weekend update

Parents rally at City Hall, but their protest is directed elsewhere

Keoni Wright, an East New York parent, speaks on Saturday at a StudentsFirstNY backing new teacher evaluations.

The scene was familiar, but the rallying cries and signs were a departure.

More than 100 parents and organizers from StudentsFirstNY filled the steps of City Hall on Saturday to demand that the teachers union cooperate with the city on an evaluation deal before a deadline that could cost the city $300 million in state aid.

“What do we want?” shouted Darlene Boston, who has been working to organize parents in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn to support StudentsFirstNY’s policy agenda. “Great teachers!” they replied.

“When do we want them?” Boston shouted back. “Now!” they said.

When education advocates protest outside City Hall, it is usually with an ensemble of union leaders, City Council members, and other elected officials. And more often than not, they are criticizing policies favored by Mayor Bloomberg, the man who governs the city from the building behind them.

But no elected officials showed up at Saturday’s rally — and organizers said none was invited. Parents came mostly from neighborhoods in Central Brooklyn and Harlem, areas where StudentsFirstNY is trying to build a base. And while the mayor’s name was not uttered, it was clear that he was not the target of their protest.

The target was the continuing lack of new teacher evaluations in New York City, which StudentsFirstNY and Bloomberg have blamed on the United Federation of Teachers.

While hundreds of districts across New York have submitted locally negotiated deals to the State Education Department for approval in recent months, the city and the union still have not, although union leaders and city officials have said they are “optimistic” about reaching an agreement. The city has until Jan. 17 to have an evaluation system approved, or else it risks forgoing a 4 percent increase in state funding — about $300 million this year.

Last year, negotiations to implement new evaluations in a small subset of schools fell apart just before a different state deadline.

Getting new teacher evaluations implemented is a cornerstone issue of StudentsFirstNY’s teacher quality agenda. The group has used the issue to recruit parents, sending a message that evaluations are the fastest way to bolster their children’s education.

Keoni Wright, an East New York parent who spoke at the rally, said he was troubled by how much better one of his twin daughters was reading in kindergarten than the other, who has a different teacher. He said one daughter received lots of homework during the five days that schools were closed due to Hurricane Sandy, while the other one didn’t hear from her teacher once.

“I can see just from those two children that the reading level is totally different,” said Wright, whose daughters attend P.S. 158. “So I’m pushing for this evaluation.”

The rally was the first public display hosted by the advocacy group, whose executive director, Micah Lasher, is a former top Bloomberg aide. Lasher founded the group to ensure that many of Bloomberg’s policies survive the 2013 mayoral election and beyond. He has said he will try to raise $10 million annually for the next five years to accomplish that goal.

Many labor leaders and education advocates in New York City would like to see Bloomberg’s cornerstone policies change after he leaves office and they have created their own group, New Yorkers for Great Public Schools, in response to the criticism lodged by StudentsFirstNY. StudentsFirstNY, whose national organization was founded by former Washington, D.C., schools chief Michelle Rhee, has drawn fire from these progressive groups because some of its funding comes from Republicans who publicly backed Mitt Romney for president.

Zakiyah Ansari, a longtime parent organizer who works for the Alliance for Quality Education, a group funded in part by the the state teachers union, characterized the size of the rally as “small” and said it did not represent the views of most families in New York City.

“Parents know StudentsFirstNY is defending Bloomberg’s failed education record and expensive gimmicks on behalf of wealthy special interests,” said Ansari, who said she was speaking as a spokeswoman for New Yorkers for Great Public Schools. She said her opposition to the state’s evaluation requirements is that “value-added” measures based on standardized test scores are not reliable measures of teacher quality.

Charter school parents have emerged as a potent force in political action, and last year, a rally to support charter schools drew thousands of parents to the street outside City Hall. But organizers for StudentsFirstNY said they have not sought to involve parents from charter schools, which are not required to implement teacher evaluations.

