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After 41 SESIS errors over two hours, a special-ed teacher joins a push for reform

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Special-education teacher Megan Moskop at a forum Monday where she described problems with the data-tracking system, SESIS.

When her son was in pre-kindergarten, Tiffany Zerges asked the city to find out whether he had a disability and to come up with a plan to serve him.

“Although by law we were allowed a response to our request within 60 days,” Zerges said at a special-education forum this week, “60 days came and went, then 90, then 120 days.”

Once her son was belatedly evaluated, specialists contracted by the city began working with him. But those specialists rarely coordinated with the boy’s teachers or updated Zerges on his progress, she said, adding that she met with service providers just twice over three years.

“Children are losing months and even years of their education while we wait,” said Zerges, whose son is now in second grade at P.S. 361 in Manhattan. “We need changes to happen now.”

Monday’s forum was organized by a coalition of faith-based groups called Metro IAF, which hosted two similar forums last May that Chancellor Carmen Fariña attended. Though Fariña promised then that services for the nearly 188,000 city students with disabilities would improve under her restructuring of the education department, the group insisted Monday that special-education problems remain widespread.

The department confirmed that earlier this month when it released data showing that nearly 30 percent of students with disabilities, like Zerges’ son, had to wait longer than the legal limit to receive the plans that initiative support services. The report, which was mandated by a City Council law, also said that 35 percent of students only receive some of the services they require, while 5 percent — or almost 8,600 students — receive none at all.

The city has cautioned that those figures are not fully reliable because of grave flaws with the department’s $130 million special-education tracking system, known as SESIS. The online system has been plagued by technical problems since it launched in 2011, and student information remains on multiple, disconnected databases. Early on, the system’s glitches forced so many teachers to input data on evenings and weekends that an arbitrator eventually ordered the city to pay out $38 million in overtime.

At Monday’s forum, special-education teacher Megan Moskop said SESIS remains as troubled as ever.

During a recent two-hour session she spent plugging data into SESIS, Moskop said she received 41 error messages. The time spent contending with the faulty system leaves less time to work with students, she said.

“We educators want to be helping students with disabilities,” said Moskop, who teaches at M.S. 324 in Washington Heights, “but instead we’re pressured and sometimes forced to prioritize this dysfunctional data-keeping over real student service.”

Last month, Public Advocate Letitia James filed a lawsuit against the city claiming that problems with SESIS have left some students without services and caused the city to lose millions of dollars in Medicaid reimbursements. On Wednesday, the city’s Independent Budget Office said those reimbursements fell $373 million short of the city’s initial projections from 2012 to 2015.

At the forum, Metro IAF members called on Fariña to quickly initiate a series of reforms, such as adding extra members to the teams that create plans for pre-K students with disabilities and fixing SESIS.

“This is not just a moral obligation to educate every child,” said Rabbi David Adelson of the East End Temple in Manhattan. “It’s also federal law to provide decent services.”

An education department spokesman said that the city is working to improve its Medicaid claiming process and expects to see an increase in claims this year. Rule changes and a “corrective action plan” the city was required to enact have limited its ability to file claims, he added.

He also said that a multi-agency task force is looking for ways to improve SESIS, and that the department has launched several new programs for students with autism, hired 300 extra occupational therapists, and added staffers to help create learning plans for students with disabilities.

“We know there is more work to be done,” said the spokesman, Harry Hartfield, “and we will continue to invest in programs and services to ensure that every student can succeed.”

essa watch

Growth plus proficiency? Why states are turning to a hybrid strategy for judging schools (and why some experts say they shouldn’t)

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

A compromise in a long-running debate over how to evaluate schools is gaining traction as states rewrite their accountability systems. But experts say it could come with familiar drawbacks — especially in fairly accounting for the challenges poor students face.

Under No Child Left Behind, schools were judged by the share of students deemed proficient in math and reading. The new federal education law, ESSA, gives states new flexibility to consider students’ academic growth, too.

