draining the atr pool

City data shows number in Absent Teacher Reserve remains steady

The city’s pool of excessed teachers is about the same size as it was this time last year, according to data released by the education department Friday.

The latest numbers show that 1,083 teachers were collecting salaries and benefits without holding full-time positions in schools last month, compared to 1,102 in January 2015. Mayor Bill de Blasio and the city teachers union have pledged to reduce the size of the pool, which swelled under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg and costs the city millions of dollars each year.

Teachers can be placed into the Absent Teacher Reserve after their job is eliminated at a school or for disciplinary reasons.

The reserve shrunk during de Blasio’s first year in office, and he has said he wants the pool to grow smaller by removing poor teachers from the school system and by helping qualified teachers find jobs. The new union contract included provisions aimed at making it easier for teachers to interview at schools and a buyout offer that 115 teachers and school staff took.

The pool typically shrinks over the course of the school year as teachers find jobs, and the new data shows that the city succeeded in placing about 500 teachers in full-time positions in both fall 2014 and fall 2015. But officials have been less successful at reducing the overall size of the pool.

Still, the education department claimed the numbers as a victory Friday. Officials pointed out that the pool did not increase in size, as it did for years under the Bloomberg administration, and linked the two-year decline to changes in the teacher contract.

“In past years the number of teachers in the ATR pool tended to go up year over year,” said education department spokeswoman Devora Kaye. “We are glad the overall trend is down and we have been able to maintain that decline this year.”

It remains unclear whether the decline is actually due to the new provisions in the contract. Since January 2014, education department officials said 450 teachers have exited the system. However, they did not provide a breakdown of why those teachers left or how many retired.

Of the 289 teachers that left the school system between April 2014 and February 2015, nearly 200 took buyouts or retired, according to a Chalkbeat analysis last March.

Another reason the pool has stabilized is the de Blasio administration’s aversion to closing schools. Under Bloomberg, the city aggressively closed poor-performing schools, sending excessed teachers who did not immediately find jobs elsewhere into the pool. But de Blasio has announced the city will shutter only three schools this year.

For their part, teachers union officials said they hope the city continues helping excessed teachers find jobs within the city school system.

“It is in everyone’s interest to find permanent positions for all the teachers who want it,” a UFT spokeswoman said.

The numbers released Friday only described classroom teachers and did not include other school workers such as guidance counselors or social workers.

changeup

Fifth-graders will study more Tennessee history to comply with a new state law

PHOTO: Mike Folsom

When lawmakers voted this spring to add a semester of Tennessee history to students’ education, they threw a curveball at new social studies standards that were approaching final approval.

Now the State Board of Education has announced how it plans to accommodate the new mandate. Beginning in the fall of 2019, fifth-graders will be learning more about Native Americans, early settlements and the state’s development in culture, economics and politics.

Students also will receive smaller doses of Tennessee-centric studies in the third and eighth grades, in addition to some basic lessons already required for first-graders.

The changes are part of revisions to new standards that the State Board is expected to give final approval to on Friday. Those standards will determine what students should learn grade-by-grade in their social studies, history and civics classes.

The latest revisions represent the final twist in a contentious, 18-month-long review process that began with complaints from some individuals and groups about how Islam was being taught in seventh-grade world history. Social studies teachers had also complained about an excessive number of standards to teach, contributing to the State Board’s decision to launch the review two years earlier than planned.

The result was an overhaul that reduced the number of standards by 14 percent — but at the expense of some Tennessee history such as the Chickamauga Indians, “Roots” author Alex Haley, and the New Madrid earthquakes. And even though the State Board unanimously approved the new standards on first reading in April, it received pushback from historians and other advocates about topics being excluded.

Soon after, lawmakers passed the new mandate during the waning hours of this year’s session. Thus, after the painstaking process of winnowing down the number of standards, the state had to put some back in.

Sara Heyburn Morrison, executive director of the State Board, calls the latest changes “the right balance.” She also thinks that fifth grade is the best place to add a semester of Tennessee history, based on input from educators and members from the Standards Recommendation Committee.

“We put it all out on the table, K through 12,” she said Wednesday about the latest deliberations. “Where would this course be best integrated to support student learning and be developmentally appropriate?”

They landed on fifth grade. Younger students aren’t quite ready for advanced Tennessee history; middle schoolers focus more on world history.

“(It’s the) least amount of content eliminated and still make sense developmentally,” she said.

Specifically, students will study Tennessee history in the second half of their fifth-grade year, shifting the standards so that they concentrate the bulk of those studies in a single grade.

“There was a lot of shuffling in all the grades since Tennessee history was embedded throughout the standards,” said McKenzie Manning, a spokeswoman for the State Board.

