Taking Stock

As crises ebb, educators adjust to new Common Core curriculums

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

While debate over the Common Core rumbles on in public, the new learning standards continue to reshape what happens behind classroom doors.

In recent days, the governor promised to convene a panel to review the tougher standards and the state teachers union withdrew its support for the Common Core until changes are made.

Meanwhile, sixth-grade students in a Common Core-aligned English class at South Bronx Preparatory searched for “rules to live by” in a novel set during the Great Depression, speeches by Steve Jobs and Barack Obama, and a poem by Rudyard Kipling.

Like most elementary and middle schools around the city and state, South Bronx Prep is halfway through its first year using a new curriculum aligned to the standards.

Now, after several months with new Common Core teaching materials, educators across the city say they are settling in to the new normal. Some are calling their schools’ new curriculums fundamentally flawed. Even educators who praise the materials say they require serious adjustments and threaten to leave some high-need students behind.

“It is probably the most rich and complex curriculum I’ve taught,” said South Bronx Prep teacher Jennifer Mandel, who uses state-commissioned literacy materials made by the nonprofit Expeditionary Learning. But, she added, in her sixth-grade class filled with English-language learners, many students struggle to keep up.

“There are certain students who I see who are just stuck,” Mandel said, “deeply, deeply stuck.”

A bumpy introduction

Though schools citywide started shifting to the new standards in 2011 and students took state tests tied to them last year, the city Department of Education only recommended Common Core-aligned curriculum materials for kindergarten through eighth grade last spring. (High schools are supposed to be teaching to the new standards but haven’t yet gotten new curriculum recommendations.)

About 90 percent of elementary and middle schools decided to purchase the recommended curriculums, which the city subsidized. For English, 176 schools chose recommended materials made by state-commissioned nonprofits, 610 chose ones made by for-profit publishers, and 77 chose a combination, according to the Department of Education.

Most of the state-sponsored curriculum materials were completed and posted online by December, as the state had promised, though some materials are still missing for a few grades. The materials have been downloaded more than four million times, according to the State Education Department.

Some schools decided not to buy any of the city-endorsed materials. Many worried that the new curriculums were produced in a rush.

“We feel like we need to do some research to find something that is high quality and really Common Core-aligned,” said Joanna Cohen, an assistant principal at P.S. 2 in Manhattan, which did not pick any materials from the city list.

Schools that did buy the recommended materials received them in spurts over the summer and fall, since they were still being produced. Many schools received late or incorrect shipments.

South Bronx Prep’s sixth-grade class, for example, did not get the novels it needed for the first reading unit until October. Teachers had to photocopy the first several chapters of the book for each student.

The curriculums’ rolling release meant that teachers had limited time had to study them and could not plan over the summer for the whole school year.

Francisca Garcia Ruiz, a kindergarten teacher at P.S. 305 in Queens, said her school ordered literacy materials from Pearson, one of the recommended for-profit publishers and the one that also creates the state’s annual tests.

But all the materials did not arrive until November, Ruiz said, so the school used its balanced-literacy program from previous years until then. In November, the school paid for substitutes so its teachers could take several days to get acquainted with the new curriculum mid-year, she said.

Mixed reactions to the available options

Once she starting using Pearson’s curriculum, called ReadyGen, Ruiz said she found it lacking. She said it forces students to study the same text for many class periods, which bores them, and to complete tasks — such as drawing abstract vocabulary words — that are not suited for young children.

“This curriculum is so inappropriate that these children just do not want to come to school,” she said.

ReadyGen, which the city recommended as an option for kindergarten through fifth grade, has elicited more complaints than most of the suggested curriculums, according to the teachers union. Union officials and other educators said ReadyGen packs too much content into lessons, is overly scripted, does not account for students’ varying abilities, and contains some errors.

“It’s pretty bad,” United Federation of Teachers boss Michael Mulgrew said earlier this month.

