annual appeal

UFT: City's special education reforms causing class size crunch

UFT President Michael Mulgrew, flanked by NYC Museum School teachers and Leonie Haimson of Class Size Matters, discussed this year's tally of oversized classes during a press conference this morning.

One in four city schools have overcrowded classes, and the number of oversized special education classes more than doubled since last year, according to this year’s class size tally by the United Federation of Teachers.

Union members reported 270 special education classes with more than the mandated number of students in the early weeks of the year, up from 118 last year.

During a press conference outside a Chelsea school building, UFT President Michael Mulgrew said the city’s special education reforms, which are meant to move more students with disabilities into general education classes, were “clearly and solidly behind” the too-large special education classes.

“We’ve never seen numbers like this before,” Mulgrew said about the oversized special education classes. “Principals are telling us they are being mandated to do things they cannot do, and this is going to be a big problem.”

The union’s contract with the city sets class size limits in each grade. When classes exceed the limit, the union can file grievances against the city to get the classes reduced in size — a process that can take months, Mulgrew said.

This year, the union identified 6,220 classes over their contractual limits in 670 schools during the first weeks of the year. While the number of oversized classes was actually down 11 percent from last year’s recent high of 6,978, the number of schools with oversized classes grew slightly, and the union estimates that nearly a quarter of all city students are spending all or part of the day in overcrowded classes for the second straight year.

Two large Queens high schools, Benjamin Cardozo and Forest Hills, have about 250 oversized classes each, according to the union’s tally. Two Queens middle schools, M.S. 210 and M.S. 226, also topped the list of primary schools with the most overcrowded classes.

Parents regularly cite class size reduction as a top priorities on the Department of Education’s annual surveys, and teachers say they could help students more if there were fewer of them in each class.

“We have the ability to be wonderful at 34 students, but the quality we can give our students is nothing like last year, when we had smaller classes,” Amanda Fletcher, a teacher from the Museum School, said today.

Citing both logistical constraints and research that has documented achievement gains from smaller classes only in limited contexts, the Bloomberg administration has never made class size a priority. Last year, in comments that were more pointed than usual but not a departure from sentiments he had expressed previously, Mayor Bloomberg said he would like to fire half the city’s teachers and pay the rest more to supervise twice-as-large classes.

The city’s contract with the UFT limits classes to 25 students in kindergarten; 32 students in elementary school; 33 students in middle schools and 30 students in middle schools with many poor students; and 34 students in high schools. Even with the limits, city schools have by far the largest average class sizes in the state, according to Leonie Haimson, executive director of Class Size Matters, who appeared with Mulgrew at the press conference.

Special education class sizes are determined not by the teachers union contract but by students’ Individualized Education Plans. Some students’ IEPs require them to be in classes of no more than 12 students, for example.

The city’s new special education policies require schools to accept students without considering their special education needs. So a school that might have sent students who required classes of 12 to another school in the past must now create classes to accommodate them — but educators and advocates have said the schools are not always getting the resources they need to do so.

Principals are “not being given the budget to open the appropriate number of classes,” Mulgrew said. “That’s an untenable situation.”

City officials said early data show that the Department of Education has brought on 700 new special education teachers this year to help schools share the task of serving students with disabilities. The Department of Education official in charge of the reforms told parents last week that her office is working to smooth road bumps as they emerge in the reforms’ early days.

Special education classes that are too large for their students but not so large that they exceed the teachers union’s contract can only be addressed by filing a complaint with the state, something Mulgrew said the union was considering doing.

The union will soon file a contractual grievance against the other oversized classes, and many of the classes will shrink as schools shuffle students around in the coming weeks, as typically happens at the beginning of the school year. The city issues its own class size report each November, after schools set their official registers for the year, often confirming the trends the union has noted but not their magnitude.

But union officials said addressing the violations is often a long slog. Last year, officials said, arbitrators ultimately supported 95 percent of the union’s class size grievances. But a school’s first violation yields only a warning, and higher-stakes judgements for repeat offenders often do not come down until February or March.

“Why do we need to wait seven months when it should have been done on October first?” Mulgrew asked today. He added, “This is not a priority of this administration.”

After the press conference, Brooke Jackson, principal of NYC Lab School, approached Mulgrew to tell him that she appreciated that he did not blame principals for maintaining oversized classes.

“I want to thank you for understanding that our hands are tied,” she said. “Honestly, even if I worked on class size, I wouldn’t have the space to put the children in, literally. … And I feel like [the] enrollment [office] flips in more and more students each year above our target, and the building doesn’t get bigger.”

Department of Education officials said the union could free up funding for more teachers who could reduce class sizes by agreeing to cost-cutting proposals the city has put forth. Erin Hughes, a department spokeswoman, pointed to the city’s proposals to buy out teachers who do not have permanent positions or limit their tenure in that role as a first step.

