new to tweed

New York City’s new chief academic officer has a plan: give teachers resources that work for every single student

PHOTO: Anthony Lanzilote

Two very different teaching experiences inside the same Manhattan school shaped Linda Chen’s career.

When she joined P.S. 163 as a teacher in the city’s sought-after gifted and talented program, Chen found training opportunities that challenged her to improve her craft and the materials she needed to engage her students.

Things changed after she transferred to a general education classroom in the same Upper West Side school, only to find much larger class sizes and fewer resources.

Linda Chen

“I saw equity challenges under one roof that I knew needed to change,” Chen said in an interview with Chalkbeat. “I knew I wanted to do something about that.”

After rising to become a principal here, Chen spent the next decade crisscrossing the country, filling top education roles in urban districts including Baltimore and Boston. When school starts Wednesday, Chen will return to New York City to serve as the new chief academic officer.

In Chen, schools Chancellor Richard Carranza has likely found an ally in his push for more diverse schools. Her approach may feel familiar in other ways, too. Colleagues say Chen cares deeply about helping teachers become better at their jobs — something former Chancellor Carmen Fariña put at the center of school improvement.   

Carranza created the chief academic officer position shortly into his five-month tenure here, saying the massive bureaucracy he inherited has struggled to collaborate in ways that make sense inside schools. The role brings together overlapping departments that touch the classroom in vital ways under the same leadership.

“I had great, hard-working people,” he told Chalkbeat in a recent interview. “But rarely did they work across each other’s silo.”

The last time New York City had a chief academic officer, it was forced to. In 2010, the city struck a deal with state officials: In exchange for approving Cathie Black, a schools chancellor who had no experience in education, former Mayor Michael Bloomberg agreed to appoint a chief academic officer as second in command. Black stepped down after 95 days.

When Mayor Bill de Blasio was elected, he tapped Carmen Fariña to lead the city’s schools. With more than 50 years of experience in the system, Fariña did away with the position. Before she retired this winter, Fariña served as chief executive and top educator, with a cabinet of 22 people reporting to her.

When Carranza came on board this spring, he found an “unwieldy” leadership structure. In schools, that could play out in frustrating ways. Principals and teachers complained about fuzzy lines of responsibility and support systems that were far removed from what teachers really needed.

Mike Magee, the head of Chiefs for Change — an education advocacy group — said that it’s increasingly common for school leaders to rely on a chief academic officer to steer the important work that happens in classrooms. Having someone dedicated to curriculum development and training frees up the chancellor to focus on systems issues, he said — something Fariña was often criticized for neglecting.

“The chief role in a school district, the superintendent role, is a role where you have a wide variety of responsibilities,” he said. “To have a leader on your team who can have a laser-like focus on not just the academic side of the work but on curriculum,” is a smart move.

Starting in 1997, Chen taught in New York City for about three years before joining the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, founded by the influential Columbia professor Lucy Calkins. Chen went on to become principal of P.S. 165 in Manhattan, a dual language school that she said also served a sizable number of students with special needs.

While there, some parents protested Chen’s decision to discipline a well-liked assistant principal. But Calkins said Chen was better known for encouraging active lessons with plenty of opportunities for students to talk and for spending time in classrooms “helping teachers study their kids.”

Chen left New York for Philadelphia in 2008, where she rose to become an assistant superintendent. From there she headed to Boston, where she made sure teacher evaluations and curriculum were aligned with new learning standards, and then to Baltimore, where she was chief academic officer.

The former head of schools there, Greg Thornton, said Chen ushered in new, formative assessments to give teachers more information about what their students really knew, and she was focused on boosting student engagement through the materials that were used in the classroom.

“Student engagement was her really big thing,” Thornton said. “We had kids who were disengaged, and you can’t win that way.”

Chen also helped champion a new way of supporting principals in struggling schools, though some complained it curbed the freedom of school leaders to make decisions. She served only two or three years in each of her roles, though that’s not unusual in the often politically fraught world of education.