Pearson officials did not respond to all the criticisms. But they said that the literacy program’s “rolling implementation” was approved by the city and added that the curriculum’s teacher guides and a “scaffolded strategies” handbook suggest ways to tailor the lessons for students with special needs.

“Supporting all students – including those at different learning levels – was paramount in the development of the ReadyGen curriculum,” Pearson spokesperson Susan Aspey said in an email.

Even teachers who are satisfied with the curriculums that their schools chose said there remains room for improvement.

Several teachers praised the quality of the Expeditionary Learning curriculum, saying the readings are challenging but also interesting to students and linked to relevant social studies and science content. But they said the lesson plans, which can fill a dozen pages or more, include too many learning goals and are above the skill level of many students.

Making adjustments as more changes loom

Teachers have found ways to address some of the curriculum issues. Their fixes range from total overhauls that represent repudiations of the new curriculums to smaller-scale adjustments of the sort that teachers make all the time to the programs they use.

Jane Lam, who co-teaches a sixth-grade English class with Jennifer Mandel, helps students compose literary essays during an after-school session.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Jane Lam, who co-teaches a sixth-grade English class with Jennifer Mandel, helps students compose literary essays during an after-school session.

Katie Lapham, a teacher who works with English-language learners in several grades at P.S. 214 in Brooklyn, said she and several colleagues have mostly abandoned the ReadyGen student workbooks, which she finds too similar to standardized-test questions. Instead, most create their own worksheets, with separate materials for students with special needs. They also supplement the grade-level texts in the curriculum with books matched to students’ reading ability.

At South Bronx Prep, Mandel and her co-teacher, Jane Lam, focus on just one or two skills per lesson. They also teach students some background information and vocabulary words that the curriculum, with its focus on textual analysis, might leave out. And they customize the curriculum’s worksheets and tests for their students.

“We’ve had to modify a lot,” Mandel said.

High school students will take algebra and English Regents tests tied to the Common Core standards for the first time this June.

The Common Core English exam is optional this year, but Algebra 1 students must take that Common Core test, though they will also take an exam tied to the old standards and can use the higher score.

As teachers try to connect their courses to the new standards, many have used some of the materials on the state’s Common Core website, called Engage New York, along with other resources. (The website includes some sample questions from the new Regents tests, but several teachers said they want the state to release more.)

Scott Taylor, an algebra teacher at Global Learning Collaborative High School in Manhattan, said he updated some old lessons and materials this year, but much he had to create new or find online.

It has been a challenge to help students adjust to the new standards — which call for more conceptual thinking and writing in math — even as he is still digesting them, said Taylor, who worked in business before becoming a teacher.

“If this was the corporate world and I had to do this,” he said, “I would tell them that this is a four-person job.”

college plans

As Washington decides their fate, ‘Dreamers’ preparing for college are stuck in limbo

PHOTO: Joe Amon/The Denver Post
Randi Smith, a psychology teacher at Metro State University, marched to support Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals during a citywide walkout in downtown Denver, CO.

While many high schoolers spend spring of their senior year coasting through classes and waiting to hear back from colleges, undocumented students who hope to attend college spend their time calling lawyers, consulting school counselors, and scouring the internet in search of ways to pay for school without the help of federal financial aid or student loans — assuming they even get in.

That process, anxiety-provoking even in a normal year, has become incalculably more chaotic this admissions season — even traumatic — as these young undocumented immigrants watch President Trump and lawmakers wrangle over Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the program that has until now allowed them to remain in the country without having to fear deportation.

As the policy battle nears a climax, these students aren’t just breathlessly waiting to learn whether they’ll be accepted into college — they’re waiting to see whether they have a future in this country.

“It’s different for me. It’s definitely more stressful and there are times when you want to give up,” said an undocumented student at KIPP NYC College Prep High School, who is graduating this year and applying to colleges. She requested anonymity because of her legal status. “But then I remind myself that regardless of what’s going on, I’m still going to do what I’ve set myself to do.”

