Beth Fertig is WNYC’s Contributing Editor for Education. She previously covered politics, which included City Hall during the Giuliani administration, and the U.S. Senate campaigns of Charles Schumer and Hillary Clinton. She also covered transportation and infrastructure.
The Big Fix: Fixing Schools, Fixing Teachers
Tuesday, June 28, 2011
Student grades are up at struggling Chelsea Career and Technical Education High School – a school with low graduation rates. But federal funds that school administrators credit with helping the recent transformation now hang in the balance.
Chelsea and 32 other low-performing schools throughout the city are waiting to learn whether they will get more than $100 million in federal school improvement grants over the next three years. The state refuses to release the money until the city and the teachers' union can agree on a new teacher evaluation system that combines test scores and classroom observations.
The state is giving the city and the union until the end of July to work out an evaluation plan that’s acceptable to everyone.
Chelsea High Principal Brian Rosenbloom, credited by colleagues with getting his struggling school on the right path, said he supports the new evaluation system but concedes it's difficult to measure teacher quality.
Rosenbloom, who runs a school with fewer than 600 students, received a nearly $1 million federal grant this year that he said has already yielded improvements. He used more than a third of the money to help students by extending the school day and spent 20 percent to help his teachers by bringing in more education consultants.
Earlier this month, Rosenbloom received the school's Regents scores: more than 90 percent of the juniors passed their exams in English and U.S. history. And there were similar scores for the sophomores who took the science exam.
"It's just beyond my wildest dreams," he said. "To see how well the kids are doing, and the teachers – the pride they’re taking and the pride the kids are taking. I mean, I had two kids yesterday jump in the arms of the teacher when they found out they got 88 and 82 on the exam."
Innovative Techniques in Classrooms
Ninth grade writing teacher Corey Wolff learned to give students more constructive feedback on their essays from an outside consultant brought into the school.
Fifteen year-old Fredy Reyes shows how the teacher used an online document sharing program called Google Docs to send him comments.
"Here the students, they can see the comments before they even come in to class," Wolff said. "They may be able to fix it before they come to class."
Wolff got training from Jelbin De La Cruz, a consultant from the group Teaching Matters, who helped 16 teachers at Chelsea make better use of technology in English, history, science and math.
"A lot of times, as teachers, we sort of have this front of the room idea of teaching," De La Cruz said, "where we constantly are trying to fill the kids’ heads with information. I think by high school we should move away from that and be more facilitators of learning."
Wolff's ninth graders haven't been tested yet, so it's too soon to know if the new techniques he learned this year made a difference. But after 12 years teaching, he said he disagrees with those education reformers who claim you can fix schools by fixing teachers.
"I just think that I’m only one element in their lives," Wolff said. "And I can only do so much. I try to encourage them to be open to learning... But if there’s a student who, you know, is being neglected at home or, you know, whatever trauma has happened to him or her... there’s only so much I could do."
Grading Teachers on Their Students' Scores
Staffers at Chelsea were excited to see the gains on this year's Regents exams, but were mixed when asked if they ought to be measured by those results and they pause.
"I think it all depends on the student," said Jan Scott, who's been teaching at Chelsea for more than 25 years.
Colleague Susan Foote said she's proud that test scores went up, but in her four years' experience, she said it's not always clear why scores rise.
"That may be the teacher that drills, or teaches students by rote," she said. "That's not the best education. I don’t believe it’s the best education. So just looking at test scores is not an indicator of how good a teacher is."
Rosenbloom, the principal, agreed that there are times when teachers can't fix everything, noting there's an "emotional component" to education. But he does think an effective teacher will often have higher test scores.
"Over the last couple of years we certainly have seen that here. I will say that," he said.
Rosenbloom said he is glad the state is switching to a new evaluation system, which he believes is more detailed than the old one. But the city's teachers union has yet to accept it.
The plan calls for teachers to be judged through a combination of test scores and classroom visits.
Since taking charge of Chelsea three years ago, Rosenbloom has been credited by teachers and kids with restoring order to a previously chaotic building. He encouraged some teachers to leave or take retirement. Eleven more won’t be returning this fall.
Rosenbloom said he's frustrated that the political stalemate between the city and the union is holding up more federal funds he believes can be used to make further improvements.
"It’s really disappointing that adults would let that amount of money sit on the table and not have a decision," he said.