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.”

first steps

Superintendent León secures leadership team, navigates evolving relationship with board

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Superintendent Roger León at Tuesday's school board meeting.

As Newark’s new superintendent prepares for the coming academic year, the school board approved the final members of his leadership team Tuesday and began piecing together a roadmap to guide his work.

The board confirmed three assistant superintendents chosen by Superintendent Roger León: Jose Fuentes, the principal of First Avenue School in the North Ward; Sandra Rodriguez, a Hoboken principal who previously oversaw Newark Public Schools’ early childhood office; and Mario Santos, principal of East Side High School in the East Ward. They join three other assistant superintendents León selected for his team, along with a deputy superintendent, chief of staff, and several other officials.

The three assistant superintendents confirmed Tuesday had first come before the board in June, but at that time none of them secured enough votes to be approved. During last month’s meeting, the board assented to several of León’s leadership picks and to his decision to remove many people from the district’s central office, but it also blocked him from ousting several people.

This week, Board Chair Josephine Garcia declined to comment on the board’s reversal, and León did not respond to a request for comment.

What is clear is that the board and León are still navigating their relationship.

In February, the board regained local control of the district 22 years after the state seized control of the district due to poor performance and mismanagement. The return to local control put the board back in charge of setting district policy and hiring the superintendent, who previously answered only to the state. Still, the superintendent, not the board, is responsible for overseeing the district’s day-to-day operations.

During a board discussion Tuesday, Garcia hinted at that delicate balance of power.

“Now that we’re board members, we want to make sure that, of course, yes, we’re going to have input and implementation,” but that they don’t overstep their authority, she said.

Under state rules, the board is expected to develop district goals and policies, which the superintendent is responsible for acting on. But León — a former principal who spent the past decade serving as an assistant superintendent — has his own vision for the district, which he hopes to convince the board to support, he said in a recent interview on NJTV.

“It’s my responsibility as the new superintendent of schools to compel them to assist the district moving in the direction that I see as appropriate,” he said.

Another matter still being ironed out by the board and superintendent is communication.

León did not notify the full board before moving to force out 31 district officials and administrators, which upset some members. And he told charter school leaders in a closed-door meeting that he plans to keep intact the single enrollment system for district and charter schools — a controversial policy the board is still reviewing.

The district has yet to make a formal announcement about the staff shake-up, including the appointment of León’s new leadership team. And when the board voted on the new assistant superintendents Tuesday, it used only the appointed officials’ initials — not their full names. However, board member Leah Owens stated the officials’ full names when casting her vote.

The full names, titles and salaries of public employees are a matter of public record under state law.

Earlier, board member Yambeli Gomez had proposed improved communication as a goal for the board.

“Not only communication within the board and with the superintendent,” she said, “but also communication with the public in a way that’s more organized.”

The board spent much of Tuesday’s meeting brainstorming priorities for the district.

Members offered a grab bag of ideas, which were written on poster paper. Under the heading “student achievement,” they listed literacy, absenteeism, civics courses, vocational programs, and teacher quality, among other topics. Under other “focus areas,” members suggested classroom materials, parent involvement, and the arts.

Before the school year begins in September, León is tasked with shaping the ideas on that poster paper into specific goals and an action plan.

After the meeting, education activist Wilhelmina Holder said she hopes the board will focus its attention on a few key priorities.

“There was too much of a laundry list,” she said.

early dismissals

Top Newark school officials ousted in leadership shake-up as new superintendent prepares to take over

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Incoming Newark Public Schools Superintendent Roger León

Several top Newark school officials were given the option Friday to resign or face termination, in what appeared to be an early move by incoming Superintendent Roger León to overhaul the district’s leadership.

The shake-up includes top officials such as the chief academic officer and the head of the district’s controversial enrollment system, as well as lower-level administrators — 31 people in total, according to documents and district employees briefed on the overhaul. Most of the officials were hired or promoted by the previous two state-appointed superintendents, Cami Anderson and Christopher Cerf, a sign that León wants to steer the district in a new direction now that it has returned to local control.

The officials were given the option to resign by Tuesday and accept buyouts or face the prospect of being fired by the school board at its meeting that evening. The buyouts offer a financial incentive to those who resign voluntarily on top of any severance included in their contracts. In exchange for accepting the buyouts, the officials must sign confidentiality agreements and waive their right to sue the district.

Earlier this week, León submitted a list of his choices to replace the ousted cabinet-level officials, which the board must approve at its Tuesday meeting. It’s not clear whether he has people lined up to fill the less-senior positions.

It’s customary for incoming superintendents to appoint new cabinet members and reorganize the district’s leadership structure, which usually entails replacing some personnel. However, many staffers were caught off guard by Friday’s dismissals since León has given little indication of how he plans to restructure the central office — and he does not officially take the reins of the district until July 1.

A district spokeswoman and the school board chair did not immediately respond to emails on Friday about the shake-up.

Some staffers speculated Friday that the buyout offers were a way for León to replace the district’s leadership without securing the school board’s approval because, unlike with terminations, the board does not need to sign off on resignations. However, it’s possible the board may have to okay any buyout payments. And it could also be the case that the buyouts were primarily intended to help shield the district from legal challenges to the dismissals.

León was not present when the staffers learned Friday afternoon that they were being let go, the employees said. Instead, the interim superintendent, Robert Gregory, and other top officials broke the news, which left some stunned personnel crying and packing their belongings into boxes. They received official separation letters by email later that day.

The people being ousted include Chief Academic Officer Brad Haggerty and Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon, who oversees enrollment. Also included are top officials in the curriculum, early childhood, and finance divisions, among others, according to a list obtained by Chalkbeat.

In addition to the 31 being pushed out, several assistant superintendents are being demoted but will remain in the district, according to the district employees.

There was concern among some officials Friday about whether the turnover would disrupt planning for the coming school year.

“I don’t know how we’re going to open smoothly with cuts this deep,” one of the employees said. “Little to no communication was provided to the teams about what these cuts mean for the many employees who remain in their roles and need leadership guidance and direction Monday morning.”