Taking it Slowly

PROSE schools limited in changes they can make, documents show

PHOTO: Jessica Glazer
City and teachers union officials announced the schools that were selected to join a school-experimentation program.

Schools picked to participate in a new experimentation program could alter the way teachers are evaluated and students are assessed, though when or even if they will be able to carry out those experiments is still unsettled, newly released documents show.

City and teachers union officials announced the names of 62 schools in the new program on Monday, but only provided details about three sets of plans. The union on Thursday released the schools’ full applications and the portions that had been approved, which show that most schools received only part of what they asked for and many have permission only to start planning. (Officials also said on Thursday that another school was part of the program.)

Fewer than half of the 63 total schools in the program have tentative approval to begin carrying out their plans in September, which call for teachers to be rated partly on portfolios of their work and for principals to get feedback on their performance from teachers, according to the documents. And even those schools must wait for a joint city-teachers union panel to iron out the teacher-evaluation changes and submit them to the state before they can get started.

The other schools, which are hoping to adopt new teacher-evaluation rubrics, revamp their grading systems, reconfigure their school years, and make other changes, only received approval for “potential implementation” of their plans. Those schools might be able to carry out their plans “at a future date,” pending even more approvals, according to the panel-approved ballots that those schools voted on.

Different schools had hoped to try innovative enrollment practices, such as setting aside seats for students with incarcerated parents, or unusual promotion policies, such as ceasing to hold back students who fail their classes. But those parts of their applications did not make it onto the final ballots.

A Department of Education spokeswoman said that all 63 schools will make some changes next year, with some potentially carrying out more parts of their plans as the year goes on. She noted that new methods of teaching and evaluating take longer than one summer to put into place.

Tina Collins, an official from the teachers union who is on the city-union panel, agreed that schools had been left with very little time to plan for next year’s changes, since the program only officially launched last month after the new teachers contract was ratified. She pointed out that almost all the schools had made some schedule changes for next year, though many of them did that through a process that is open to any school.

Collins also made clear that some of the schools, which have been accepted into the program for five years, may not enact parts of their plans until later years. Other changes that some hope to make, such as replacing Regents exams with student projects, would require the approval of state policymakers.

“We encouraged schools to be creative,” said Collins, “with the understanding that this was the first step in an ongoing conversation.”

Find your school's PROSE proposal.

The experimentation program, known as Progressive Redesign Opportunity Schools for Excellence, or PROSE, was negotiated into the new teachers contract. It gives schools with a history of teacher-administrator collaboration freedom from certain contract rules and education department regulations so they can try new approaches. Mayor Bill de Blasio said the program would allow schools to “reinvent themselves,” while United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew said it would “move education forward not just in New York, but around the country.”

Most of the schools that are tentatively allowed to start carrying out their plans this year are part of the Performance Standards Consortium, where some students complete projects instead of taking certain Regents exams. Collins said leaders of that group approached the union and pitched their plan as soon as word of the program got out.

Pending final approval from the panel and the state, the schools will be able to tweak the portion of the new evaluation system that rates teachers on their instructional skills. The teachers will be scored by evaluators fewer times, but will create portfolios that showcase their abilities in a particular area of teaching.

Under a separate part of the schools’ plans, the teachers will evaluate how well their administrators supported them, though those evaluations will not affect principals’ job ratings.

The other schools in PROSE are members of a few other groups: New Visions for Public Schools, a school-support organization; the Internationals Network for Public Schools, which serve recent immigrants; and two other coalitions of like-minded schools.

Those schools have been cleared to plan to make various changes, mostly around teacher evaluations and student assessments.

The evaluation changes involve using new rubrics, observations by fellow teachers, or student projects to rate teachers. The assessment shift would allow schools to move to “mastery-based” systems, where students earn credits by completing projects that show they understand a topic, rather than simply by attending class.

But some of the schools’ more innovative proposals were not approved by the panel. For instance, Castle Bridge School in Upper Manhattan was granted permission to plan for some teacher-evaluation changes.

On their application, however, school leaders outlined plans for a teacher apprenticeship, a mentoring opportunity for high school students as an alternative to suspension, and an enrollment policy that would reserve some seats for children with family members in prison. The proposal author also asked for an “office/business manager” for the school, then explained why.

“Rationale—my head’s going to pop off if I don’t get more clerical/administrative support,” the application says.

Reporting contributed by Sarah Darville.

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.