black box

"Blame em," Klein is urged about teachers union in latest emails

The latest internal Department of Education emails to come to light are mostly dark: The 228 pages released today contain large swaths of blacked-out text.

But between redactions, a few messages stand out — including one in which charter operator Eva Moskowitz speedily outlines an agenda that became the driving focus of former Chancellor Joel Klein’s last year in office.

Urging Klein to be “SUPERAGGRESSIVE in [the] standard of excellence” for schools’ academic performance, Moskowitz wrote, “If folks criticize you for having the bar way too high, you know you are inching closer to success.”

The emails were part of the yield from a massive Freedom of Information Law request filed by the United Federation of Teachers. The union wanted to see the communication exchanged between the city Department of Education and charter school supporters during a period when legislators were under pressure to lift the cap on the number of charter schools in the state. That cap was raised in May 2010.

Hundreds of emails between Klein and charter advocates were released last month, showing that Klein kept careful tabs on the legislative action and was quick to connect advocates with support.

The latest batch of emails — all from December 2009 — are mostly among department officials. The emails that are not redacted — a minority of those included in the release — show that Klein was in the loop on everything from suspicious odors at elementary schools to pitches about new partnerships.

Many of the emails have nothing to do with charter schools but instead reflect the department’s broader policy initiatives, such as the use of data and technology-infused teaching. In one, then-Deputy Chancellor John White pushed another official to secure philanthropic funds for a new data management program called ARIS Local, saying, “If we reduce private ask, I don’t like public procurement we would need to do given exposure on ARIS.”

In another message, after education entrepreneur Tom Vander Ark pitched White on a fully online school, Klein said, “Keep me in the loop on this.” (That school folded before opening.) And when Roland Fryer, the Harvard sociologist who conducted experiments about student behavior in city schools, offered his assistance upon his move to New York City, Klein suggested that Fryer look at an individualized learning program called Time To Know that would be rolling out in city schools.

Charter school advocates do make appearances in the emails — usually to discuss fraught space-sharing arrangements. Backers of Girls Prep, a Lower East Side school, and PAVE Academy in Red Hook, Brooklyn, both kept Klein up to date on their schools’ space crises. And Michael Duffy, then the head of the department’s charter schools office who now runs a charter network of his own, urged Klein to let two schools in the Icahn network remain in public space until the network had constructed a new building.

But no other charter operator or advocate had as many suggestions for Klein as Moskowitz, a former City Council education committee chair who runs the Success Academies Network. Their relationship is no surprise: In 2010, the New York Daily News obtained emails between Moskowitz and Klein that showed frequent communication in 2008 about space-sharing, the teachers union, and charter school politics.

The single email from Moskowitz to Klein included in today’s release — sent Sunday, Dec. 20, 2010 — is barely redacted at all. The subject is “Greetings,” but Moskowitz wastes little time on niceties before launching into a pair of suggestions for the chancellor.

The first suggestion was to raise the bar on what the city considers success — and to close more schools that don’t meet it. “Academic bar and school closures. Want to urge you to be even more aggressive,” she wrote. “Whatever number pick as reasonable double.”

The next spring, the United Federation of Teachers won a lawsuit to halt 19 school closures. But the following fall, Klein’s last as chancellor, he placed 26 schools on the chopping block, far more than in any previous year.

The second suggestion was to take on the teachers union over the issue of the Absent Teacher Reserve, the pool of teachers who are paid but do not have permanent positions. The pool was created under the terms of the city’s 2005 contract with the UFT.

“Would go hard on reserve rooms and unions, showing victiims [sic] kids and talented teachers,” Moskowitz wrote. “Blame em. Every hour of the day.”

In February 2010, a leaked list of the city’s contract demands showed that being able to fire teachers in the ATR pool was a top ask. Klein made the issue the topic of his last message to principals before leaving the department in December 2010.

The city has not won that right in the year and a half since. Last month, Chancellor Dennis Walcott announced that the city would instead offer retirement and resignation incentives to teachers in the ATR pool — something the union had long requested. City and union officials met to negotiate that change for the first time this week.

Moskowitz’s email also presages a personal policy shift. Before 2009, she had focused her network’s school-creation efforts on low-income neighborhoods. But in 2010, she sought space on the Upper West Side, which has more middle-class families.

In her email to Klein, Moskowitz offers one reason why she might want to bring her brand of school reform to the Upper West Side — and, this fall, to middle-class areas in Brooklyn. “Recently visited a high performing traditional public school to see teaching and was utterly appalled,” she wrote to Klein. “The scores are decent bc kids come in well-educated. The teaching was incredibly mediocre and noone minded.”

“If going to leave nyc a fundamentally better place given schools not only in poor neighborhoods but even in more affluent neighborhoods, the bar will have to be SO much higher,” she advised.

Moskowitz’s complete email to Klein is below:

XXXXXXXXXXX

Before I do wanted to broach two topics

1)Academic bar and school closures. Want to urge you to be even more aggressive. Whatever number pick as reasonable double. Whatever bar pick make it higher by at least a factor of 2. Bottom 10-15 percent is NOWHERE near enough. It will take another century if we do not name the standard. Have 4 years — really 3 in politics. If going to leave nyc a fundamentally better place given schools not only in poor neighborhoods but even in more affluent neighborhoods, the bar will have to be SO much higher. Recently visited a high performing traditional public school to see teaching and was utterly appalled. The scores are decent bc kids come in well-educated. The teaching was incredibly mediocre and noone minded.

The way I look at it this is the last chance to be SUPERAGGRESSIVE in standard of excellence. Use all of talk surrounding reform and global economy (being known as chancellor w high academic standards–in addition to taking on system) to pump up that ante. If folks criticize you for having the bar way too high, you know you are inching closer to success.

2) Teaching fellows. Get massive cuts etc. And political heat. But cannot afford (for children’s sake) to crank up talent machine and let that go to waste. Would go hard on reserve room and unions, showing victiims kids and talented teachers. Blame em. Every hour of every day. Pr offensive. Never seen your team do and this is a great issue. Everyone is on your side except union bosses, assuming you make argument. This wld be win win. Set doe up to address reserve issue and help charters w critical talent need. Make it campaign to not let talented people go just bc of intransigence of unions. Obviously I say this bc believe right thing to do but also it will be hard to open up so fast high performing schools wo a system wh really doesn’t care where talent goes if it helps kids get an excellent, free public ed

Have been meaning to reach out on these but got swamped.

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.