High school counselors are also feeling the strain. They already faced the difficult task of helping undocumented students compete for private scholarships, and finding schools that will support those students once they’re on campus. Now those counselors also must monitor each twist and turn of the immigration debate in Washington, while, somehow, trying to keep their undocumented students focused on college.

One of those counselors is John Kearney, who works at Guadalupe Centers Alta Vista High School, a charter school in Kansas City, Missouri. Dozens of his soon-to-graduate students are beneficiaries of DACA, a program created under former President Obama that allows undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country as children to avoid deportation and work here legally. Lately, they have been asking him why they should even consider college when their fate in the U.S. is so uncertain.

“The big question is, ‘Why? Why go to college, and then I can’t even work, then why?’” said Kearney, who also helped start a nonprofit that provides scholarships to undocumented students. “It’s a really tough question.”

As of Friday, President Trump and lawmakers were still locked in heated negotiations over DACA, which Trump said this fall that he would eliminate unless Congress enshrined it in law. Without an agreement, it is set to expire March 5, just as graduating seniors firm up their college plans. If that happens, young immigrants, often called Dreamers, could lose the few crucial protections they have. For many, their DACA status has already lapsed.

Even with DACA’s protections, Dreamers face massive hurdles to enroll in college: They don’t qualify for federal aid or loans, and, in some states, are barred from receiving financial aid or even attending public universities. Out of the estimated 65,000 undocumented students who graduate from high school every year, only 5-10 percent enroll in college.

Following Trump’s announcement in September, counselors have also had to race against the clock counting down to DACA’s expiration: That meant juggling college application deadlines with the October cutoff for students to apply for renewed DACA status.

The KIPP charter school network received a donation this year to help students pay for the renewal fee, which has been a godsend for many students — including the young woman who is graduating from KIPP NYC College Prep High School.

As soon as she learned the school would pay the fee for her, she immediately called her father, who is also undocumented and repairs beauty-salon equipment for a living.

“My dad was definitely trying to round up the money before the deadline, so it was a blessing that the school was able to find a donor,” she said. “I told him not to worry about it and it was a relief — like a weight off his shoulders.”

If the girl was trying to relieve her father’s stress, her college counselor, Rob Santos, was trying to do the same for her. Even as she balanced college-application essays, transcripts, and the rest, she was also coming to realize how quickly her life would change if DACA is not extended.

“There was definitely extra emotional support that I’ve had to provide this year,” Santos said. “I definitely had my DACA student in my office, and tears were happening.”

Santos keeps a running list of the colleges that accept students who don’t have permanent legal status and the few scholarships available to them. Many of those scholarships require undocumented students to have DACA status. If the program ends, it’s unclear whether students will still be eligible.

Still, Santos said his dreamer student rarely talks about the political furor surrounding her future in the U.S. as she awaits her college-acceptance letter. Instead, she’s more likely to discuss her hope of one day studying business and fashion.

“Our DACA students are resilient. They’re optimistic,” Santos said. “But they’re also realistic for what could actually happen.”

How I Teach

Tupac, Shakespeare, and ‘Stranger Things’: How a top Tennessee teacher relates to her students

PHOTO: Milken Family Foundation
Katherine Watkins was one of 45 educators — and one of two Tennessee teachers — honored nationally in 2017 by the the Milken Family Foundation.

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

When Katherine Watkins found out she would receive a prestigious national teaching award, her students at Millington Central High wrapped her into a huge bear hug.

“We relate to her because she relates to us,” one of her students said when asked why they enjoyed her class. Watkins was honored as a Milken Educator Award last November in front of her students, colleagues and Tennessee’s top education official.

Watkins was one of 45 educators — and one of two Tennessee teachers — honored nationally in 2017 by the Milken Family Foundation.

We asked Watkins about how she strives for relatability in her classrooms, where she teaches literature, English and coordinates the school’s yearbooks. Millington Central High is racially diverse and made up of about thousand students, one-third of which are described as economically disadvantaged.

Read in her own words how she uses pop culture to build classroom rapport and how she learned not to get flustered when her students got off track. (This Q&A has been edited and condensed.)

