core questions

As New York reconsiders Common Core, UFT organizes teachers to suggest changes

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

When math teacher Laura Mourino saw how the Common Core standards explained what students should know about algebraic functions, she was confused.

So she rewrote them, picking out parts she found more appropriate for advanced algebra and using more specific language. Now, Mourino’s ideas could have statewide influence.

The United Federation of Teachers has been organizing meetings of a couple dozen educators to discuss the academic standards, which New York adopted in 2010 and lay out what students are expected to learn in math and English at each grade level. Mourino and the other teachers are now working on recommendations meant to benefit members of the state’s next official task force — setting city educators, and the union, up to influence how the Common Core standards are reshaped in New York.

“We are working at the UFT at kind of understanding and unpacking standards,” said Kishayna Hazlewood, a third-grade teacher at Brooklyn’s P.S. 156 who served on the governor’s Common Core task force in the fall. “We will be ready if we are asked for certain things.”

The union is repeating a set of moves it made last year. When Governor Andrew Cuomo appointed a task force to review the standards then, the UFT organized its own group of teachers who developed suggestions and then passed them to Hazlewood.

The committees also reflect teachers unions’ close involvement in New York’s Common Core debates. Last year, the state teachers union convened a task force that reviewed the standards and conducted a survey of over 400 educators.

The UFT supported the move to the standards in 2010, and President Michael Mulgrew has forcefully defended them since then. In one widely-shared 2014 speech addressing hypothetical opponents of the standards, a fired-up Mulgrew threatened to “punch you in the face and push you in the dirt.”

But New York’s unions continue to walk a fine line as they figure out their role in reshaping the standards. Though most of the results of a statewide survey about the standards were positive, some educators have been frustrated with the standards, a lack of support as they grapple with changing their teaching methods, or the way the standards were rolled out in conjunction with new teacher evaluations and state tests.

In January, the UFT spent $1.4 million on ads in support of the recommendations made by the governor’s task force, and suggested the union was ready to dive into adjusting the standards.

“The unions are involved in the whole Common Core revision process in New York State to a degree that is very unique,” said Tom Loveless, an education researcher at the Brookings Institution.

That’s because the unions are more powerful in New York than in other states, he said. But it’s also because the standards are a part of a broader conversation about how to transition the state into a new era of education policy. Over the next several years, the state is set to revisit its entire system of standards, assessments, and teacher evaluations. Reviewing and revising the standards is the first step.

“In New York, the Common Core battle is part of the much larger battle,” Loveless said.

So, what are the teachers fighting for?

Educators on the UFT’s new committee say they are thinking about a number of tweaks. They want to make the standards more appropriate for a range of students, particularly English learners and students with disabilities, but also keep them rigorous.

Several teachers talked about the need remove jargon so that the standards make more sense to parents and are more instructive to teachers. The math standards often need to be “unpacked,” or split into sections that give teachers more explicit direction, said Mourino, who serves as the math department head at Harvest Collegiate High School in Manhattan.

That criticism is consistent with a survey commissioned by the state that solicited feedback about each standard. There is confusion over when algebra and geometry standards should be taught, State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia explained to the Board of Regents in February.

But teachers on the UFT’s committee also say there is danger when the standards are too prescriptive, and some worry they are unrealistic for students in younger grades or those with special needs.

That has become a problem in Hazlewood’s third-grade reading class. It is impossible to teach the concept of a main idea using a text too complicated for students to read, she said. The same issue comes into play at the higher grades with English learners, said Jeremiah Robey, who teaches seventh-grade social studies in Brooklyn and is also on the union’s task force.

“If I just had a student that just came from Yemen and he speaks little to no English, how is he expected to write an essay with an argument and a supporting claim?” Robey asked.

Those concerns get at the heart of what kinds of changes the teachers are looking to make, and bring up a number of thorny questions. Are differentiated standards still standards? And would different standards for students who are behind do anything to help teachers catch them up?

For now, educators on the UFT’s task force are still asking those questions. Other states that have tried to overhaul the Common Core standards, including Florida and Indiana, have struggled to make more than superficial changes as they created their own versions.

“What they replaced Common Core with was a set of standards that looked very much like Common Core in the end,” Loveless said of other states.

