setting the agenda

Cuomo will push to raise charter cap, slow tenure, revamp evals in sweeping overhaul tied to new funding

PHOTO: Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of the Governor
Gov. Andrew Cuomo pushed for a broad overhaul of state education policy last year.

Gov. Cuomo promised an aggressive education agenda this year, and he delivered.

Cuomo announced plans to push for a broad overhaul of state education policy on Wednesday, which will include raising the state’s cap on charter schools, increasing the state’s role in teacher evaluations, and lengthening the time it takes for teachers to earn tenure.

Cuomo’s plans aren’t guaranteed to become policy: The changes require legislative action, and the negotiations that precede a final budget deal often lead to unexpected outcomes and concessions. But they form the broadest, most ambitious set of changes he’s proposed as governor, and set the stage for fierce policy fights with teachers unions and other advocates.

“Our education system needs dramatic reform, and it has for years,” Cuomo said. “This is the year to roll up our sleeves and take on the dramatic challenge that has eluded us for so many years and for so many reasons.”

In exchange for the legislative changes, Cuomo said he would increase funding by $1.1 billion, or 4.8 percent — essentially meeting teacher unions halfway, as they have requested a $2.2 billion increase.

Here’s a breakdown of the governor’s proposals.

Teacher evaluations: Cuomo’s proposal would increase the portion of a teacher evaluation controlled by the state from 20 percent to 50 percent, which for many teachers would boost the significance of state test scores. It would also diminish the principals’ role by relying on the observation of an independent evaluator.

The state’s roughly 700 school districts have a patchwork of evaluation plans, which Cuomo described as “baloney” on Wednesday. His proposal is an attempt to stop what he has called “local inflation” of scores, which has been more evident outside of New York City.

Cuomo’s proposal would restrict district plans by requiring the other half of a teacher’s rating to come from classroom observations, and would make high scores on both halves necessary to earn an overall “effective” or “highly effective” rating.

Cuomo stressed that he wants the evaluations to create incentives, too. He proposed offering bonuses of up to $20,000 to teachers with highly effective ratings, just as he did in last year’s speech. Those bonuses would require the agreement of the district and the local teachers union, though, and UFT President Michael Mulgrew said he still wasn’t interested.

“Individual merit pay? It’s been completely debunked,” Mulgrew said.

Teacher tenure: Cuomo is proposing that teachers only become eligible for tenure after five consecutive years of “highly effective” or “effective ratings.” That would be a significant increase from the current three-year probation period, and if a single “developing” rating could derail a teacher’s path to those job protections, it would add to the pressure associated with teacher evaluations.

Other legislation Cuomo is proposing would keep a student from being assigned two teachers with “ineffective” ratings two years in a row. (The plan does not specify how that would work for middle and high-school students with multiple teachers.)

Charter schools: Cuomo’s proposal would add 100 charter schools to the state limit, bringing the total to 560, and remove the regional distinctions that restricted some charters to New York City and others to parts of the state where there was less demand. That could set up future fights over the cap the next time the limit nears — and with the Success Academy network recently applying for 14 charters at once, for example, that might not be so far into the future.

The governor said he would also be proposing “anti-creaming legislation” to ensure charter schools are teaching their “fair share” of English language learners, low-income students, and students with disabilities. The provision would require schools to submit enrollment rates for each of those groups of students to the state at the beginning and end of each school year and bi-monthly — providing a trove of new data to support or refute the idea that high-needs students leave charter schools during the school year. It would also require charter schools to add lottery preferences for low-income students, students enrolled “in a failing school,” and children of staff members.

Cuomo would also increase per-pupil funding for charters by $75 — not a full win for charter school advocates, who want their school funding increases to be commensurate with increases for district schools.

Struggling schools: Cuomo called for a new law that would appoint nonprofit groups, school-turnaround experts, or other school districts to oversee schools that have fallen on the state’s lowest performing list for three years.

Based on a turnaround model used in Massachusetts, the law would give those “receivers” the authority of local superintendents, allowing them to restructure struggling schools, overhaul their curriculums, and offer extra pay to attract successful teachers. It would also let them to override labor agreements in order to hire “underperforming” teachers and administrators.

The receivers would be required to bring a bevy of support services for students and their families to the schools — a plan to turn them into “community schools” that mirrors New York City’s program for troubled schools.

Cuomo proposed setting aside $8 million for those overhauls. The schools would also get priority for state grants that fund pre-kindergarten, extra learning time, and early-college high school programs.

