Strings Attached

Mulgrew spells conditions for backing college loan forgiveness

The UFT would consider supporting Mayor Bloomberg’s plan to pay back the loans of top college graduates who become city teachers — but only under certain conditions.

In a letter to Chancellor Dennis Walcott today, UFT President Michael Mulgrew spelled out what it would take for him to support a loan forgiveness program of the type Bloomberg proposed in January during his State of the City address. At the time, Bloomberg said the city would give teachers in the “top tier” of their college class $25,000 to repay their loans. A Department of Education spokeswoman said Bloomberg’s proposal would likely apply to students in the top quarter of their class.

Other proposals Bloomberg made at the time — closing and reopening 33 struggling schools, increasing the salaries of teachers who earn high ratings in a new evaluation system — immediately drew union censure. But Mulgrew did not dismiss the loan forgiveness proposal.

In today’s letter, he explains what it would take to bring the union on board. The program should be focused as much on retention as on recruitment of teachers, he writes, and should not give teachers the full $25,000 at one time, so that they have an incentive to remain in the classroom. Plus, the department should commit to mentoring all new teachers, not just the ones who did well in college.

“The point of such a program is not just to bring in recruits – it is to bring in candidates who will learn the craft of teaching and build a successful career in our schools,” Mulgrew said in the letter. “It is absurd to think that a group of recent college graduates, however high their academic rankings, can sweep into New York City public school classrooms and perform instant miracles.”

Mulgrew also says the program should apply to current teachers who were in the top of their college classes, too — a costly proposition for a program whose funding source is not at all clear. Bloomberg has said he would find private dollars to fund loan forgiveness if the union declines to sign on to the initiative, but Mulgrew says in the letter that union lawyers believe the city does not have that right. If the program happens on the public dime, it’s likely that the union would be asked to help the city find places to free up funds.

Mulgrew’s letter to Walcott comes day after a top Department of Education official accused the union chief of stalling on the loan forgiveness program. “The teachers union can try to distract New Yorkers with other issues, but it is inexcusable that the UFT would hold up a program that would provide loan forgiveness to outstanding students who decide to devote themselves to a career of teaching,” David Weiner, a deputy schools chancellor for labor, said in a statement, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Mulgrew’s entire letter to Walcott is below.

Dear Chancellor Walcott:

We believe that New York City’s traditional problems in recruiting and retaining new teachers have been significantly increased by the recent release of the Teacher Data Reports and the general perception of an atmosphere of hostility from Mayor Bloomberg and his allies in business and the media.

In view of this, it may well be in the system’s interest to offer a loan forgiveness program to selected teacher candidates.  While the UFT could support such a program in principle, there are a number of important issues that need to be negotiated.

In short, in order to make sure the public’s money is well spent, the program should focus as much on retention as on recruiting.  In addition, we would expect the program to have clear guidelines and a transparent selection process, and to be open for qualified graduates of any accredited college, with special arrangements available for colleges that do not rank their graduates.

Retention

The point of such a program is not just to bring in recruits – it is to bring in candidates who will learn the craft of teaching and build a successful career in our schools.  Everyone with even the most basic working knowledge of how schools actually work understands that first and even second-year teachers spend most of their time learning to cope with the challenges of the classroom. It is absurd to think that a group of recent college graduates, however high their academic rankings, can sweep into New York City public school classrooms and perform instant miracles.

Therefore, to the extent such recruits will add real value, it will be in their third and later years.  Under these circumstances, loan forgiveness would have to be phased in – at perhaps $5,000 a year for five years.  Alternatively, in order to help make sure these recruits make a long-term commitment to our schools, the loan forgiveness could be phased in with even smaller annual amounts until the recruits are granted tenure, or the program could require that recipients remain in the teaching force for at least three years after their final payment.

Such a system could help reduce the revolving door of new teacher attrition, which has been averaging 8 to 12 percent a year.  The higher the upfront sum, the more the system stands to lose if such individuals follow the traditional attrition pattern.

