Grand Experiment?

Contract’s plan to fuel school experimentation sparks debate

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

The proposed teachers contract would cost the city at least $6 billion and impact tens of thousands of educators. But a provision that involves no new funding and covers only a fraction of schools is one officials say could transform the school system.

The plan would let educators at up to 200 schools design and carry out experiments in school improvement: from lengthening the school day to swapping out tests for projects to having teachers help evaluate their peers. In an echo of the charter-school model, those schools would be released from certain contract rules but held accountable to new performance targets, all while acting as innovation incubators for the rest of the school system, city and union officials said.

That has worried some union members who fear the proposal would weaken protections for teachers and send the message that union contracts inhibit innovation. Meanwhile, union critics claim the plan will not loosen contract rules enough to foster successful charter school-style experimentation.

Even proponents of the plan have raised questions about it: Without funding for the program, how will the city help schools make big changes? And will the initiative spark new innovation, or simply spotlight schools that are already experimenting?

“I’m not sure I totally understand the incentive,” said a middle school principal who spoke on the condition of anonymity, adding that he still plans to apply to the program. “I don’t know if it will be worth it, but I’m definitely going to try.”

The plan, called Progressive Redesign Opportunity Schools for Excellence, or PROSE, will go into effect if union members ratify the proposed teachers contract. It would allow schools to alter their schedules, class sizes, student assessments, teacher evaluations, and more.

According to the city-union contract agreement, a mix of low and high-performing schools will be encouraged to propose such changes. Teachers and administrators must develop the proposals together, and parent leaders must sign off on them. If a joint Department of Education-United Federation of Teachers panel approves a proposal and 65 percent of a school’s unionized staff ratifies it, then the school will be freed from any rules that would restrict the proposed changes.

Mayor Bill de Blasio said the PROSE program would let schools "reinvent themselves."
Mayor Bill de Blasio said the PROSE program would let schools “reinvent themselves.”

“The last thing that should happen,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said when the deal was announced, “is to have either the chancellor’s regulations or UFT work rules stand in the way of innovation that everyone agrees on.”

The program would save schools that already bend the contract rules from having to do so in secret or having to vote on annual contract modifications known as School-Based Options, or SBOs, union officials noted. The new program would also allow schools to propose changes that are not permitted by SBOs, such as longer school days or peer evaluations. And while SBOs last for one year, schools would remain in the PROSE program for five years, unless the authorizing panel decides a school “is not succeeding,” the agreement says.

“I took the SBO idea and I said, ‘Let’s amp it up,'” UFT President Michael Mulgrew told Chalkbeat.

Still, debate has broken out about whether PROSE would give schools too much leeway to experiment or not enough.

Department of Education officials have emphasized that there are “no limits” to the changes that schools can propose. But in a recording obtained by Chalkbeat, Mulgrew told teachers at a closed-door meeting that the union would not allow schools to do away with seniority protections for teachers or to alter the union’s salary system, which bases pay on experience and education.

Jenny Sedlis, executive director of StudentsFirstNY, an advocacy group that frequently criticizes the teachers union, said it’s clear that schools in the program will have less “freedom to innovate” than charter schools, most of which are not bound by the city-union contract. In particular, she questioned whether schools would be permitted to adjust how teachers are paid or fired, among other changes.

“The greatest levers you have to make change in a school will not be on the table,” she said.

But some teachers said they worry the program could serve as an end run around contract protections for teachers, and that PROSE schools could come to resemble charter schools.

Tina Collins, a UFT official who researches charter schools for the union, will help run the PROSE program for the union. But Mulgrew called any suggestion that the program will turn traditional schools into charters “bogus,” and noted that schools have long been offered contract flexibility through SBOs.

Other teachers questioned why more school-level experimentation is necessary when there is already wide agreement within schools that certain policy changes, such as smaller class sizes and more robust social services, would benefit students.

“There are plenty of things we know work for kids,” said Julie Cavanagh, a teacher at Brooklyn’s P.S. 15 who has been critical of the proposed contract. “Why aren’t we doing those things?”

Even as debate over the plan continues, officials are already identifying possible PROSE schools.

The contract deal sets a goal of establishing 200 such schools over the next five years. In order to give schools time to plan over the summer, officials want teachers in the first batch of PROSE schools to vote on their proposals by the end of June — just weeks after the contract is expected to be ratified.

UFT President Michael Mulgrew called any suggestion that the new program would turn traditional schools into charters "bogus."
PHOTO: Rob Bennett for the Office of Mayor Bill de Blasio
UFT President Michael Mulgrew called any suggestion that the new program would turn traditional schools into charters “bogus.”

The union has already started reaching out to schools it thinks may be interested. This week, union officials met with teachers from a group of schools that substitute performance-based assessments for most standardized tests.

Meanwhile, several school leaders who have reviewed the PROSE plan said they found it appealing, since it would provide some stability as they continue to experiment. But it remains to be seen whether the program will attract schools that have not already started to make changes.

Nigel Pugh, principal of Manhattan’s Richard R. Green High School of Teaching, said he liked the PROSE idea, especially its call for teacher-administrator collaboration. But he said that he would hesitate to propose a major change, such as a longer school day, when teachers are still adjusting to new standards, special-education reforms, and evaluations.

“There’s a limit to how much you can ask them to do,” he said.

It is also unclear what type of technical and financial support PROSE schools will receive to help them enact their plans.

Schools will be able to request extra funding, but none is guaranteed, according to the agreement. The mayor also did not set aside any money for the program in his budget proposal, though union officials said the city could seek state or federal funding.

Both city and union officials have promised that the schools will receive support based on their particular needs, but offered few specifics. Schools making similar changes may be able to pool resources or share best practices, union officials said.

What is clear is that schools tend to require intensive assistance when making big changes.

The Bronx Writing Academy, or P.S. 323, created staggered start times for teachers, adjusted the lengths of classes, and incorporated online learning through the city’s iZone program over the last few years. IZone paid for new computers and Internet infrastructure for the school, and connected it with at least three other groups that helped it plot out the changes, said principal Kamar Samuels.

“We had a lot of support around how to manage change and innovation,” Samuels said. “I think that will be a real key piece of PROSE.”

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.