core questions

As New York reconsiders Common Core, UFT organizes teachers to suggest changes

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

When math teacher Laura Mourino saw how the Common Core standards explained what students should know about algebraic functions, she was confused.

So she rewrote them, picking out parts she found more appropriate for advanced algebra and using more specific language. Now, Mourino’s ideas could have statewide influence.

The United Federation of Teachers has been organizing meetings of a couple dozen educators to discuss the academic standards, which New York adopted in 2010 and lay out what students are expected to learn in math and English at each grade level. Mourino and the other teachers are now working on recommendations meant to benefit members of the state’s next official task force — setting city educators, and the union, up to influence how the Common Core standards are reshaped in New York.

“We are working at the UFT at kind of understanding and unpacking standards,” said Kishayna Hazlewood, a third-grade teacher at Brooklyn’s P.S. 156 who served on the governor’s Common Core task force in the fall. “We will be ready if we are asked for certain things.”

The union is repeating a set of moves it made last year. When Governor Andrew Cuomo appointed a task force to review the standards then, the UFT organized its own group of teachers who developed suggestions and then passed them to Hazlewood.

The committees also reflect teachers unions’ close involvement in New York’s Common Core debates. Last year, the state teachers union convened a task force that reviewed the standards and conducted a survey of over 400 educators.

The UFT supported the move to the standards in 2010, and President Michael Mulgrew has forcefully defended them since then. In one widely-shared 2014 speech addressing hypothetical opponents of the standards, a fired-up Mulgrew threatened to “punch you in the face and push you in the dirt.”

But New York’s unions continue to walk a fine line as they figure out their role in reshaping the standards. Though most of the results of a statewide survey about the standards were positive, some educators have been frustrated with the standards, a lack of support as they grapple with changing their teaching methods, or the way the standards were rolled out in conjunction with new teacher evaluations and state tests.

In January, the UFT spent $1.4 million on ads in support of the recommendations made by the governor’s task force, and suggested the union was ready to dive into adjusting the standards.

“The unions are involved in the whole Common Core revision process in New York State to a degree that is very unique,” said Tom Loveless, an education researcher at the Brookings Institution.

That’s because the unions are more powerful in New York than in other states, he said. But it’s also because the standards are a part of a broader conversation about how to transition the state into a new era of education policy. Over the next several years, the state is set to revisit its entire system of standards, assessments, and teacher evaluations. Reviewing and revising the standards is the first step.

“In New York, the Common Core battle is part of the much larger battle,” Loveless said.

So, what are the teachers fighting for?

Educators on the UFT’s new committee say they are thinking about a number of tweaks. They want to make the standards more appropriate for a range of students, particularly English learners and students with disabilities, but also keep them rigorous.

Several teachers talked about the need remove jargon so that the standards make more sense to parents and are more instructive to teachers. The math standards often need to be “unpacked,” or split into sections that give teachers more explicit direction, said Mourino, who serves as the math department head at Harvest Collegiate High School in Manhattan.

That criticism is consistent with a survey commissioned by the state that solicited feedback about each standard. There is confusion over when algebra and geometry standards should be taught, State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia explained to the Board of Regents in February.

But teachers on the UFT’s committee also say there is danger when the standards are too prescriptive, and some worry they are unrealistic for students in younger grades or those with special needs.

That has become a problem in Hazlewood’s third-grade reading class. It is impossible to teach the concept of a main idea using a text too complicated for students to read, she said. The same issue comes into play at the higher grades with English learners, said Jeremiah Robey, who teaches seventh-grade social studies in Brooklyn and is also on the union’s task force.

“If I just had a student that just came from Yemen and he speaks little to no English, how is he expected to write an essay with an argument and a supporting claim?” Robey asked.

Those concerns get at the heart of what kinds of changes the teachers are looking to make, and bring up a number of thorny questions. Are differentiated standards still standards? And would different standards for students who are behind do anything to help teachers catch them up?

For now, educators on the UFT’s task force are still asking those questions. Other states that have tried to overhaul the Common Core standards, including Florida and Indiana, have struggled to make more than superficial changes as they created their own versions.

“What they replaced Common Core with was a set of standards that looked very much like Common Core in the end,” Loveless said of other states.

But Mourino hopes that New York’s process, starting with the teachers’ brainstorming, will have a real impact on classrooms throughout the state.

