planning ahead

For some high school math teachers, a Common Core head start

Math teachers from New Visions schools gather for a Common Core training. (Courtesy Tim Farrell, New Visions)

The city’s teachers union has been clamoring for more time for teachers to prepare for the elementary and middle school state tests, which will be aligned to new curriculum standards this spring. Not so for the city’s high school teachers, who have another year to prepare for new tests.

The Department of Education is requiring high school teachers to align two units each semester this year to the Common Core. But beyond that, some teachers have said that without assessments to plan backwards from, they are at a loss about how to proceed, while others view the extra year as license to delay making more substantive changes.

But some high school teachers are seeking out help with the Common Core now, reasoning that it’s smart to work with the new standards while there’s still time to troubleshoot before students face tests based on them.

For math teachers at 14 Bronx schools, support is coming from the network hired to support their schools, New Visions for Public Schools. With a $13 million, five-year innovation grant from the U.S. Department of Education and the help of the Silicon Valley Math Initiative, New Visions is piloting a Common Core-aligned ninth-grade algebra curriculum in the hopes that it will challenge students more and build teachers’ skills.

In math, the Common Core expects teachers to cover fewer topics and instead push students to understand a few concepts thoroughly and apply that knowledge to solve real-life questions. So the New Visions curriculum, called “Accessing Algebra through Inquiry,” or A2i, provides teachers with abundant multi-step word problems and tasks that require students to think outside the textbook, then explain in writing how they used math concepts to solve practical questions.

The curriculum also asks teachers to structure their units differently than they have in the past, using special group projects and midpoint assessments to check students’ understanding.

Schools using A2i this year get a visit from a New Visions coach each week and send their teachers for extra training at least once a month.

Janet Price, New Visions’ director of instruction, said she expected to face trouble getting math teachers on board with the new curriculum, knowing that they might not see an immediate payoff from it this year.

“The kids still have to be prepared for the Regents, and whoever writes the Regents is not listening to the other part of the State Education Department,” she said. “They’re including a lot of questions on topics that the Common Core suggests should not be part of the math [tests], and that’s creating a big problem for us.”

But at a Friday-morning training at New Visions’ Chelsea offices last month, teachers said they thought the value of pushing their students to tackle more challenging work outweighed the risk of giving short shrift to some topics that will appear on this year’s state tests.

“Asking a student to take new information and make sense of it, and solve a problem that’s longer than a minute, I think that’s really valuable,” said Eric Benzel, a ninth-grade algebra teacher at the New Visions Charter High School for Advanced Math and Science.

“In general I feel like students think my class is a lot harder … but I think they enjoy it,” he added. “Students are used to failure being a really bad thing in math, but this is the first class where failure isn’t necessarily bad. A problem is something you actually have to try, and fail, and try something else, to get the answer.”

The paradigm shift has made for a bumpy start to the school year, some of the teachers said.

“It’s just so challenging because the kids weren’t taught like this before. In the past, the teacher models the problem and similar problems to work with,” said Michaela Pestejo, a math teacher at the Collegiate Institute for Math and Science.

In A2i, “formative assessments” are key to helping teachers get their students through the heightened struggle of learning something new. Two thirds of the way through each unit, small groups of students are asked to complete a worksheet about what they learned up to that point, and whether they can apply that knowledge to new problems.

After the group activity, the teacher returns the assessments to students and allows them to “fix up” their answers, Price explained, giving them a chance to rethink their work before handing it in for grading.

“You’re finding out whether they have the math or not while there is still time to do something about it before that final test and closing the book on that unit,” Price said. “The only way you’re going to know if the kids understand it or not is to look carefully at their work.”

Russell West, New Visions’ senior lead instructional specialist, said what makes A2i remarkable is not its individual elements — many schools already have them in place — but the way they are assembled.

“This is actually nothing brand new; this is stuff people have been working on for twenty years,” he said. “We’re just pulling it all together to support what the teachers are doing around the Common Core.”

The curriculum — which New Visions is rolling out to more of its schools, and in more grades, next year — is mostly new to New York City, West and Price said, though it has been used by a few schools in the past year, including the La Raza Network, which has a school in Brooklyn. The assessments are also being piloted in San Francisco, Chicago, and Georgia. The Shell Center, creator of the math assessments, has created about 60 math Common Core assessments for schools to use this year. It will be making more, and New Visions will be expanding the program to more schools next year.

The expansion will come as students are set to take Common Core-aligned Regents exams in math for the first time. Until then, teachers using the A2i curriculum are hoping that it doesn’t compromise their ability to help students pass this year’s test.

“We’re trying to hit two birds with one stone, in very different areas,” said Francesca DiPietro, another Collegiate Institute for Math and Science teacher. “That makes this year more difficult for us.”

The teachers said their solution so far to keep students from shutting down when faced with the tougher math problems has been to offer more tutoring, and to review lessons over multiple days, but they said it’s hard to do that while also covering the material students will see on exams they need to pass to graduate.

It’s true that the state’s old standards and the Common Core diverge at several points, West said. But he said A2i lets teachers cover their bases by including topics from the old standards as they prepare students to answer more complex questions.

“Triangles are the perfect example of a ninth-grade topic that isn’t in the ninth-grade Common Core,” he said. Instead, trigonometry is a 10th-grade topic. So, West said, “during this transition we’re making sure the kids are being asked to use the skills with triangles in the tasks that we’re giving them this year.”

Benzel said working with A2i has underscored his wish that high school exams would be overhauled faster — exactly the opposite of what some elementary and middle school educators say they want.

“What we’re really assessed on as teachers and students right now is … the ability to solve these single-step, algorithmic, terrible problems that the Regents is built on,” he said. “I’m trying to make the transition, but we’re anticipating the future while we’re still stuck in these 40-year-old assessments.”

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.