But Mourino hopes that New York’s process, starting with the teachers’ brainstorming, will have a real impact on classrooms throughout the state.

“I think every single teacher wants joy in the math classroom,” she said. “Some are reaching with limited success.”

Raise your voice

Memphis, what do you want in your next school superintendent?

PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick for Chalkbeat

Tennessee’s largest school district needs a permanent leader. What kind of superintendent do you think Shelby County Schools should be looking for?

Now is the chance to raise your voice. The school board is in the thick of finalizing a national search and is taking bids from search firms. Board members say they want a leader to replace former superintendent Dorsey Hopson in place within 18 months. They have also said they want community input in the process, though board members haven’t specified what that will look like. In the interim, career Memphis educator Joris Ray is at the helm.

Let us know what you think is most important in the next superintendent.  Select responses will be published.

Asking the candidates

How to win over Northwest Side voters: Chicago aldermen candidates hone in on high school plans

PHOTO: Cassie Walker Burke / Chalkbeat Chicago
An audience member holds up a green sign showing support at a forum for Northwest side aldermanic candidates. The forum was sponsored by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association.

The residents filing into the auditorium of Sharon Christa McAuliffe Elementary School Friday wanted to know a few key things from the eager aldermanic candidates who were trying to win their vote.

People wanted to know which candidates would build up their shrinking open-enrollment high schools and attract more students to them.

They also wanted specifics on how the aldermen, if elected, would coax developers to build affordable housing units big enough for families, since in neighborhoods such as Logan Square and Hermosa, single young adults have moved in, rents have gone up, and some families have been pushed out.

As a result, some school enrollments have dropped.

Organized by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, Friday’s event brought together candidates from six of the city’s most competitive aldermanic races. Thirteen candidates filled the stage, including some incumbents, such as Aldermen Proco “Joe” Moreno (1st  Ward), Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th Ward), and Milly Santiago (31st Ward).

They faced tough questions — drafted by community members and drawn at random from a hat — about bolstering high school enrollment, recruiting more small businesses, and paving the way for more affordable housing.

When the audience members agreed with their positions, they waved green cards, with pictures of meaty tacos. When they heard something they didn’t like, they held up red cards, with pictures of fake tacos.

Red cards weren’t raised much. But the green cards filled the air when candidates shared ideas for increasing the pull of area open-enrollment high schools by expanding dual-language programs and the rigorous International Baccalaureate curriculum.

Related: Can a program designed for British diplomats fix Chicago schools? 

“We want our schools to be dual language so people of color can keep their roots alive and keep their connections with their families,” said Rossana Rodriguez, a mother of a Chicago Public Schools’ preschooler and one of challengers to incumbent Deb Mell in the city’s 33rd Ward.  

Mell didn’t appear at the forum, but another candidate vying for that seat did: Katie Sieracki, who helps run a small business. Sieracki said she’d improve schools by building a stronger feeder system between the area’s elementary schools, which are mostly K-8, and the high schools.

“We need to build bridges between our local elementary schools and our high schools, getting buy-in from new parents in kindergarten to third grade, when parents are most engaged in their children’s education,” she said.

Sieracki said she’d also work to design an apprenticeship program that connects area high schools with small businesses.

Green cards also filled the air when candidates pledged to reroute tax dollars that are typically used for developer incentives for school improvement instead.

At the end of the forum, organizers asked the 13 candidates to pledge to vote against new tax increment financing plans unless that money went to schools. All 13 candidates verbally agreed.

Aldermen have limited authority over schools, but each of Chicago’s 50 ward representatives receives a $1.32 million annual slush fund that be used for ward improvements, such as playgrounds, and also can be directed to education needs. And “aldermanic privilege,” a longtime concept in Chicago, lets representatives give the thumbs up or down to developments like new charters or affordable housing units, which can affect school enrollment.

Related: 7 questions to ask your aldermanic candidates about schools

Aldermen can use their position to forge partnerships with organizations and companies that can provide extra support and investment to local schools.

A January poll showed that education was among the top three concerns of voters in Chicago’s municipal election. Several candidates for mayor have recently tried to position themselves as the best candidate for schools in TV ads.