Department of Education leaders, from left, Chancellor Dennis Walcott, Deputy Chancellor David Weiner and Deputy Chief Academic Officer Josh Thomases spoke to teachers about evaluation challenges this week.
It's never too late to help schools figure out how to implement a complicated teacher evaluation system.
At least that's the theory at the Department of Education, which is planning to put out a comprehensive guide to navigating the city's new evaluation system this week, more than four months after the details were set.
It's now six weeks into the school year, and teachers and principals have been raising red flags about the new teacher evaluations since even before the first day of school. They've complained about not having enough time, resources, and information to confront logistical challenges related to evaluations.
Department officials are aware of the gripes, and this week they acknowledged that the process hasn't always been smooth.
"I think we have done a somewhat decent job," Chancellor Dennis Walcott said of the rollout this week.
They're responding with a series of stopgap fixes to aid with the rollout. They've extended deadlines, allocated millions in overtime pay, and consolidated the state's 243-page evaluation plan for New York City into a 45-page guide.
Even teachers eager for the new evaluations, which will judge teachers on a four-rating score and be based on multiple measures, say they feel overwhelmed by the many changes happening at once this year. At an event hosted this week by Educators 4 Excellence, which supports new evaluations and is generally optimistic about school reforms under the Bloomberg administration, nearly 60 percent of teachers said they had been "poorly informed" or "very poorly informed" about the evaluation system.
"I think it's been a huge lift for us to get information out there," said Deputy Chancellor David Weiner, who added that he was actually surprised at how many teachers said they had been informed about the changes.
A student in Darby Masland's sixth grade class uses an iPad to look up the definition of illustrious for her classmates during unison reading. Unison reading is a core of the method that will inform a new Clinton Hill middle school.
In September, sixth graders at a new middle school in Clinton Hill will regularly stand at the front of the class to share a vocabulary word, or how to solve a math problem. And feedback from fellow students will be valued as much as feedback from their teachers.
In more than a dozen city schools, teachers are taking a literal backseat in their classroom as they adopt a student-driven teaching method called Learning Cultures. But Urban Assembly Unison School is the first to be built from bottom up around the method.
Unlike some of the schools that use Learning Cultures to help immigrant students learn English, Unison probably won't be serving a large population of English language learners. District 13, where the school will open, has relatively few ELLs.
But Learning Cultures is flexible enough to challenge and support any students, said Jennifer Ostrow, the co-founder and principal of the school. She said she heavily recruited ELLs from outside the district, but students who live in District 13, which has had a dearth of high-quality middle schools, got priority for admission. (The school is still accepting applicants, Ostrow said.)
"I am really excited to create what I think will be an excellent middle school and hope will be a valuable contribution to our community," Ostrow said.
This year, Jackie Xuereb is teaching her sixth grade math students how to add and subtract fractions with unlike denominators. But next year, new standards will call for students to know that information before they enter her class.
Xuereb, a sixth grade math teacher at Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School, is among the city math teachers preparing to swap the state's learning standards for the Common Core this fall. And like many, she is struggling to keep the two sets of standards straight as the new standards move some topics an entire grade-level earlier than in the past.
"A lot of what used to be sixth grade standards are now taught in fifth grade," Xuereb said. "I feel that I'm going to have to be really mindful and cognizant of this in my planning for next year. The kids are going to have these huge gaps."
New York City piloted the Common Core standards in 100 schools last year and asked all teachers to practice working with them this year. Next year, every teacher in every elementary and middle school will be expected to teach to the new standards, and state tests will be based on them. Department of Education officials have argued that a full-steam-ahead approach is required because moving slowly would deprive students of the Common Core's long-overdue rigor.
But some say that this approach will pose a special challenge for math teachers, particularly in the middle school years, as students begin learning advanced concepts that build on each other sequentially. William Schmidt, an education professor at Michigan State University who has researched the effect of the Common Core on learning, said students who miss a lesson the first time around are at risk of missing the concept entirely.
