teachers unite

A new union of teachers forms over happy hours and Facebook

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Sydney Morris (left) and Evan Stone (right), two teachers in the Bronx, founded Educators 4 Excellence to give teachers frustrated with how they're evaluated a voice in policy debates.

New York City’s teachers union likes to say that it speaks for all teachers. But two young teachers at a Bronx elementary school are starting an organization with a distinctly different point of view.

Both in their third year of teaching at P.S. 86 in the Bronx, Evan Stone and Sydney Morris started “Educators 4 Excellence” last month out of frustration with how their work is supported and evaluated.

One of their first battles will be against the state’s “last-in, first-out” law, which forces the city to lay off newer teachers in advance of their more experienced colleagues.

“We want it to be the ostensible solution to a lot of screaming on both sides,” said Stone, 25.

Only a few weeks old, the organization mainly exists though its website, which asks teachers to sign a petition in favor of repealing the last-in, first-out law. So far, the group has 520 fans on Facebook. The organization is  holding happy hour gatherings on Fridays, unconsciously modeling some of the United Federation of Teachers’ founders, who gathered for whiskey sours in Al Shanker’s one-bedroom apartment on Friday nights.

Educators 4 Excellence is also generating enthusiasm from more established advocates such as Democrats for Education Reform founder and board member Whitney Tilson.

Beyond advocating for the legislature to overturn the law — something Chancellor Joel Klein supports and the union strongly opposes — Stone and Morris said they want Educators 4 Excellence to become an independent think tank for teachers who want to overhaul how they’re evaluated and what’s done with that information. Part of that includes supporting merit pay and using students’ test scores as a factor in teacher evaluations.

For the moment, the organization is entirely unfunded and run by full-time teachers.

Stone and Morris, both of whom entered the classroom by way of Teach for America, said they spent their first two years catching their breath, and when their third year came around they felt settled and accomplished, but dissatisfied. Aside from getting a once-a-year rating of satisfactory or unsatisfactory, they didn’t know how well they were doing or how to improve, and they began to talk about leaving their school.

“Why are we thinking about leaving this job that we’re both pretty good at and is really rewarding for us?” said Stone. “We want to be pushed, we wanted to be evaluated, and we wanted someone to come into our classroom and tell us how to be better.”

One solution they discussed was going to work for a charter school, where they felt the likelihood of having a principal devoted to improving teaching would be higher, said Morris, 24. But that felt like a cop-out.

“I think charter schools are a necessary part of the solution, but for me to leave a traditional public school was almost in a way giving up on the students I’d been working with for the last three years,” Morris said.

Both maintain that the problem is not with their school’s administration or with the union as a whole, but with the policies dictated by state laws and teachers union contract.

“We’re not anti-union,” Stone said. “We’re big fans of the benefits that teachers get and we like the pensions and collective bargaining, but we also need to look out for the prestige of the profession.”

Betsy DeVos

To promote virtual schools, Betsy DeVos cites a graduate who’s far from the norm

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos spoke to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools in June.

If Betsy Devos is paying any attention to unfolding critiques of virtual charter schools, she didn’t let it show last week when she spoke to free-market policy advocates in Bellevue, Washington.

Just days after Politico published a scathing story about virtual charters’ track record in Pennsylvania, DeVos, the U.S. education secretary, was touting their successes at the Washington Policy Center’s annual dinner.

DeVos’s speech was largely identical in its main points to one she gave at Harvard University last month. But she customized the stories of students who struggled in traditional schools with local examples, and in doing so provided an especially clear example of why she believes in virtual schools.

From the speech:

I also think of Sandeep Thomas. Sandeep grew up impoverished in Bangalore, India and experienced terrible trauma in his youth. He was adopted by a loving couple from New Jersey, but continued to suffer from the unspeakable horrors he witnessed in his early years. He was not able to focus in school, and it took him hours to complete even the simplest assignment.