Chen thinks things will work out differently in New York City.

“In this case is you have a mayor who has a clear agenda… You have a chancellor coming in  the middle of this who is completely aligned,” she said. “So you can move forward.”

In her portfolio as chief academic officer: the Division of Teaching and Learning, which coordinates teacher training and is responsible for curriculum; the department that oversees special education; and the department that serves students who are learning English as a new language.

It will be up to Chen to make sure all those offices work together to support students and teachers. That may mean that experts in teaching students with disabilities or limited English skills work side-by-side with curriculum gurus to create classroom materials that cater to students’ different needs, but also challenge them. The departments she oversees then might work together to coordinate training, making sure teachers know how to use the new materials well.

“There has been collaboration, but it has been somewhat informal and not structured in a way with the full intent for access,” she said. “I would love for [teachers] to be able to see that there is something in the resources we provide for every one of their students.”

For Chen, that means recognizing the “cultural needs” of students. Integration advocates have pushed the city to focus more on culturally relevant education practices, calling for classroom materials that include representations of different students and also reflect a diversity of viewpoints. In a system that is 70 percent black and Hispanic students, advocates say this is key to engaging students and even boosting academic achievement.

Chen said she looks at the work of culturally relevant education in two ways: Providing classroom materials that are inclusive of all students, and working with adults to recognize inequities in the school system.

“We can create materials and put them in teachers’ hands, but if we don’t attend to their needs and their development in this mindset, then they won’t thrive,” Chen said.

Former colleagues say diversity is an issue that Chen championed in her previous roles. Maria Pitre-Martin, who worked with Chen at the Philadelphia public school district, said it was front-and-center whenever making decisions about classroom materials.

“That was always part of the criteria, and it was pretty much a nonnegotiable, making sure that we had culturally relevant material in front of our students,” ” said Pitre-Martin, who is now a deputy state superintendent for North Carolina.

Chen will also have to coordinate the way the city trains and supports its educators, something the department has sometimes struggled to get right. Teachers in New York City have said the training they’re offered often cuts into their time in the classroom and feels disconnected from their needs.

It’s a notorious issue across the education field. In Jerry Jordan’s more than 30 years as an educator, the head of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers said he has suffered through plenty of useless training sessions. But he said Chen was known for bucking that trend, and delivering relevant professional development in her time in the Philadelphia public school district.

“People learned from it,” Jordan said. “There are times when you attend a professional development session and you say, ‘I just wasted two hours.’”

parent power

Indianapolis charter booster launches parent advocacy fellowship

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

When it comes to reforming education, one local nonprofit that supports charter schools wants parents and families to have a seat at the table.

The Mind Trust announced Wednesday that it is establishing a two-year fellowship to develop a parent advocacy organization — and seeking candidates to be a part of it.

The goal of the fellowship is to empower families — particularly low-income families and families of color — to advocate for changes in their publicly funded schools, said The Mind Trust executive director Brandon Brown.

“This is our attempt at really flipping the script, from a relatively top-down approach to education reform to a movement led by families that we hope will be sustainable over time,” Brown said.

A common criticism of education reform efforts, both in Indianapolis and across the nation, is that changes are forced onto communities, and that families affected have little or no input about those changes. But it remains to be seen whether The Mind Trust’s push for greater parent involvement can transcend hotly politicized divides in education. Locally, Stand for Children Indiana’s parent advocacy efforts have faced criticism from those who feel the group is trying to advance a political agenda supporting reform efforts.

Brown said the new parent advocacy group would be independent of The Mind Trust.

“That might mean that eventually they may choose to advocate for something that is not the direction we want to go,” he said.

Still, the group would likely focus on families at Indianapolis charter schools. Brown said he expects the fellow, who will receive coaching from The Mind Trust, to support charter concepts such as giving strong leaders more freedom to run their schools. The fellowship comes with an estimated salary of $75,000 to $90,000 per year.

