drying up

Students showcase tech innovations as federal funding ends

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.”

The Department of Education also uses the grant money to host monthly meetings so that technology representatives could come together to share the online programs they use in their schools and receive advice on how to improve their technological practices.

“I didn’t really know much about what was going on. It was a real connection with other schools,” said Roy Silverstein, who is the technology specialist at P.S. 6.

“I learned a lot about what the other schools were doing. The iPad was new to me, I wanted to see what more I could do with it,” added Gordon Fish, who represents P.S. 48. “I’ve always learned at least four or five new things when I came here.”

Fish became involved with the Title II-D grant when he attended the meeting and was able to get new equipment for his school.

Fish and Silverstein joined dozens of students as schools presented their work at the Harlem Renaissance Training Center on Wednesday. Students were excited to share what they’ve learned this year.

The students said their projects — which ranged from using FlipCams to record poetry readings and building book clubs around iPads — helped them gain skills and learn from their classmates.

“I was kind of low in science but since I used Khan Academy, I became interested in it because of the videos,” said Daniel Pacheco, speaking about the non-profit organization that creates educational videos. “I really understood the concept of the atom even though I’m only supposed to learn that in a few years.”

The fifth-grader learned how to write and speak English better after using iPad apps and the Kindle. He immigrated to the country from Ecuador when he was eight and barely spoke English.

His teacher, Virginia Liz, said she doesn’t need to be convinced that kids can benefit from incorporating technology in the classroom.

“I’m in a perfect spot to experiment with the new wave of learning,” said Liz, who teaches at P.S. 8. “We decided that we wanted to use technology to go further when I’m not there.”

Her students share iPads, mini laptops, and Kindles to read, learn from using educational apps, and search definitions of words they don’t understand. Liz said she uses the online programs to track students’ progress and push students forward even when their pace is faster or slower than that of the rest of their class.

“We read a lot and we write a lot,” added Liz. “That’s what I think is innovative about this, the fact that we’re taking learning into our own hands.”

For the last three years, the Manhattan Office of Educational Technology has partnered with a non-profit organization to help train teachers how to use technological gadgets and incorporate online curriculum in their lessons.

The organization, Teaching Matters, provides the online curriculum and sends “technology coaches” to the schools to work closely with teachers.

“Teaching can be very isolationist,” said John Clemente, who works for Teaching Matters. “Unless you provide a rigorous structure for them to share ideas with each other and provide time for them to talk about those things, the best teachers will do it on their own and the teachers that need support might not get the support.”

Clemente said schools could still work with his organization if they find room in their budgets next year, but he predicted some drop-off.

“When we don’t have an onsite presence, we get a slightly lower percentage of participation,” added Clemente.

Educators said the cuts are coming at exactly the wrong time.

“I just don’t understand why, when we’re supposed to be getting more technically efficient, they’re cutting these programs,” said Fish, the tech specialist at P.S. 48. “They’re spending all this money on technology but they just don’t have enough training for it.”

after douglas

Betsy DeVos avoids questions on discrimination as school safety debates reach Congress

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos prepares to testify at a House Appropriations Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies Subcommittee hearing in Rayburn Building on the department's FY2019 budget on March 20, 2018. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos fielded some hostile questions on school safety and racial discrimination as she defended the Trump administration’s budget proposal in a House committee hearing on Tuesday.

The tone for the hearing was set early by ranking Democrat Rep. Rosa DeLauro, who called aspects DeVos’s prepared remarks “misleading and cynical” before the secretary had spoken. Even the Republican subcommittee chair, Rep. Tom Cole, expressed some skepticism, saying he was “concerned about the administration continuing to request cuts that Congress has rejected.”

During nearly two hours of questioning, DeVos stuck to familiar talking points and largely side-stepped the tougher queries from Democrats, even as many interrupted her.

For instance, when Rep. Barbara Lee, a Democrat from Texas, complained about proposed spending cuts and asked, “Isn’t it your job to ensure that schools aren’t executing harsher punishments for the same behavior because [students] are black or brown?” DeVos responded by saying that students of color would benefit from expanded school choice programs.

Lee responded: “You still haven’t talked about the issue in public schools as it relates to black and brown students and the high disparity rates as it relates to suspensions and expulsions. Is race a factor? Do you believe that or not?” (Recent research in Louisiana found that black students receive longer suspensions than white students involved in the same fights, though the difference was very small.)