Teacher training: Cuomo proposed closing down teacher training programs where 50 percent of graduates fail to pass a state certification exam in three consecutive years.

He also proposed paying the CUNY or SUNY tuition to “top candidates” who commit to teaching in state schools for five years after graduation, creating a statewide teacher residency program, and mandating new GPA and GRE requirements for education programs.

School governance: Cuomo threw support behind the renewal of mayoral control of New York City schools, and encouraged other cities to apply for mayoral control as well.

Teacher discipline: Teachers facing accusations of physical or sexual abuse should get an expedited hearing process, Cuomo said.

student teaching

Building a teacher pipeline: How one Aurora school has become a training ground for aspiring teachers

Paraprofessional Sonia Guzman, a student of a teaching program, works with students at Elkhart Elementary School in Aurora. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Students at Aurora’s Elkhart Elementary School are getting assistance from three aspiring teachers helping out in classrooms this year, part of a new partnership aimed at building a bigger and more diverse teacher pipeline.

The teachers-to-be, students at the University of Northern Colorado’s Center for Urban Education, get training and a paid job while they’re in college. Elkhart principal Ron Schumacher gets paraprofessionals with long-term goals and a possibility that they’ll be better prepared to be Aurora teachers.

For Schumacher, it’s part of a plan to not only help his school, but also others in Aurora Public Schools increase teacher retention.

“Because of the nature of our school demographics, it’s a coin flip with a new teacher,” Schumacher said. “If I lose 50 percent of my teachers over time, I’m being highly inefficient. If these ladies know what they’re getting into and I can have them prepared to be a more effective first-year teacher, there’s more likelihood that I’ll keep them in my school in the long term.”

Elkhart has about 590 students enrolled this year. According to state data from last year, more than 95 percent of the students who attend the school qualify for subsidized lunches, a measure of poverty. The school, which operates with an International Baccalaureate program, has outperformed the district average on some state tests.

The three paraprofessionals hired by the school this year are part of the teaching program at UNC’s Lowry campus, which has long required students to work in a school for the four years they work on their degree.

Students get paid for their work in schools, allowing them to earn some money while going to college. Students from the program had worked in Aurora schools in the past, but not usually three students at once at the same school, and not as part of a formal partnership.

The teaching program has a high number of students of color and first-generation college students, which Rosanne Fulton, the program director, said is another draw for partnering with schools in the metro area.

Schumacher said every principal and education leader has the responsibility to help expose students to more teachers who can relate to them.

One of this year’s paraprofessionals is Andy Washington, an 18-year-old who attended Elkhart for a few years when she was a child.

“Getting to know the kids on a personal level, I thought I was going to be scared, but they’re cool,” Washington said.

Another paraprofessional, 20-year-old Sonia Guzman, said kids are opening up to them.

“They ask you what college is like,” Guzman said.

Schumacher said there are challenges to hiring the students, including figuring out how to make use of the students during the morning or early afternoon while being able to release them before school is done for the day so they can make it to their college classes.

Schumacher said he and his district director are working to figure out the best ways to work around those problems so they can share lessons learned with other Aurora principals.

“We’re using some people differently and tapping into volunteers a little differently, but if it’s a priority for you, there are ways of accommodating their schedules,” he said.

At Elkhart, full-time interventionists work with students in kindergarten through third grade who need extra help learning to read.

But the school doesn’t have the budget to hire the same professionals to work with older students. The three student paraprofessionals are helping bridge that gap, learning from the interventionists so they can work with fourth and fifth grade students.

Recently, the three started getting groups of students that they pull out during class to give them extra work on reading skills.

One exercise they worked on with fourth grade students recently was helping them identify if words had an “oi” or “oy” spelling based on their sounds. Students sounded out their syllables and used flashcards to group similar words.

Districts across the country have looked at similar approaches to help attract and prepare teachers for their own schools. In Denver, bond money voters approved last year is helping pay to expand a program this year where paraprofessionals can apply for a one-year program to become teachers while they continue working.

In the partnership at Elkhart, students paraprofessionals take longer than that, but in their first and second year are already learning how to write lessons during their afternoon classes and then working with teachers at the school to deliver the lessons and then reflect on how well they worked. Students say the model helps them feel supported.

“It’s really helping me to become more confident,” said Stephanie Richards, 26, the third paraprofessional. “I know I’m a lot more prepared.”