“I think every single teacher wants joy in the math classroom,” she said. “Some are reaching with limited success.”

FAQ

Goodbye, focus and priority schools: Hello, new ways of supporting Indiana’s struggling students, whether their school is an A or an F.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Students at Phalen Leadership Academy at IPS School 103. The school was on the priority school list for 2016.

Under new federal law, Indiana officials will no longer only have a responsibility to step in to help the state’s worst-performing schools — they’ll be responsible for rooting out problems in high-achieving districts as well.

Currently, Indiana education officials siphon off the state’s most-struggling schools each year for more support or other kinds of state intervention, based on their A-to-F grades. Schools that receive Fs or have graduation rates below 65 percent are called “priority schools,” and schools that receive Ds are called “focus schools.”

The categories serve as a watch-list for both federal and state accountability. Only D- and F-schools that receive federal poverty aid, known as Title I funding, are be eligible to go on the lists.

But going forward, the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act makes some pretty big changes to this system. The law replaced No Child Left Behind in 2015, and the state is currently overhauling its education policy plan to meet the new requirements. The plan is due to the federal government for approval in September.

Below, we break down the new rules and answer some questions.

So what will happen to focus and priority schools?

Those categories will go away, and two new ones will be introduced: “targeted support” and “comprehensive support.”

Targeted support schools are ones where certain group of students are doing poorly on state tests. It’s a distinction that’s focused on trying to close test score gaps between students from different backgrounds, a key aspect of what ESSA was designed to do.

Civil Rights advocates and educators have praised this part of the new law, which they hope will highlight inequities within schools and no longer allow “good” schools to overlook small groups of students who need more help.

“There needs to be a focus on these subgroups specifically because sometimes, when you’re looking at these schools as a whole, it can mask subgroup performance,” said Maggie Paino, director of accountability for the Indiana Department of Education.

Comprehensive support is similar to what are now priority schools.

Which schools would qualify?

Targeted support schools would be ones where groups of students — ethnic groups, English learners, low-income students or students with disabilities — score in the bottom 5 percent of state test-takers for at least two years in a row.

Technically, schools that have high overall grades could still fall into the targeted support category.

Schools that require comprehensive support include those that fall in the bottom 5 percent of passing state tests; any school that receives an F grade; or any high school where the four-year graduation rate is lower than 67 percent.

There’s also a way that schools could transition from targeted to comprehensive support: If a subgroup remains in bottom 5 percent for longer than the state deems appropriate (based on a timeline it gets to create) they will be considered as needing comprehensive support as well.

When do the new categories go into effect?

Beginning in 2018-19, using test results from 2017-18, the state will identify the schools that fall into the two categories, with one exception: Schools requiring comprehensive support based on how subgroups perform wouldn’t be identified for the first time until 2020-21.

The initial identification will happen in the fall, and then schools have the rest of the school year to plan. The state will also publish a list each of year of “at-risk” schools that are in the bottom 6 percent to 10 percent and high schools with graduation rates 70 percent or lower.

How can schools shake off the new labels?

If a school gets a C grade or better for two years in a row, it is no longer categorized as needing comprehensive support.

For schools in targeted support, they have five years to earn two consecutive C grades.

Both types of schools must also create a “strong plan” for how they will maintain their progress and how funding and other resources might change after they no longer need state support.

Do these schools get any extra money from the state to make their plans happen?

They do — multiple grants will be available.

Comprehensive support schools qualify for one to two years of extra Title I dollars to support their work improving their school. The money will be distributed by the state during the schools’ planning year after they are first identified.

Districts with four or more schools in comprehensive support can apply for additional grants to help them put in place bigger turnaround projects, such as transformation zones or innovation network schools.

How long can a school be labeled as comprehensive support?

Four years — the same as the state’s current accountability limit for F grades. After that, more serious consequences come into play.

At that point, Indiana State Board of Education can:

  • Merge the school with a nearby, higher-performing school.
  • Assign a special management team to run all or part of the school.
  • Allow the school to become part of a transformation zone.
  • Allow the school to become an innovation network school.
  • Accept recommendations from the Indiana Department of Education.
  • Delay action for another year if it thinks the majority of students are improving.
  • Close the school.
  • Employ other options as it sees fit.

The state board will continue discussing Indiana’s ESSA plan at its meeting next week.

