core beliefs

In speech, state education chief forcefully reaffirms support for Common Core, evaluations

PHOTO: Geoff Decker
Commissioner John King at New York University's Wagner School, where he delivered a speech defending the state's education policies.

Stung by months of criticism and a condemnation by the state teachers union last weekend, New York State Education Commissioner John King hit back in a lengthy speech on Thursday, declaring that the reforms he ushered in aren’t going away.

“We’re not going backwards,” King said. “We’re not retreating.”

King was talking about new teacher evaluations and the Common Core learning standards, which have been the center of a public debate that he says too often “devolves” and churns out “misinformation.” But he also briefly acknowledged that the implementation of these policies has been rocky, and announced a few new ways that the state will help districts to reduce local testing and improve instruction.

“I know implementation has not gone perfectly and there is more the state can do,” King said.

King said that the state would allot $16 million of its Race to the Top grant funds to help districts reduce locally-mandated testing—including tests used specifically to evaluate teachers—though he offered no other information about how the money would be used. He also said the state will pay for districts to “borrow” master teachers from around the state to coach others.

More broadly, King used the speech to reassert the changes he’s pushed for since he joined the State Education Department in 2009 and was appointed commissioner in 2011.

Calls to weaken the teacher evaluation system and slow the implementation of the Common Core have been growing for months. They culminated with King receiving a “no-confidence” vote from delegates of the New York State United Teachers at their annual conference over the weekend, which also saw the ouster of president Richard Iannuzzi.

But in the recent state budget deal, lawmakers made few significant changes to Common Core and teacher evaluation policies after months of threatening to roll back both initiatives. Smaller education policy changes aimed at reducing testing and de-emphasizing test scores in promotion decisions lined up squarely with what King had already recommended. 

King also repeated his argument that concerns raised about testing and teacher evaluations were based on misrepresentations of the facts or situations that had been blown out of proportion.

On teacher evaluations, King said that teachers’ anxiety about being fired because of low ratings had been overstated, pointing to the small number of teachers rated “ineffective” on their evaluations. King said today that less than 1 percent of teachers could face termination when last year’s ratings are released.

“Anyone who says evaluation is all about firing teachers is deliberately misrepresenting the facts,” he said.

A spokesman for NYSUT, King’s primary adversary over the last year, offered a cryptic response to the speech, calling it “interesting” and saying that they “look forward to hearing more.” The union is just a few days removed from ousting its president, a move backed by the city’s United Federation of Teachers.  

UFT President Michael Mulgrew issued a much sharper rebuke of King, saying that the commissioner and the Board of Regents should be “embarrassed that the Legislature had to step in and do the work they should have been doing,” referring to the changes that de-emphasize state tests.

King delivered the speech in friendly territory. The event, which took place at the Wagner School at New York University, was attended largely by advocates of the state’s reforms, including charter school leaders and representatives from Educators 4 Excellence and StudentsFirstNY. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan praised King in an introduction, saying he was among the country’s top education leaders.

Despite King’s confidence, changes to teacher evaluations could still be coming. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said he is open to modifying the law so that evaluations aren’t tied to student performance on the new Common Core-aligned tests, and the Board of Regents has agreed to discuss a related proposal at their meeting at the end of April.

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defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.