Political and logistical impediments could thwart New York’s participation in a multi-state consortium formed to improve the quality of standardized tests.
When New York adopted the Common Core learning standards in 2010, education officials also committed to participating in a federally funded consortium that would produce a computer-based assessment system tied to the standards.
The computer-based testing would allow tests finally to require the kinds of critical thinking that the Common Core asks students to do, advocates say. In the online tests dreamed up by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, screens replace bubble sheets, students type their essays, and math problems are solved by dragging and dropping answers. Expedited grading would return results to schools in weeks, offering teachers valuable feedback before the end of the year.
State officials have long signaled an intention to shift to the PARCC tests once they become available in the 2014-2015 school year. But they still have not formally committed to that plan, and State Education Commissioner John King suggested last week, in the wake of the state’s first round of Common Core-aligned tests, that the urgency had passed.
"I suspect that we will perhaps move more slowly than some other states since we know that we have in place very high-quality Common Core assessments," King said.
Students at Brooklyn's Olympus Academy, a transfer high school, use online learning to move ahead at their own pace. The city is asking the U.S. Department of Education for funds to support additional efforts to "personalize education."
Pitting itself against school districts across the country, the city has asked the U.S. Department of Education for $40 million to expand and augment its existing education technology programs.
The city's biggest commitment in its application for Race to the Top-District, which city education officials filed last week, is to add as many as 100 schools to its three-year-old “Innovation Zone.” The application also promises to build innovative schools from the ground up and train teachers on how to use technology to improve instruction.
Race to the Top-District is the latest effort by the Obama administration to entice state and local education officials to adopt its preferred policies. In the first Race to the Top grant competition, in 2010, New York State netted $700 million to overhaul teacher evaluations, add more charter schools, bulk up teacher preparation programs, and develop a statewide data system. Last year, the state fell short in its bid to win Race to the Top funds earmarked just for early childhood education. The current round — the first open to individual districts — is focused on "personalized education."
City Department of Education officials say the Innovation Zone, which this year contains nearly 250 schools, makes the department uniquely positioned to turn federal funds into higher student achievement.
"It’s something that we’ve been doing for three years," said David Weiner, the Department of Education deputy chancellor in charge of innovation. "We really believe that that puts us in a great place to capitalize on what we’ve learned."
PHOTO: Caroline BaumanKathy Stokes, a PTA officer, spoke to a NEST+m mother who did not know that teachers were boycotting Curriculum Night.
Teachers at a school where hundreds of parents signed a petition against the principal this summer continued the protest today by boycotting Curriculum Night.
Teachers at New Explorations in Science, Technology, and Math, or NEST+M, announced the boycott via email this afternoon, telling parents that Principal Olga Livanis had not soothed relations with the staff after she surprised several of them with "unsatisfactory" ratings.
When parents arrived for the annual introduction to what their children would be learning this year at the citywide school for gifted and talented students, they were told that many teachers had stayed home and given a copy of the email announcing the boycott.
"I feel really awful to hear this," said Angela Stokes, a former teacher whose daughter is a sophomore in NEST's high school. "I had this idyllic idea about NEST being away from all the muck and the mire of the DOE. NEST is not immune, I'm finding out."
Livanis has butted heads with parents and teachers since 2006, when she was installed as principal after the school's founding leader was removed amid controversy and over some parents' objections. In June, hundreds of parents registered official objections after several well liked teachers received the low ratings. Their petition, which was delivered to Department of Education officials, also called on Livanis to improve the way she communicates with members of the school community.
But two weeks into the new school year, teachers said today that there had been no changes.
Adam Israfil pitches his book reviewing app to peers at NYC Generation Tech.
"Have you ever worried about lost papers?" Steffany Ceron read from a notecard to three fellow students powwowing in a semicircle of desks. "Well don't worry, this app can help."
Ceron and her peers were among a half-dozen groups of high school students feverishly preparing to present their ideas for mobile phone applications designed to help students stay organized, prepare for exams, or make clothing and food choices. Together, the 29 students are enrolled in New York City's Generation Technology, a fledgling summer program that teaches city high school students how to design and market apps that solve common educational problems.
Over two weeks this August, the students — who range from native New Yorkers with experience building digital tools to recent immigrants — are receiving a crash course in digital entrepreneurship, funded by the city's Economic Development Corporation. The program represents one prong of the Bloomberg administration's recent push to remake New York City into a technology hub to rival California's Silicon Valley. Like the computer engineering-themed school that's set to open next month, Generation Tech aims to seed technology talent locally by investing in city students.
