teachers unite

AFT social media site joins growing list of free curriculum aids

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Adam Feinberg, a high school global studies teacher, posted the most documents of any New York City teacher on ShareMyLesson.com, a new union social media website.

It was more than just altruism that drove Adam Feinberg to post hundreds of instructional materials online for his colleagues around the world to use. There was also, he hoped, a wedding gift waiting for him when he was done.

Feinberg, a global studies teacher at the Secondary School for Law in Brooklyn, was jockeying for a vacation prize that American Federation of Teachers offered to the teacher who posted the most documents to ShareMyLesson.com, the union’s new curriculum-sharing website. Feinberg’s tally of over 300 worksheets, lesson plans, and slideshows won him $5,000 to pay for his European honeymoon.

The website, which the AFT launched in partnership with the British publishing company TSL Education last year, is part of a growing online ecosystem that has emerged in recent years as educators across the country confront the challenge of transitioning to new Common Core standards. Existing curriculum materials are not aligned to the new standards, which emphasis text skills, non-fiction, and critical thinking.

In New York, which made the controversial decision to roll out tests aligned to the new standards ahead of most states, education officials have spent $28 million to build EngageNY.org and pay nonprofit vendors to develop free curriculum materials that teachers can download.

In New York City, part of the $120 million price tag that officials often cite as an example of their investment Common Core preparation has gone towards paying teachers to develop curriculum materials for the Department of Education’s Common Core Library site.

Still, teachers are craving more.

“I go home and I start googling,” said Joe Negron, an eighth-grade math teacher at KIPP Infinity Middle School who spoke on a GothamSchools’ panel about Common Core this month. “I want to find a go-to place so I can spend my energy thinking about the how and not the what.”

Teachers struggled to build professional relationships and find appropriate curriculum materials long before the Common Core arrived. But several sites have surfaced to connect teachers to online resources — and each other — as they face the new standards even as the capacity for in-person professional development has not changed substantially.

The sites are getting a big boost from the philanthropic world, led by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Negron and other math teachers said they often refer to IllustrativeMathematics.org, a site built and maintained by the University of Arizona with a $3.4 million grant from the Gates Foundation.

Another Gates-funded site, LiteracyDesignCollaborative.org, provides a template that allows teachers to plan units and tasks around the new learning standards regardless of the subject they teach. The new standards call for students to develop reading and writing skills not just in English classes, but in social studies, science, math, and technical subjects as well.

The video site TeachingChannel.org, which has received about $11.5 million from Gates and $500,000 from the Hewlett Foundation, posts professionally produced videos of educators sharing lessons, instructional strategies, and other work.

Then there are the social media sites that ShareMyLesson.com is competing with. The for-profit BetterLesson.com, which we wrote about in 2010 about a year after it launched, makes its money by forging partnerships with charter management organizations and school districts, whose teachers can share and exchange work in private networks. The Boston-based company received $1 million in seed money from the New Schools Venture Fund and has grown from 7,000 users to more than 65,000 users as of January 2012. It’s also picked up some major clients, including KIPP, Uncommon Schools, Rocketship Education, and the Los Angeles Unified School District.

ShareMyLesson.com is more populist, relying on its user base to develop and build the site’s content, which is free for all. It’s part social network, where teachers can find and connect around common interests, and part aggregator, allowing users to sort content by popularity, subject and grade level.

The site remains a work in progress. The quality and type of content varies widely, with little vetting of material that gets posted. One experienced teacher who reviewed the site said it could be “a great resource for new and novice teachers” but was less appealing for veterans.

The site now has more 218,000 registered users, 10 percent from New York State. Most of them aren’t active, however — just 60,000 of the site’s 260,000 documents have been uploaded by American teachers. Much of the rest comes from a similar website that TSL Education launched in 2008 for British educators.

The site does boast a small but growing library of math and English resources aligned to the Common Core standards, a base that UFT President Michael Mulgrew said he hopes to see grow.

“This is the start of what we want to be an amazing resource for teachers,” said UFT President Michael Mulgrew. To encourage teachers to contribute the site, the union has hosted training sessions, enticed teachers with more online contests, and even marketing it at press conferences.

Like so many other sites that are currently focused on developing core subject areas in the lower grades, ShareMyLesson has little high school content. And that’s the other reason Feinberg said he was driven to contribute to the site. As one of the site’s earliest active users, Feinberg said he rarely finds material that he can use for his own lessons.

“I actually don’t think I’ve ever found anything on there that’s been that useful,” said Feinberg, whose most popular document, a PowerPoint presentation called “How to Write a Thesis Statement,” which has been downloaded more than 400 times.

But Feinberg said he’s drawn by the site’s potential to become a hub for teachers to share and learn from one another. Having never taken a course on Chinese history, Feinberg said he’s often at a loss when introducing it to his students.

“Whenever I teach about that, a lot of is shooting into the dark,” Feinberg said. “There’s so much to know about Chinese history, [but] so many primary documents are in Mandarin or Cantonese.”

“So for me to not have any college-level expertise at my fingertips, that’s the kind of stuff that I think Share My Lesson can provide.”

the aftermath

What educators, parents, and students are grappling with in the wake of America’s latest school shooting

Kristi Gilroy (right) hugs a young woman at a police check point near the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School where 17 people were killed by a gunman in Parkland, Florida. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

It’s hard to know where to start on days like this.

The shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 people dead on Wednesday has elicited both terror and anger — and raised debates that are far from settled about how to keep American students safe.

Here are a few storylines we noticed as the country again grapples with a tragic school shooting:

1. You’re not wrong to think it: There have been a lot of mass shootings, and many recent ones have been especially deadly.

