a tricky path

New rules to help New York students graduate offer ‘false promise,’ school leaders say

At South Brooklyn Community High School, teachers work to help struggling students earn the credits they need to graduate. But students at the transfer school in Red Hook often stumble over a final hurdle: passing all five of New York’s high school exit exams.

The difficulty “really punches you in the face,” said Jonathan Murphy, the school’s director.

A recent change to the graduation rules should be great news for Murphy and his students. Saying that some deserving students were getting trapped without a diploma by that fifth Regents exam, New York officials agreed to allow students to ditch it for an alternative test in science, art, or a technical subject.

But those new options are little more than an illusion for students at South Brooklyn Community. Of about 70 newly approved exams, the school offers courses to prepare students for just two.

“It’s kind of a false promise for our students who desperately need additional pathways and are being left behind,” Murphy said.

South Brooklyn’s bind speaks to a larger mismatch. High schools that serve struggling students tend to offer few courses beyond the basics — potentially preventing the state’s new rules from helping the students who could most benefit.

State education officials say they never expected the policy change to pay off everywhere right away.

“Right now those are the choices we have, and we’re just going to do the best we can,” Regent Roger Tilles said.

Some of the 70 newly approved options are within reach for many city students. According to a 2013 report, 85 percent of city high schools offered earth science, which culminates in an exam that can now count toward graduation. The city is also expanding access to Advanced Placement courses, whose exams can now be swapped in, although students taking them are likely to be on track to graduate already.

All together, the city says 97 percent of schools offered two non-required math or science Regents courses to at least 15 students. (The city did not explain which Regents courses the schools offered, or whether the students who took them were otherwise on track to graduate.)

But many schools — especially those serving students who have fallen behind before getting to high school — offer only a minimal set of non-essential offerings, limiting students’ options for how to cross the last hurdle before graduation. Small high schools can’t easily adjust their lean staffs and budgets to create new courses, and transfer high schools in particular have zoomed in on preparing students for the exams required for graduation.

At Wildcat Academy, which serves students who have repeated grades, students can take a geometry class. But principal Ron Tabano said it covers less material than will appear on a Regents exam in the subject, taking that option off the table for students struggling to graduate.

Introducing new technical training for students who struggle on academic exams is even harder. Schools often have limited space and staff to launch those programs — and getting a new course approved is a time-consuming process.

In other parts of the state, districts with larger high schools and, in some cases, fewer high-needs students might already have expanded course offerings. But the only way many New York City schools can make the alternative options real for students is with more money, school leaders say.

“In theory, these additional pathways are amazing and honor the different experiences and learning encounters that show mastery,” said Brandon Cardet-Hernandez, principal of the Bronx Academy Of Letters. “Still, they will only work if there are funding streams.”

But so far, the state hasn’t offered any additional funds. But Vice Chancellor Andrew Brown and other members of the Board of Regents said they know that expanding graduation options, particularly in the arts and career and technical education, will require them to ask the legislature for more school funding.

“You don’t change a program from a mandatory 5 to a 4+1 and have everybody fall in line immediately,” Brown said. “It is something that needs to be funded.”

The tension is in part why principals are paying such close attention to another new graduation option — a work-skills credential used until recently only for students with disabilities. Students can earn that by passing a work-readiness exam or by completing a program that includes practical experience.

State officials say they aren’t finished approving new ways for students to earn their diplomas. As they do so, Brown said they want to make sure that all students have access to the new graduation options.

“There’s a lot of students in our most vulnerable districts that are perhaps struggling the most,” Brown said. “If they are not able to take advantage of 4+1 but other school districts are … then we will have missed out on a tremendous opportunity.”

biding time

Strike vote by Denver teachers no longer imminent due to contract extension

PHOTO: Eric Gorski
The bargaining teams from Denver Public Schools and the Denver teachers union at a contract negotiation session in 2017.

Although the Denver school district and its teachers union failed to reach a deal on an overhaul of the district’s pay-for-performance system, the prospect of a strike is less imminent.

Earlier this week, the union’s board of directors authorized a strike vote if a new agreement couldn’t be reached by the time the current one expired at midnight Wednesday.

The two sides couldn’t come to terms on how to change the system, but did reach a different kind of deal: District officials agreed to the union’s request to extend the current pay-for-performance agreement until January 2019 in the hopes that Colorado voters will approve a tax increase in November benefiting schools, making teacher pay raises more likely. However, the union did not take the threat of a strike completely off the table.

A statement from the union, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, said the union “will begin preparing to take work actions to ensure progress on the new compensation system. If no agreement is reached by the Jan. 18 deadline, DCTA will immediately ask for a strike vote from union members the following day.”

In other districts that have experienced labor conflicts, teachers have picketed, refused to work extra hours, and even waged “sickouts.” The Denver teachers union did not specify the types of work actions they were considering.

Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg said the district was reluctant to sign a ten-month extension, “but in the end, we are prepared to honor their request for more time.”