During the day-long classes, the students review a manual on entrepreneurship, calculate the costs and benefits of various business models, and listen to lectures from the founders of local technology start-ups such as Kickstarter. The class is fast-paced and packed with group presentations and discussion questions designed to get students thinking creatively about business: What is the lifetime value of a New York Times subscriber to the company? How would you help a rapper promote a show in Queens?
To be eligible, students must come from a low-income family or attend a school where at least half of students come from low-income families. Only a few of the participants had experience creating mobile apps before this summer, and many said the program also marked their first time practicing public speaking.
Congressman Charles Rangel visits students at the Innovation Celebration in Harlem.
A pool of federal funds that has enabled schools and teachers to get help adopting new technologies is drying up at the end of the summer.
By the end of August, the Department of Education will no longer receive a federal grant called Title II-D, which helped schools pay for technology training centers in each borough, online curriculum, iPads, laptops, and other tools.
The U.S. Department of Education decided to eliminate Title II-D funds last year after the Obama administration reorganized its education budget to cut programs considered to be inefficient. The administration slashed the $100 million budget for education technology.
That means the city may have to find another way to pay for its technology centers and school gizmos without more funding, which amounted to $22.5 million over three years.
“I think people are working on seeing if there could be some sort of sustained support, but there's nothing that's been formally announced,” said Lisa Nielsen, who runs the Manhattan section of the department’s Educational Technology office.
The Education Technology office distributes the grants across five boroughs and helps train teachers at the borough's technology center and in classrooms. The office also help schools use funding to buy items that encourage technological innovations in the classroom, such as iPads.
Nielsen and nearly 25 department employees are also expected to lose their positions because of the cuts. They will enter the Absent Teacher Reserve pool after August 30, when the funding ends.
“The relevance of us is that we are really able to personalize support to each school. I don’t believe that the schools will be able to take on using technology well without this sort of support,” added Nielsen. "When you're the technology liaison or the media library specialist in your school, there’s usually just one of you so you feel alone. This was an opportunity to bring everyone together, to share ideas."
Danielle Boone at work in her U.S. History class.
Danielle Boone's U.S. History class at Olympus Academy High School had just begun, but she didn't need a teacher to tell her what to do. The glowing screen looking back at her told her everything she needed to know.
Boone typed out the final section of an assignment on immigration – "a FIVE-sentence summary paragraph (including analysis sentence) about immigration and urbanization" – which she emailed to her teacher, sitting nearby, for grading. She then watched a short video online about the Civil War to research her next assignment, an essay on the Transcontinental Railroad.
Boone will continue knocking off these assignments on her school-issued Mac computer at her own blistering pace until, finally, she's completed what is required to pass the course and earn a credit. The day after she completes the last assignment for the U.S. History class, she'll start working on another course she needs to pass to graduate.
"I'm a student who works fast and this school helps me get credits," Boone said during a brief break in her work. "The faster you go, the faster you get credits."
Boone is the kind of self-starter that city officials envisioned when they tasked Olympus Academy, a transfer school, with creating an online learning model in its school for its over-aged population two years ago.
Olympus is part of the iLearnNYC initiative, a division of the city's Innovation Zone. Until now, the initiative, which included 124 schools this year, mainly provided technological resources to schools that were devising ways to mix traditional classroom instruction with online curriculum, an approach known as blended learning.
iPads might be good for tracking student behavior and playing interactive learning games. But they're not the best for checking Department of Education email accounts.
The department will no longer allow people with @schools.nyc.gov email addresses to manage their accounts through their iPad, iTouch, and Google Android devices, according to an email sent last week by an official in the DOE's Division of Instructional and Information Technology. (I saw the letter on the NYC Education News email list.)
The official, Tom Kambouras, said many DOE employees had adopted the new devices in recent months.
"While these devices are changing the way we do our business, it has [sic] also presented us with a few IT challenges as well," Kambouras wrote. A major one, he said, is that syncing accounts to some mobile devices has stretched the department's email server to capacity — meaning that there can be "no exceptions" to the new policy.
The problem is neither universal nor totally debilitating: DOE employees who tote Blackberries, which the department has for years issued to some officials, will still be able to access their email accounts. And until the server problem is fixed, iPad users can check their DOE email through their web browsers.
