Chalkbeat collaboration

When schools add teaching time, planning and coordination can suffer

Teachers gathered in New York City

Michelle Gunderson used to look forward to her weekly training sessions about how to work with struggling readers.

One morning per week, she and her fellow first-grade teachers at Nettelhorst Elementary School in Chicago would cycle through each other’s classrooms to discuss useful strategies and to see the visual aids others were using up close.

But then Mayor Rahm Emanuel mandated a seven-hour school day for all students, pointing to research tying more time in school to better academic outcomes. Under pressure to spend more time in front of students, teachers had to abandon the training sessions.

With 840 students to instruct, the school’s hectic schedule hasn’t allowed for shared planning time to serve as a replacement. And teachers also have less time during the school day to complete essential responsibilities such as writing lessons and grading tests.

“The nature of teaching is that you have to pace yourself so you have enough energy to get up and do it the next day,” Gunderson said, a veteran with 20 years of experience in the classroom. “If you spent all night planning and grading papers, what do you have to give the children the next day? We have to be able to reserve our energies so our instruction is effective.”

Gunderson’s experience reflects a fundamental tension in schools with expanded learning time for students: Research suggests that more time in school boosts students’ skills and long-term prospects, but adding productive time to students’ days often means cutting time from their teachers’. And that lost teacher planning and training time, research shows, also matters.

“It really is a balance. More time is only as good as it’s being used,” said Scott Barton, the principal of a California charter school whose model includes additional time for students and teachers alike. “To use that time wisely, we have to make sure that our teachers are prepared.”

New York’s new direction

New York City’s recent experience highlights the tug of war that can play out around learning time.

The city’s 2005 contract with its teachers union added 150 minutes per week of small-group instruction for struggling students, in keeping with then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s “Children First” education agenda. “We are taking 300,000 children who are performing below average, and as of today they are going to have an extra period, four days a week in classes of 10 or less,” he said at the time.

But when Bloomberg’s successor, Bill de Blasio, negotiated a new contract with the union in 2013, he took a different approach and rolled most of that time back to make way for teacher training and collaboration.

The teachers union hailed the change. “We have to train teachers so that the time they’re spending with students is much more effective and valuable,” union chief Michael Mulgrew said at the time. “Versus doing, once again, this political punch line — more time with the student. Let’s make it better time with the student.”

But the tradeoff left some educators scratching their heads. “I honestly have never met one teacher who thinks the solution to the educational crisis is less time with students and more time in PD,” one teacher wrote on his blog.

The same balancing act is playing out in thousands of schools across the country that have extended the school day, according to Jennifer Davis, co-founder and president of the National Center on Time and Learning, a nonprofit that advocates for expanded learning time.

Davis said schools that are strategic about how to allocate time can optimize their schedules to meet both student and teacher needs. About half of the 2,000 schools her group tracks offer additional time for students and teachers alike, she said.

“I’m not saying it’s easy,” Davis said. “There are hard trade-offs, but there are ways to work it out.”

A charter school makes planning a priority

The Preuss School, the charter secondary school in La Jolla, Calif., that Barton runs, is one school where managing those tradeoffs has been a goal from the beginning. Founded in 1999 with more time for students and teachers as a key part of its model, Preuss requires students to be in school for 198 days a year, rather than the more typical 180 days.

In addition, Preuss teachers teach for six of the eight class periods per day. A teacher’s two free periods are blocked together for a daily 90-minute prep period, which is frequently used as collaborative planning time across departments or grade levels.

And the school has a later student start-time each Friday, providing all teachers with 105 minutes to collaborate and learn from one another every week.

“We felt from the beginning that there has to be time for teachers if we have more time for students,” Barton said. “Teachers need time and we need to build it in — not make it after school.”

Janis Gabay, an English teacher at Preuss and the 1991 National Teacher of the Year, serves as her department’s chair and said the Friday professional development sessions are unlike anywhere else she’s worked.

“When I worked in the large school district, staff development was kind of a monthly thing, if that, where you trotted out a speaker and you had people who sat in the back and wanted to grade papers,” she said. “Here, it’s a way to stay connected with one another. It’s where we’re encouraging the reflective teacher and asking things like ‘What have you struggled with? What are you curious about?’”

Charter schools like Preuss tend not to be bound by union contracts and so have the most flexibility in reworking schedules to balance the needs of students and teachers.

But traditional schools are finding ways to split the difference, as well.

Making better use of the summer in Oakland

Oakland, Calif., has found a way to resolve the tension by combining expanded learning time offerings in the summer for both.

Typically, summer school is a time for bare-bones instruction to ensure that students get the basics that they did not pick up during the school year. But last summer, Oakland hired coaches to work with English and math teachers as they worked to tie their teaching to the Common Core standards for the first time.

