time for kids

New York City agrees to provide paid family leave to teachers

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
The United Federation of Teachers and city officials announced a new paid parental leave policy.

New York City will begin providing paid family leave to teachers, officials announced today, a victory for the United Federation of Teachers.

The city will pay full salary to birth, foster, adoptive, and surrogate parents for six weeks — covering about 120,000 union members. Combined with sick time, birth mothers will now be able to take 12 to 14 weeks of leave starting in September. The city estimates 4,000 parents annually will benefit.

The new policy is expected to cost the city $51 million. To help cover that cost, the city and the union agreed to extend their current contract for an additional two-and-a-half months past its expiration in November.

“It’s a fundamental matter of fairness to make sure that people have this opportunity,” said Mayor Bill de Blasio.

The decision follows heavy pressure from the teacher’s union, which has campaigned for a more generous policy for teachers since the city extended six weeks of fully paid time off to its non-union workforce in 2016, covering about 20,000 managerial employees. Paid leave had become a rare point of contention between the mayor and powerful teachers union — with the union president accusing the administration of sexism during a City Council hearing. 

“All we asked for was to be treated fairly when members of our own union bring children into their families,” UFT President Michael Mulgrew said Wednesday. “That wrong has finally been righted.”

The new policy also comes as the UFT braces for a Supreme Court ruling that could take a big bite out of the union’s ability to collect dues. Securing a victory on paid family leave could help demonstrate the union’s utility at a time when retaining members could become increasingly difficult.

Educators who work for the Department of Education, the city’s largest agency, previously had to use accrued sick days after having a baby — and that policy applied only to birth mothers, not educators who become parents through adoption or surrogacy.

The city has contended that the issue would be addressed during negotiations for the UFT contract. But Mulgrew has bristled at that, saying at a hearing in April that leave was “being used completely as a bargaining chip against our union.” The UFT’s membership is 77 percent female.

Top city officials have previously hinted that they planned to come up with a family leave policy, even if they have been reluctant to share details about what it could look like. “Obviously we’re not going to negotiate in public,” Carranza said last month. But, he added, “I will be very supportive of anything that helps [teachers].”

The battle for paid family leave was re-ignited by an online petition started by two Brooklyn teachers that had more than 80,000 signatures in the fall. After the teachers brought attention to the issue, the union took up the cause, sending out an “action alert” to members in November.

“We’ve chosen to dedicate our lives to helping children, so the irony is glaring that we don’t get any support when we’re having our own,” said Emily James, a Brooklyn high school teacher who was behind the viral petition. 

Even as strides in family leave have been made elsewhere, union officials said teachers were being left behind. New York state, for example, passed a mandatory paid leave policy that covered private employees as of 2018.

Taking leave under the old policy created hardship for parents. Mothers had to use sick days if they wanted paid time off after giving birth. But teachers earn only one sick day per school month worked: To save up for an eight-week leave, a teacher would have to work about four years without taking a sick day.

If a woman hasn’t accrued enough days, she can “borrow” days that she hasn’t accrued yet, up to 20 days. But if she or her children actually get sick, any days beyond the 20 must be taken unpaid. And borrowed sick days have to be repaid if the teacher leaves the education department.

Monica Disare and Christina Veiga contributed reporting. 

Exiting

Tennessee schools chief Candice McQueen leaving for job at national education nonprofit

PHOTO: TN.Gov

Tennessee’s education chief is leaving state government to lead a nonprofit organization focused on attracting, developing, and keeping high-quality educators.

Candice McQueen, 44, will step down in early January to become the CEO of National Institute for Excellence in Teaching.

Gov. Bill Haslam, whose administration will end on Jan. 19, announced the impending departure of his education commissioner on Thursday.

He plans to name an interim commissioner, according to an email from McQueen to her staff at the education department.

“While I am excited about this new opportunity, it is hard to leave this team,” she wrote. “You are laser-focused on doing the right thing for Tennessee’s students every single day – and I take heart in knowing you will continue this good work in the months and years to come. I look forward to continuing to support your work even as I move into this new role with NIET.”

A former teacher and university dean, McQueen has been one of Haslam’s highest-profile cabinet members since joining the administration in 2015 to replace Kevin Huffman, a lawyer who was an executive at Teach For America.

Her tenure has been highlighted by overhauling the state’s requirements for student learning, increasing transparency about how Tennessee students are doing, and launching a major initiative to improve reading skills in a state that struggles with literacy.

But much of the good work has been overshadowed by repeated technical failures in Tennessee’s switch to a computerized standardized test — even forcing McQueen to cancel testing for most students in her second year at the helm. The assessment program continued to struggle this spring, marred by days of technical glitches.

Haslam, who has consistently praised McQueen’s leadership throughout the rocky testing ride, said Tennessee’s education system has improved under her watch.

“Candice has worked relentlessly since day one for Tennessee’s students and teachers, and under her leadership, Tennessee earned its first ‘A’ rating for the standards and the rigor of the state’s assessment after receiving an ‘F’ rating a decade ago,” Haslam said in a statement. “Candice has raised the bar for both teachers and students across the state, enabling them to rise to their greatest potential. I am grateful for her service.”

McQueen said being education commissioner has been “the honor of a lifetime” and that her new job will allow her to “continue to be an advocate for Tennessee’s teachers and work to make sure every child is in a class led by an excellent teacher every day.”

At the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching, she’ll work with states, districts, and schools to improve the effectiveness of teachers and will operate out of the organization’s new office in Nashville. The institute’s work impacts more than 250,000 educators and 2.5 million students.