Schumacher said the model could also work in the future with students from other teaching schools or programs. It’s a small but important part, he said, toward helping larger efforts to attract and retain teachers, and also diversify the ranks.

“You’re doing something for the next generation of folks coming in,” he said.

newark notes

In Newark, a study about school changes rings true — and raises questions — for people who lived them

PHOTO: Naomi Nix
Park Elementary principal Sylvia Esteves.

A few years ago, Park Elementary School Principal Sylvia Esteves found herself fielding questions from angst-ridden parents and teachers.

Park was expecting an influx of new students because Newark’s new enrollment system allowed parents to choose a K-8 school for their child outside of their neighborhood. That enrollment overhaul was one of many reforms education leaders have made to Newark Public Schools since 2011 in an effort to expand school choice and raise student achievement.

“What’s it going to mean for overcrowding? Will our classes get so large that we won’t have the kind of success for our students that we want to have?” Esteves recalls educators and families asking.

Park’s enrollment did grow, by about 200 students, and class sizes swelled along with it, Esteves said. But for the last two years, the share of students passing state math and English tests has risen, too.

Esteves was one of several Newark principals, teachers, and parents who told Chalkbeat they are not surprised about the results of a recent study that found test scores dropped sharply in the years immediately following the changes but then bounced back. By 2016, it found Newark students were making greater gains on English tests than they were in 2011.

Funded by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and conducted by Harvard researchers, the study also found the reforms had no impact on student math scores.

And while many Newark families and school leaders agree with the study’s conclusion — that students are making more progress now — they had very different ideas about what may have caused the initial declines, and why English growth was more obvious than math.

Supported by $200 million in private philanthropy, former superintendent Cami Anderson and other New Jersey officials in 2011 sought to make significant changes to the education landscape in Newark, where one third of more than 50,000 students attend privately managed charter schools. Their headline-grabbing reforms included a new teachers union contract with merit-based bonuses; the universal enrollment system; closing some schools; expanding charter schools; hiring new principals; requiring some teachers to reapply for their jobs; and lengthening the day at some struggling schools.

Brad Haggerty, the district’s chief academic officer, said the initial drop in student performance coincided with the district’s introduction of a host of changes: new training materials, evaluations, and curricula aligned to the Common Core standards but not yet assessed by the state’s annual test. That was initially a lot for educators to handle at once, he said, but teacher have adjusted to the changes and new standards.

“Over time our teaching cadre, our faculty across the entire district got stronger,” said Haggerty, who arrived as a special assistant to the superintendent in 2011.

But some in Newark think the district’s changes have had longer-lasting negative consequences.

“We’ve had a lot of casualties. We lost great administrators, teachers,” said Bashir Akinyele, a Weequahic High School history teacher. “There have been some improvements but there were so many costs.”

Those costs included the loss of veteran teachers who were driven out by officials’ attempts to change teacher evaluations and make changes to schools’ personnel at the same time, according to Sheila Montague, a former school board candidate who spent two decades teaching in Newark Public Schools before losing her position during the changes.

“You started to see experienced, veteran teachers disappearing,” said Montague, who left the school system after being placed in the district’s pool of educators without a job in a school. “In many instances, there were substitute teachers in the room. Of course, the delivery of instruction wasn’t going to even be comparable.”

The district said it retains about 95 percent of its highly-rated teachers.

As for why the study found that Newark’s schools were seeing more success improving English skills than math, it’s a pattern that Esteves, the Park Elementary principal, says she saw firsthand.

While the share of students who passed the state English exam at Park rose 13 percentage points between the 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 school years, the share of students who were proficient in math only rose 3 percentage points in that time frame.

“[Math is] where we felt we were creeping up every year, but not having a really strong year,” she said. “I felt like there was something missing in what we were doing that could really propel the children forward.”

To improve Park students’ math skills, Esteves asked teachers to assign “math exemplars,” twice-a-month assignments that probed students’ understanding of concepts. Last year, Park’s passing rate on the state math test jumped 12 percentage points, to 48 percent.

While Newark students have made progress, families and school leaders said they want to the district to make even more gains.

Test scores in Newark “have improved, but they are still not where they are supposed to be,” said Demetrisha Barnes, whose niece attends KIPP Seek Academy. “Are they on grade level? No.”

Chalkbeat is expanding to Newark, and we’re looking for a reporter to lead our efforts there. Think it should be you? Apply here.