LAEP NewsBlast Week of 1/28/14

Rocketship: too far too fast?

Rocketship Education’s flexible classrooms are a cautionary tale about the conviction that technological innovation can fuel rapid school expansion without compromising quality, writes Benjamin Herold for Education Week. The flexible classrooms, in which one teacher might oversee a hundred or more students, have, by Rocketship’s own admission, strained the organization and exposed underlying problems. Some Rocketship leaders, for example, now acknowledge their original blended-learning model may be more effective at teaching students to follow directions than to think for themselves. Red flags have also arisen around finances: Documents and interviews make clear that the new, flexible classrooms were originally devised as part of a plan to cut staff, save $200,000 annually per school, and redirect funds to start up new Rocketship schools. A sweeping experiment with flexible classrooms during 2012-13 resulted in sharp networkwide test-score drops and dissension among the organization’s rank and file. Rocketship CEO and co-founder Preston Smith staunchly defends the organization against critics who accuse it of pushing too hard to expand blended learning’s boundaries. In an interview, he said the organization has committed to going slower with its new model. Meanwhile, blended-learning enthusiasts, undeterred by such troubles, remain eager for Rocketship to remain aggressive, and Rocketship officials maintain a steadfast conviction in the power of the educational model they are developing. More

New Jersey’s Abbott pre-k as a model

Officials across the country, including Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York City, are looking to efforts like those in New Jersey as they seek to broaden access to free, full-day prekindergarten, writes Javier Hernández in The New York Times. Though experts differ on the long-term benefits of preschool, the programs in 31 low-income districts in New Jersey are widely acknowledged for strong results. But they are also more expensive and intensive than what many officials — including de Blasio and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York — have proposed. In New Jersey, students attend prekindergarten for two years, and class sizes are limited to 15. Teachers generally have more training than in New York. And it took more than a decade to perfect the model: The districts faced a host of challenges, including persuading families to enroll and rolling out a robust curriculum. But New Jersey’s experience with prekindergarten also offers evidence that two-year prekindergarten programs may be more valuable to disadvantaged students than one-year programs. A Rutgers University study last year of prekindergarten programs in high-poverty New Jersey districts showed that students who participated in prekindergarten as 3- and 4-year-olds outperformed those who enrolled for only one year. More

How much freedom do teachers (feel they) have?

A new brief from the Center for American Progress examines the balance between teacher accountability and autonomy as it impacts innovation, career satisfaction, and student results. Using recent national data on teacher attitudes, the authors found overwhelming percentages of teachers feel they have a great deal of autonomy. More than 90 percent say they have a good deal of control over teaching techniques; similar patterns are found at every level, across all subject areas, in all 50 states. Eighty-nine percent of teachers are “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with their jobs, according to a recent Scholastic and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation survey; results were similar in a recent MetLife teacher survey. Even in states with the lowest levels of control over methods and topics taught, most teachers report some control. Policymakers have definitely increased demands on teachers in recent years, and recent reforms at the state and national level have limited teacher discretion. The authors feel, however, that the bigger problem in public education might be too much autonomy, which makes it hard to create a true profession and clear adherence to a common body of knowledge. More

Dispensing with tenure in NC
Legislators in North Carolina say recent laws that eliminate “career status” — which ensured tenure-type protections — will make underperforming teachers easier to fire, reports Casey Blake for The Asheville Times (North Carolina). For more than 40 years, veteran teachers in North Carolina couldn’t be fired or demoted except for a series of listed reasons that include poor performance, immorality, and insubordination. Career teachers also had the right to a hearing to challenge reasons offered for their firing or demotion. The new laws do away with these protections by 2018. The legislation also allows for districts to offer one-time, four-year contracts and salary bonuses to their top 25 percent of performers, but officials are finding that developing criteria for that 25 percent is unprecedentedly difficult: Special education teachers will compete with AP teachers, educators in wealthy districts will compete with those in high-poverty districts. Another concern is that the 25-percent measure will undermine the Professional Learning Communities model, a collaborative program that districts have long touted as successful professional development. And one of many unanswered questions is what will become of teachers who give up “career status” should the policy be overturned or tenure be reinstated. More

