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Teachers’ Unions, Testing Consortia Team Up on Grants From Helmsley Trust

By Catherine Gewertz — January 07, 2014 3 min read
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Using $1.6 million in grants from the Helmsley Charitable Trust, the PARCC and Smarter Balanced assessment consortia will work with the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association to give teachers a central role in designing instructional resources for the common standards and tests.

The announcement of the two grants marks one more step into a new area for the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust: common standards. And it also marks the New York City-based philanthropy’s latest move in a transition designed to take it from regional to national grantmaking.

The two new grants—$830,000 to PARCC and $785,000 to Smarter Balanced—will bring teachers together, through their two national unions, to work face-to-face with consortium designers to create instructional and diagnostic resources for the common core, such as sample lessons, that will be housed in each group’s online library. The grants will also go toward building networks of teachers who are experts in the two assessment systems and can serve as trainers for their colleagues in the states, said Rachel Norman, a Helmsley program officer overseeing the project.

It won’t be the first time the AFT and NEA have drawn on their membership to channel input into the common-standards work. After initial standards-writing panels excluded teachers, the two unions prevailed on the initiative’s leaders to add classroom educators to those committees. The unions also have been sharing their views with PARCC and Smarter Balanced as the two state coalitions produce early test designs.

There are tensions at the heart of the work, however, since the unions are fundamentally uneasy about the uses of the tests they’re helping to inform and advance. Just yesterday, for instance, AFT President Randi Weingarten kicked off a “VAM is sham” campaign to reflect the union’s antipathy toward using standardized test measures in a “value-added metric” to evaluate teachers.

Richard F. McKeon, the program director for the Trust’s education program, said that in making grants in the K-12 arena, the philanthropy is guided by a central concept; the importance of getting teachers involved at the earliest stages of policymaking.

“That’s a key thing we hold critical: making sure teachers are an authentic part of everything we do, from policy to implementation,” he said in a recent interview.

Among the Helmsley Charitable Trust’s common-core-related grants in the last year and a half have been $2.2 million to Kahn Academy to create tools and content for common-core math; $3 million to the Danielson Group to enable four school districts to pilot common-core alignments to Charlotte Danielson’s teaching framework; $7.8 million to the advocacy group Achieve to develop communications materials, and $10.8 million to the NEA, AFT and Student Achievement Partners to build instructional resources for the standards. More than 400 such tools created under that grant have been posted so far on SAP’s website, achievethecore.org.

Before starting a national grantmaking program a year and a half ago, the Helmsley Charitable Trust concentrated its education work in a couple of local school districts in the Bronx borough of New York City, where it supported projects to do early childhood literacy work, college advising, and professional development for teachers, McKeon said.

But the sell-off of assets from the Helmsley estate in the last five years enabled it to build an education program of national scale, he said. Since the program was launched, $46 million in grants has been awarded to support college- and career-readiness in the K-12 sector. About $20 million has gone to finding ways to improve the retention of science, technology, engineering and math students in college, McKeon said.

That $66 million composes only one quarter of the Trust’s portfolio, however. The other three quarters are largely devoted to supporting work in the medical arena, such as on Type 1 diabetes and rural healthcare.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.