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.”

departures

As fate of ‘Newark Enrolls’ is debated, top enrollment officials resign

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

The top officials overseeing Newark’s controversial school-enrollment system have resigned just weeks after the school board blocked the new superintendent from ousting them.

Their departure creates new uncertainty for Newark Enrolls, one of the few enrollment systems in the country that allows families to apply to district and charter schools through a single online portal. Proponents say the centralized system simplifies the application process for families and gives them more options, while critics say it undermines traditional neighborhood schools while boosting charter-school enrollment.

Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon, chief of the Newark Public Schools division that includes enrollment, and Kate Fletcher, executive director of the enrollment office, both departed on Friday. The district did not provide information about why they left or who — if anyone — will replace them, and neither of the two could be reached for comment.

Their departure comes after Superintendent Roger León, who took over on July 1, included them among 31 officials and administrators who were given the option to resign or face being fired. Days later, the school board approved all but nine of the dismissals; Ramos-Solomon and Fletcher were among those spared.

Both officials were hired in 2013 shortly before former Superintendent Cami Anderson unveiled the enrollment system, then called One Newark, as part of a sweeping overhaul that also included closing some schools. Parents were outraged by the closures and the system’s glitchy rollout, which left some students without school placements and separated other students from their siblings.

In recent years, Ramos-Solomon has overseen improvements to the system, including tweaking the computer algorithm that matches students with schools to give a greater boost to families who live near their chosen schools. While district data shows that most students are matched with one of their top choices, critics remain wary of the system and some — including some board members — call for it to be dismantled.

León, a veteran Newark educator who was expected by some observers to oppose Newark Enrolls, said in a private meeting with charter-school leaders that he intends to keep the process in place. But he will have to win over the board, whose members have asked the district skeptical questions about the system in recent months, such as why some students are reportedly matched with charter schools they didn’t apply to. (The district says that does not happen.)

Board member Tave Padilla said he was not aware that Ramos-Solomon or Fletcher had resigned, and did not know whether replacements had been lined up. He added that the board had not discussed the fate of Newark Enrolls since a meeting in June where Ramos-Solomon provided information about the system, nor has the full board discussed the matter with León.

“The district now does have the option to keep what we have in place, modify it, or do away with it,” he said. “Whether we choose to do that or not, I don’t know.”

Future of Schools

Indiana is struggling to give kids speech therapy. Here’s why it’s getting harder.

PHOTO: Denver Post file

Indiana let emergency permits that make it easier for schools to hire high-demand speech-language pathologists lapse — and there won’t be time to address the oversight before the first day of classes.

“This is going to take legislative action to resolve,” said Risa Regnier, director of licensing for the Indiana Department of Education. “So there’s really no way to fix this for the beginning of school this year.”

The communication disorders emergency permits, which expired at the end of June, were created by a 2007 law to offer relief to schools struggling to find enough speech-language pathologists, educators say. While the number of students who will be affected wasn’t immediately available, nearly one-fifth of all special education students across the state need speech and language services.

The permits allowed schools to hire graduates of four-year speech-language programs who have been accepted to master’s programs, which are typically required for a full license as a speech-language pathologist.

But the employees who use these permits are no longer able to continue in their jobs, and the state cannot issue new permits unless lawmakers step in.

“You have to understand that we have a huge shortage of (speech-language pathologists),” said Ann Higgins, director of a special education cooperative that serves four districts in north central Indiana. “This is the beginning of my sixth year being director, and we have yet to be fully staffed … as a result, we’re constantly piecing together a puzzle, if you will, to provide speech services.”

These professionals can work in educational or medical settings, and their roles can vary widely depending on the students they serve. They might work on letter sounds with some students with milder needs, but they could also help students with more severe disabilities improve swallowing.

According to state data, 84 educators who currently have full communications disorders licenses once held emergency permits, and 190 have received them since 2007.

The emergency permits are a “last resort,” said Tammy Hurm, who handles legislative affairs for the Indiana Council of Administrators of Special Education. But they have made it possible for speech-language program graduates to work as pathologists while completing their licenses. With the permits, schools have had more flexibility around supervision, but permit-holders still couldn’t practice outside of what they’ve been educated to do.

Although the number of people affected might seem small, many districts are seeing a shortage, Hurm said, especially rural districts like Higgins’ that already have a hard time attracting people to jobs in their communities.

Because schools can rarely pay as much as a hospital or nursing home, schools are not as attractive for the already-small number of fully qualified speech-language pathology graduates. Part of that also stems from the fact that the needed master’s programs have caps on enrollment.

“A lot of the kids that graduate go directly into medical (jobs) because they pay more, they can work more days,” Higgins said. “Unless they have school experience or know that school is what they love … a lot go medical.”

This problem is not unique to Indiana. Across the country, demand for speech-language pathologists is projected to grow 18 percent by 2026, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s partially because of growth in other groups of people that need them, such as senior citizens, and because of growing school enrollment and earlier, more frequent identification of speech and language issues.

Without these permits, four-year graduates in speech and language can generally only be speech-language pathology assistants, which means they can offer certain services with supervision, Hurm said. Salaries can be hourly or close to what a starting teacher might make.

To get over the pay hurdle, Higgins has been creative. Her co-op runs entirely on federal funds, a strategy that began three years ago so she could pay speech-language pathologists higher salaries than what collective bargaining rules dictated. More than one-third of her budget is just spent on speech services.

But critics of the emergency permits say they’re a short-term solution and place under-qualified people in roles they aren’t prepared to handle.

Undergraduate students who study speech, language, and hearing sciences typically have only a theoretical knowledge of what communications disorders are like, not the clinical, hands-on experience they’d get at the graduate level to diagnose and treat children.

When the students get an emergency permit that grants them some responsibilities that usually only come with full licensure, it can be a disincentive to finish the program, critics point out.

“The problem with that is that those folks then are not put in a position where they have to continue their education,” said Janet Deppe, director of state advocacy for the The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. “We don’t necessarily believe that just putting a body in a place is going to make a difference in that child’s educational success and success beyond education.”

Adam Baker, spokesman for the education department, said education officials are discussing what to do about the permits now so that they can find a way forward and propose a solution during next year’s legislative session.

Higgins didn’t find out the permits were expiring until the spring — after the previous legislative session had already ended. With the emergency permits off the table for this year, Higgins has lost one employee. That leaves her with three full-time speech-language pathologists for the coming year in a co-op that serves about 1,170 students — 455 of which need speech services. To be fully staffed, she needs seven pathologists.

Each speech-language pathologist is responsible for about 60 students at a time, though it can grow to be closer to 70, she said.

To get by, Higgins is having retirees come in to supervise assistants, evaluate students, work on education plans, and write reports. She’s also using teletherapy — providing speech-language services over the internet — for high-schoolers, who generally need less intensive therapies.

The permit expiration is frustrating, she said, because it’s one more factor working against schools that have been trying to fully staff speech and language programs for years — and especially because for the majority of students, speech therapy can fix their issues. It’s not always the case, Higgins said, but many times, students’ speech or language problems are correctable with therapy, meaning they won’t need services in the future.

It puts the shortage, and the effects of losing the emergency permits, into perspective, she said.

“While there may not be many people impacted by this particular change … it just magnifies this whole shortage issue that we have with speech-language pathologists,” Higgins said. “We just lost a person that serves 60 kids.”