“If Mr. Mulgrew does in fact share this concern, he should accept our many proposals to stop paying those in the Absent Teacher Reserve pool who are draining resources that could otherwise be used to put permanent, effective teachers in the classroom,” she said.

Chicago teachers tried but failed to get class size limits written into their contract during their strike this month, and New York City remains one of few large urban districts with contractual limits. Mulgrew said today that teachers had forgone a raise to get the limits that are in place now and that the union would look for ways to reduce class sizes more when it next negotiates a contract with the city.

weekend update

How the education world is reacting to racist violence in Charlottesville — and to Trump’s muted response

PHOTO: Andrew Dallos/Flickr
A rally against hate in Tarrytown, New York, responds to the violence in Charlottesville.

For educators across the country, this weekend’s eruption of racism and violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, offered yet another painful opportunity to communicate their values to families, colleagues, and community members.

Many decried the white supremacists who convened in the college town and clashed with protesters who had come to oppose their message. Some used social media to outline ideas about how to turn the distressing news into a teaching moment.

And others took issue with President Donald Trump’s statement criticizing violence “on many sides,” largely interpreted as an unwillingness to condemn white supremacists.

One leading education official, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, followed Trump’s approach, criticizing what happened but not placing blame on anyone in particular:

DeVos’s two most recent predecessors were unequivocal, both about what unfolded in Charlottesville and whom to blame:

Leaders of the nation’s two largest teachers unions responded directly to Trump:

The American Federation of Teachers, Weingarten’s union, is supporting vigils across the country Sunday night organized by chapters of Indivisible, a coalition that emerged to resist the Trump administration. The union also promoted resources from Share My Lesson, its lesson-plan site, that deal with civil rights and related issues.

“As educators, we will continue to fulfill our responsibility to make sure our students feel safe and protected and valued for who they are,” Weingarten said in a statement with other AFT officials.

Local education officials took stands as well, often emotionally. Here’s what the superintendent in Memphis, which is engaged in the same debate about whether Confederate memorials should continue to stand that drew white supremacists to Charlottesville, said on Twitter:

Teachers in Hopson’s district return for the second week of classes on Monday. They’ve helped students process difficult moments before, such as a spate of police killings of black men in 2016; here’s advice they shared then and advice that teachers across the country offered up.

We want to hear from educators who are tackling this tough moment in their classrooms. Share your experiences and ideas here or in the form below. 

Betsy DeVos

‘Underperformer,’ ‘bully,’ and a ‘mermaid with legs’: NYMag story slams Betsy DeVos

PHOTO: New York Magazine
A drawing of DeVos commissioned by an 8-year-old starts the New York Magazine article.

A new article detailing Betsy DeVos’s first six months as U.S. education secretary concludes that she’s “a mermaid with legs: clumsy, conspicuous, and unable to move forward.”

That’s just one of several brutal critiques of DeVos’s leadership and effectiveness in the New York Magazine story, by Lisa Miller, who has previously covered efforts to overhaul high schools, New York City’s pre-kindergarten push, and the apocalypse. Here are some highlights:

  • Bipartisan befuddlement: The story summarizes the left’s well known opposition to DeVos’s school choice agenda. But her political allies also say she’s making unnecessary mistakes: “Most mystifying to those invested in her success is why DeVos hasn’t found herself some better help.”
  • A friend’s defense: DeVos is “muzzled” by the Trump administration, said her friend and frequent defender Kevin Chavous, a school choice activist.
  • The department reacts: “More often than not press statements are being written by career staff,” a spokesperson told Miller, rejecting claims that politics are trumping policy concerns.
  • D.C. colleagues speak: “When you talk to her, it’s a blank stare,” said Charles Doolittle, who quit the Department of Education in June. A current education department employee says: “It’s not clear that the secretary is making decisions or really capable of understanding the elements of a good decision.”
  • Kids critique: The magazine commissioned six portraits of DeVos drawn by grade-schoolers.
  • Special Olympics flip-flop: DeVos started out saying she was proud to partner with the athletics competition for people with disabilities — and quickly turned to defending a budget that cuts the program’s funding.
  • In conclusion: DeVos is an underperformer,” a “bully” and “ineffective,” Miller found based on her reporting.

Updated (July 31, 2017): A U.S. Education Department spokesperson responded to our request for comment, calling the New York Magazine story “nothing more than a hit piece.” Said Liz Hill: “The magazine clearly displayed its agenda by writing a story based on largely disputed claims and then leaving out of the article the many voices of those who are excited by the Secretary’s leadership and determination to improve education in America.”