Developing Professional Development

With 80 minutes of new teacher training each week, schools set out to see what works

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Principal Linda Mazza (left) discussed ways to spend the new 80-minute sessions with teachers at P.S. 295 in Park Slope on Monday.

After years of meeting over lunch and between bells, the city’s teachers now have 80 uninterrupted minutes every Monday afternoon to collaborate and train.

Committees at most schools are still figuring out how to spend the weekly sessions, which were mandated by the new teachers contract and are the cornerstone of Chancellor Carmen Fariña’s plan to uplift the school system. But some schools have already decided to set aside the time for teacher-led workshops on topics from technology to special education, education book clubs, viewings of peers’ videotaped lessons, and visits to other schools, according to interviews with educators at a dozen schools.

That diversity is by design. The education department released a “professional learning” handbook for principals this month with ideas for the Monday sessions, and the teachers union posted similar guides on its website. But beyond that, schools have been left to plan on their own.

“We’re making this up as we go,” said Genevieve Stanislaus, principal of Life Sciences Secondary School on the Upper East Side.

During a visit to P.S. 295 in Park Slope on Monday, city teachers union president Michael Mulgrew contrasted that approach with the “canned” trainings he said the previous administration paid outside consultants to develop and “force down everyone’s throat.” Fariña added that training is more effective when it’s ongoing and designed by people familiar with the needs inside a particular school — that is, by teachers.

“You don’t need to bring a consultant in who gets paid a lot of money to tell you what the best things are for your kids,” she told the teachers.

Chancellor Carmen Fariña told the staff at P.S. 295 on Monday that the best training is "teacher-to-teacher."
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Chancellor Carmen Fariña told the staff at P.S. 295 on Monday that the best training is “teacher-to-teacher.”

But the homemade trainings have also put a new burden on schools, some of which are further along than others in planning their Monday sessions. One principal said she personally created a list of training options after her staff-development team requested one. Judith Glazer, a teacher at I.S. 125 in Queens who is her school’s union representative, said she and some teacher volunteers were surprised by the work required to plan weekly trainings.

“It’s very overwhelming,” she said, adding that the team has decided to schedule the trainings one month at a time rather than for the whole year. (Fariña said Monday that schools could ask the department for planning help or partner with neighboring schools.)

I.S. 125’s planning committee asked teachers to choose from a list of training topics on an online form — including how to manage student behavior, lead classroom discussions, or teach students to “close read” texts — or they could suggest their own topics, according to Glazer. This month, teachers will be trained to use a new electronic grading system and a new literacy program.

Other schools are organizing study groups based on topics their staffers suggested, or workshops that will be led by teachers or outside trainers. I.S. 49 in Staten Island, for instance, invited mental-health workers this month to instruct teachers in how to handle the stresses of the job, according to principal Linda Hill. Still other schools say that teachers will work together during this time to analyze student work, develop course plans, or visit educators at different schools to swap ideas.

At Brooklyn’s P.S. 206, a team surveyed teachers to identify more than a dozen topics for peer-led study groups, according to principal Deirdre Keyes. For 40 minutes each week, teachers will read and talk about how to manage students with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or autism, ask deeper questions, and take full advantage of interactive whiteboards, among other topics.

Some schools, including ones with staggered start times, are not required to have the 80-minute Monday sessions. But the new teachers contract still encourages them to schedule regular trainings.

The staff at Queens Metropolitan High School, for instance, did that by voting for group meetings on Wednesdays and smaller, targeted sessions on Mondays, according to teacher Chris Fazio. One Monday option is a “teacher video club” where colleagues critique one another’s recorded lessons.

The new teacher-collaboration time has come at a cost.

United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew (standing) said that teacher-led trainings work better than "canned" ones produced by paid consultants.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew (standing) said that teacher-led trainings work better than “canned” ones produced by paid consultants.

Some schools had to start and end their days earlier, angering some parents and teachers who commute long distances. Schools have also scrambled to find new time to tutor students, since the weekly staff-development sessions replace time in the contract reserved for working with small groups of students.

Other schools adjusted class lengths to accommodate the after-school staff meetings. The High School for Math, Science and Engineering, for instance, shortened each class on Monday by 20 minutes, according to teacher Mark Hesse. Some educators have questioned the wisdom of that tradeoff and whether every school will manage to make good use of the new training time.

Without the mandated tutoring time, some teachers said they will try to pull aside students during the school day for extra help, while others said they will use more flexible after-school work time on Tuesdays for tutoring. Still, students will not get as much individual support outside of class as they did before, some educators said.

“Of course it won’t be enough time,” said Stanislaus, the Life Sciences Secondary School principal. Students “used to have four days [of tutoring] and now they have one day.”

Already, some teachers are worried that the Monday sessions could devolve from teacher-collaboration time into tedious faculty meetings or assigned-work periods.

Arthur Goldstein, a teacher and union representative at Francis Lewis High School in Queens, said he has heard of one school where teachers were told to create curriculum materials during that period and another where staffers sat through a long presentation on the teacher-evaluation system.

“I just don’t have faith that all of a sudden these get-togethers are going to magically become inspiring,” said Goldstein. His school is not required to hold the weekly sessions, and he said he’s received “precisely zero requests” from teachers to add them.

But during their visit to P.S. 295, Fariña and Mulgrew both insisted that the educator-led trainings would benefit students by raising the caliber of teaching across the city. Linda Mazza, the school’s principal, seconded that idea.

“If you help teachers better their practice,” she said, “students will be more successful in the classroom.”

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.