This is an approach that some advocates and researchers have long pushed for, saying that is a better way to judge schools that serve students who start far below proficiency.

But some states are proposing measuring academic growth through a hybrid approach that combines both growth and proficiency. (That’s in addition to using proficiency metrics where they are required.) A Chalkbeat review of ESSA plans found that a number of places plan to use a hybrid metric to help decide which of their schools are struggling the most, including Arizona, Connecticut, Delaware, Louisiana, Massachusetts, and Washington D.C.

The idea has a high-profile supporter: The Education Trust, a civil rights and education group now headed by former U.S. Education Secretary John King. But a number of researchers say the approach risks unfairly penalizing high-poverty schools and maintaining some of the widely perceived flaws of No Child Left Behind.

These questions have emerged because ESSA, the new federal education law, requires states to use academic and other measures to identify 5 percent of their schools as struggling. States have the option to include “academic progress” in their accountability systems, and many are doing so.

This is a welcome trend, says Andrew Ho of Harvard, who has written a book on the different ways to measure student progress. Systems that use proficiency percentages alone, rather than accounting for growth, “are a disaster both for measurement and for usefulness,” Ho said. “They are extremely coarse and dangerously misleading.”

Under a growth-to-proficiency model, Student A would be considered on track to proficiency by grade 6 based on the growth from grades 3 to 4, but students B and C would not. (Image: Ho’s “A Practitioner’s Guide to Growth Models”)

States that propose using this hybrid measure — commonly called “growth to proficiency” or “growth to standard” — have offered varying degrees of specificity in their plans about how they will calculate it. The basic idea is to measure whether students will meet or maintain proficiency within a set period of time, assuming they continue to grow at the same rate. Schools are credited for students deemed on track to meet the standard in the not-too-distant future, even if the students aren’t there yet.

This tends to rewards schools that serve students who are already near, at, or above the proficiency standard, meaning that schools with a large number of students in poverty will likely get lower scores on average.

It also worries researchers wary of re-creating systems that incentivize schools to focus on students near the proficiency bar, as opposed to those far below or above it. That phenomenon has been observed in some research on accountability systems focused on proficiency.

“As an accountability metric, growth-to-proficiency is a terrible idea for the same reason that achievement-level metrics are a bad idea — it is just about poverty,” said Cory Koedel, an economist at the University of Missouri who has studied school accountability. He has argued that policymakers should try to ensure ratings are not correlated with measures of poverty.

Researchers tend to say that the strongest basis for sorting out the best and worst schools (at least as measured by test scores) is to rely on sophisticated value-added calculations. Those models control for where students start, as well as demographic factors like poverty.

“If there are going to be high stakes — and I don’t suggest that there should be — then the more technically rigorous value-added models become the best way to approach teacher- and school-level accountability,” said Ho.

A large share of states are planning to use a value-added measure or similar approach as part of their accountability systems, in several cases alongside the growth-to-proficiency measure.

Some research has found that these complex statistical models can be an accurate gauge of how teachers and schools affect students’ test scores, though it remains the subject of significant academic debate.

But The Education Trust, which has long backed test-based accountability, is skeptical of these growth models, saying that they water down expectations for disadvantaged students and don’t measure whether students will eventually reach proficiency.

“Comparisons to peers won’t reveal whether that student will one day meet grade-level standards,” the group’s Midwest chapter stated in a report on Michigan’s ESSA state plan. “This risks setting lower expectations for students of color and low-income students, and does not incentivize schools to accelerate learning for historically underserved student groups.”

Marty West, a professor at Harvard, says the most prudent approach is to report proficiency data transparently, but to use value-added growth to identify struggling schools for accountability purposes.

“There are just too many unintended consequences from using [proficiency] or any hybrid approach as the basis of your performance evaluation system,” he said.