Data on school shootings specifically, though, is notoriously murky. As the Atlantic recently noted, varying definitions can contribute to either “sensationalizing or oversimplifying a modern trend of mass violence in America that is seemingly becoming more entrenched.”

But by NBC News’ count, 20 people have been killed and more than 30 have been injured in school shootings this year. That’s a lot — and more news organizations are now trying to keep a careful tally.

2. The consequences of traumatic events like the shooting at Stoneman Douglas are likely to be felt for some time.

A number of studies have found that violent and traumatic events in and outside of school do real damage to student learning, as we’ve reported — particularly among students who are already struggling. Here are some resources for teachers who need to talk to their students about trauma.

3. The tragedy is already renewing debates over whether or how to arm teachers.

Education Week gathered some of those calls from politicians Thursday. “Gun-safety advocates say that teachers can’t safely and quickly move from the mindset of teaching to being asked to fire a gun at an active shooter,” the story also notes.

This doesn’t even get at the debate about whether anyone should have access to the kind of gun the shooter used. Students from the district, for their part, told Broward schools chief Robert Runcie Thursday “that the time is due for a conversation on sensible gun control,” the Miami Herald reported.

Whether other technology and infrastructure can help keep students safe is a topic of ongoing discussion in communities across the country. Colorado lawmakers are considering a bill to help schools buy communications systems that would allow them to talk directly to police and other emergency responders. Officials from districts that already use this equipment described them as a way to increase safety without “turning our schools into prisons,” even as they also assured lawmakers that the radios were just as useful for serious playground injuries and broken-down buses as for the much rarer active shooter situations.

In Tennessee, one school district near Nashville announced plans to close schools next Monday to review all safety plans with school staff and local law enforcement.

4. In some places, the shooting is unlikely to change the school safety debate at all.

In New York City, for example, conversations about school safety in recent years have revolved around discipline policies and metal detectors (though police have seized an increasing number of weapons from city schools). There’s little appetite there to arm teachers.

5. But all across America, the shooting and others like it have added a frightening tone to what it means to teach and learn in schools today.

“I know you are waking up this morning to a nightmare,” a former educator wrote in a “love letters to teachers” on Teaching Tolerance. “I know you are frustrated, tired and weary of the news. I know you are wearing your coat of bravery today.”

“I’m so, so angry and I’m having a hard time today looking at my students and not thinking about what happens when it’s my school’s turn,” wrote one commenter on the Badass Teachers Association Facebook group.

getting to graduation

New York City graduation rate hits record high of 74.3 percent in 2017

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the 2017 graduation rate at South Bronx Preparatory school.

New York City’s graduation rate rose to 74.3 percent in 2017, a slight increase over the previous year and a new high for the city.

The 1.2 percentage point increase over the previous year continues an upward climb for the city, where the overall graduation rate has grown by nearly 28 points since 2005. The state graduation rate also hit a new high — 82.1 percent — just under the U.S. rate of 84.1 percent.

The city’s dropout rate fell to 7.8 percent, a small decline from the previous year and the lowest rate on record, according to the city.

“New York City is showing that when we invest in our students, they rise to the challenge and do better and better,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement Wednesday.

More graduates were also deemed ready for college-level work. Last year, 64 percent of graduates earned test scores that met the City University of New York’s “college-ready” benchmark — up more than 13 percentage points from the previous year. 

However, the gains came after CUNY eased its readiness requirements; without that change, city officials said the increase would be significantly smaller. But even with the less rigorous requirements, more than a third of city students who earned high-school diplomas would be required to take remedial classes at CUNY.

Phil Weinberg, the education department’s deputy chancellor for teaching and learning, noted that CUNY’s college-readiness requirements are more demanding than New York’s graduation standards — which are among the toughest in the country.

We will work toward making sure none of our students need remediation when they get to college,” he told reporters. “But that’s a long game for us and we continue to move in that direction.”

The rising graduation rates follow a series of changes the state has made in recent years to help more students earn diplomas.

The graduation-requirement changes include allowing students with disabilities to earn a diploma by passing fewer exit exams and letting more students appeal a failed score. In addition, students can now substitute a work-readiness credential for one of the five Regents exams they must pass in order to graduate — adding to a number of other alternative tests the state has made available in the past few years.

About 9,900 students used one of those alternative-test or credential options in 2017, while 315 students with disabilities took advantage of the new option for them, according to state officials. They could not say how many students successfully appealed a low test score; but in 2016, about 1,300 New York City students did so.

The news was mixed for schools in de Blasio’s high-profile “Renewal” improvement program for low-performing schools. Among the 28 high schools that have received new social services and academic support through the program, the graduation rate increased to nearly 66 percent — almost a 6 percentage point bump over 2016. Their dropout rate also fell by about 2 points, to 16.4 percent, though that remains more than twice as high as the citywide rate.

However, more than half of the high schools in that $568 million program — 19 out of 28 — missed the graduation goals the city set for them, according to a New York Times analysis based on preliminary figures.

Graduation rates for students who are still learning English ticked up slightly to 32.5 percent, following a sharp decline the previous year that the state education commissioner called “disturbing.” City officials argue that students who improved enough to shed the designation of “English language learner” in the years before they graduated should also be counted; among that larger group, the graduation rate was 53 percent in 2017.

Meanwhile, the graduation-rate gap between white students and their black and Hispanic peers narrowed a smidgen, but it remains wide. Last year, the graduation rate was about 83 percent for white students, 70 percent for black students, and 68 percent for Hispanic students. That represented a closing of the gap between white and black students by 0.4 percentage points, and 0.1 points between whites and Hispanic.

Asian students had the highest rate — 87.5 percent — a nearly 2 point increase from the previous year that widened their lead over other racial groups.

Christina Veiga contributed reporting.