"If it's done really carefully it might work, but that would be my worry, that this would require fairly careful thought about how to do that across the grades so that what's happening in one grade will line up with the next," he said. "If they're not ramping this up from first grade on in a logical fashion ... then the transition to more advanced math will be horrendous, too."
In his first major policy speech, Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott called for major changes to the ctiy's worst middle schools.
To shake middle schools from mediocrity, the city is turning to school reform strategies it considers tried and true.
In the next two years, the Department of Education will close low-performing middle schools, open brand-new ones, add more charter schools, and push more teachers and principals through in-house leadership programs, Chancellor Dennis Walcott announced today in a 30-minute policy speech, the first of his six-month tenure.
For 10 schools, the city will ask for $30 million in federal funds to try a new reform strategy set out by the federal government, “turnaround,” in which at least half of staff members are replaced, Walcott said.
The efforts — which the city plans to pay for with a mixture of state and federal funds — are meant to boost middle school scores that are low and, in the case of reading, actually falling.
"People have tried and struggled with the complicated nature of middle schools for decades," he said. "But the plan I've laid out is bolder and more focused than anything we've tried here in New York City before."
Experts and advocates who helped engineer the last major effort to overhaul middle schools, a City Council task force that produced recommendations but short-lived changes at the DOE in 2007, disputed Walcott's characterization. They said Walcott's announcement reflects a change in style but not substance.
"Much of what he said is not new," said Carol Boyd, a parent leader with the Coalition for Educational Justice, which has long urged more attention for middle schools. "There is a definite party line, except Joel [Klein] wasn’t able to deliver it with the same believability that Chancellor Walcott does," she said. Boyd sat on the task force.
“There’s nothing new [or] interesting about this plan," said Pedro Noguera, the New York University professor who chaired the council's task force and has spoken out against school closures. "It sounds like more of what they’ve been doing, shutting down failing schools."
One of the largest pots of money in the city's new initiative to aid black and Latino young men is going to the Department of Education.
Of the initiative's $127 million price tag, $24 million will be used to study and develop the best practices of city high schools that have best prepared male minority students for college and work. Billionaire philanthropist George Soros will foot the bill for the three-year program, called the Expanded Success Initiative.
The funding will allow the Department of Education to hire a team of research consultants to study 40 high schools with a track record of bridging the achievement gap for black and Latino male students. Josh Thomases, the DOE's deputy chief academic officer charged with coordinating the program, said the city had not yet identified the schools that would be studied.
“We’re looking for schools with a high concentration of black and Latino boys, with high poverty and Title I funding, but with an evidence of success,” Thomases said.
“We’re agnostic to what kind of school it is,” he added. “We’re looking at the schools that have had success graduating black and Latino boys at a high school level and expanding it to other schools."
Thomases, citing a study published by Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation (MDRC) last year, said that he would look particularly close at small high schools in New York City, which have shown higher rates of graduation and credit accumulation.
Common standards have only just arrived on the national scene, but they are already making their way to the city's schools.
On Monday, New York State officially committed to adopt national "common core" standards for what students should be expected to learn, which were released in their final form in June. But city officials have been laying the groundwork to introduce the standards to schools since May, and principals and some teachers started getting their feet wet this week.
That doesn't mean that students will begin to see drastic changes in the lessons they're taught and the tests they take this year, however. Instead, city officials said this week that their plan is to use next school year to let network leaders, principals and teachers determine how far their current teaching is from the new bar and figure out the best way forward.
By doing so, they're hoping that schools can avoid the kind of nasty shock that comes from abrupt changes to testing standards that state officials are warning will happen this year as the state makes its tests more difficult to pass.
"What we want networks to do is help schools figure out what their entry point is," said Josh Thomases, the city's deputy chief schools officer. "Some schools may need to wade in; some schools will just need to dip their toes in."