“The most obvious is making educators less interested in teaching in [high-poverty] schools because they know they have an uphill battle with respect to any accountability rating — and that’s the last thing we want.”

An education U-turn

Carmen Fariña wants to help New York City teachers get better at teaching. But some of her own reforms are getting in the way

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
The math team at P.S. 294 in the Bronx discuss a recent lesson during the 80 minutes of professional development time carved out by the city's most recent contract with the teachers union.

It was a Monday afternoon and school was out at P.S. 294. But there was plenty of learning happening inside the blue-and-yellow building in the Bronx.

Teams of teachers were gathered in classrooms on almost every floor. One group discussed a recent math lesson on how to identify patterns; another analyzed which questions had stumped students during recent statewide tests. A third was thinking about new ways to encourage discussion in the classroom.

In each huddle, they were learning a valuable lesson from each other: how to become better teachers.

What’s happening at P.S. 294 is what Carmen Fariña envisioned when she became chancellor of the country’s largest school system. Among the veteran educator’s most deeply held beliefs is that school improvement starts in the classroom — by helping teachers get better at teaching.

“To me, everything that happens in the classroom is the most crucial thing in the building,” Fariña told Chalkbeat.

Many of Fariña’s reforms reflect that vision, including the city’s contract with the teachers union, which carves out time for professional development each week. But another set of changes Fariña made — overhauling the education department bureaucracy — has sometimes worked at cross purposes, taking power away from those who know schools best.

Strapped superintendents and staffers sidelined in support centers now oversee much of the training teachers encounter. Fariña herself acknowledges it has sometimes been a struggle to meet the diverse needs of schools under the new system.

One Bronx principal said he sees that struggle firsthand.

“What some people call ‘supporting instruction with professional development,’ other people would call ‘bloated bureaucracy,’” the principal told Chalkbeat. “I have no interest in their professional development, and they don’t know my school.”

***

Like much of what has happened at the education department under Mayor Bill de Blasio, the chancellor’s emphasis on teaching the teachers marks a radical shift from the preceding administration.

Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein wanted great teachers in every classroom, too. But their position was that it was easier to hire top talent than cultivate it. Instead of pouring resources into teacher improvement, they set about measuring teachers to weed out those who were ineffective.

“Joel didn’t believe in professional development at all,” said Eric Nadelstern, who served as deputy chancellor for school support and instruction under Klein. “His question was, ‘Is it easier to change the teacher — or to change the teacher?’” Klein himself did not agree to be interviewed for this story.

When Fariña took the helm, educators took heart that one of them was in charge again. With 50 years of experience in New York City classrooms, she was the first chancellor in more than a decade who didn’t need a waiver, which the state requires when a school leader does not have the experience set by law for the job.

“When de Blasio named Fariña chancellor, it was a message,” said Norm Fruchter, a researcher at New York University who previously served as a de Blasio appointee to the Panel for Educational Policy. “The pendulum was going to shift back towards valuing instruction.”

In one of her first moves as chancellor, Fariña helped hammer out a contract with the United Federation of Teachers, the union that had clashed for years with Bloomberg and Klein. Among its most significant changes: giving teachers 80 minutes after school every Monday to work on improving their craft. The contract also created new leadership positions that gave extra pay to skilled teachers who agreed to take on coaching roles in their schools.

Taken together, those moves helped create a structure for helping teachers improve within their own schools.

“The thing with the most value in schools is time,” said Phil Weinberg, deputy chancellor of the department’s Division of Teaching and Learning. “The biggest thing that we’ve done is to honor the fact that learning has to happen by creating time.”

Share your thoughts on the quality of New York’s professional development for educators in our short survey.  

***

In the education world, there is much debate around whether professional learning really works. Plenty of research suggests that typical models do not. Educators have their own disparaging vocabulary to describe those models: drop-and-go, spray-and-pray, even drive-by professional development. The idea is that one-off lectures and workshops are rarely effective in changing teacher practice, let alone improving how much students are learning.

