planning ahead

For some high school math teachers, a Common Core head start

Math teachers from New Visions schools gather for a Common Core training. (Courtesy Tim Farrell, New Visions)

The city’s teachers union has been clamoring for more time for teachers to prepare for the elementary and middle school state tests, which will be aligned to new curriculum standards this spring. Not so for the city’s high school teachers, who have another year to prepare for new tests.

The Department of Education is requiring high school teachers to align two units each semester this year to the Common Core. But beyond that, some teachers have said that without assessments to plan backwards from, they are at a loss about how to proceed, while others view the extra year as license to delay making more substantive changes.

But some high school teachers are seeking out help with the Common Core now, reasoning that it’s smart to work with the new standards while there’s still time to troubleshoot before students face tests based on them.

For math teachers at 14 Bronx schools, support is coming from the network hired to support their schools, New Visions for Public Schools. With a $13 million, five-year innovation grant from the U.S. Department of Education and the help of the Silicon Valley Math Initiative, New Visions is piloting a Common Core-aligned ninth-grade algebra curriculum in the hopes that it will challenge students more and build teachers’ skills.

In math, the Common Core expects teachers to cover fewer topics and instead push students to understand a few concepts thoroughly and apply that knowledge to solve real-life questions. So the New Visions curriculum, called “Accessing Algebra through Inquiry,” or A2i, provides teachers with abundant multi-step word problems and tasks that require students to think outside the textbook, then explain in writing how they used math concepts to solve practical questions.

The curriculum also asks teachers to structure their units differently than they have in the past, using special group projects and midpoint assessments to check students’ understanding.

Schools using A2i this year get a visit from a New Visions coach each week and send their teachers for extra training at least once a month.

Janet Price, New Visions’ director of instruction, said she expected to face trouble getting math teachers on board with the new curriculum, knowing that they might not see an immediate payoff from it this year.

“The kids still have to be prepared for the Regents, and whoever writes the Regents is not listening to the other part of the State Education Department,” she said. “They’re including a lot of questions on topics that the Common Core suggests should not be part of the math [tests], and that’s creating a big problem for us.”

But at a Friday-morning training at New Visions’ Chelsea offices last month, teachers said they thought the value of pushing their students to tackle more challenging work outweighed the risk of giving short shrift to some topics that will appear on this year’s state tests.

“Asking a student to take new information and make sense of it, and solve a problem that’s longer than a minute, I think that’s really valuable,” said Eric Benzel, a ninth-grade algebra teacher at the New Visions Charter High School for Advanced Math and Science.

“In general I feel like students think my class is a lot harder … but I think they enjoy it,” he added. “Students are used to failure being a really bad thing in math, but this is the first class where failure isn’t necessarily bad. A problem is something you actually have to try, and fail, and try something else, to get the answer.”

The paradigm shift has made for a bumpy start to the school year, some of the teachers said.

“It’s just so challenging because the kids weren’t taught like this before. In the past, the teacher models the problem and similar problems to work with,” said Michaela Pestejo, a math teacher at the Collegiate Institute for Math and Science.

In A2i, “formative assessments” are key to helping teachers get their students through the heightened struggle of learning something new. Two thirds of the way through each unit, small groups of students are asked to complete a worksheet about what they learned up to that point, and whether they can apply that knowledge to new problems.

After the group activity, the teacher returns the assessments to students and allows them to “fix up” their answers, Price explained, giving them a chance to rethink their work before handing it in for grading.

“You’re finding out whether they have the math or not while there is still time to do something about it before that final test and closing the book on that unit,” Price said. “The only way you’re going to know if the kids understand it or not is to look carefully at their work.”

Russell West, New Visions’ senior lead instructional specialist, said what makes A2i remarkable is not its individual elements — many schools already have them in place — but the way they are assembled.

“This is actually nothing brand new; this is stuff people have been working on for twenty years,” he said. “We’re just pulling it all together to support what the teachers are doing around the Common Core.”

The curriculum — which New Visions is rolling out to more of its schools, and in more grades, next year — is mostly new to New York City, West and Price said, though it has been used by a few schools in the past year, including the La Raza Network, which has a school in Brooklyn. The assessments are also being piloted in San Francisco, Chicago, and Georgia. The Shell Center, creator of the math assessments, has created about 60 math Common Core assessments for schools to use this year. It will be making more, and New Visions will be expanding the program to more schools next year.

The expansion will come as students are set to take Common Core-aligned Regents exams in math for the first time. Until then, teachers using the A2i curriculum are hoping that it doesn’t compromise their ability to help students pass this year’s test.

“We’re trying to hit two birds with one stone, in very different areas,” said Francesca DiPietro, another Collegiate Institute for Math and Science teacher. “That makes this year more difficult for us.”

The teachers said their solution so far to keep students from shutting down when faced with the tougher math problems has been to offer more tutoring, and to review lessons over multiple days, but they said it’s hard to do that while also covering the material students will see on exams they need to pass to graduate.

It’s true that the state’s old standards and the Common Core diverge at several points, West said. But he said A2i lets teachers cover their bases by including topics from the old standards as they prepare students to answer more complex questions.

“Triangles are the perfect example of a ninth-grade topic that isn’t in the ninth-grade Common Core,” he said. Instead, trigonometry is a 10th-grade topic. So, West said, “during this transition we’re making sure the kids are being asked to use the skills with triangles in the tasks that we’re giving them this year.”

Benzel said working with A2i has underscored his wish that high school exams would be overhauled faster — exactly the opposite of what some elementary and middle school educators say they want.

“What we’re really assessed on as teachers and students right now is … the ability to solve these single-step, algorithmic, terrible problems that the Regents is built on,” he said. “I’m trying to make the transition, but we’re anticipating the future while we’re still stuck in these 40-year-old assessments.”

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede