Algebra for All

In first ‘Algebra for All’ effort, city will push schools to centralize fifth grade math

In a change that could shift the way elementary schools work across New York City, officials want more fifth-graders to learn math from teachers chosen to focus on the subject, rather than their general classroom teachers.

The city will begin centralizing fifth-grade math next year at interested schools, according to a memo sent to principals this week, and will spread the policy further over the next five years. That memo and other documents posted online for principals describe the change as the first step in the city’s campaign to make sure more eighth-graders are prepared for algebra, a goal Mayor Bill de Blasio unveiled last fall.

“We know this initiative is a big step forward,” an education department document reads, “and are working to develop both the operational and instructional supports schools will need to be successful.”

At most of the city’s elementary schools, core subjects like reading and math are taught by the same classroom teachers. In the memo, officials asked interested principals to designate fifth-grade teachers to take on the central math role for their grade.

Some researchers say quality of math instruction increases with a designated teacher, especially since many elementary-level teachers aren’t excited about math or don’t feel prepared to teach it.

“It’s almost like people who are afraid of math flock to elementary school education,” said Clara Hemphill, one of the authors of a 2015 report from the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs that called for more intensive math teaching in fifth grade.

The introduction of the Common Core standards have added to the complexity of the task. Last year, about 41 percent of city fifth-graders the state’s math exam. Meanwhile, recent statistics show that few are prepared for upper-level math by the time they reach high school.

“With the Common Core, we’re expecting more mathematics understanding from teachers, and this enables districts to focus resources,” said Diane Briars, the president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

“Departmentalizing” math allows teachers with math anxiety to focus on other subjects, Hemphill said, and leaves those passionate about math to teach it. That’s what happened at the Girls Prep charter schools when they separated math instruction, according to Ian Rowe, the leader of the Public Prep charter school network.

“The folks who are our dedicated math teachers love the fact that they can really dive deep and really focus on not just procedural math but really getting our scholars critical thinking skills in math,” he said.

Some schools have long used or experimented with more specialized approaches. P.S. 183 Robert L. Stevenson and the Lower Lab School, both on the Upper East Side, have separate math instruction, Hemphill said.

Others were surprised that this would be the city’s move to improve math instruction.

Darlene Cameron, principal of STAR Academy-P.S. 63 in the East Village, said she would have questions about placing the responsibility for a grade’s math instruction in the hands of a single teacher, especially since so many students are already far behind when they reach fifth grade.

“Are people looking at the fifth-graders we have today? Many of them are still working on basic, single-digit multiplication,” she said.

It’s unclear how many schools the city would like to include in the new plan. Education department officials said the training would be research-based and that schools can choose to participate.

According to the posted overview of the initial “Algebra for All” initiatives, the first wave of participating teachers will have three days of training this spring, 12 days of training over the summer, and sessions throughout next school year.

To Courtney Allison, the deputy director of Math for America and a former sixth-grade teacher, encouraging schools to departmentalize fifth-grade math is a smart idea that could help make sure students arrive prepared for middle school.

“It’s exciting to see them turn their attention to mathematics,” she said of the city.

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.