Blending special needs and voc ed

The Banneker Special Education Center and the Doyle Career and Transition Center are part of a transformation of special-needs education in the Los Angeles Unified School District, writes Rob Kunzia in The Daily Breeze. The district is moving toward a model in which all of its 8,000 students with moderate-to-severe disabilities receive vocational training. At Doyle, students ages 18 to 22 with moderate to severe disabilities such as autism and mental retardation pick up skills that offer the chance to land a job and can make them happier, better-rounded adults. Students learn how to wash cars, pack and ship boxes, work as line cooks, make and sell jewelry, and work with power tools. Banneker Special Education Center caters to students with more severe disabilities and has now launched enterprises that encourage vocational skills, as well. Its nail salon charges $1.50 a session to “customers” like teachers, parents, and district administrators. The “Banneker Brews” class sells the coffee it prepares; the “Banneker Bistro” class makes lunch for staff; and a copy service serves the school. “It’s about quality of life,” said Cydney Schwarzberg, Banneker’s assistant principal. “We go to work every day, make contributions to society, and feel a reward for what we’ve done. We want them to have the same opportunity… Society needs to look at these kids as resources.” More

No quick fix for observation rubrics

A new review by the National Education Policy Center of a report by The New Teacher Project finds the report includes no research-informed argument to support its claim that its recommended observation rubrics will improve implementation of teacher-evaluation systems by fixing inadequate observer training, insufficient monitoring of rater calibration, and lack of time or low skills in providing instructional feedback. The report argues that current observation rubrics are not aligned with the Common Core and have too many cumbersome criteria; observers are overloaded, give too many high ratings, and seldom give productive feedback. The report proposes two “must-have” changes: pay more attention to lesson content; and pare rubrics down to make them more focused and clear. These “must haves” may address some problems with classroom observations, but the reviewer feels they won’t provide much benefit. The root problem may not be the observation tools, the reviewer writes. New tools will have little success fixing problems that are driven primarily by poor observer training, poor monitoring of observer quality, inadequate time in schools for observers and teachers to confer, or lack of support for teachers to learn new instructional practices and curricula. More

The transgendered student law, in practice

While fate of a new California law that extends protections for transgendered students remains uncertain, school response has been varied — some adopting policies incorporating the law, some not, writes Kimberly Beltran for The Cabinet Report. AB 1266 was signed into law last fall by Gov. Jerry Brown. The law, which was to have taken effect January 1, amends existing California education law to require schools to allow a student to participate in sex-segregated programs and use facilities consistent with the student’s gender identity, regardless of biological sex. However, opponents of the law hoping to place a referendum on the November ballot have submitted 620,000 voter signatures to the state’s election department. Legal experts have in recent weeks advised administrators to set their own anti-discriminatory protocols for handling gender-identity questions — balancing the civil rights and needs of transgender students with the privacy of all students. The California School Boards Association recommends that districts handle requests or concerns around privacy issues, facility use, or participation on sports teams on a case-by-case basis “so that the unique needs of each student can be met.” Attempts should be made by school officials to meet with the student and, if appropriate, the student’s family to discuss the issue of privacy as well as other student needs, CSBA guidance says. More

Chicago’s longer days 

For decades, public school students in Chicago had one of the shortest school days in the country, but in fall of 2012 Mayor Rahm Emmanuel lengthened the day and year, writes Sarah Neufeld in The Atlantic Monthly. Less than a year later, Chicago Public Schools’ deficit, caused largely by a crisis in pension funding, hit $1 billion; the district is still giving students more time to learn, but is no longer giving more money. According to interviews with teachers, administrators, parents, and students, Chicago’s longer school day has rolled out with a host of problems, primarily related to funding. The city initially hired hundreds of new teachers to help with the expanded schedule, since it could not afford to pay existing teachers to work longer hours, but now officials have eliminated more jobs than they created. At some schools, newly added art and music classes have been cut back, and the mandatory reintroduction of recess without funding for supervision has created a logistical nightmare. The Chicago initiative stands out for its scope, and advocates of more learning time praise Emanuel for taking a stand on a critical issue, even if things aren’t immediately running smoothly. It’s too soon to say whether the longer day has affected student achievement. City officials have brought it up in connection with improved attendance and graduation rates and a decline in the city’s murder rate last year, as well as in highlighting the positives in mixed test results. More

BRIEFLY NOTED CALIFORNIA
Should zip code be destiny?Location plays a significant part in determining whether California students are prepared for college, according to a new study that found significant differences in college-going rates across the state. MoreOpen for business

The California Department of Education officially opened the grant application process for a $250 million state fund for career- and college-readiness programs, signaling the start of a fierce competition among education leaders seeking to forge stronger student connections between the classroom and the workplace. More