“We all have a very clear, common goal and common interest around supporting our kids and giving our kids the very best chances to learn and grow,” Boasberg said. “I’m confident that common goal and common aspirations will help us move toward an agreement.”

Denver’s pay-for-performance system, called ProComp, was first piloted in 1999. Under the current agreement, teachers earn a base salary based partly on their level of education and years of experience, and partly on how much training they completed the year before and on the outcome of a yearly evaluation that takes student test scores into account.

Teachers can also earn bonuses and incentives on top of their base salary. This year, for example, teachers who work in a hard-to-serve school with a high percentage of students living in poverty can earn an extra $2,578 per year.

The union wants to make teachers’ paychecks more predictable by moving back to a traditional “steps and lanes” salary schedule in which raises are based on education and experience. Union leaders also want higher base salaries. The union proposed a salary schedule that would pay teachers with a doctorate degree and 20 or more years of experience a base salary of $100,000 with the opportunity to earn a more limited number of incentives on top of that.

The district, meanwhile, proposed a salary schedule that would continue to take teacher evaluations into account when calculating raises but would allow teachers to more significantly build their base salaries for more years. While the union’s proposal shrinks some incentives, the district’s proposal grows the incentive for teaching in a hard-to-serve school.

District officials said the union’s proposal is too expensive. ProComp is funded by a voter-approved tax increase that is expected to raise about $35 million this year. The union’s proposal would cost more than twice as much, district officials said.

Union leaders asked to extend the current agreement until January 2019 in the hopes that Colorado voters approve a proposed ballot measure that would raise $1.6 billion for schools. Backers of the measure, which would increase income taxes for people who earn more than $150,000 per year, are collecting signatures to get it on the November ballot.

Colorado’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights requires that voters approve any tax increase. In 2013, voters rejected a school funding tax increase that would have raised $950 million its first year.

Boasberg supports this year’s effort. He’s among the Colorado superintendents pushing for a new, “student centered” school funding formula if the measure passes.

“The entire purpose of that funding measure is to strengthen teacher compensation, decrease class sizes, and improve supports for kids,” Boasberg said. “So if that passes, of course we will eagerly sit down with DCTA to discuss how we strengthen our compensation for teachers.”

On the brink

Denver teachers union leaders vote to call for a strike vote if pay negotiations fail

PHOTO: Marissa Page
Teachers watch a master contract bargaining session between Denver Public Schools and the Denver teachers union on June 22.

The Denver teachers union’s board of directors voted Tuesday to ask its members to strike if the union and the school district fail to reach an agreement Wednesday on teacher pay.

It’s the first time Denver Classroom Teachers Association leaders have taken such a vote since the 1990s, said Corey Kern, the union’s deputy executive director. He said Denver teachers are fed up with the district and inspired by the recent actions of teachers in West Virginia and Oklahoma.

“Teachers don’t think the district is taking them seriously,” Kern said.

Since November, the union and the district have been negotiating an overhaul of Denver Public Schools’ pioneering pay-for-performance system, called ProComp. The current agreement expires at midnight Wednesday. Kern said the union’s preference is “to get a deal done,” but its directors were clear that “if that doesn’t ultimately happen, they will ask for a strike vote.”

Kern said he didn’t know when a strike vote would be held, but it probably wouldn’t happen immediately.

Denver Public Schools officials said in a statement Tuesday they “are committed to reaching an agreement.” If the sides can’t agree Wednesday, the district pledged to continue with the current pay-for-performance system to ensure teachers get their expected pay.

The union has offered a proposal that would pay teachers with a doctorate and 20 years or more of experience a base salary of $100,000.

The current salary schedule goes up to $74,130 for teachers with a doctorate and at least 11 years of experience. Under ProComp, teachers can earn bonuses and incentives on top of that. In 2015-16, the average second-year teacher earned an extra $5,599, according to the district.

In August the district and the union signed a new five-year master contract that included increases in base pay – which the district said were the largest raises in the metro area – and an additional $1,500 for teachers who work in high-poverty schools.

This round of negotiations is for the ProComp agreement, which is separate from the master contract. The district first piloted pay-for-performance in 1999. Voters in 2005 approved a tax increase to fund it. Those taxes will generate about $35 million this year, according to district officials. The last significant redesign of the ProComp system happened in 2008.

The union’s proposal calls for higher base salaries and reduces the size of the incentives teachers can earn for working in hard-to-serve schools or hard-to-fill positions. Union leaders have said teachers want a more predictable pay structure that relies less on bonuses, which can vary year to year.

The district, meanwhile, has suggested increasing some incentives as a way to attract and retain teachers. The district has also suggested providing teachers who earn four years of “distinguished” evaluations with base salary increases equivalent to what they would get for earning a master’s degree.

The union’s proposal to raise the maximum base salary to $100,000 would require more than twice as much money as taxpayers pay into ProComp each year, a district spokeswoman said.

The two sides are set to return to the negotiating table Wednesday morning.