Tamrya Walker, who is a math teacher and instructional coach in Oakland, said one of the benefits of training during the summer is the smaller class size and fewer requirements placed on the teachers.

“There’s not as much stress in terms of assessment,” she said. “Teachers can focus on helping kids.”

A new program in Denver is taking the same approach. The district recently launched a three-week laboratory summer program for teachers to try out new strategies, particularly around how to tailoring instruction to individual students.

Unions get involved in Boston, Philadelphia

Signs of balance are even emerging in contracts between districts and their teachers union, traditionally an arena for tugs of war over time because they set parameters for how teachers’ days are spent. In December, Boston negotiated a new contract that added 40 minutes a day at dozens of schools and also doubled teachers’ planning and training time.

“Boston public schools have been saying for many years that we need a longer school day,” said Michael O’Neill, chairman of the city’s school governing board, said when announcing the contract terms. “But a longer day isn’t effective unless you also transform the quality of the education.”

Boston teachers at participating schools saw nearly $5,000 raises as a result of the added time.

In districts with less fiscal flexibility, figuring out how to balance teacher and student time has been more of a challenge.

In Philadelphia, School Reform Commissioner Bill Green is advocating for a longer school day in the district’s next teacher contract. “It’s fairly simple,” he said. “All of the research indicates that longer school days or years have a positive impact on the achievement of urban students.”

Green is also arguing that state law requires Philadelphia to increase instructional time by nearly half an hour a day — an interpretation of the law that the teachers union is contesting. But he has said the cash-strapped district cannot pay teachers any more.

“To expect that the district is going to be able to attract and retain teachers as long as they totally disrespect them as professionals is unconscionable,” Philadelphia teachers union president Jerry Jordan said earlier this year, reacting to Green’s longer-day push. “It’s not going to happen.”

A better balance in Chicago?

Back in Chicago, where the 2012 contract resulted in the city’s first teachers union strike in 25 years, teachers hope a new contract will better balance time for students and time for teachers.

Time isn’t the biggest issue in ongoing negotiations, which appear likely to extend beyond the June 30 contract expiration. Instead, the city and teachers union are locked in conflict about how teachers should be evaluated and how likely layoffs will happen.

Still, Gunderson said she hopes an eventual contract adds resources so that teachers can work together to make the longer school day effective.

“Without the time we have together, I don’t have as much of a chance to connect with my fellow teachers in terms of mentoring,” she said. “Here I am with years of craft knowledge that I would love to be able to give to my fellow teachers, but I’m not afforded the time to anymore.”

This story was produced as a collaboration among all news organizations participating in the Expanded Learning Time reporting project.

rethinking the reprieve

Indiana lawmakers take step to eliminate generous ‘growth-only’ grades for all schools, not just those in IPS

PHOTO: Anthony Lanzilote

A panel of Indiana lawmakers took a first step Monday to stop giving new and overhauled schools more generous state A-F grades that consider only how much students improve on tests and cut schools slack for low test scores.

The House Education Committee was initially looking to clamp down on Indianapolis Public Schools’ innovation schools, barring them from using student test score improvement as the sole determinant in their first three years of A-F grades. The more generous scale has boosted IPS’ performance as it launches a new strategy of partnering with charter operators, by allowing some innovation network schools to earn high marks despite overall low test scores.

But lawmakers expanded the scope of the bill to stop all schools from receiving what are known as “growth-only grades” after Chalkbeat reported that IPS’ overhauled high schools were granted a fresh start from the state — a move that would allow the high schools to tap into the more lenient grading system.

“I want to be consistent, and I felt like [grading] wasn’t consistent before, it was just hodge-podge,” said committee Chairman Bob Behning, an Indianapolis Republican. “We need to be transparent with parents.”

Read: Why it’s hard to compare Indianapolis schools under the A-F grading system

The committee unanimously approved the bill. If it passes into law, Indianapolis Public Schools stands to be one of the districts most affected. Growth-only grades for innovation schools have given the district’s data a boost, accounting for eight of the district’s 11 A grades in 2018. All of its high schools could also be eligible for growth-only grades this year.

Indianapolis Public Schools officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment. In the past, they have defended the two-tiered grading system, arguing that growth on state tests is an important window into how schools are educating students. Growth-only grades were originally intended to offer new schools time to get up and running before being judged on student test scores.

IPS was also the target of another provision in the updated bill that would add in stricter rules for when and how schools can ask for a “baseline reset” — the fresh start that its four high schools were recently granted.

Read: IPS overhauled high schools. Now, the state is giving them a fresh start on A-F

The resets, which districts can currently request from the state education department if they meet certain criteria that show they’ve undergone dramatic changes, wipe out previous test scores and other student performance data to give schools a fresh start. The reset schools are considered new schools with new state ID numbers.