The new standards also require students to compare and contrast major world religions, including Christianity and Islam, and adds Sikhism to a high school elective on current events.

Below is a informational sheet provided by the State Board of Education on the changes.

Every Student Succeeds Act

New federal rules are pushing Indiana to explore giving state tests in Spanish

PHOTO: Kelly Wilkinson / The Star
Kindergartners Ivania, left, and Jackie work on reading and writing with their teacher, Liz Amadio, at Enlace Academy.

Native Spanish-speakers could soon have an opportunity to take Indiana state tests in their first language.

Indiana education officials are proposing offering future state math and science tests in Spanish — and possibly other languages — as part of their plan to comply with new requirements of the Every Student Succeeds Act, which replaced No Child Left Behind in 2015.

Supporters of native language tests say, among other benefits, they can be far less jarring for children than sitting them in front of a test written in a language they can’t understand.

“The whole thinking is (English-learners) would do better if we’d give them access,” said Trish Morita-Mullaney, a researcher and professor at Purdue University who specializes in English language learning. “We don’t want you sitting blankly in front of an English test, we want you to at least have an opportunity to do well.”

The proposal says the translated tests could be available as early as spring of 2019, in time for the first administration of ILEARN, the test currently in the works to replace ISTEP.

While state officials said they’d focus on Spanish, the state’s ESSA plan says they anticipate adding three others to the mix. One option could be Burmese, which has a strong presence in four districts across the state, including some in Marion County.

About 72 percent of Indiana students learning English speak Spanish at home. Overall, Indiana’s 50,677 English-learners speak more than 270 languages, representing the second-fastest growing English-learner population in the entire country.

Morita-Mullaney said she is happy to see Indiana explore native language tests, but she hopes they take it slow and learn from of others. Some past mistakes include trying to test in too many languages (a costly, time-consuming endeavor) and trying to make the new tests happen before proper vetting and before schools collect input from students and families.

California, Texas, New York and Oregon have all, at some point, given native language tests, Morita-Mullaney said. And while it’s not a new idea, it’s still fairly uncharted territory. Based on a 2016 report from Education Week, fewer than 12 states test in languages other than English. Some states, like Florida, are trying to eschew the native language requirement altogether.

But one big piece missing from Indiana’s plan, Morita-Mullaney said, is how the state plans to ensure the test measures what the state intends it to measure — known in the test design world as “construct validity.”

Put another way, if a student is taking a math test in English, but they are fluent in Spanish, is the test measuring how well they know math, or how well they know English? That specific idea is part of the rationale for using native language tests, but there’s a related problem, Morita-Mullaney said: If a native Spanish-speaker is taught math in English, and tested in Spanish, is that also a fair and accurate test?

“If the original instruction was in English, what guarantee do we have that they actually understood it?” Morita-Mullaney said. “Are we testing the language, are we testing the content or both? That component is not in the (state plan).”

A way around this dilemma is through dual language instruction, where students are taught both in English and another language. But while those classes are growing in popularity, they make up a small minority of programs in schools, and many of them are designed to serve students who already know English, rather than students who need support in English and their home language.

Hopefully, Morita-Mullaney said, Indiana will try out native language tests first for small groups of students to make sure they truly provide an advantage to English-learners and function as intended. And ideally, she added, that would come with a renewed investment in bilingual education.

“It’s a wonderful effort, but I remain concerned that we have not examined construct validity,” she said. “But I don’t want construct validity to be used as an argument to not do it … there’s so much we don’t know, and there’s so many states that have done this the wrong way. We need to learn from their pitfalls.”

The move toward using native language tests is indicative of a larger trend of inclusivity in ESSA. Before, students learning English tended to be an afterthought in state education policy. Now, not only are native language tests on the table, but English-learners also have a larger piece of the state’s A-F grade formula.

“This is the first time (English-learners) have had a prominent place in our accountability system,” said Maryanne McMahon, an Indiana State Board of Education member and assistant superintendent in Avon.

There are also safeguards in place in the new rules to ensure even top-rated schools are taking care to educate all students. Going forward, schools could be be singled out for extra support from the state not just if they are rated a D or an F, but also if smaller groups of students, such as English-learners, are struggling.

“You can still have an A-district not meeting EL goals,” Morita-Mullaney said. “People think, ‘We’re an A, we’re good,’ but what it does is it masks disparities. So when you start to look more closely, you see that they’re an A-district, but gee, their English-learners are doing crummy.”

The state is on track to submit its ESSA plan to the federal government in September, and the state board is set to discuss the issues further next month.

Read more about Indiana’s ESSA journey here.