All (education) politics is local

In his State of the State speech, Gov. Jerry Brown made it clear again where he thinks the action should be when it comes to school reform – at the local level. More

Questioning access

California advocacy group Common Sense Media is concerned about who besides administrators are using school data, such as software and publishing companies who created the tests and assignments and use it to improve products, increase sales, and target advertising. More

Keeps on giving

The LA84 Foundation has awarded $1.7 million in grants to Southern California youth organizations; money comes from surplus funds from the 1984 Olympic Games. More

BRIEFLY NOTED 
Louisiana still faces a technology shortfall…Two-thirds of Louisiana districts now have enough computers to effectively administer tests tied to the Common Core Standards, but at least an additional $6 million will need to be invested to bring the rest up to scratch. More… but it could be worse

Maryland schools will be scrambling to make $100 million in technological and other upgrades to give new state tests aligned with the Common Core standards next year, according to a report to the legislature by the Maryland State Department of Education. More

Stiff opposition

One hundred school boards across Virginia — more than 75 percent of the total — have passed resolutions in support of a lawsuit challenging a state board approved by the General Assembly last year to take over the most chronically struggling schools in the state. More

Damage control

D.C. Public Schools officials have changed how they evaluate principals in response to complaints that the previous system — which rated more than half of the city’s principals below “effective” — was unfair and too tightly hitched to student test scores. More

Stay the course

Florida Education Commissioner Pam Stewart said she doesn’t support a proposal from state school superintendents to overhaul the school grading system as Florida switches to the Common Core State Standards — and statewide tests — next school year. More

Recalibration needed

Delaware’s move away from a state-created test to the Smarter Balanced Assessment for the Common Core State Standards could make it difficult for the state to set goals for how much students’ scores are expected to grow, a measure for teacher evaluations. More

You won’t feel a thing

Proposed changes to Michigan’s teacher-evaluation system could cost local and intermediate districts as much as $42 million, but the sponsors of the proposed changes say most of the expenses are one-time costs the state could reimburse through the budget surplus. More

No thanks

New Hampshire has dumped the GED, joining a growing list of states that have embraced competing high school equivalency tests instead of a revised, more expensive GED. More

High-stakes testing gets another black eye

Three Philadelphia Public Schools principals were fired last week after an investigation into test cheating that has implicated about 140 teachers and administrators. More

GRANTS AND FUNDING OPPORTUNITIES

Humane Society of the United States: National KIND Teacher Award

National Association for Humane and Environmental Education KIND Teacher Award recognizes an outstanding teacher who consistently incorporates humane and environmental education into his or her curriculum. Maximum award: recognition and a packet of grade-appropriate humane education materials. Eligibility: teachers K-6. Deadline: February 15, 2014.

NABT: Outstanding New Biology Teacher Achievement Award 
The National Association of Biology Teachers Outstanding New Biology Teacher Achievement Award recognizes outstanding by a “new” biology/life science instructor within his/her first three years of teaching (when nominated) who has developed an original and outstanding program or technique and made a contribution to the profession at the start of his/her career. Maximum award: a travel fellowship, microscope, recognition plaque to be presented at the NABT Professional Development Conference, and one year of complimentary membership to NABT. Eligibility: teachers grades 7-12. Deadline: March 15, 2014.

NABT: The Ron Mardigian Biotechnology Teaching Award 
The National Association of Biology Teachers Ron Mardigian Biotechnology Teaching Award recognizes a teacher who demonstrates outstanding and creative teaching of biotechnology in the classroom. The award may be given for either a short-term series of activities or a long-term integration of biotechnology into the curriculum. The lessons must include active laboratory work and encompass major principles as well as processes of biotechnology. Criteria for selection include creativity, scientific accuracy and currency, quality of laboratory practice and safety, ease of replication, benefit to students and potential significance beyond the classroom. Maximum award: a recognition plaque to be presented at the NABT Professional Development Conference, one year of complimentary membership to NABT, and $1500 (up to $500 toward travel to the NABT Professional Development Conference and $1000 in Bio-Rad materials). Eligibility: secondary school teachers Deadline: March 15, 2014

QUOTE OF THE WEEK:

“They decided instead to go after individual teacher rights in the guise of helping children. Instead of working on fighting segregation, on fighting for equity, what this group of lawyers are doing is actually just trying to strip individual teachers’ rights away.” – AFT President Randi Weingarten regarding the lawsuit in California that challenges teacher tenure protections.