September 17, 2013
ALBANY — When Principal Alonta Wrighton wanted to open up P.S. 11 a week earlier than normal to prepare teachers for a year of big changes, red tape blocked her.
First, Wrighton said, she needed a permit and $2,200 to pay to keep the school open longer than normal.
And then she still couldn’t require her staff to show up, since the week before Labor Day was not among the training days listed in the city’s contract with the teachers union.
Both issues inhibited city schools’ ability to implement the Common Core standards, Wrighton said during a panel discussion of educators at Monday’s Board of Regents meeting in Albany.
“[Professional development] should be looked at as a given,” Wrighton said. “I should not have to use my budget to open up my building early and train my teachers.”
Wrighton’s concerns were among many raised by the five educators invited from around the state to speak about the challenges that continue to face schools in the second year of the standards’ rollout. Her request for more required training time reflected a contract issue between the city and the United Federation of Teachers, but it also illustrated the depth of support that educators say is needed to successfully transition to the Common Core.
State Education Commissioner John King said time for teacher training would be a crucial issue for the next New York City mayor to tackle when he sits down with the teachers union next year.
“I think one challenge, when contract negotiations happen for the New York City UFT contract, will be to look at the question of professional development and how much time is set aside, how are costs covered, and those kinds of questions,” King said.
Monday was the first meeting for Board of Regents, which sets policy for the State Education Department, since the school year began. It also came a day before the Regents policies are set to come under scrutiny at the first of four hearings that State Sen. John Flanagan has called to take a critical look at how teacher evaluations and Common Core have rolled out since last year.
The panel discussion at the Board of Regents meeting wasn’t as contentious as the hearings are expected to be, but several educators did echo criticism that’s been lodged since last year.
“We’ve got to find a way to slow down where we can slow down,” said Mike Ford, superintendent of Phelps-Clifton Springs Central School District, a rural school district with many low-income students.
Ford said his teachers were “flying blindly” in preparing for the state tests and he urged state officials to release test items as a way to help guide what to teach. Officials have declined the request in recent years, though they released a small selection of items from this year’s tests, the first to be tied to the Common Core, over the summer.
While several of the panelists said they used the state’s Common Core curriculum web site, EngageNY.org, to source curriculum materials, they also said the site still did not have enough resources for all grades and subjects.
Angelique Johnson, who runs one of the state’s 125 teacher centers, which offer professional development services to teachers, said that her budget is a fourth of what it was just a few years ago. She said that teacher centers could be an important way to provide training to teachers on Common Core, but said that budget cuts were a restriction.
Former Francis Lewis High School Principal Musa Ali Shama said he is concerned that high schools would see the same dramatic declines that elementary and middle schools experienced this year once the Regents exams are aligned to the new standards.
The annual standards provide a framework to guide how to develop curriculum modules and lessons that build on each other over time, beginning in the earliest grades. Shama argued that since this year’s ninth-graders, who will take a new Common Core-aligned math test this year, did not benefit from years of the standards, they will unfairly receive low grades.
“You would hate to hear that only 30 percent of your students are prepared for college,” said Shama, who is now overseeing principal evaluations for the city Department of Education.
Wrighton suggested that her school’s math test results this year bore out Shama’s argument. P.S. 11′s third graders, who entered kindergarten when P.S. 11 fully adopted the new math standards, significantly outperformed students in higher grades, bucking a statewide trend.
Wrighton credited her school’s math specialist, Rasheda Rand, and Rand’s content expertise — Rand was a math major in college — as a reason for her school’s strong math scores.
Wrighton said that hiring restrictions in the city limited principals’ ability to bring on the people they need to reach the new standards. Out of 50 candidates she interviewed over the summer, she said just four were ones that she’d consider hiring.
Principals need the opportunity to hire the “best, smartest and brightest minds,” Wrighton said, “not just warm bodies, not just certifications and diplomas.”
The Regents will turn their attention to teacher preparation today during their higher education meeting.