But Seretha Edwards, a parent at School 43, said families need unbiased training and support — and she’s not sure The Mind Trust is the ideal vehicle for that.

“I’m sure if The Mind Trust is doing it, it’s going to be a biased vetting process,” said Edwards, who is involved in the IPS Community Coalition, a group critical of charter reforms.

It would be up to the fellow to decide what the new parent advocacy organization would look like, and what issues it would undertake, said Shannon Williams, The Mind Trust’s senior vice president of community engagement. She plans to work with community and faith organizations to find the right candidate. Ideally, that person, Williams said, would be a local parent who can connect with other parents and build a grassroots organization. Williams pointed to Memphis Lift and PAVE, or Parents Amplifying Voices in Education, in Washington, D.C., as potential models for parent engagement work.

In Indianapolis, Stand for Children provides a “University for Parents” to train families on how the educational system works and how to ask policymakers for changes. The organization works with parents at new innovation schools and supports parents in endorsing school board candidates. In the past, the group has arranged for parents to go door-to-door to gather support for the district’s referendums.

“I think the biggest thing that we have seen with families that we work with is that they just want a great school for their child,” said Stand Indiana executive director Justin Ohlemiller.

Cesar Roman, director of community engagement for the pro-school choice Institute for Quality Education, said more parent advocacy is badly needed in Indianapolis.

“What we often leave out is parents themselves and families themselves,” said Roman, who is also a member of Chalkbeat’s Reader Advisory Board. “The No. 1 place where we’ve gone wrong is not engaging people where they’re at.”

This is particularly an issue in low-income communities, experts say, in places like Indianapolis, where upward mobility has proved more challenging than in other American cities.

Wealthier people often have more social capital and more power to put pressure on schools, said Howard Fuller, founder of the now-shuttered Black Alliance for Educational Options, former Milwaukee schools superintendent, and a school-choice advocate.

But in low-income communities, schools “really feel less pressure, because they’re dealing with people who are traditionally powerless,” he said.

Fuller said it’s important for a parent advocacy organization to go beyond engagement, and give parents the power to push for changes.

“The question is, what kinds of parent organizations can be created that are there as a constant — not just for a particular issue or a particular problem,” he said.

The Mind Trust is accepting fellowship applications through March and expects to select a fellow in June.

yes vote

Denver teachers vote to strike in push for higher pay

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles/Chalkbeat
Members of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association announce the results of their strike vote Tuesday.

Denver teachers voted overwhelmingly to go on strike for the first time in 25 years. Amid a national wave of teacher activism, they’re seeking higher pay and also a fundamental change in how the district compensates educators.

Because of state rules, Monday is the earliest a Denver strike could start.

Ninety-three percent of the teachers and other instructional staff members who voted in a union election Saturday and Tuesday were in favor of a strike, according to the Denver Classroom Teachers Association. That surpassed the two-thirds majority needed for a strike to happen.

“They’re striking for better pay, they’re striking for our profession, and they’re striking for Denver students,” said teacher Rob Gould, a member of the union’s negotiation team who announced the strike vote results Tuesday night.

Denver Public Schools Superintendent Susana Cordova called the strike vote “not entirely unexpected.”

“From the correspondence that I’ve had with teachers by email and folks that I’ve talked with, it’s really clear there is a lot of frustration on the part of our teachers,” Cordova said.

She has pledged to keep schools open if teachers walk out. In an automated message to parents Tuesday evening, she made it clear that classes will take place as normal Wednesday and “into the foreseeable future.” The district is actively recruiting substitute teachers to fill in during a strike. It is offering to pay them $200 a day, which is double the normal rate.

The strike potentially affects 71,000 students in district-run schools. Another 21,000 students attend charter schools, where teachers are not union members.

Cordova said district officials plan to meet with Gov. Jared Polis on Wednesday and share a letter asking for state intervention, which could delay a strike. Denver Classroom Teachers Association officials also plan to meet with Polis Wednesday, according to union Deputy Executive Director Corey Kern.