Instead, the group has been recruiting district parents to join. To organize them, it is also paying people to attend month-long training academies, then hiring some of those attendees to build up its organizing infrastructure. The majority of those who complete the  $2,000 academy come from political campaigns or other organizing backgrounds. Boston is the exception as the only public school parent to be hired as an organizer.

After the rally, Shawnette Facey, whose fourth-grader attends P.S. 202 in East New York, said she attended because of issues that her son was having at school that she thought could have been related to his teacher. Lately, he’d been coming came home from school disinterested.

“In the beginning of the school year, that’s when you catch them. But if not, you lose them and they go astray,” Facey said.

pre-k for all

New York City will add dual language options in pre-K to attract parents and encourage diversity

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, back right, visits a Mandarin pre-K dual language program at P.S. 20 Anna Silver on the Lower East Side.

Education Department officials on Wednesday announced the addition of 33 dual language pre-K programs in the 2018-19 school year, more than doubling the bilingual opportunities available for New York City’s youngest learners.

The expansion continues an aggressive push under the current administration, which has added 150 new bilingual programs to date. Popular with parents — there were 2,900 applications for about 600 pre-K dual language seats last year — the programs can also be effective in boosting the performance of students who are learning English as a new language.

Another possible benefit: creating more diverse pre-K classrooms, which research has shown are starkly segregated in New York City.

Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña said the new programs reflect the city’s commitment to serving all students, even as a national debate rages over immigration reform.

“It’s important to understand that immigrants or people who speak a second language are an asset,” Fariña said. She called bilingual education “a gift that I think all schools should have.”

Included in the expansion are the city’s first dual language pre-K programs in Bengali and Russian, which will open in Jamaica, Queens, and the Upper West Side, Manhattan, respectively. The other additions will build on programs in Spanish, Mandarin and Italian. Every borough is represented in the expansion, with 11 new programs in Manhattan, nine in Brooklyn, six in Queens, five in the Bronx, and two on Staten Island.

In the dual-language model, students split their time between instruction in English and another language. At P.S. 20 Anna Silver, where the recent expansion was announced, pre-K students start the morning in English and transition to Mandarin after nap time. Experts say the model works best when the class includes an equal mix of students who are proficient in each language so they can learn from each other as well as the teacher, though it can often be difficult to strike that balance.

Officials and some advocates view dual-language programs as a tool for integration by drawing middle-class families eager to have their children speak two languages into neighborhood schools that they otherwise may not have considered. Research has shown that New York City’s pre-K classrooms tend to be more segregated than kindergarten. In one in six pre-K classrooms, more than 90 percent of students are from a single racial or ethnic background. That’s compared with one in eight kindergarten classrooms, according to a 2016 report by The Century Foundation.

Sharon Stapel, a mother from Brooklyn, said she knew early on that she wanted her daughter to learn another language and strike relationships across cultures. So she travels to the Lower East Side with her four-year-old, Finch, to attend the Mandarin dual-language pre-K program at P.S. 20 Anna Silver. On Wednesday, the city announced it will add a Spanish dual language program at the school.

“We really see it as how you build community with your neighbors and your friends,” Stapel said. “It was also an opportunity for Finch to become involved and engage in the cultures and in the differences that she could see in the classrooms — and really celebrate that difference.”

Citywide, about 13 percent of students are learning English as a new language. That number does not include pre-K since the state does not have a way to identify students’ language status before kindergarten. However, based on census data, it is estimated that 30 percent of three- and four-year-olds in New York are English learners.

Dual-language programs can benefit students who are still learning English — more so than English-only instruction. Nationally and in New York City, students who are learning English are less likely to pass standardized tests and graduate from high school. In one study, students who enrolled in dual-language courses in kindergarten gained the equivalent of one year of reading instruction by eighth grade, compared with their peers who received English-only instruction.