Still, the new policy is a reminder that in the department's race to adopt new technologies, infrastructure can be an obstacle.
Designer John Murphy uses the SMALLab at ChicagoQuest school.
What does a digital classroom look like? Some schools roll smartboards and carts of computers into each classroom. At others, students plug into iPads at every desk to play interactive learning games.
The Institute of Play envisions a different picture: A dark, empty classroom with the window shades pulled shut, where a life-size computer game board is projected onto the linoleum floor, and students act as both the players and joysticks to accomplish problem-solving tasks.
There are only a handful classroom "labs" like this in the country that serve as a testing ground for "embedded learning environment" games, and a New York City middle school houses one of them.
The Institute of Play is a non-profit research group that studies the relationship between game-playing, learning and engagement. It is also one arm of the team behind the NYC Quest to Learn School, which opened in 2009 in Manhattan.
I will be visiting the school later this month to see how these classroom innovations are changing the way students learn now that the school is well into its third year. But last week I stopped at the school's recently opened sister school, ChicagoQuest, while in Chicago for a Hechinger Institute conference about reporting on digital learning.
At ChicagoQuest, which is as a charter school and receives funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, each of its 234 sixth- and seventh-graders have an iPad. They use it to take notes, search the internet, and play games themed around concepts such as fractions and geography.
Though they are only a few weeks into the school year, students at the new school said they have very positive first impressions of the iPad-based lesson plans. One said she prefers taking notes on the iPad over traditional pen-and-paper methods because, "Even though it's not as fast, we can do a lot more with it," by changing up the formatting of the text and linking certain notes or phrases to each other.
Though students can be more prone to distraction when the internet (and, in this case, the popular portrait-taking program PhotoBooth) are readily available, Patrick Hoover, the curriculum specialist, said teaches have a simple but district disciplinary policy has kept goofing-off at bay: use the iPad improperly once, and it is taken away for the rest of the class period.
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.
A second-generation iPad displays an application on the Common Core standards.
This month, 9,000 Teach For America members are trading in their post-it notes for iPads thanks to a donation from Apple.
They are joining the growing ranks of educators who must decide how to use new iPads in their classrooms. It's an open question facing teachers across the city who received iPads from their principals this year or bring their personal iPad to school from home.
Teach for America distributed iPads to its new teachers stationed in 43 regions of the United States, including New York City, over the past three weeks. The tablets, mostly refurbished first-generation iPads turned in by owners eager to upgrade when new models came out this spring, were donated to TFA by Apple earlier this year.
"Through this opportunity, corps members will explore ways iPad can be used as a powerful teaching tool in the classroom," Danielle Montoya, a TFA spokesperson, said over email.
Teachers say they received the new technology without any specific guidance from TFA officials on how to use it.
School for Global Studies "master" teacher, Natasha Blakley, prepares for the start of school in the Brooklyn school's new computer lab, purchased with federal funds.
To Joseph O’Brien, principal of Brooklyn's School for Global Studies, there is no clearer indication of how new federal funds have led to higher achievement than Room 326.
The classroom-turned-computer lab, outfitted with 35 Apple computers purchased last winter, is being used by students to recover credits toward graduation and study languages online, and by parents who lack Internet access at home. In addition to two laptop carts and new smartboards for a dozen classrooms, the lab replaces the school’s once-meager technology offerings, which included aging classroom computers hampered by viruses and two broken smartboards.
“For the first time, our students were able to have a dedicated room where they could use the computer on their own time, whether after school or on their lunch hour, with staffed personnel,” he said.
Tasked with raising the school’s graduation rate when the Department of Education appointed him to run Global Studies last year, O’Brien sees the new lab as a main tool. He paid for the lab with $170,000 of the $890,000 in federal School Improvement Grants awarded to Global Studies because it landed on the state’s list of lowest-performing schools last year—requiring the city to overhaul it.
For Global Studies and 10 other schools on the list, the city chose “transformation,” meaning they would receive new principals and nearly $2 million in School Improvement Grants over three years to buy extra supplies and support. The city is starting to overhaul another 33 schools this year under three improvement models.
As the 6th through 12th-grade school enters its second year of transformation — bringing it a second infusion of cash — O’Brien said change is already being felt.
“We are no longer the school that we once were,” he said. “This school is really becoming an oasis of learning.”
Now he just has to convince families that that’s true.