“Candice McQueen understands that highly effective teachers can truly transform the lives of our children, our classrooms, our communities and our futures,” said Lowell Milken, chairman of the institute, which has existing offices in Phoenix, Washington, D.C., and Santa Monica, Calif.

In an interview with Chalkbeat, McQueen said numerous organizations had approached her about jobs this year as Tennessee prepared to transition to a new administration under Gov.-elect Bill Lee. She called leading the institute “an extraordinary opportunity that I felt was a great fit” because of its focus on supporting, leading, and compensating teachers.

“It’s work that I believe is the heart and soul of student improvement,” she said.

McQueen’s entire career has focused on strengthening teacher effectiveness and support systems for teachers. Before joining Haslam’s administration, the Tennessee native was an award-winning teacher; then faculty member, department chair, and dean of Lipscomb University’s College of Education in Nashville. As dean from 2008 to 2015, Lipscomb became one of the highest-rated teacher preparation programs in Tennessee and the nation. There, McQueen also doubled the size and reach of the college’s graduate programs with new master’s degrees and certificates, the university’s first doctoral program, and additional online and off-campus offerings.

As Haslam’s education commissioner the last four years, McQueen stayed the course on Tennessee’s 2010 overhaul of K-12 education, which was highlighted by raising academic standards; measuring student improvement through testing; and holding students, teachers, schools, and districts accountable for the results.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Candice McQueen has been commissioner of education for Republican Gov. Bill Haslam since 2015.

One of the plan’s most controversial components was teacher evaluations that are tied to student growth on state tests — a strategy that McQueen has stood by and credited in part for Tennessee’s gains on national tests.

Since 2011, Tennessee has seen record-high graduation rates, college-going rates, and ACT scores and steadily moved up in state rankings on the Nation’s Report Card.

Several new studies say Tennessee teachers are getting better under the evaluation system, although other research paints a less encouraging picture.

Her choice to lead the national teaching institute quickly garnered praise from education leaders across the country.

“The students of Tennessee have benefited from Candice McQueen’s leadership, including bold efforts to ensure students have access to advanced career pathways to lead to success in college and careers, and a solid foundation in reading,” said Carissa Moffat Miller, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers.

Louisiana Education Superintendent John White said McQueen brings ideal skills to her new job.

“She is not just a veteran educator who has worked in higher education and K-12 education alike, but she is also a visionary leader with a unique understanding of both quality classroom teaching and the systems necessary to make quality teaching possible for millions of students,” White said.

Read more reaction to the news of McQueen’s planned exit.

reading science

Reading instruction is big news these days. Teachers, share your thoughts with us!

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

Lately, lots of people are talking about reading. Specifically, how it’s taught (or not) in America’s schools.

Much of the credit is due to American Public Media reporter Emily Hanford. In September, she took an in-depth look at what’s wrong with reading instruction in the nation’s classrooms and how explicit, systematic phonics instruction could help.

The crux of the issue is this: In the 1980s and 1990s, the “whole language” approach to teaching reading took hold, relying on the idea that learning to read is a natural process that could be helped along by surrounding kids with good books. At many schools, phonics was out.

In time, many educators brought small doses of phonics back into their lessons, adopting an approach called “balanced literacy.” The problem is, neither whole language nor balanced literacy is based on science, Hanford explained.

Her work on the subject — an audio documentary called Hard Words, a follow-up Q&A for parents, and an opinion piece in the New York Times — has spawned much discussion on social media and elsewhere.

A Maine educator explained in her piece for the Hechinger Report why she agrees that explicit phonics instruction is important but doesn’t think “balanced literacy” should be thrown out. A Minnesota reporter examined the divide in her state over how much phonics should be included in reading lessons and how it should be delivered.

In a roundtable discussion on reading last spring, Stephanie Finn, a literacy coach in the West Genesee Central School District in upstate New York, described the moment she became disillusioned with the whole language approach. It was while reading a story with her young daughter.

“The story was about gymnastics and she had a lot of background knowledge about gymnastics. She loved gymnastics. She knew the word ‘gymnastics,’ and ‘balance beam’ and ‘flexible’ and she got to the girl’s name and the girl’s name was Kate, and she didn’t know what to do,” said Finn. “I thought ‘Holy cow, she cannot decode this simple word. We have a problem.’”

In an opinion piece in Education Week, Susan Pimentel, co-founder of StandardsWork, provides three recommendations to help educators promote reading proficiency. Besides not confining kids to “just-right” books where they already know most words, she says teachers should increase students’ access to knowledge-building subjects like science and social studies. Finally, she writes, “Let quality English/language arts curriculum do some of the heavy lifting. Poor-quality curriculum is at the root of reading problems in many schools.”

Meanwhile, some current and former educators are asking teacher prep program leaders to explain the dearth of science-based lessons on reading instruction.

An Arkansas teacher wrote in a letter to her former dean on Facebook, “while I feel like most of my teacher preparation was very good, I can say I was totally unprepared to teach reading, especially to the struggling readers that I had at the beginning of my career in my resource classroom.”

Former elementary school teacher Robert Pondiscio, a senior fellow and vice president for external affairs at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, wrote to his former dean, “I’m grateful for the professional credential … But if there’s anything one might expect an advanced degree in elementary education to include, it would be teaching reading. It wasn’t part of my program.”

Teachers, now we’d like to hear from you. What resonates with you about the recent news coverage on reading instruction? What doesn’t? Share your perspective by filling out this brief survey.