For instance, a cohort of 100 teachers who received $25,000 upfront would represent a total commitment of $2.5 million – and a new commitment of $2.5 million every year that a new cohort is recruited.

If we had reason to believe that all teachers recruited through such a program would stay for at least five years, it would make a certain fiscal sense.  But if the usual attrition rate applied to these individuals, every cohort would in effect represent a loss of $1.25 million in public funds, as half or more of these highly qualified individuals left for other school systems or other careers, taking with them the experience they have gained.

The UFT is willing to enter into negotiations on such a loan forgiveness program in the context of an agreement to deal with the overall retention issue, specifically a protocol that would provide effective professional assistance and mentoring for all new teachers, along with a commitment to loan forgiveness for current teachers who have joined the system in recent years and who meet whatever program criteria are eventually established for that program.

You should also be aware that we have determined that the Board of Education (the DOE) has a legal obligation to negotiate an agreement with the UFT before implementing a loan forgiveness program, whether it uses private or public funds.

We are interested in negotiating an initiative that is more than a mayoral press conference, but a serious effort to recruit and retain outstanding candidates to teach in New York City public schools.  We look forward to hearing from you in the immediate future to set up a meeting to discuss this proposal.

Sincerely,

Michael Mulgrew

Top 10

From forest preschools to a secret apology, here are Chalkbeat Colorado’s must-read stories of 2018

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Megan Patterson works with children to make a dam in a creek during a recent "forest school" class.

We spend a lot of time at Chalkbeat chasing the news to keep our readers informed about controversial policy changes, fast-moving debates, and late-breaking decisions.

But we also relish the opportunity to dig deep into issues affecting students and families, shine light on innovative ideas, and hear from dedicated educators making a difference. With that in mind, we’ve gathered 10 of our best stories from 2018.

These stories don’t necessarily chronicle the biggest education issues of 2018, from teacher walkouts to unprecedented state interventions. But they are stories we think are important and insightful, and that we enjoyed reporting and writing. We hope you enjoy reading them.

No walls: Forest preschools let kids run free, but can they change to reach diverse families?

One day this past summer, about a dozen children frolicked by a Jefferson County creek — making pretend tea in small metal buckets, and building dams with sticks and mud.

They were students at Worldmind Nature Immersion School, where children spend all their time outside. So-called forest preschools like Worldmind are beloved by many families but face significant regulatory and logistical barriers in expanding their footprint nationwide. Here in Colorado, a pilot program could lead a new kind of child care license designed for them.

And being licensed could help the schools confront another problem: a lack of diversity among their students. Read more.

Colorado was never ranked 46th for teacher pay. Does this change the debate?

It was an oft-cited statistic: that Colorado, despite its booming economy, ranked 46th in the nation for teacher pay. The eye-popping number found its way onto social media posts and signs at massive teacher rallies last spring. News outlets latched on to it, too.

But it was wrong. Colorado was actually ranked 30th in the nation.

Our story breaks down how the mistake happened (hint: a new data system, an unrevised report) — and how groups with different agendas seized on the snafu to score points. Read more.

This is the letter of apology that Adams 14 leaders never sent

The Adams 14 district in Commerce City is arguably the most troubled and low-performing in Colorado. Just last month, state officials directed Adams 14 to hire an external manager to oversee the district’s operations for at least the next four years.

Back in September, Adams 14 officials considered taking a rare step: saying sorry to the community. But an apology letter was never signed nor sent out.

Chalkbeat obtained a copy of the letter, which makes mention of “various and conflicting priorities, coupled with constant turnover and organizational disarray.” Read more.

Rising test scores and dwindling trust: Denver’s Tom Boasberg leaves a complicated legacy

Colorado’s largest school district experienced a big change this year when longtime leader Tom Boasberg announced he would step down after nearly 10 years in Denver Public Schools.