The Colorado Department of Labor and Employment cannot impose an agreement between the district and the union, but it can provide mediation or hold hearings to try to bring about a resolution. In 1994, the last time Denver teachers went on strike, Gov. Roy Romer helped negotiate a settlement — after the court refused to order teachers back to work.

“It’s in everyone’s best interest to continue to work on finding the common ground,” Cordova said.

The strike vote in Denver comes after a weeklong strike by teachers in Los Angeles. It also follows a wave of activism and agitation for higher teacher pay that began sweeping the country last year. Here in Colorado, teachers from all over the state staged several rallies at the state Capitol last spring, demanding that lawmakers boost funding for the state’s schools.

The issue at hand in Denver is more localized. The teachers union and the school district had been negotiating for more than a year over how to revamp the district’s complex pay-for-performance system, called ProComp.

Late Friday night, an hour and a half before the most recent agreement was set to expire, the union rejected the district’s latest offer. Although the district offered to invest an additional $20 million into teacher pay and revamp ProComp to look more like a traditional salary schedule — which is what the union wanted — union negotiators said the district’s offer didn’t go far enough.

That rejection ended negotiations and set the stage for a strike. The union represents more than 60 percent of Denver’s 5,700 teachers, counselors, nurses, and other instructional staff.

Union officials did not release the number of teachers who voted on the strike or how many members it currently has. A spokesperson for the Department of Labor and Employment said strike votes are internal union matters over which the department does not have any purview. Kern said the vote was conducted electronically by a third party.

Cordova is in her third week on the job as superintendent. She has reminded the public repeatedly that she started her career as a Denver teacher and counts several teachers among her best friends. But her pledge to be more responsive than her predecessor, Tom Boasberg, has been tested in the bargaining process and now will be tested even further.

Denver teachers have long been frustrated by ProComp. In its most recent iteration, ProComp paid teachers a base salary and then allowed them to earn additional bonuses and incentives for things such as working in a high-poverty school or hard-to-fill position.

Denver voters passed a special tax increase in 2005 to fund the ProComp incentives. The tax is expected to generate $33 million this year.

But many teachers found ProComp confusing. Relying on bonuses and incentives caused their pay to fluctuate in ways that made financial planning difficult, they said.

Chris Landis, a fifth grade teacher at Colfax Elementary, said his salary has varied by as much as $5,000 from one year to the next in the four years he’s been teaching in Denver. He sees the union proposal as creating more stability over the long run, which makes the strike a risk worth taking.

“As someone who wants to be a teacher for the rest of my life, the union proposal has a lot going for it,” he said. “Education is worth fighting for. I’m willing to take a personal hit to guarantee the future for our kids.”

The union wants smaller bonuses and more money for base pay. The union also wants the district to spend roughly $28 million more than it currently does on teacher compensation.

The district’s proposal would have increased base salaries, too, but not by as much. And it would have kept the bonuses and incentives more robust. For example, the district’s offer includes a $2,500 incentive for teachers who teach at schools serving a high proportion of students from low-income families, while the union proposal calls for a $1,500 incentive.

District officials said that incentive is key to attracting and retaining high-quality teachers at high-poverty schools, where teacher turnover can be high, and Cordova does not want to compromise on that.

In the end, the union and the district proposals were separated by about $8 million. District officials said they couldn’t come up with any more money, and would already have to make deep cuts to invest the additional $20 million they proposed.

Teachers called their bluff, pointing to what they called a top-heavy administration and noting that $8 million is less than 1 percent of Denver Public Schools’ annual $1 billion budget.

The strike will put pressure on teachers, too, though. The union has a very modest strike fund. A Go Fund Me started on Jan. 16 had raised a little more than $7,000 when the vote results were announced.

“Everybody is stressed out” about going without pay, said Tiffany Choi, a French teacher at East High School, “but this is the sacrifice we’re willing to make.”