What does your classroom look like?

My classroom is full of books, images, and objects I’ve collected from my travels. These include a handmade Venetian mask I brought back from Italy, pictures I took while standing in front of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, and a twelve-volume, leather-bound edition of the complete works of William Shakespeare that was published in London in 1786

Some people might say I’ve lost my mind to keep such precious relics within reach of teenagers, but I interpret the “value” of these treasures somewhat differently. I want desperately for my students to know and care about the world that exists beyond their immediate reality, and sometimes the best way to achieve that is through tactile experience. I’m trying to cultivate independent thinkers who have the confidence to test limits, ask tough questions, and arrive at their own conclusions. That can’t happen without direct confrontation with the unfamiliar, and until I can afford to actually take them to the places we read about in the literature we study, my souvenirs will have to suffice.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my __________. Why?

I could not teach without my close-knit group of teacher friends. This is only my third year at my current school, but everyone was so warm and welcoming when I arrived that it really felt like coming home. We even have a group chat we use every day to share funny memes, vent about our frustrations, offer words of encouragement, and talk through ideas. Feeling like you can be yourself around friends in a judgment-free zone makes all the difference when it comes to a high-stress job like teaching.  Without that kind of solidarity, I know I wouldn’t be nearly as resilient or effective in the classroom.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?

I used to get visibly flustered if students were talking or off task during the lesson. It took me a couple years in the classroom to realize that getting upset is the least effective way to deal with this problem. Many students misbehave because they crave attention, so getting upset is the same as relinquishing control. Nowadays, I vary my approach depending on the severity and intent of the disruption, but regardless of the situation, I never lose my cool.

I have the most success defusing behavioral disruptions through the use of nonverbal cues, which can be as simple as changing my position in the room. For example, if a cluster of students is off task while I’m addressing the whole group, I continue lecturing and simply move to where the problem is occurring and the behavior stops. I’ve also become a sort of Jedi master at the don’t-you-even-think-about-it stare of disapproval. The right look delivered at the right moment can work wonders for classroom management. 

PHOTO: Katherine Watkins
Watkins said she starts each year by giving her kids a questionnaire that asks about their interests, hobbies, attitudes, and past experiences.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?

Before my first day at Millington Central High, I had little idea what to expect of my new school and its students. I had driven through Millington a time or two on my way to other destinations, but that was the extent of my familiarity with this community. During my initial interview, I was briefed on school demographics: Millington is ethnically diverse with a high percentage of economic disadvantage, a large SPED population, and nearly a quarter of students coming from single-parent households. It would be a lie to say I never questioned whether the school would be the right fit for me. I worried about my ability to make a connection. Would my students accept me? Would I be able to make a difference in their lives?

I always start each year by giving my kids a questionnaire that asks about their interests, hobbies, attitudes, and past experiences. I use this information to get to know students and begin establishing a rapport. Left to my own devices, for example, I would never be motivated to keep up with pop culture trends, but if a large number of my students are listening to a particular artist or watching a specific TV show (Stranger Things anybody?), I make a point of consuming the same media so I can connect with them over more than just academic content. This extra effort on my part—cultural research, if you will—has worked wonders with the kids at Millington. The look of shock on their faces when they realize I can quote lines from Hamlet as readily as the lyrics to any 2Pac song is priceless.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.

Knowing what’s going on in a student’s home life is a crucial part of being a good teacher, and I always try to consider the bigger picture when difficult situations arise. I have had students come forward with stories of abuse, students who have experienced the death of a parent, and students who are basically raising their younger siblings because Mom works three jobs and Dad isn’t around. A student who arrives to school late and sleeps through first period could just be lazy, but it would be callous and irresponsible to punish the child without first having a conversation to find out what’s causing the behavior. We can’t forget that kids are human beings too, some of whom are carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders. Teaching has made me realize that you can never really know what someone else is going through until you make the effort to understand. This is why it’s so important to reserve judgment and approach students with patience and compassion.