You can find the state’s entire ESSA plan here and Chalkbeat’s ESSA coverage here.

Feedback loop

Colorado’s education plan earns cheers, jeers from national reform groups

Miguel Rosales, 8, middle, does as many push ups as he can while friends David Perez, 8, left, and Julio Rivera, 9, right, watch during PE class taught by Chris Strater at Lyn Knoll Elementary School on December 14, 2016 in Aurora, Colorado. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

Reviews of Colorado’s federally required education plan are beginning to trickle in from national observers. And they’re mixed.

What’s there to love, according to national education think-tanks? Colorado is taking seriously new requirements to include more information about how students are succeeding in school.

What’s there to gripe about? The state’s plan is not very detailed and lacks strong goals for student achievement, which critics say raises questions about how it plans to improve schools.

Colorado was one of the first states earlier this year to submit its plan to comply with updated federal education law — the Every Student Succeeds Act — to the U.S. Department of Education. The State Board of Education and state education department officials spent more than a year developing the plan with scores of teachers, advocates, parents and business leaders.

While state officials wait for an official response from Education Secretary Betsy DeVos — who must approve the plan to keep federal dollars flowing to the state’s schools — there’s no shortage of commentary from the education reform class.

Here’s what you need to know about three reports released this summer on Colorado’s education plan:

The Collaborative for Student Success has the most detailed look at the state’s plan — and is the most critical.

While this organization, which worked with Bellwether Education Partners, praised Colorado for its commitment to rigorous academic standards and data reporting, it raised several red flags that are consistent with some early criticism that the federal education department has shared with other states.

Chiefly: Colorado’s long-term academic goals are based on a confusing percentile system and make no sense.

Instead of setting a goal to increase the number of students reaching proficiency on state exams, the state wants to increase its average test scores during the next six years.

While that sounds simple enough, the goals are muddled because the state has set the same goal for different student populations. Students with disabilities who historically earn the lowest test scores are expected to raise their achievement to meet the state average. Meanwhile, Asian students who historically outperform the state would need to lose ground in order for the state to meet its goals.

The goals, the organization says, are “difficult for parents, educators and the public to understand, (do) not set strong expectations for all schools and all groups of students to improve, and may not be ambitious” enough.

The group also raised serious concerns about the state’s lack of detail in several areas, including how the state would weigh different factors that determine school quality.

Throughout the development of the plan, Colorado officials repeatedly said that they intended to provide limited responses to the federal education department’s questionnaire, which guided the plan’s development.

That’s because they believed the new education law’s intent was to provide states with greater flexibility and less federal oversight. Therefore, Colorado officials reasoned, the federal education department didn’t need an excessive level of detail.

What’s more, the federal law does give states the opportunity to continually update and amend their plans. That’s something Colorado plans to do as it receives guidance from the federal government and the state legislature.

Colorado’s plan continues to garner praise from the center-right Fordham Institute.

The folks at the Fordham Institute can’t say enough good things about Colorado’s plan. The Washington D.C.-based nonprofit came out early with an editorial praising the plan’s development. Now they are giving Colorado strong marks across the board.

Fordham graded state plans in three areas regarding school quality ratings: were they clear, focused on all students and fair to schools that serve mostly poor students?

What really gets Fordham revved up is Colorado’s switch to a normative approach of rating schools. Most states rate schools based on how many students meet or exceed a certain proficiency standard on annual English and math tests. Colorado rates schools based on a school’s average score on those tests. The closer the school is to the overall state average, the better the quality score.

Fordham and state officials believe this move requires schools to focus on the performance of all students, not just those who are near the proficiency line. Critics argue that the measure can be misleading.

Colorado is one of eight states to include a variety of “promising practices.” But it’s not the leading the pack.

A third group, Results for America, took a slightly different approach in critiquing the first batch of state plans. Working with the Council of Chief State School Officers, Results for America identified 13 strategies states could use in their plans as ways to improve student learning.

Strategies include giving federal tax dollars only to schools that are using proven reform methods and creating a state system to support school turnaround efforts.

Colorado’s plan included four of the 13 strategies. Meanwhile, New Mexico is using nine and Tennessee is using seven.

Colorado’s plan was recognized for requiring schools to create annual improvement plans that are based on proven techniques and consolidating multiple grant applications for school improvement work into one.