However, recent research suggests there are ways to get it right. A review of 35 different studies, released in June by the Learning Policy Institute, found common themes in professional learning programs that actually improve student performance. Those programs provide coaching, are collaborative and typically happen on the job — much like what’s happening at P.S. 294.

P.S. 294 The Walton Avenue School serves students who are traditionally among the city’s lowest-performing — those who are homeless, learning English, or have disabilities. Yet it outperforms the city average on standardized tests.

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Daniel Russo (center) working with the math team at P.S. 294

The school has taken on Algebra for All, a de Blasio initiative that helps schools change the way they teach math. P.S. 294 also has teacher leaders paid to share their knowledge with teams of their colleagues. Those teams then work together in the 80 minutes each week reserved for professional development. All of that comes together under a principal, Daniel Russo, who makes sure teachers get the feedback they need to improve their practice.

“We come back every couple of months and say, ‘How are we doing on this? What fell by the wayside and what are ways that we can do better?’” Russo said. “Everyone is going to contribute to, and benefit from, the greater knowledge that there is in the room.”

For all its ambitions, the 80 minutes don’t always work as planned. In about a dozen interviews with teachers and principals, many school staff said they appreciate that the Monday sessions have provided time and space to think about their practice. But others said that time can feel wasted or forced.

“Everyone is very busy at our school, and that’s just another meeting that has to take place to plan more meetings,” a Bronx high school teacher told Chalkbeat. (The teacher, like many educators interviewed for this story, agreed to speak only on the condition of anonymity.)

“A lot of times we’re not really sure what we’re going to do on a given day,” the teacher said. ”It’s not very focused throughout the year.”

***

Why, then, are some schools making good use of the new training time and at others, teachers feel like it’s being frittered away?

One factor: changes to the way principals are supervised and how schools get support.

Under Bloomberg and Klein, principals who needed help turned to dozens of “networks” scattered throughout the city. Principals opted into networks based on their schools’ needs, regardless of where the school or network were located in the city. The network providers were expected to solve problems for schools, or principals could vote with their feet and join different networks.

"That’s the system-wide idea of support now: taking people away from kids."David Baiz, former principal of Global Technology Preparatory

As chancellor, Fariña took a different approach. She promptly rebuilt the department’s Division of Teaching and Learning, which had been dissolved after she left the DOE in 2007. Once again, there was an office at the Department of Education’s central headquarters dedicated to actively helping schools decide what and how to teach.

She also empowered superintendents, calling them the “instructional leaders” of their districts, and upped the years of experience required to land the job. They evaluate principals but are also responsible for making sure schools get the support they need.

In the place of networks, Fariña opened “field support centers,” which serve hundreds of schools but don’t hold supervisory power. Unlike networks, most centers only work with schools located in the same borough. Superintendents and support centers are expected to work together to help schools improve teaching.

Crucially, that doesn’t always happen. The result can work against the 80 minutes, by distancing decision-making about professional development from schools — and complicating it, too.

Our principal is “held with her hands behind her back,” said Corey Taylor, a music teacher at P.S. 33 in the Bronx. “She has to do what she’s being told by her higher-ups.”

Now, principals are expected to ask their superintendents for help, who then turn to field support centers. Some principals and support centers do work directly together, though Weinberg said that’s not the preferred system.

“The ideal thing is that you’re in constant conversation with your superintendent,” he said. “It would be hard for each borough field support center to hear 145 different requests every day, from each of their schools.”

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Teachers at a training for Computer Science for All, a citywide initiative

Relationships between superintendents and support centers don’t always run smoothly, and both are tasked with overseeing many schools. Superintendents have staffs of around six people, yet may be responsible for dozens of schools. Support centers work with up to 323 schools, with an average caseload just below 200.

With superintendents acting as a filter between schools and support centers, many principals report a divide between what they’re offered and what they want to learn.

