new york state of mind

As Teach for America shifts, training for New York recruits is headed back to the city

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Charissa Fernández, executive director of TFA New York.

When Teach For America confirmed it would slash 15 percent of its national staff – including its chief diversity officer – in a major shakeup last month, the organization said the cuts would give local offices more independence.

And while it remains unclear exactly how those changes will affect TFA’s operations across the country, the organization’s New York leaders say they are set to change up summer training so that, for the first time, all of the recruits headed into New York City schools in 2017 will first be trained in New York by local staff.

Charissa Fernández, executive director of TFA’s New York office, said the decision to move its intensive five-week summer training – known as “institute” in TFA parlance – back to New York City was partly driven by the successful local training last year of 20 teachers who work in community-based organizations as part of the city’s expansion of pre-kindergarten.

“Educational context changes in every state – now even more so,” Fernández said in an interview this week.

The locally-based training for those outside the early childhood program will begin in the summer of 2017. The new training, Fernández said, will focus specifically on the state’s academic standards, address changes now being made to the standards in New York, and help recruits better understand the communities in which they will work. The training may also include an emphasis on STEM education and involve some of the 1,500 New York-based TFA alumni, Fernández said.

“In order to be culturally responsive at the local level, we really wanted to have that grounding in New York City,” she added.

That shift toward more locally-designed training is part of a small national trend.

Twelve local offices will train their recruits this year in lieu of the national organization, up from nine last year, according to Sharise Johnson, a TFA spokeswoman.

For 11 of the past 14 years, New York recruits have been trained locally, but that training was operated by the national organization. (New York recruits have intermittently been trained in Philadelphia, including this summer.) The main shift is that now, for the first time, the New York staff will design and oversee the training.

Still, it’s not yet clear how significantly the moves will change the training itself, a central part of TFA’s model. Fernández said her office is developing the local training now.

The rhetoric around empowering the local offices comes at a tumultuous moment for the national organization, which has failed to meet its recruiting targets for the past three years and has reduced its staff by almost one-third over the past two fiscal years.

New York reflects some of those recruiting challenges: The organization placed just 230 teachers in local schools last year, a five-year low. Fernández said she didn’t know how many recruits would be placed in New York this coming school year, and the improving economy “continues to be a factor” in lower recruitment numbers.

Fernández emphasized that she is not anticipating staffing cuts locally.

The national organization has long been a lightning rod for critics who worry the organization perpetuates the inequality it seeks to address by putting inexperienced teachers in classrooms dominated by low-income students. And recently, it has attracted a new round of criticism for firing its diversity chief despite consensus among education experts that promoting diversity among public school teachers benefits all students.

Some of those criticisms have been less relevant to TFA’s teaching force as of late in New York, where roughly 60 percent of TFA teachers identify as people of color. By comparison, about 60 percent of city public school teachers are white.

To some observers, the new emphasis on local training makes sense.

Dan Goldhaber, who has studied the relationship between the environments in which teachers are trained and student outcomes, said there is an important “acculturation effect” that TFA could be tapping into.

“It might be greater familiarity with the kind of students you’ll be working with, or with the culture and practices of the school system you’re working in,” said Goldhaber, who directs the Center for Education Data and Research at the University of Washington Bothell.

He cautions that most of the research on teacher training only shows correlational effects on student outcomes, but said TFA could use the shift as a chance to learn more about how its training affects student achievement.

“People are definitely interested in the TFA model,” Goldhaber said. “It really is a golden opportunity.”

Betsy DeVos

To promote virtual schools, Betsy DeVos cites a graduate who’s far from the norm

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos spoke to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools in June.

If Betsy Devos is paying any attention to unfolding critiques of virtual charter schools, she didn’t let it show last week when she spoke to free-market policy advocates in Bellevue, Washington.

Just days after Politico published a scathing story about virtual charters’ track record in Pennsylvania, DeVos, the U.S. education secretary, was touting their successes at the Washington Policy Center’s annual dinner.

DeVos’s speech was largely identical in its main points to one she gave at Harvard University last month. But she customized the stories of students who struggled in traditional schools with local examples, and in doing so provided an especially clear example of why she believes in virtual schools.

From the speech:

I also think of Sandeep Thomas. Sandeep grew up impoverished in Bangalore, India and experienced terrible trauma in his youth. He was adopted by a loving couple from New Jersey, but continued to suffer from the unspeakable horrors he witnessed in his early years. He was not able to focus in school, and it took him hours to complete even the simplest assignment.

