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.”

names are in

Ten apply for vacant seat on the Memphis school board, but six live outside of seat’s district

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Former Shelby County Board of Education Chairwoman Teresa Jones confers with then Superintendent Dorsey Hopson during a 2015 school board meeting. Jones' seat is now up for an interim appointment.

Ten people have put their name in to become the next board member of Tennessee’s largest school district.

The appointee will fill the seat Teresa Jones vacated following her recent appointment as a municipal court judge, and would serve until the term expires in August 2020, not October as previously reported.

The interim member will join the school board at a crucial time, amid the search for a new superintendent to replace Dorsey Hopson, who left the district in December. Currently, Joris Ray is serving as interim superintendent.

Jones’ district 2 serves neighborhoods including North Memphis, Binghampton, and Berclair. Chalkbeat found that six applicants live outside of the district. Shelby County Commissioner Michael Whaley said this would likely prevent them from an appointment, but the commission is seeking clarity from the state and election commission.

Whaley also said the interim appointment was extended to August 2020 because Tennessee law doesn’t specify that special elections are necessary for the school board, so the interim will finish out Jones’ term.

The county commission is scheduled to name a successor on Monday Feb. 25, a day before the school board’s meeting that month. The commission is slated to interview candidates Wednesday at 10 a.m., but Whaley said more names could be added by commissioners prior to the vote on Monday We’ve linked to their full applications below.

Applicants are:

Althea Greene

  • She is a retired teacher from Memphis City Schools and childcare supervisor with Shelby County Schools. She is currently Pastor of Real Life Ministries.

Arvelia Chambers

  • She is a senior certified pharmacy technician with Walgreens. She said she’s a “passionate aunt” of three children in Shelby County Schools.
  • Her listed address is slightly north of District 2.

Aubrey Howard

  • He works as the executive director of governmental and legislative affairs in the Shelby County Trustee’s Office. He formerly worked for the City of Memphis, and said in his application that he previously ran for school board and lost.

Charles McKinney

  • He is the Neville Frierson Bryan Chair of Africana Studies and associate professor of history at Rhodes College. He is on the board of Crosstown High Charter School, and is the father of two Shelby County Schools students.

David Brown

  • He is the executive director of digital ministry at Brown Missionary Baptist Church and graduated from  Craigmont High School.
  • His listed address is slightly east of District 2.

Erskine Gillespie

  • Gillespie previously ran for City Council district 7 but lost. He is an account manager at the Lifeblood Mid-South Regional Blood Bank. He said in his application that he was one of the first students to enter the optional schools program in the Memphis district.

Kenneth Whalum, Jr.

  • He is a pastor at The New Olivet Worship Center and previously served as a school board member for the former Memphis City Schools; he was first elected in 2006. He has vocally opposed the process behind the 2013 merger of the city school system with legacy Shelby County Schools.
  • Whalum ran against school board member Kevin Woods in 2012 and lost.
  • His listed address is near the University of Memphis, not in District 2.

Makeda Porter-Carr

  • She is a research administrator at St. Jude Research Hospital.
  • Her listed address is in southeast Memphis, not in District 2.

Michael Hoffmeyer Sr.

  • He is the director of the University of Memphis’ Crews Center for Entrepreneurship in which he works with college and high school students. He graduated from Craigmont High School.
  • His listed address is slightly north of District 2.

Tyree Daniels

  • He helped found Memphis College Prep charter school. He lost to Jones in a school board race in 2012. Daniels is now a part of Duncan-Williams Inc. — the firm handling public financing for the project Union Row.
  • His listed address is in east Memphis, not in District 2.

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.