New York

Innovation program will let schools tinker with hiring, evaluations, grievances

Schools that participate in a new program run jointly by the education department and the city teachers union will be able to experiment with new ways of evaluating teachers, handling labor disputes, selecting principals, and using technology in classrooms or for teacher training, according to a letter with new details sent to schools on Friday.

In a sign that the city will be open to wide-ranging changes, the letter says that city and union officials would “consider seeking relief from the state” if schools’ plans run up against state laws, such as those dealing with student testing or teacher evaluations.

The letter from Chancellor Carmen Fariña and United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew asks any schools that are interested in the program to submit forms by this Thursday. By then, the schools must be able to list which contract rules or department regulations they are looking to alter. The schools must also describe how their administrators and teachers have collaborated previously and how interested their staff members are in participating in the new program.

The quick turnaround time for schools looking to participate in the program, which was established in the teachers contract that was ratified just last week, is one of several tight deadlines that schools must meet as they start to carry out the contract’s new rules and try to take part in its new initiatives.

City and union officials have ballyhooed the program as a way for district schools to take advantage of the flexibility that charter schools enjoy in order to try out new ideas.

“Of all the breakthrough ideas in the new contract, this one in particular has incredible potential to empower educators and their school communities,” read Friday’s joint letter.

Officials have already begun reaching out to individual schools or groups of schools with similar approaches that they think would be a good fit for the program. The contract sets a goal of enrolling 200 schools in the program over the next five years, but the letter makes clear that the first batch of schools will be small, since they have had limited time to come up with ideas.

Schools that express interest in the program by this Thursday will be told by the following Monday if they should submit “brief” applications, according to a UFT timeline. Schools will be notified by June 20 whether a joint city-UFT committee has approved their proposals.

If a school’s plan is approved, the principal and at least 65 percent of the staff must vote to move forward with the plan.

Here is the full letter that the Department of Education posted on its internal website on Friday (the union sent a similar letter to its school chapter leaders):

Dear Colleagues,

We are pleased to invite you to apply to participate in the Progressive Redesign Opportunity Schools for Excellence (PROSE) program.

Of all the breakthrough ideas in the new contract, this one in particular has incredible potential to empower educators and their school communities. The opportunities for innovative practices PROSE will provide are based on our shared belief that the solutions for the challenges faced by our city’s schools can be found within our school communities themselves, rooted in the expertise of those who practice our profession every day.

The PROSE program may not be right for every school. Many of our schools are thriving just as they are. At some schools, however, staff, leadership, parents, and other stakeholders want to work together to create and expand innovative approaches for supporting student success. For those schools, PROSE offers the ability to alter some of the most basic parameters by which schools function, which are currently defined by the collective bargaining agreement and by Chancellor’s regulations – including but not limited to the ways teachers are selected, evaluated, and supported; programming for students and teachers; the handling of grievances at the school level; the selection of the principal and other administrators; and the use of technology to support teacher development and student learning. The UFT and DOE would also consider seeking relief from the state when worthy plans cannot be implemented under current statewide regulations.

Schools that are interested in implementing the PROSE program beginning in September 2014 must submit a letter of intent by June 12. We encourage groups of schools to apply together using one letter of intent; however, each school’s School Leadership Team, principal, and staff must vote to approve the model individually. While the PROSE program will eventually accommodate up to 200 schools, we expect that a smaller number will be approved in this initial round through an expedited application process.

The key for successful participation in the PROSE program will be the extent to which schools’ proposed initiatives are driven by teachers, school leaders, and other school community members, working collaboratively to focus on excellence for students. Proposals will be submitted to a central committee staffed equally by the UFT and DOE, and only the plans which come from school communities with a proven record of collaboration and a strong potential to impact student success will be accepted. Accepted proposals must then be approved by at least 65% of the UFT members who vote at the school, as well as by the school principal.

Whether you are interested in applying for this year, are hoping to use 2014-2015 as a planning year, or are just interested in more information, click here <> . During the 2014-15 school year, the DOE and UFT will offer a series of planning meetings and workshops which will offer information about the program.

We are encouraged by the enthusiastic responses we have already received from many schools about PROSE, and are looking forward to working with our city’s educators and school communities to launch this exciting new program.


Carmen Fariña

Michael Mulgrew
President, United Federation of Teachers

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.