teaching teaching

How three veteran New York City educators are trying to change the way math teachers are trained

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder

For years, Peter Cipparone and Kim Van Duzer taught math next door to each other at P.S. 29 in Brooklyn. And while they each puzzled over how to convey the power of fractions to fourth graders, they almost never compared notes.

So, about two years ago, they did something obvious yet surprisingly uncommon: They observed each other’s classes and had conversations about what they saw.

“We learned a lot from watching each other teach,” Cipparone said. “That seems like a very simple practice, but it’s amazing how rare that is.”

The pair found their conversations so useful that they helped start NYC Math Lab, a program designed to give more teachers a chance to watch each other teach elementary math, and improve their instruction by discussing what they saw.

The idea behind the math lab is to break down some of the barriers that can get in the way of that kind of teacher training: Coordinating schedules, finding a group of students who are available to be observed over several days, and perhaps most importantly, overcoming the tradition of classrooms being closed to outsiders.

“At first we were really nervous – teaching is so private,” recalls Van Duzer of her first experiences teaching for an audience of peers.

Based on a successful first run last summer, the program is gearing up for its second year and is accepting applications for 25 teachers to participate this July. But its founders hope to expand the number of teachers who participate in the future – by moving to a larger space or running new labs – to encourage more teacher training that includes live observation and analysis.

“Sometimes I go to [professional development] sessions where there are no kids and I go back to my classroom and it doesn’t go so well,” Van Duzer said. At the math lab, she notes, “If it doesn’t work, we’re going to tinker with it.”

The lab isn’t just about helping teachers, though – its founders are trying to excite students who may have been told they’re not good at math. All of the students who participate in the math lab do so as part of an existing summer program offered by the Hudson Guild, a community based organization that serves low-income families.

“In society, there [have] been fairly clear messages about who can and can’t do math,” Cipparone said. “And this breaks down that stereotype effect.”

Cipparone, Van Duzer, and Kate Abell, a veteran New York City teacher who helps coordinate teacher training throughout the city, founded the program in part to promote a less traditional way of teaching math. Instead of thinking about math as a series of procedures that have to be memorized and applied, they construct lessons that require students to understand and debate fundamental concepts and speak up when they don’t get it.

Participating teachers shared their thoughts on last summer's math lab.
PHOTO: NYC Math Lab
Participating teachers shared their thoughts on last summer’s math lab.

In one typical lesson, for instance, students are given a series of differently sized wooden rods and asked to assemble them on a number line. Then, they’re tasked with having a conversation about which rods represent what fraction of the line and must defend their answers.

“Math teaching can be very oriented around, ‘Did you get it right? And if not, then you don’t get it,’” Van Duzer said. “We tell them, ‘In this community, it has to make sense to you.’”

The lab follows the same structure each day. Teachers spend the morning going over a lesson plan, working through the problems they’ll be asking students tackle. Next, the lab’s three founders rotate teaching that day’s two hour teaching block while the other 25 teachers sit around the perimeter and watch students work through the lesson.

The full group of teachers spend the afternoon reviewing each student’s work, analyzing the lesson, and making suggestions to improve the next day’s teaching. Finally, they talk about how students’ ideas about math develop in relation to Common Core standards.

Later in the week, the teacher observers can work one-on-one with students to focus on each student’s thinking, something that is often difficult in the context of a typical class period.

The idea of public teaching as a way of improving instruction was directly inspired by the Elementary Mathematics Lab at the University of Michigan, which helped pioneer the model over a decade ago (and where Cipparone is currently working on a doctorate).

[Chalkbeat CEO Elizabeth Green has written extensively about the history of teacher training, including Michigan’s math lab. You can find a Q&A with her here.]

But according to Nicole Garcia, who directs the university’s math lab, the New York lab is the first known offshoot of their model.

“I think it’s amazing to see somebody take up this work and try to bring it to their own context,” Garcia said. “It is a little bit surprising that there aren’t more efforts to do this kind of work.”

Figuring out whether the New York math lab is actually having an effect on the way its participants teach is a challenging question, its founders note, and one they’re trying to address. For the first time this year, they received a $6,000 grant to track participating teachers before and after the lab to see how their instruction changes.

Still, they acknowledge that the math lab isn’t about disseminating one correct teaching method that everyone is supposed to adopt – it’s about having conversations that can make teachers more thoughtful educators.

“We are not saying this is model teaching,” Cipparone said. “We’re saying this is teaching for all of us to study.”

The right stuff

Who will be Tennessee’s next education chief? Gov.-elect Bill Lee is getting lots of advice

PHOTO: TN.gov
As outgoing Gov. Bill Haslam looks on, Gov.-elect Bill Lee speaks at the state Capitol the day after being elected the 50th governor of Tennessee. His 75-day transition will end with his inauguration on Jan. 19.

The changing of the guard that’s coming to the Tennessee governor’s office will now definitely come also to the department overseeing state education policy.

