Smoke billows from John Dewey High School following the sound of an explosion on Monday night, during Hurricane Sandy. Credit: Sandra Aronowitz-Garron/Youtube
Teachers from John Dewey High School reported for duty to Sheepshead Bay High School on Monday with a sinking feeling. Months after narrowly escaping closure, the school had struggled since September to settle on programs for its 1,900 students and, if that were not enough, its Gravesend building had caught on fire during Hurricane Sandy.
Now they thought students and staff would have spread out among three different school buildings, including Sheepshead Bay, for the foreseeable future.
"It could be, without a doubt, another nail in the coffin," one teacher said about the planned relocation. "It's a whirlwind to be told to go here or there."
The school’s staff spent Monday deciding who would report where on Wednesday, and creating new schedules for their students. Then, late Monday evening, teachers got a phone call from the Department of Education with unexpected news: Dewey would be able to reopen right away after all.
Teachers said the phone call came as a welcome surprise, but some said they thought the location was the least of Dewey’s worries.
Last week, Chancellor Dennis Walcott cited Dewey as one of the most severely damaged schools in the wake of the hurricane. And teachers said they had received no hints that the school would be ready to reopen any time soon, even after Principal Kathleen Elvin stopped by the building to assess repair efforts on Monday morning and afternoon. But department officials said the School Construction Authority had been able to install a generator and get Dewey’s boiler to work, making the building safe for students and teachers.
The quick return was exactly what some teachers said they thought the school needed.
For many of the city's strongest teachers, moving up professionally means moving out of the classroom and on to jobs in school management, consulting, policy, or academia. That was the conclusion of a recent survey from the New Teacher Project on the challenges districts face retaining teachers who have hit their stride.
The Department of Education is in the early stages of several experiments to encourage those teachers to stay in schools, offering higher-level professional development and sometimes higher pay. But some school leaders don't want to wait to give their teachers opportunities to improve their leadership practices.
Enter the National Academy of Advanced Teacher Education, a fledgling training program for teachers who have already demonstrated strength and commitment to the profession, but want to improve even more. For the past two years they have offered teachers around the country an intensive leadership training workshop tailored to the experiences of classroom instructors. This year, six city teachers joined a cohort of 50 in Chicago, for a two week long summer seminar series.
The curriculum is split between teaching skills and leadership skills like public speaking and improvisation, and peppered with business school-style case study reading assignments, according to Deborah Levitsky, the program director. The idea is to help them to think deeper about non-supervisory leadership roles, such as grade-level team leaders and department chairs. The program runs for two years, with a winter weekend-long meetup and at-home reading and writing assignments.
Jose Luis Vilson attended a science and math workshop at the Kennedy Space Center. (Courtesy of the GE Foundation)
Some teachers use the summer break to unwind from a busy school year, refine their lesson plans for the fall, or take a short-term second job. Others seek out new knowledge in the subjects they teach.
"If you're teaching science, you should be learning about science," said Nate Finney, a Manhattan teacher who is spending the summer working in a physics laboratory.
GothamSchools spoke to a handful of city public school teachers who sought out seminars, workshops, and classes to help them learn more about their fields. Today, we're looking at teachers who decided they wanted to know more about math and science.
Jose Luis Vilson, I.S. 52, Manhattan
In sunny Orlando, Jose Luis Vilson got the chance to live out a childhood dream of becoming an astronaut.
Vilson arrived at Florida's Kennedy Space Center in mid-July to take part in a weeklong course created and funded by the GE Foundation. The course focused on integrating math and science instruction and anchoring both in new learning standards that call for more critical thinking.
"They're working with NASA to try to approach and integrate Common Core standards with current pedagogy," said Vilson, who teaches eighth-grade math in Washington Heights and maintains a popular blog about teaching.
Kindergarten teachers at P.S. 11 plan their curriculum for the coming school year.
Principal Bob Bender wanted to make sure his teachers started planning for September before they left for summer vacation. So P.S. 11 joined more than 600 schools in scrapping classes on Monday and Tuesday in favor of adding prep time for teachers.
Department of Education officials extended the option, which parents were supposed to approve, to all schools late this spring. Many schools took the time to give teachers a crash course in new learning standards known as the Common Core.
The Common Core emphasizes "deeper" thinking and problem-solving skills. Next year's state tests will be based on the new standards.
P.S. 11 routinely earns A's on its city progress reports, and Bender said he is not worried about its performance next year because his staff has been thinking hard about the instructional shifts they will have to make.
"It's not going to be asking 'What is 8 times 5?' It's going to be 'I have 8 bookshelves, and 40 books, so how many books go on each shelf?'" he said. "We spend a lot of time on problem-solving, giving kids strategies to solve problems."
This year, the city asked schools to practice with the new standards in one math unit and one literacy unit, and next year, they'll be expected to roll out two Common Core-aligned units in each subject. But at P.S. 11, Bender asked his teachers to plan their curriculums in teams made up of teachers at each grade level — and align every one of their units to the Common Core.
