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.”

To and Through

Newark’s post-grad paradox: More students are entering college, but few earn degrees

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
Newark Mayor Ras Baraka wants 25 percent of residents to have college degrees by 2025, up from 19 percent today.

When it comes to college, Newark faces a good news-bad news paradox.

More students than ever are graduating high school and enrolling in college, according to a new report. Yet fewer than one in four Newark students earns a college degree within six years of graduating high school — leaving many with limited job prospects in a city where an estimated one-third of jobs require a four-year college degree.

Now, city officials are promising to build on the report. They want to ramp up the rigor of high-school classes and create more early-college programs to increase the odds of students entering college and leaving with a degree.  

“How do we teach our children to perform — to graduate?” Mayor Ras Baraka asked at a press conference Wednesday to mark the official release of the report of Newark students’ college outcomes. “We got them in the door,” he said of students who attend college. “Now how do we make them stay?”

The city’s plans, to which Superintendent Roger León is lending his support, reflect a growing recognition that simply getting students into college is not sufficient — and can even backfire if they drop out before graduation, leaving them with college debt but no degree.

Until recently, the charge given to high schools in Newark and across the country was to foster “college-going cultures.” And these efforts showed promising results: On average, 51 percent of Newark Public School students who graduated high school between 2011 and 2016 immediately enrolled in college, up from 39 percent who did so between 2004 and 2010, according to the report by the Newark City of Learning Collaborative, or NCLC, and Rutgers University-Newark’s School of Public Affairs and Administration.

But entering college didn’t guarantee its completion. Of those students who started college straight after high school, only 39 percent earned a degree within six years, the report found.

As a result, educators and policymakers have begun to think harder about how to help students “to and through” college — to ensure they actually earn degrees. Toward that end, Baraka and the NCLC — which includes roughly 40 colleges, schools, nonprofits, and corporations — has set a goal of 25 percent of Newark residents earning college degrees or comparable credentials by 2025.

Today, just 19 percent of Newark adults have associate degrees or higher — compared to 45 percent of adults across New Jersey and 40 percent nationally.

Superintendent León, who began overseeing the city’s schools on July 1, said his main strategy for supporting these efforts will be to expose students to challenging work early on.

“If we don’t do something dramatically in classrooms to improve instruction and make it rigorous,” León said after Wednesday’s event, then students are “getting into college but they’re not completing it.”

Source: “Post-Secondary Outcomes of Newark High School Graduates (2011-2016)” report. Note: The four-year rate is an average of the classes of 2011 to 2013. The six-year rate is from the class of 2011. Graphic: Sam Park/Chalkbeat

For starters, León said he wants high schools to offer more college-level classes. In the 2016-17 school year, just 21 percent of Newark students were enrolled in one or more Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate classes — compared to 42 percent of students statewide.

He also vowed to raise the quality of instruction in the district’s traditional high schools. Only 14 percent of their graduates earn college degrees within six years, compared to 42 percent of graduates from the city’s selective magnet schools, the report found.

To do that, León said he will create specialized academies within the traditional schools modeled on the magnets, which have specialized themes such as science, technology, or the arts. The academies, which will partner with colleges, will most likely feature admissions criteria similar to those of magnet schools, which select students based on their academic and attendance records, León added.

And, for the first time, all ninth-grade students this academic year will take the Preliminary SAT, or PSAT, León said Wednesday. An additional 1,100 eighth-graders who passed at least one of their seventh-grade PARCC exams will also take the PSAT when it’s administered on Oct. 10.

Since 2016, the district has provided the PSAT to all 10th and 11th-grade students. But León said that giving the test to younger students will focus their attention on college and help identity those who are ready for advanced classes. The PSAT is designed to help students prepare for the SAT, which is used in college admissions, and to qualify for National Merit Scholarships.

The district, which was under state control for 22 years until February, is getting some assistance in its effort to improve students’ college outcomes.

For instance, KIPP, the national charter-school network with eight schools in Newark, is sharing its strategies for helping students choose the right college with guidance counselors at three district high schools.

And the higher-education institutions in the Newark City of Learning Collaborative, including Essex County College and Rutgers University-Newark, plan to create more “dual-enrollment” programs that allow high-school students to earn college credits, said NCLC Executive Director Reginald Lewis.

“We’re all going to do a better job,” Lewis said, “of making sure that once Newark residents get in our doors, that we help them persist.”

Time crunch

In victory for teachers union, Newark superintendent scraps longer hours for low-performing schools

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
Superintendent Roger León at Hawkins Street School, one of the schools that will lose its extended hours.

Newark’s new superintendent is eliminating a program that extended the hours of struggling schools, which the teachers union has long attacked as ineffective and unfair to educators.