“There’s a disconnect between the reality of what’s going on in classrooms, and the offerings,” one Manhattan principal told Chalkbeat. “It usually comes down to: Teachers need to learn, very specifically, techniques, tips, philosophies that affect their own practice.”

When they work well, support centers might send staff to a school to provide targeted help requested by its principal. But, faced with heavy caseloads, the centers often respond to schools’ needs by creating borough-wide professional development sessions that can vary in quality. In the city’s most recent survey of principals, only 73 percent said they were satisfied with the support they get from the centers.

One Manhattan teacher said she went to sessions offered by the support center last year and was disappointed with what she found. The presenters led a lesson on “guided reading,” a technique that includes introducing vocabulary and breaking students into groups, but they seemed fuzzy on how to execute the practice in the classroom.

“Teachers were actually correcting them,” the teacher said. “They’re removed and they forget what it’s like to be a teacher.”

***

Despite Fariña’s emphasis on classroom-based learning, many of the support centers’ professional development sessions are happening outside schools, while class is in session. At three separate support centers, almost all the trainings for teachers offered during the month of May were held during school hours.

"We’ve set aside the time. We’ve set up the space. Can we just manage it?"Michael Mulgrew, president of the teachers union

That wouldn’t have happened under Bloomberg, according to Nadelstern, the former Klein deputy. He said his policy was that teachers and principals should not be pulled away from schools while students are in the building.

“That’s the system-wide idea of support now: taking people away from kids,” said David Baiz, the former principal of Global Technology Preparatory in East Harlem. “That’s not really the best way that adults learn: to sit in a meeting away from the context of their work environment and then try to come back and incorporate it.”

In addition to out-of-office professional development, superintendents host monthly meetings, pulling principals out of their schools for the entire day. In some cases, they include meals paid for by vendors who present professional development sessions based on educational products they’re selling.

“There’s just this feeling among almost every principal that I know,” a Bronx principal told Chalkbeat. “Like meeting after meeting after meeting and requirement after requirement are being added, and really drowning out the time needed for real collaboration.”

In an interview with Chalkbeat, Fariña admitted that professional development run by outside vendors is “not that effective.” She also acknowledged there have been growing pains as the superintendents and field support centers try to meet the needs of all the schools they serve.

“It’s been more of a struggle in some places where there was a more diverse need,” she said.

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Schools chancellor Carmen Fariña looks over a card from students in her office.

To address that, Fariña said the centers have been working on “modules” based on different areas of need. A module may highlight effective strategies for teaching students who are learning English, for instance, and come with a series of professional development courses that can be run over a period of multiple weeks.

“Each principal can adapt it as they see fit,” Fariña said.

***

Weinberg said it is easy, in a system as large as New York City, to point to “random” weak points.

“What our real goal is, is continuous improvement,” he said. “I think that we make mistakes, oftentimes, by looking at one anecdotal example as a way of disproving a larger movement.”

Michael Mulgrew, president of the teachers union, said the department needs to pay closer attention to how schools are using the resources that are now available. While the the 80 minutes of professional development time is a game-changer, he said, it can also vary in usefulness depending on school culture, principal leadership and how well superintendents and the field support centers can provide help.

“We’ve set aside the time. We’ve set up the space. Can we just manage it?” Mulgrew said. “The fact that the chancellor made this a priority when she came in is the reason why you see the school system moving forward. My fear is, have we reached a plateau?”

It may be tricky, however, to balance the kind of oversight that Mulgrew envisions with the personalization that teachers and principals say is necessary for effective professional development. But the city is evaluating its own work to make sure it’s hitting the mark for teachers and schools.

“Teaching is really fascinating and difficult work,” Weinberg said. “We need to approach this hard job with the humility that says we have the ability to learn more — and we want to learn more.”

Chalkbeat reporters Monica Disare and Alex Zimmerman contributed to this report.