Across the city yesterday, high school teachers hunkered down for a day of extra training. Some sat in on sessions at their schools, while others scattered across the city for sessions held in the offices of educational consultants.
I stopped by the Midtown offices of Math for America, a fellowship program for math and science teachers, and saw teachers working on student work to better understand why they thought the way they did. Here's what some said about some of the topics dominating the policy agenda these days (interviews edited for clarity and brevity):
Bill Lamonte, Millennium High School
Years: 10 (eight in New York City)
How long will you be a teacher for?
I may be a different case because I know I'll be teaching until I die. But it is hard to see colleagues that start out putting in that time and then get frustrated and end up leaving.
I am challenged professionally, but some people don't want to deal with the bureaucracy of the system. The DOE is a tough place. It's very top-down. It's hard. But if you have a supportive administration and you're in a school that has ideals that you believe in, it's easier to stay because you feel you can work with people and that you can actually make a difference.
Would you ever consider a school leadership position?
I know I'll be teaching, but I steer clear of the administration path just because I see what happens to teachers when they become administrators. They take on another personality, in a way. Again, it's very top-down, so they have to meet certain requirements themselves. In order to do that you have to put a lot of pressure on your teachers. When you have to have a checklist – are they doing this, this, and this? – I can see how it can become a struggle to balance.
Although I do find that a lot of schools struggle with having good administrators. There are a lot of weak principals out there. I've seen it first hand, especially at my old school in the Bronx. Luckily now I do feel that the administration is batter and that does make a huge difference. To feel supported in a school is really what's going to keep a teacher there.
When principals and coaches at Achievement First charter schools conducted observations this fall, they found that many teachers fell short when using a classroom technique called "checks for understanding."
The technique, in which teachers ask questions to determine in real time whether students are absorbing lessons, “was the most important thing for improving our students' achievement,” said Dacia Toll, Achievement First’s founder and co-CEO. Plus, she said, "We're not asking good questions in the first place."
So as the charter network's annual professional development day approached, Toll took it upon herself to lead the checks for understanding session. That session, along with 48 other training workshops, took place Jan. 6 at a Marriott Hotel in Stamford, Conn.
Throughout her 90-minute session, Toll drilled the standing-room-only audience of teachers on how to ask targeted questions to ensure students understand the key points of lessons, and how to apply them. The group went over the basic techniques to ask questions — flash cards, choral responses, hand signals, pepper questions, cold calls, class sweeps, and more — and then debated which ones were better in certain situations. For example, Toll said cold-calling students would not be effective if the goal is to grasp whether an entire class understood a lesson. In that case, she said, “You’re only getting data from one student."
Teachers said the content of Toll's session wasn't earth-shattering – many reported learning some version of Checks for Understanding during their regular certification process — but provided an important refresher.
The Department of Education is looking within itself for help creating instructional materials to go along with new curriculum standards.
The city is hiring 30 to 40 teachers and administrators with experience in curriculum development to devise literacy and math lessons that are aligned with the Common Core, the curriculum standards the state adopted this year. The "Common Core fellows" will serve as "a class of leaders," evaluating current teaching methods and writing new instructional materials for schools to use, according to DOE spokesman Matthew Mittenthal.
The teachers who are selected will also get authorship credit when they produce new materials and overtime pay for attending workshops twice a month and during school breaks, according to a brochure soliciting applications. The program's quarter-million-dollar price tag is being footed privately, Mittenthal said.
The department will also invite local and national curriculum experts who devised and studied the Common Core, which begins in preschool, to train the teachers on how to evaluate student work and devise good instructional practices, he said.
"The final product will be a portfolio of resources for all New York City public schools: tasks for students, best teaching practices, guidelines for evaluating a classroom, and sample student work," Mittenthal said in an email.
Bernard Gassaway, the principal of Boys and Girls High School in Bedford-Stuyvesant, said he is not sure how useful those materials would be for his teachers. The main resource he needs to align instruction to the Common Core, he said, is on-the-ground assistance and time to integrate the standards slowly.
Teach for America members aren't the only teachers to start getting digital tools from a technology giant.
A new partnership between a statewide network of teacher training centers and Microsoft will give teachers access to discounted computer hardware and software, and help using them. Announced this week, the Tech4Teachers program will flood New York State Teacher Centers with new technology options at lower than market-rates. There are 250 center sites in New York City and 130 more throughout the state, offering in-person and virtual assistance to public and private school teachers.
Microsoft's assistance comes at a time when state budget cuts have constrained resources at the teacher centers, which provide professional support in the form of online and face-to-face training to teachers across the state. The centers were cut from last year's state budget, but this year the Assembly budgeted $20.5 million for them, approximately half of what the centers have been funded for in the past, according to Gail Moon, the state's acting teacher centers program director.
Though the centers receive support from the state's teachers union and some local unions, including the United Federation of Teachers, they primarily rely on the state for funding.
The partnership with Microsoft may alleviate some of the financial stress on teacher centers, staff members said, adding that the stress is particularly sharp now that the centers are tasked with helping teachers and networks understand new instructional standards and integrate technology in their classroom.