Again, DeVos did not reply directly.

“There is no place for discrimination and there is no tolerance for discrimination, and we will continue to uphold that,” she said. “I’m very proud of the record of the Office of Civil Rights in continuing to address issues that arise to that level.”

Lee responded that the administration has proposed cuts to that office; DeVos said the reduction was modest — less than 1 percent — and that “they are able to do more with less.”

The specific policy decision that DeVos faces is the future of a directive issued in 2014 by the Obama administration designed to push school districts to reduce racial disparities in suspensions and expulsions. Conservatives and some teachers have pushed DeVos to rescind this guidance, while civil rights groups have said it is crucial for ensuring black and Hispanic students are not discriminated against.

That was a focus of another hearing in the House on Tuesday precipitated by the shooting last month at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican, falsely claimed in his opening statement that Broward County Public Schools rewrote its discipline policy based on the federal guidance — an idea that has percolated through conservative media for weeks and been promoted by other lawmakers, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Utah Sen. Mike Lee. In fact, the Broward County rules were put into place in 2013, before the Obama administration guidance was issued.

The Manhattan Institute’s Max Eden, a leading critic of Obama administration’s guidance, acknowledged in his own testimony that the Broward policy predated these rules. But he suggested that policies like Broward’s and the Obama administration’s guidance have made schools less safe.

“Faced with pressure to get the numbers down, the easiest path is to simply not address, or to not record, troubling, even violent, behavior,” he said.

Kristen Harper, a director with research group Child Trends and a former Obama administration official, disagreed. “To put it simply, neither the purpose nor the letter of the federal school discipline guidance restrict the authority of school personnel to remove a child who is threatening student safety,” she said.

There is little, if any, specific evidence linking Broward County’s policies to how Stoneman Douglas shooter Nicholas Cruz was dealt with. There’s also limited evidence about whether reducing suspensions makes schools less safe.

Eden pointed to a study in Philadelphia showing that the city’s ban on suspensions coincided with a drop in test scores and attendance in some schools. But those results are difficult to interpret because the prohibition was not fully implemented in many schools. He also cited surveys of teachers expressing concerns about safety in the classroom including in Oklahoma CityFresno, California; and Buffalo, New York.

On the other hand, a recent study found that after Chicago modestly reduced suspensions for the most severe behaviors, student test scores and attendance jumped without any decline in how safe students felt.

DeVos is now set to consider the repeal of those policies on the Trump administration’s school safety committee, which she will chair.

On Tuesday, DeVos said the committee’s first meeting would take place “within the next few weeks.” Its members will be four Cabinet secretaries: DeVos herself, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, and Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen.

on the run

‘Sex and the City’ star and public schools advocate Cynthia Nixon launches bid for N.Y. governor

Cynthia Nixon on Monday announced her long-anticipated run for New York governor.

Actress and public schools advocate Cynthia Nixon announced Monday that she’s running for governor of New York, ending months of speculation and launching a campaign that will likely spotlight education.

Nixon, who starred as Miranda in the TV series “Sex and the City,” will face New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in September’s Democratic primary.

Nixon has been active in New York education circles for more than a decade. She served as a  longtime spokeswoman for the Alliance for Quality Education, a union-backed advocacy organization. Though Nixon will step down from that role, according to a campaign spokeswoman, education promises to be a centerpiece of her campaign.

In a campaign kickoff video posted to Twitter, Nixon calls herself “a proud public school graduate, and a prouder public school parent.” Nixon has three children.

“I was given chances I just don’t see for most of New York’s kids today,” she says.

Nixon’s advocacy began when her oldest child started school, which was around the same time the recession wreaked havoc on education budgets. She has slammed Gov. Cuomo for his spending on education during his two terms in office, and she has campaigned for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

In 2008, she stepped into an emotional fight on the Upper West Side over a plan to deal with overcrowding and segregation that would have impacted her daughter’s school. In a video of brief remarks during a public meeting where the plan was discussed, Nixon is shouted down as she claims the proposal would lead to a “de facto segregated” school building.

Nixon faces steep competition in her first run for office. She is up against an incumbent governor who has amassed a $30 million war chest, according to the New York Times. If elected, she would be the first woman and the first openly gay governor in the state.