teacher leaders

To keep top teachers, principals of struggling schools offer bigger paychecks

Like other principals of low-scoring schools with many needy students, Sean Licata faces the twin challenges of holding onto his best teachers and wooing skilled new hires.

But because his Bronx middle school is part of the city’s “Renewal” program for struggling schools, he had a secret weapon this summer: $27,500 for raises for top teachers willing to take on leadership roles. The promise of the extra money helped him convince a veteran educator to join his staff and provided a new way to recognize the hard work of his strongest teachers, whom he encouraged to apply for the raises.

“You could see a little more pep in their step,” said Licata, principal of School of Diplomacy.

The raises are part of a new, $4.9 million teacher-leadership program that some Renewal school leaders say is helping them hold onto top staff members, though it has limitations. Several principals said it has not been much help as they try to recruit teachers from other schools, but it has provided a considerable reward for their best existing educators.

The stakes are high for New York City’s bottom-ranked schools, which are receiving an infusion of funding and support as they try to rapidly improve student performance. But the high-profile effort has also focused greater scrutiny on those working in the schools, which could face state takeover or closure unless they quickly improve. All that has raised the prospect that the already hard-to-staff schools could see an exodus of teachers whose replacements might be tough to recruit.

Looking to prevent that, the city has retooled the teacher-leader roles embedded in last year’s teachers contract into incentives to help Renewal schools keep and attract strong educators. This year, each Renewal school has received funding for up to three teacher-leaders, whose pay increases will range from $7,500 to $20,000.

At the same time, the program offers schools a way to get more staffers invested in the improvement process, said Paul Asjes, a math teacher at a Bronx Renewal school who will take on one of the leadership roles this fall.

“There’s so much work that needs to be done, and a small group of administrators can’t do it on their own,” said Asjes, who teaches at the School of Performing Arts. The position, he added, helped convince him to remain at his school.

The threat of high teacher turnover loomed this year over many Renewal schools, where some teachers were subjected to a steady stream of official observations and asked to work an extra period each day. At the two Renewal schools where all staffers were forced to reapply for their jobs, the majority of teachers did not return.

An education department spokesman said turnover rates at the other Renewal schools for last year were not immediately available. But a survey of five Renewal schools found some variation: three saw more teachers retire or switch schools than in past years, while the others had average turnover. Serapha Cruz, principal of the Bronx School of Young Leaders, said nine teachers left at the end of the school year — up from the usual three.

“It was way worse than it’s ever been since I’ve been principal,” she said.

At the same time, it took more salesmanship than usual to attract new hires. “It’s hard for people to believe that this school could be well run if you’re on the list” of Renewal schools, Cruz said.

To help principals fill those openings, the city organized Renewal-only recruitment fairs and sent them lists of top candidates. In the end, according to principals and people who work at Renewal schools, many teachers applied for jobs at those schools, likely a reflection of New York’s competitive teaching market.

Haven’t I heard of this before?

    The city has tried offering higher-paid teacher-leader roles to match troubled schools with strong teachers in the past.
    In a 2010 pilot program under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, “master” and “turnaround” teachers who committed to work for three years at certain low-performing schools earned extra pay in exchange for supporting their colleagues. The city abruptly ended the program two years later after it lost federal school-improvement funds due to a legal battle with the teachers union.
    In 2014, the teachers union negotiated with the de Blasio administration to get the latest version of the leadership program into the new teachers contract.

“The challenge was not in getting people to apply for the positions,” one Renewal high school principal said, “but finding people who were suitable.”

The city is deploying the teacher-leader program to help solve that problem, too. Only highly rated teachers were eligible to apply, and those who did sat for interviews before a joint city-union panel that reviewed lesson plans and student work. The city sent a list of any teachers who made it through the vetting process to Renewal school principals in mid-July.

But Renewal principals had trouble using the program to hire vetted teachers from other schools, according to several people who work in those schools.

Some said that many candidates had already accepted positions elsewhere by the time the Renewal principals received the teacher-leader list this summer. Others noted that Renewal schools had to compete with higher-performing schools for the same relatively small pool of vetted teachers. Licata, the School of Diplomacy principal, said his one approved teacher fielded job offers from several schools, since all principals had access to the same candidate list.

“A lot of principals reached out to her about accepting a new position,” he said, adding that the teacher was “a hot commodity.”

Still other principals said they hesitated to hire outside teachers for a position that would have them coaching colleagues and running demonstration classrooms in a school where they had just arrived.

“I’m very wary of hiring someone to do a leadership position when they don’t understand the school,” said Cruz, the Bronx School of Young Leaders principal.

The leadership program has showed more promise as a tool to retain strong teachers, principals said. Research has shown that higher pay alone is often not enough to keep teachers from leaving, but offering extra authority and more collaboration with colleagues can be strong incentives to stay.

The “model teacher” role, which comes with a $7,500 raise, requires teachers to open up their classrooms for others to observe their lessons. The “peer collaborative teacher” role, which brings a $12,000 pay hike and replaces the “lead teacher” position that existed for a decade, has teachers coach their colleagues and lead school-wide trainings. They get at least one period off from teaching each day to do that work. (A “master teacher” role, which the city said will be available for only a few teachers, comes with a $20,000 raise.)

The education department spokesman would not provide the number of teachers who were approved for the leadership roles, and said that hiring for those positions is ongoing.

In addition to Renewal schools, the city is also helping fund these positions at more than 140 schools in the Learning Partners and Learning Partners Plus programs, in which educators visit partner schools. Other schools that chose to hire teachers for the leadership roles had to use their own money.

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.