 50 but actually posted only 14.