Candice McQueen took herself out of the running to continue as education commissioner with last week’s announcement that she’ll transition in January to a new job as CEO of the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching.

While it was unlikely she would have stayed on permanently given the challenges with testing during her four-year tenure, McQueen’s planned departure cleans the slate for Gov.-elect Bill Lee to start fresh in finding the right fit to lead his vision for Tennessee schools.

The Republican businessman faces lots of choices in making one of the most important picks of his 23-member cabinet: Homegrown talent or a national search? Classroom teaching experience or workforce expertise? A quick hire or an extended search?

And he’s been getting a lot of advice.

From advocacy and philanthropic groups to the higher education and business communities, Tennessee has a large number of partners and stakeholders who care deeply about continuing the state’s momentum to improve student achievement.

“We believe that decisions made around talent and who is going to be working on education — either in the governor’s office or state Department of Education — are some of the most important decisions that the next governor will make,” said David Mansouri, president of the State Collaborative on Reforming Education, or SCORE, a nonprofit group that works closely with the education department.

“We’re looking for someone who’s going to hold the line on the school accountability framework that the state has worked so hard to build,” said Gini Pupo-Walker, a leader with Conexión Américas, which advocates for Latino families in Nashville. “We want to keep up the urgency around improving performance of different student groups and making sure that we are bringing up all kids.”

Transition period

Since winning the election on Nov. 6, Lee has huddled with a small team of advisers in a windowless office at the state Capitol to plan the transition to a new administration, including sorting through about 600 resumes submitted for various jobs in all departments.

Transition spokeswoman Laine Arnold said the plan is to have the full cabinet in place by Lee’s Jan. 19 inauguration. But, she added, “we will be open to extending this process if needed.”

Lee’s pick for schools chief is considered key — and not just because the governor-elect made education a priority on the campaign trail, including a frequent call for stronger career and technical education.

The new commissioner eventually will manage a department of more than 600 employees overseeing a public school system for about a million students, 78,000 certified educators, and $6 billion in school funding.

And because Congress voted to cede much control over K-12 policy to state officials under a 2015 federal law, the commissioner plays an even larger role than in decades past.

Homegrown vs. national

Because of the high stakes, groups like SCORE are urging Lee to cast a wide net in his search for a successor to McQueen.

“We should aspire to have best-in-class and best-in-the-nation talent, just like we’ve had the last 10 years,” said Mansouri. “That may mean the person is from Tennessee, or from somewhere else.”

PHOTO: TN.gov
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen was one of Gov. Bill Haslam’s most visible cabinet members.

Other groups emphasize the value of being familiar with Tennessee schools.

“As an organization comprised of school district leaders, we believe it would be an advantage for a state commissioner of education to have experience both in the classroom and as a public school system leader in Tennessee,” said Dale Lynch, executive director of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents.

Adds Beth Brown, president of the Tennessee Education Association: “The next commissioner should have a practical understanding of what goes on in our public schools. Having that kind of leader in place will go a long way to restoring teachers’ confidence in our Department of Education.”

Last handoff

When Republican Bill Haslam took the baton from Democrat Phil Bredesen in 2011 in the last gubernatorial handoff, he conducted a national search before plucking Kevin Huffman from the ranks of the education reform movement as his point person on schools.

A lawyer who was an executive with Teach For America in Washington, D.C., Huffman was tasked with managing Tennessee’s just-approved overhaul of K-12 schools as part of its $500 million federal Race to the Top award. The Obama-era competition had incentivized states to adopt shared academic standards, improve its lowest-performing schools, measure students’ growth over time, and design policies to reward and retain top teachers.

State education commissioner Kevin Huffman.
PHOTO: TN.gov
Kevin Huffman was Tennessee’s education commissioner from 2011 to 2014.

A polarizing leader, Huffman left after three years of clashing with teacher groups, district leaders, and state lawmakers over policies ranging from teacher licensing and evaluations to charter schools and Common Core.

Haslam then turned to McQueen, a native of Clarksville, Tenn., former teacher, and respected dean of education at Nashville’s Lipscomb University.

“She was a kinder, gentler Kevin Huffman,” said Dan Lawson, long-time school superintendent in Tullahoma. “They shared the same political agenda and underpinning, but Candice was able to deliver it in a smoother, less abrasive fashion.”

McQueen held the rudder steady on the state’s new roadmap, plus bolstered supports for teachers, tweaked school turnaround strategies, and launched a major reading initiative. But ongoing fumbles delivering a state test took their toll.

Interim or not

The complexities of education policy, including Tennessee’s pioneering changes over the last decade, are why SCORE leaders hope that Lee doesn’t rush to make a hire.

“We think that having a thoughtful approach that looks for the best in the nation is the right one,” said Mansouri. “If that takes time, that’s OK. It’s about getting the right person.”

There’s precedent here.