"The way we're looking at doing that is using technology by offering more webinars, electronic video conferencing capabilities, more professional development to more people, and then reducing the cost," said Stan Silverman, co-chair of the centers' technology committee.
Silverman said he will also use the program to show state legislators that teachers centers need more resources.
When it comes to new "common core" standards, theoretical language is giving way to hands-on practice.
The curriculum standards, accepted by 48 states, are being rolled out citywide this year after being piloted in 100 schools last year. Today, every teacher in the city is expected to get training on them.
Chancellor Dennis Walcott sat in on a training session this morning at Brooklyn's PS 124, which took part in the pilot last year. But at many schools, today is likely to be the first time that teachers learn just how the common core standards are poised to change their jobs.
Some principals put together their own plans for today, but they can also draw on four 90-minute lessons the city devised. One session asks teachers to evaluate student work from their own school to see if it meets the new standards. In another, they will practice assessing teachers according to a new evaluation rubric. A third lesson focuses on connecting two overarching citywide goals: strengthening student work and teacher practice. And a fourth lesson asks teachers to examine student work from a school that adopted the new standards last year. The lessons are part of the Department of Education's online "Common Core Library" of resources.
In a letter to principals last week announcing the lesson plans, Walcott laid out a timeline for schools' common core-related accomplishments. This fall, he wrote, teams of teachers at each school should identify students' shortcomings. In the winter, teachers should ask all students to complete two common core-aligned "tasks," one in reading and one in math. Through it all, principals should be giving teachers frequent feedback based on classroom observations, Walcott wrote.
Walcott's letter to principals is below:
A New York City high school teacher is one of three fellowship winners who, come Monday morning, will begin new jobs in Washington, D.C., as full-time employees of the Obama administration's Department of Education.
In the middle of June, Jason Raymond, who has taught English and journalism at the High School for Law and Public Service for seven years, learned that he had been chosen for the department's Teaching Ambassador Fellowship. He quickly packed up and moved to D.C., where he will be part of a program created by the previous secretary of education, Margaret Spellings, to bring teachers into the rooms where education policy is crafted.
Raymond, 38, whose expertise is in adolescent literacy, college readiness, and urban schools, said he will be working in the office of elementary and secondary education.
"I'm going to be bringing my teacher voice to policy," he said, explaining that he would sit in on conversations about certain grants the DOE planned to distribute. As a Washington fellow, it will be Raymond's job to point out proposed ideas that may not work well in the classroom and suggest alternatives, but the scope of his influence will be limited.
"It won't be that I'm sitting in a room with other policy experts and saying you know here's what I think we should do," he said, noting that the details of what he'd be focusing on were still be worked out.
The top Department of Education official who is set to review the city's special education system is adding another job to his plate: He's joining a national program designed to produce top-notch urban superintendents.
Garth Harries, who until the end of this month is the chief executive of the DOE's portfolio department, is one of 12 people accepted into this year's Broad Superintendents Academy class. The academy, which is based on business executive training programs, is run by the Broad Foundation, which also gives out the annual Broad Prize for Urban Education. New York City won the Broad Prize in 2007.
As a Broad fellow, Harries will stay on at the DOE but will leave the city for six multi-day retreats throughout the year. He'll also have regular homework assignments. (Already, Helen Zelon at Insideschools has chimed in with concern about just how much Harries can cram into his calendar.) We asked Harries for a statement, and got this response from Chancellor Joel Klein instead:
Garth's selection reflects the extraordinary work he's done in New York and his potential to be a great superintendent in the future.
The Broad Academy says it expects its graduates to seek superintendencies, but of the DOE officials who have gone through the program, most still work in the city.
Federal Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings visiting a Chattanooga school in 2005.
Bonuses for teachers based on value-added measures. Firing and selective re-hiring of all teachers. Were these the key reforms responsible for the significant improvement of the "Benwood eight," a group of struggling schools in central Chattanooga?
Elena Silva of Education Sector argues in Phi Delta Kappan that what really turned around these schools was validation, support, and on-going professional development for Chattanooga's existing teaching force:
[It} would be a mistake to conclude that efforts to bring different, more effective teachers into the Benwood eight represent the only -- or even the primary -- lesson of the Chattanooga reforms. What Benwood teachers needed most were not new peers or extra pay -- although both were helpful. Rather, they needed support and recognition from the whole community, resources and tools to improve as professionals, and school leaders who could help them help their students.
The pay incentives didn't attract many new teachers, Silva says, but they were "a way of signaling that the local community valued the Benwood teachers and supported their work."
Silva says that though the district made all teachers in the Benwood schools re-apply for their jobs, the majority were re-hired and the teaching staff in these schools did not change significantly, although the numbers she cites suggest that the re-hiring process was more than just letting go of a few bad apples.
If cleaning house and providing performance incentives weren't wholly responsible for improvement, what was? The answer is all the more crucial given the blitz of new and expanded merit pay plans, teacher-linked data collection, and aggressive evaluation of teachers in districts across the country.
Silva believes it was a host of reforms focusing on supporting teachers and improving their practice.