The state determined a reset was necessary for IPS’ four remaining high schools because of the effects of decisions last year to close three campuses, shuffle staff, and create a new system a new system for students to choose their schools. Each school will start over with state letter grades in 2019.

But Behning and other lawmakers were skeptical that such changes merited starting over with accountability, and they were concerned that the process could occur without state board of education scrutiny. If passed into law, the bill would require the state board to approve future requests for accountability resets.

A state board staff member testified in favor of the change. The state education department did not offer comments to the committee.

Rep. Vernon Smith, a Democrat from Gary, said he didn’t like the fact that a reset could erase a school’s data, adding that he had concerns about “the transparency of a school corporation getting a new number.”

The amended bill wouldn’t remove the reset for IPS high schools, but by eliminating the growth-only grades, it would get rid of some of the incentive for districts to ask for a reset to begin with. Under current law, reset schools are considered new and qualify for growth-only grades. But the bill would require that reset schools be judged on the state’s usual scale, taking into account both test scores and test score improvement — and possibly leading to lower-than-anticipated state grades.

The amended bill would still offer a grading grace period to schools opening for the first time: New charter schools would be able to ask the state to give them no grade — known as a “null” grade — for their first three years, but schools’ test score performance and test score growth data would still be published online. Behning said he didn’t include district schools in the null-grade measure because they haven’t frequently opened new schools, but he said he’d be open to an amendment.

The bill next heads to the full House for a vote.

Frequently asked

New Denver teacher contract: We answer the most common questions about the tentative pact

PHOTO: Joe Amon/The Denver Post
Students in class at Dora Moore ECE-8 during the second day of the Denver Public Schools teachers strike.

One reason many Denver educators didn’t like the district’s old ProComp pay system was that it was too complicated and unpredictable. Both sides agree that the deal reached early Thursday morning creates a much simpler pay system for teachers.

But educators — and the general public — still have a lot of questions about the tentative ProComp agreement, which still needs to be ratified by union members and the Denver school board. Here we’ve answered some of the most common questions we’ve heard since the end of the strike.

How do I place myself on the salary schedule?

The salary schedule is made up of “steps” and “lanes.” The “steps” represent years of service for which a teacher had a positive evaluation. The “lanes” represent levels of education. The new schedule has 20 steps and seven lanes.

Worked in Denver Public Schools for five years and have a master’s degree? Go to step five and then slide your finger over to the master’s degree lane. That’s your base salary.

Did you have a year when your evaluation wasn’t good? Go back one step. Have an additional 18 credits on top of your master’s degree? Go up one more lane.

Teachers can also go up a lane once they hit the 10-year mark because the district wanted to reward longevity. Other milestones that merit a lane change: earning national board certification or an advanced license, or completing six “professional development unit” training courses.

Still not sure? Denver Public Schools plans to put a salary calculator on its website soon.

What if I have more than 20 years of experience?

If you have 20 or more years of experience, you’re placed at the top of the salary schedule, on step 20. After step 20, you’ll get yearly cost-of-living raises. You’re still eligible to change lanes, but you won’t get any more step raises.

Does the district know everything it needs to know about individual educators to pay them the correct salary?

Denver Public Schools plans to send letters or emails this spring to every teacher and special service provider (nurses, counselors, and others) covered by the contract, laying out where the district believes that employee falls on the schedule based on information they have on file. Educators will have a certain amount of time to correct any wrong information and get on the correct step and lane for the 2019-20 school year.

Under the new salary schedule, it looks like I’ll earn less next year than I do now. Am I taking a pay cut?

No. The agreement includes a “hold harmless” clause that ensures everyone will get a raise next year. Those whose salaries are higher now than they would be under the new schedule will get a cost-of-living raise each year until the salary schedule catches up with them.

How are bonuses and incentives different under the new contract?

The bonuses and incentives are different in three ways: There are fewer of them, the dollar amounts are different, and the dollar amounts won’t change year to year.

This year, there are six bonuses and incentives offered by the district: one for educators who work in Title I schools where 60 percent or more of the student population qualifies for subsidized meals; one for educators who work in hard-to-fill positions; one for educators who work in “hard-to-serve” schools; one for educators who work in one of 30 “highest-priority” schools; one for educators who return year over year to those schools; and one for educators who work in schools deemed top-performing or high-growth, as based on school ratings.

Here’s what’s left in the new contract: Teachers in Title 1 schools and those in hard-to-fill positions, such as secondary math, will get $2,000 a year. Teachers who return year over year to 30 highest-priority schools will get $3,000 a year. Teachers in 10 schools deemed “distinguished” will get $750 a year, with the criteria to be determined by the district and the union.

Why aren’t the district and the union tying bonuses to test scores anymore?