This changed when his family moved to Washington, where Sandeep was able to enroll in a virtual public school. This option gave him the flexibility to learn in the quiet of his own home and pursue his learning at a pace that was right for him. He ended up graduating high school with a 3.7 GPA, along with having earned well over a year of college credit. Today, he’s working in finance and he is a vocal advocate for expanding options that allow students like him a chance to succeed.

But Thomas — who spoke at a conference of a group DeVos used to chair, Advocates for Children, in 2013 as part of ongoing work lobbying for virtual charters — is hardly representative of online school students.

In Pennsylvania, Politico reported last week, 30,000 students are enrolled in virtual charters with an average 48 percent graduation rate. In Indiana, an online charter school that had gotten a stunning six straight F grades from the state — one of just three schools in that positionis closing. And an Education Week investigation into Colorado’s largest virtual charter school found that not even a quarter of the 4,000 students even log on to do work every day.

The fact that in many states with online charters, large numbers of often needy students have enrolled without advancing has not held DeVos back from supporting the model. (A 2015 study found that students who enrolled in virtual charters in Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin did just as well as similar students who stayed in brick-and-mortar schools.) In fact, she appeared to ignore their track records during the confirmation process in January, citing graduation rates provided by a leading charter operator that were far higher — nearly 40 points in one case — than the rates recorded by the schools’ states.

She has long backed the schools, and her former organization has close ties to major virtual school operators, including K12, the one that generated the inflated graduation numbers. In her first week as education secretary, DeVos said, “I expect there will be more virtual schools.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the location of the dinner.

expansion plans

Here are the next districts where New York City will start offering preschool for 3-year-olds

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, left, and Mayor Bill de Blasio, center, visited a "Mommy and Me" class in District 27 in Queens, where the city is set to expand 3-K For All.

New York City officials on Tuesday announced which school districts are next in line for free pre-K for 3-year-olds, identifying East Harlem and the eastern neighborhoods of Queens for expansion of the program.

Building on its popular universal pre-K program for 4-year-olds, the city this year began serving even younger students with “3-K For All” in two high-needs school districts. Mayor Bill de Blasio has said he wants to make 3-K available to every family who wants it by 2021.

“Our education system all over the country had it backwards for too long,” de Blasio said at a press conference. “We are recognizing we have to reach kids younger and more deeply if we’re going to be able to give them the foundation they need.”

But making preschool available to all of the city’s 3-year-olds will require an infusion of $700 million from the state or federal governments. In the meantime, de Blasio said the city can afford to expand to eight districts, at a cost of $180 million of city money a year.

Funding isn’t the only obstacle the city faces to make 3-K available universally. De Blasio warned that finding the room for an estimated 60,000 students will be a challenge. Space constraints were a major factor in picking the next districts for expansion, he said.

“I have to tell you, this will take a lot of work,” he said, calling it “even harder” than the breakneck rollout of pre-K for all 4-year-olds. “We’re building something brand new.”

De Blasio, a Democrat who is running for re-election in November, has made expansion of early childhood education a cornerstone of his administration. The city kicked off its efforts this September in District 7 in the South Bronx, and District 23 in Brownsville, Brooklyn. More than 2,000 families applied for those seats, and 84 percent of those living in the pilot districts got an offer for enrollment, according to city figures.

According to the timeline released Thursday, the rollout will continue next school year in District 4 in Manhattan, which includes East Harlem; and District 27 in Queens, which includes Broad Channel, Howard Beach, Ozone Park and Rockaways.

By the 2019 – 2020 school year, the city plans to launch 3-K in the Bronx’s District 9, which includes the Grand Concourse, Highbridge and Morrisania neighborhoods; and District 31, which spans all of Staten Island.

The 2020 – 2021 school year would see the addition of District 19 in Brooklyn, which includes East New York; and District 29 in Queens, which includes Cambria Heights, Hollis, Laurelton, Queens Village, Springfield Gardens and St. Albans.

With all those districts up and running, the city expects to serve 15,000 students.

Admission to the city’s pre-K programs is determined by lottery. Families don’t have to live in the district where 3-K is being offered to apply for a seat, though preference will be given to students who do. With every expansion, the city expects it will take two years for each district to have enough seats for every district family who wants one.