Teachers at roughly 30 schools will no longer receive $3,000 annual stipends for the extra hours, a provision written into the current teachers contract, which extends to 2019. Instead, all 64 district schools will get extra funding for before and after-school programs, Superintendent Roger León said in an email to employees on Tuesday.

The changes will go into effect Monday, Sept. 10, resulting in new hours for the affected schools just days after the new school year began. The district is still working to adjust pickup times for students who are bused to school, according to León’s email. A few of the schools will phase out their extended hours later in the year, the email said.

“We will not continue to do the same things as before and be surprised when the results do not change,” León wrote, adding that cutting the extra hours would save the district $5 million.

In an interview with Chalkbeat Thursday, León said the move is intended to create more uniformity among schools and the services they provide. Now, all schools will get additional money to pay for programs outside of the regular school day, which schools can tailor to their individual needs, though students who are struggling academically will continue to receive “intensive” support, he said.

“Ultimately, the idea would be by October having completely different after-school and before-school programming that meets the needs of each respective school,” León said.

The extended time was first included in the teachers contract in 2012 as part of a larger improvement plan for the targeted schools, which was developed by Cami Anderson, Newark’s former state-appointed superintendent. The plan also designated some low-performing schools as “renew” schools, where teachers had to reapply for their positions and work longer hours.

Anderson also closed some schools and gave principals new hiring authority. Both actions left dozens of tenured teachers without positions, so Anderson created a fund to pay those teachers to perform support duties in schools. In 2014, that fund for “employees without placement” cost the district $35 million out of its nearly $1 billion budget, though by last year the fund had shrunk to $8 million for about 100 unassigned teachers, according to officials.

León said in Tuesday’s email that he was also eliminating the fund, which he said would save the district another $6 million. The teachers union president said he believed all the unassigned teachers now have placements, but the district did not respond to a request to confirm that.

León is also removing the “renew” and “turnaround” labels from low-performing schools, citing their “progress and student achievement,” according to the email.

“I applaud everyone’s efforts at renew or turnaround schools and acknowledge what has been accomplished,” he wrote.

Now that León has abolished his predecessors’ school-improvement program, he will be expected to create his own. Many schools remain mired in poor performance, even as the district overall has made strides in recent years.

When the teachers union agreed to the extended hours in its 2012 contract with the district, it was hailed nationally as a major breakthrough in efforts to revamp troubled schools. But even as the union agreed last year to keep the provision in its current contract, union officials have assailed the turnaround effort as a failure.

NTU President John Abeigon told Chalkbeat on Thursday that the program had been a “scam” and “nothing more than extended childcare.” He added that the stipend teachers received amounted to about $7 per hour for the extra time they worked.

In 2016, a district-commissioned survey of 787 teachers at schools with extended hours found that two-thirds of teachers at schools where the extra time was spent on student instruction said the time was valuable. But in a survey the union conducted in April, the 278 teachers who responded gave the extended hours low ratings for effectiveness in boosting student achievement.

Some teachers in the union survey praised the longer hours, saying their schools used them effectively to lengthen class periods, run after-school clubs, or allow teachers to plan lessons or review student data. But others said the extra time was squandered, leaving staff and students exhausted with little evidence of improved student outcomes to show for it. (Students’ pass rates on state tests stayed flat or declined at most “renew” schools in the first years of the program.)

The union also has complained that many teachers felt compelled to work the extra hours because those who refused to could be transferred to different schools. Under the terms of the original extended-day agreement, teachers were required to work an extra hour per day and attend trainings during the summer and some weekends.

In León’s email to employees, he said every extended-day school had set different work requirements and “none are consistent with the original design.” The longer days may also be contributing to high teacher turnover in those schools, he wrote, adding that principals of schools with regular hours told him they did not want to extend their hours.

Abeigon, the union president, applauded León’s decision to scrap the extra work hours.

“He came to the conclusion that we expected any true educator to reach: that the program was not working and was never going to work,” he said.

León said Thursday that he is now working on a new turnaround program. Once it’s ready, he promised to share the details with affected families before publicly announcing which schools are part of it — an effort to avoid the student protests that erupted when Anderson identified her “turnaround” schools.

He also said he was still considering whether he would ever close schools that fail to improve or to reverse their declining enrollments. Anderson’s decision to shutter nearly a dozen long-struggling schools continues to fuel resentment among her critics even years later.

“I think the whole idea of how much time does a school get to correct itself is a very important one and I’m going to need to be really reflective on it,” León said. “I’ve seen what closing schools does with people who do not feel that they were aware of it or a part of fixing it.”