Unions have traditionally been skeptical of paying teachers based on student test scores because the scores are so closely correlated with factors like race and household income. In Denver, these bonuses were also less predictable for teachers because the district often changed the criteria it used to rate schools and award “top-performing” bonuses.

The district also came to see these bonuses as canceling out the effects of bonuses for teachers at high-poverty schools. A teacher could get nearly the same kind of monetary reward by moving to a more affluent school or by staying in one where students face more challenges. The new bonus system provides clearer monetary benefits to working in a high-poverty school.

Why did the union agree to keep the incentive for highest-priority schools, when that had been such a sticking point?

In any negotiation, there’s give and take and a lot of moving pieces. 

Here’s what lead negotiator Rob Gould said to district officials during bargaining: “We are open to the incentive because we know it’s important to you. And we’re willing to entertain your ideas if we can get the base salary schedule that our teachers need. Because if we can get the base salaries we need, we can keep our teachers in Denver.”

This was also an issue that divided teachers, with some teachers at schools that received the highest-priority incentive pushing to keep them.

Did teachers get a better deal out of the strike than the district’s last offer before the strike?

Teachers were getting a raise no matter what. The district was offering an average 10 percent raise before the strike (this included a cost-of-living raise that was agreed to back in 2017). Now teachers will get an average 11.7 percent raise, though individual teachers will see a wide range.

The district is putting the same amount of new money — $23.5 million — into teacher compensation as it was offering before the strike. It can give a larger average raise with that same amount of money because the incentives are smaller than under the previous proposal and because of limits on how teachers can use training to get raises. That gives the district more predictability about how many teachers will get raises each year.

Union leaders call the deal a win. They secured more opportunities for teachers to earn raises and move into higher categories on the salary schedule, including through completing training partially during work hours at no additional cost. And teachers can get to $100,000 in 20 years, rather than the 30 years in the last district proposal.

However, individual teachers aren’t necessarily getting more base pay next year than they would have under the district’s last offer. Early-career teachers without advanced degrees would have earned more in base pay under the district’s last offer. The teachers who do better under the deal reached after the strike are veteran educators with more education.

To take two examples: A second-year educator with a bachelor’s degree and no extra credits or training would have earned $47,550 in base pay under the district’s last offer before the strike but will earn $46,869 under the deal reached this week.

But a 20-year educator who has a master’s degree and an advanced license who has been with the district for 10 years will earn $88,907 in base pay under the new agreement, compared with $87,550 under the district’s last proposal before the strike.

The union fought for this kind of salary schedule in part to address a longstanding complaint that teachers have little reason to stay in a district where base pay levels off.

You can see the salary schedule from the district’s last offer here and the schedule from the tentative agreement here.

Is this deal financially sustainable for the district?

Denver Public Schools Chief Financial Officer Mark Ferrandino says that is the “million-dollar question,” perhaps closer to the “half-billion-dollar question,” since that is roughly how much the district spends on educator compensation.

Ferrandino believes the answer is yes, with the standard caveat that all projections are just that.

What will be cut to pay for this?

The district plans to cut $20 million from administrative costs over the next two years. That includes cutting 150 jobs in the central office and ending all executive bonuses. The bulk of it — $13 million — will go to fund the ProComp agreement.

District officials have not yet said which central office jobs will be cut, though Superintendent Susana Cordova has said cuts will be to “discretionary” departments. Departments that will not be cut include special education, English language acquisition, and transportation, she said.

Teachers will get a raise. What about paraprofessionals, bus drivers, custodians, and cafeteria workers?

These other district employees, much lower paid than teachers, are not covered by the contract that was the subject of the strike. Cordova has said these workers also deserve raises and a portion of administrative cuts will go to pay for them.

But how much of a raise will they get? That will all be worked out over the next few months and include discussions with the unions that represent these employees.

Will striking teachers get back pay?

Not according to district officials. After this story was published Friday, we asked for further clarification on this. We received this statement Saturday morning:

Superintendent Cordova understands that when teachers make the choice to strike, they are doing so to make a statement and bring attention to the importance of the issue at hand. Foregoing pay during the time that a teacher is not working is a challenging decision that no one makes lightly, and consequently, brings with it an impact that is intended to push for change.

DPS did not feel that it would be fair or appropriate to provide back pay to striking teachers when many others — including more than 40 percent of classroom teachers — chose to remain at work this week. However, DPS is working with the DCTA to offer all teachers the opportunity to attend a Saturday session to replace the professional development day that was cancelled in the days leading up to the strike. Any teacher who attends will be paid a day’s salary.

When will the new agreement go into effect? How long will it last?

Assuming both sides ratify it, the new agreement technically (and retroactively) went into effect Jan. 19, the day after the old one expired. But educators won’t start receiving the new salaries, incentives, and bonuses negotiated under it until Aug. 1. The agreement expires Aug. 31, 2022.