Because of his school improvement strategies — some of which were controversial and heightened tensions with the community — the district that the new superintendent, Susana Cordova, will inherit in January is vastly different than it was a decade ago.

One tangible difference: Schools that once served as anchors of the community but struggled academically have been closed or replaced. That disappearance was on display on one of Boasberg’s last days, when he held his cell phone close to his mouth and enunciated each word so his GPS would understand his direction: “Montbello High School.” Read more.

Parents in one Aurora high school are visiting classrooms and giving teachers feedback

Like many schools in Colorado, Aurora’s Rangeview High School has a test score gap between white and black students. But the assistant principal there came up with a unique way to try to address it: by inviting black parents to visit classrooms and observe how students are — or are not — engaging with the teacher’s lesson, and then provide suggestions for improvement.

“We give true and honest feedback,” said one parent involved, “if they looked or appeared comfortable, how they interacted with the environment, the temperature of the room.”

Although the assistant principal considers the African American Parent Committee an experiment, she said it’s generating uncomfortable but necessary conversations. Read more.

How education reform became a wedge issue among Colorado Democrats this election year

For years, more moderate Democrats, often working in unison with like-minded Republicans, championed education reform efforts ranging from school choice to holding educators accountable for student performance.

But partly because of backlash against President Donald Trump and his education secretary, those strategies no longer fly with many Democrats — especially left-leaning Democrats who see them as undercutting public education and devaluing the work of teachers.

That sentiment was palpable in Colorado’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, and could shape the next legislative session, which starts in January. “Education is the issue that really stands to divide the left in a very substantial way,” one observer said. Read more.

How a Colorado school district turned things around at 10,000 feet above sea level

School improvement efforts look a little different high in the Rocky Mountains. While many of the strategies used by the 1,000-student Lake County school district are familiar to urban settings, they’ve been retrofitted to meet the needs of a district that’s 100 miles west of Denver.

For example, instead of firing teachers and principals who weren’t accelerating student learning fast enough, the district adopted a new curriculum and gave its teachers lots of training.

“The belief that the people are the problem is wrong,” the superintendent said. “Our teachers are professionals, and we believe in them. We’re proving that there is a framework or a pathway for rural schools to improve that’s about building capacity within your own community.” Read more.

7 things to know about how Colorado schools punish their youngest students

After state lawmakers rejected a bill to limit the use of suspensions in the earliest grades, Chalkbeat wanted to know more about the early childhood discipline landscape in Colorado. Data from the Colorado Department of Education revealed several trends.

Among them: Young black boys are suspended at disproportionate rates. Some rural school districts have the highest early childhood suspension rates in the state.

And despite nationwide debate about the impact of harsh discipline on young children and local efforts to bring the numbers down, suspensions in the early grades are actually going up. Read more.

In Denver’s gentrifying neighborhoods, some middle-class parents are avoiding the school down the block

Many neighborhoods in Denver are gentrifying, with middle-class families moving into what have historically been working-class communities. That type of demographic shift could easily lead to neighborhood schools that are more integrated by family income and race.

But that doesn’t always happen in Denver. Instead, data show that wealthier families – more often than low-income families – are using Denver Public Schools’ universal school choice process to send their kids to schools elsewhere in the city.

That’s a problem because research shows integrated schools boost test scores for students from low-income families without lowering the scores of those from wealthier ones. Denver officials want to see those benefits, but allowing parents to choose may be thwarting them. Read more.

Why this Colorado principal hand delivers birthday cards to more than 2,000 students and staff

Northglenn High School Principal Sharee Blunt is Colorado’s 2018 School Principal of the year — but perhaps even more impressive is the enormous number of birthday cards she hand delivers each year. If you’re one of those people who can barely remember your spouse’s birthday, you’ll be floored by Blunt’s annual feat.

In our interview with Blunt, part of Chalkbeat’s “How I Lead” Q&A series with distinguished school leaders, she talks about what she realized after a mother’s emotional reaction, and why she gave a teacher a pass during a lesson that went awry. Read more.

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.