The city has been under pressure to improve outcomes for English learners. Under the previous administration, New York City was placed on a state “corrective action plan” that required the education department to open 125 new bilingual programs by 2013. Though the city fell short of that goal, the current administration has agreed to place every English learner in a bilingual program by the 2018-19 school year.

Among the greatest barriers to achieving that is finding qualified teachers, Fariña said. In some cases, it can be hard to find teachers who are fluent in the target language. In others, teachers who are native in a foreign language may only be certified in their home country, and it can be hard to transfer that certification to New York.

In order to open an Urdu program recently, Fariña said, the teacher, who holds a degree from another country, went through Teaching Fellows, an alternative certification program that usually caters to career-changers or recent college grads.

“I think the biggest challenge we have right now is ensuring our teacher preparation courses are keeping up with our need and demand for teachers who can teach another language,” she said.

teacher prep

Tennessee’s mediocre teacher training programs prompt ‘interventions’ with university presidents

PHOTO: Austin Peay
Austin Peay State University in Clarksville is among four Tennessee schools that have undergone "interventions" with state officials over the quality of their teacher training programs.

Armed with sobering data about the performance of teacher training programs in Tennessee, state officials are holding meetings with top brass at universities where they say programs have grown out of touch with the needs of K-12 classrooms.

About 40 programs in Tennessee feed the state’s teacher pipeline with about 4,000 new teachers annually. The largest are based at colleges and universities.

But those same traditional programs generally aren’t attracting enough high-quality candidates or producing enough effective or diverse teachers. Not a single public university in Tennessee scored in the top fifth of teacher training programs under a state report card issued in 2016. And the outlook isn’t expected to improve much under the 2017 report card being released early next month, officials say.

“This data is sobering. It tells us that higher education must do better,” said Mike Krause, executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission. “I worry our higher education faculty in colleges of education get disconnected from what a K-12 classroom looks like.”

Krause outlined the challenges to state lawmakers during a presentation on Tuesday with Sara Heyburn Morrison, executive director of the Tennessee State Board of Education.

Their first “intervention meetings” were with the presidents and education deans at four universities: Austin Peay, Tennessee-Chattanooga, Tennessee-Martin, and Tennessee Tech. Similar meetings are scheduled this spring with leadership of private colleges and universities across the state.

Krause described the first meetings as “very productive” — and illuminating. “In many cases, the presidents just didn’t know” about their programs’ shortcomings, he said.

Teacher quality is considered a driving factor in students’ success, making the quality of teacher preparation programs a front-burner issue in Tennessee.  A 2016 report said only a handful of the state’s programs are consistently preparing teachers to improve student achievement based on Tennessee’s TVAAS measure. The State Board’s new grading system also highlighted weaknesses based on racial diversity, candidates’ ACT scores, and whether they are producing teachers for high-need areas such as special education.

Reading instruction is another big challenge. In a state where only a third of students are considered proficient in reading, new teachers are arriving in classrooms ill-prepared to instruct students on Tennessee’s new reading standards. The state is working with higher education institutions so their faculty can take the same professional development on literacy that working teachers are taking.

But for the most part, the State Board has limited levers for improving the quality of teacher prep. The biggest hammer comes every seven years when each program undergoes a comprehensive review for licensure. (In 2014, the state raised its standards and revised its measures for effectiveness to include data such as placement, retention and employer satisfaction.)

Chancellor Keith Carver

Tennessee-Martin Chancellor Keith Carver said his school took its last state report card to heart. As a result of its overall score of 2 out of a possible 4, the university hired an assessment coordinator to help guide decisions based on data. “It’s a really good baseline for improving,” he said of the report card. “We’ve got some work to do in our diversity profile.”

Tennessee’s teacher candidates are overwhelmingly white and female. Of those who completed Tennessee’s programs in 2016, only 14 percent identified themselves as non-white, compared with 36 percent of the state’s student population.

“Colleges of education will not stumble into diversity. There has to be a very intentional effort,” Krause said.

View the full presentation from Tuesday’s legislative hearing below.