Before Haslam hired Huffman several months after taking office, he leaned on acting commissioner Patrick Smith, who had led the state’s Race to the Top oversight team under Bredesen.

Other groups agree that a thorough search is in order.

“My sense is that the Lee administration will look for top talent and let quality drive their hiring decisions. But having some ties to Tennessee will be a huge bonus,” said Shaka Miller, state director of the American Federation for Children, a group that Lee has supported and that backs a “school choice” agenda, including charter schools and voucher-like programs.

Qualities and qualifications

On the campaign trail, Lee pledged to hire the most talented and qualified people for his administration.

Arnold adds: “He’s looking for those who share his vision in making Tennessee a national leader, while also ensuring geographic and individual diversity.”

While she declined to discuss names, Lee has sought advice from two superintendents from West Tennessee — Dorsey Hopson in Shelby County and Marlon King in Fayette County — both of whom were on a 72-person campaign list of Tennesseans who supported or advised him on education.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Dorsey Hopson is superintendent of Shelby County Schools, Tennessee’s largest district.

Hopson’s backing of the millionaire Republican candidate from affluent suburban Williamson County raised eyebrows — and some fury — among his mostly urban Democratic district in Memphis, which has the state’s highest share of impoverished students.

Hopson told Chalkbeat at the time that he was “not angling for a job,” but rather that he and Lee had developed a mutual respect while getting to know each during the last year and a half.

“We routinely discussed faith, family, government, and education issues,” said Hopson, a lawyer who has headed Tennessee’s largest district since 2013. “I appreciated the thoughtful and humble way that he sought my input.”

Asked last week about Hopson, Lee told Memphis TV station Local 24 News that he hadn’t spoken with the superintendent specifically about his administration but added: “He has a role. We talk. We’ve become friends. I have a great deal of respect for his expertise.”

Hopson would have to take a pay cut, however, if Lee offered and he accepted the commissioner’s job. As superintendent, he makes $285,000 a year. The salary for the state’s education chief is $200,000.

Follow the ratings

Illinois education officials laud their school ratings — but critics say they don’t go far enough

Illinois rolled out its new school accountability system in the Illinois Report Card late last month.

State education officials publicly lauded their new school rating system Friday, even as a new, nationwide analysis of school improvement plans criticized Illinois’ approach as too hands-off.  

While the state developed a clear rating system as the federal government requires, Illinois falls short in follow-through, according to the report from the Collaborative for Student Success, a non-profit advocacy group, and HCM Strategies, a policy analysis group.  

“The state is taking too limited a role in leading or supporting school improvement efforts,” said the report, which examined how 17 states are implementing school improvement plans under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which was passed in 2015 and replaced the No Child Left Behind Act.

Both those federal laws task states with identifying and helping improve underperforming schools and with creating criteria to judge which schools are doing well. Illinois rolled out its new school accountability system in the Illinois Report Card late last month.

State officials disagree with the criticism.

“Illinois is being held up as a model for other states to follow,” said Ralph Grimm, chief education officer of Illinois, speaking at the monthly state board of education meeting on Friday. “The entire (state) team has to be commended for providing useful information.”

Illinois’ rating system places every public school in the state into one of four categories based in part on scores on the annual PARCC standardized tests (click here to see how Chicago schools ranked).

Only about a third of Illinois students scored proficient or higher on PARCC tests administered last spring. In reading, 37 percent of students in grades 3 through 8 met that benchmark, while in math 31 percent did. Despite that, the state awarded 80 percent of its schools a “commendable” or “exemplary” rating. 

The state labeled 20 percent of schools “underperforming” or “low performing,” the only designations that could trigger state action. Intervention measures include improvement plans, visits from specialists, and additional funding.

The state released its ratings just days after Chicago released its own batch of school ratings, which take into account a different set of metrics and a different standardized test.

Grimm said the next step will be asking the state’s lowest-performing schools to draft improvement plans and then connecting them with experts to implement their changes.

The state ratings pay particular attention to how schools educate certain groups of students — such as children of color and English language learners. Improvement plans will focus on ways to raise their achievement levels.

Under the latest state rankings, nearly half of Chicago schools failed to meet the state’s threshold for performance, with a disproportionate number of high schools on the low-performance list. Nearly all of under- and low-performing Chicago high schools are on the South Side and sit in or border on the city’s poorest census tracts.

The state could grant underperforming schools $15,000, and  the lowest performers can apply for $100,000 under its IL-Empower program — which helped schools improve by funneling federal funds to them. Advocates have welcomed the change to a carrot to help schools pull themselves up, after years of sticks that overhauled and cut funding for low-performing schools.

Nationally, the Collaborative for Student Success report applauded Colorado for its streamlined application system, and Nevada for asking districts to directly address equity.

The collaborative criticized Illinois for failing to involve parents and community members in its plan. The group also said the state needs to give districts more guidance on putting together school improvement plans.