This changed when his family moved to Washington, where Sandeep was able to enroll in a virtual public school. This option gave him the flexibility to learn in the quiet of his own home and pursue his learning at a pace that was right for him. He ended up graduating high school with a 3.7 GPA, along with having earned well over a year of college credit. Today, he’s working in finance and he is a vocal advocate for expanding options that allow students like him a chance to succeed.

But Thomas — who spoke at a conference of a group DeVos used to chair, Advocates for Children, in 2013 as part of ongoing work lobbying for virtual charters — is hardly representative of online school students.

In Pennsylvania, Politico reported last week, 30,000 students are enrolled in virtual charters with an average 48 percent graduation rate. In Indiana, an online charter school that had gotten a stunning six straight F grades from the state — one of just three schools in that positionis closing. And an Education Week investigation into Colorado’s largest virtual charter school found that not even a quarter of the 4,000 students even log on to do work every day.

The fact that in many states with online charters, large numbers of often needy students have enrolled without advancing has not held DeVos back from supporting the model. (A 2015 study found that students who enrolled in virtual charters in Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin did just as well as similar students who stayed in brick-and-mortar schools.) In fact, she appeared to ignore their track records during the confirmation process in January, citing graduation rates provided by a leading charter operator that were far higher — nearly 40 points in one case — than the rates recorded by the schools’ states.

She has long backed the schools, and her former organization has close ties to major virtual school operators, including K12, the one that generated the inflated graduation numbers. In her first week as education secretary, DeVos said, “I expect there will be more virtual schools.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the location of the dinner.

expansion plans

Here are the next districts where New York City will start offering preschool for 3-year-olds

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, left, and Mayor Bill de Blasio, center, visited a "Mommy and Me" class in District 27 in Queens, where the city is set to expand 3-K For All.

New York City officials on Tuesday announced which school districts are next in line for free pre-K for 3-year-olds, identifying East Harlem and the eastern neighborhoods of Queens for expansion of the program.

Building on its popular universal pre-K program for 4-year-olds, the city this year began serving even younger students with “3-K For All” in two high-needs school districts. Mayor Bill de Blasio has said he wants to make 3-K available to every family who wants it by 2021.

“Our education system all over the country had it backwards for too long,” de Blasio said at a press conference. “We are recognizing we have to reach kids younger and more deeply if we’re going to be able to give them the foundation they need.”

But making preschool available to all of the city’s 3-year-olds will require an infusion of $700 million from the state or federal governments. In the meantime, de Blasio said the city can afford to expand to eight districts, at a cost of $180 million of city money a year.

Funding isn’t the only obstacle the city faces to make 3-K available universally. De Blasio warned that finding the room for an estimated 60,000 students will be a challenge. Space constraints were a major factor in picking the next districts for expansion, he said.

“I have to tell you, this will take a lot of work,” he said, calling it “even harder” than the breakneck rollout of pre-K for all 4-year-olds. “We’re building something brand new.”

De Blasio, a Democrat who is running for re-election in November, has made expansion of early childhood education a cornerstone of his administration. The city kicked off its efforts this September in District 7 in the South Bronx, and District 23 in Brownsville, Brooklyn. More than 2,000 families applied for those seats, and 84 percent of those living in the pilot districts got an offer for enrollment, according to city figures.

According to the timeline released Thursday, the rollout will continue next school year in District 4 in Manhattan, which includes East Harlem; and District 27 in Queens, which includes Broad Channel, Howard Beach, Ozone Park and Rockaways.

By the 2019 – 2020 school year, the city plans to launch 3-K in the Bronx’s District 9, which includes the Grand Concourse, Highbridge and Morrisania neighborhoods; and District 31, which spans all of Staten Island.

The 2020 – 2021 school year would see the addition of District 19 in Brooklyn, which includes East New York; and District 29 in Queens, which includes Cambria Heights, Hollis, Laurelton, Queens Village, Springfield Gardens and St. Albans.

With all those districts up and running, the city expects to serve 15,000 students.

Admission to the city’s pre-K programs is determined by lottery. Families don’t have to live in the district where 3-K is being offered to apply for a seat, though preference will be given to students who do. With every expansion, the city expects it will take two years for each district to have enough seats for every district family who wants one.