As the frenzied effort to market Cathie Black as a viable choice to run New York City schools came to a close, the nominee herself came to a realization.
“Frankly this sucks and I cannot imagine a more poorly thought out decision on mb side,” Black, using a short hand for Mayor Bloomberg, wrote in an email on Nov. 23, 2010. That night, Black found out a panel convened to review her qualifications because she lacked the proper education credentials had rejected her appointment.
“To be hung out in public with no fore thought is inconceivable to me,” Black continued in the email, which was to Department of Education press secretary Natalie Ravitz. “But muscle on…I can only imagine the headlines tomorrow.”
The emails are part of hundreds of pages of emails released Friday night by the Department of Education in response to a Freedom of Information Law request from then-Village Voice reporter Sergio Hernandez. The trove of emails, which Hernandez posted to his personal web site, were the second batch sent out in the last seven months. They chronicle the city’s plans to prepare Black to face skeptical elected officials, reporters and state education officials who had the final say into whether she could get the job.
Black, publishing executive with no education experience, was picked by Bloomberg to succeed longtime Chancellor Joel Klein in the fall of 2010. Black was eventually approved, but she resigned after just three tumultuous months, a tenure marked by gaffes and high-level defections that further damaged the department’s leadership.
To this day, her tenure remains such a stain on Mayor Bloomberg’s education legacy that he sometimes pretends the ordeal never happened.
And Black even got offered favors from high places. David Westin, president of ABC News from 1997 to 2010, emailed Black to let her know that “I’m probably one of a very few of your friends who knows Bernard Pierazio (Superintendent of Yonkers Schools) pretty well.”
“I understand Bernard (and, yes, it’s “Bernard,” not “Bernie) is on the committee reviewing your request for certification,” wrote Westin, who was involved in a charity with Pierazio. “Just let me know if I can help in anyway.”
We’ll continue to look at the emails next week. In the meantime, a link to all of them can be found here.
Just one day after Nelson Mandela died at his home in South Africa, city officials announced that a new high school will be named in his honor—and its creation appears to have won over some prominent critics of co-locating schools.
The new Nelson Mandela School for Social Justice will open inside of Boys and Girls High School, the Bedford-Stuyvesant school that Mandela visited in 1990 when he was celebrated by Mayor David Dinkins and the rest of New York City.
Walcott called the school “a perfect way to give testament to the man who is just admired by so many and transformed lives of so many people, and generations of people. And touched personally the people of Brooklyn as well as the people of New York City.”
The school’s social justice theme and connection to Mandela’s visit to the neighborhood have also smoothed tensions that have been simmering for years at Boys and Girls over the possibility of the city adding another school to the building, which already contains the small Research and Service High School.
In October, Boys and Girls’ principal Bernard Gassaway said publicly that he might resign if the city put another school into his building. Gassaway didn’t respond to requests for comment today, but Rev. Conrad Tillard, who serves on the school’s advisory council, said that Gassaway and the group had warmed to the idea.
“The legacy of Nelson Mandela transcends everything,” Tillard said, adding that Gassaway’s support had been a recent development. “Many people on the advisory committee had never supported co-location, but this was one people felt was worthy of the historical context of the school and could bring so much to the school.”
Boys and Girls has long served as a symbolic center of the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, and the school has a powerful group of allied politicians and clergy. They have been widely credited with keeping the school open, despite low graduation rates and test scores that have earned Boys and Girls three Fs in a row on the city progress reports. The school now has fewer than 1,000 students, down from more than 4,000 in 2007.
Today’s announcement attached a name and a focus to a school that the city had already proposed, and will be voted on at the Dec. 11 Panel for Educational Policy meeting.
State Senator Velmanette Montgomery, who also serves on the Boys and Girls advisory council, said that was a compromise forged from weeks of discussion about whether to attach Mandela’s name to a single school or to the entire building. Ultimately, she said Gassaway pushed to keep the Boys and Girls’ name. “He did not want to lose the Boys and Girls High—symbolically, the institution,” she said.
The city’s current plans are for Nelson Mandela High to open in September 2014, so the school will also need support from mayor-elect de Blasio’s administration. Despite de Blasio’s statements before and during the campaign that he wants to pause the city’s policy of co-locating schools, spokeswoman Lis Smith indicated some support for the plans on Friday.
“The idea of naming a school after Nelson Mandela is a very worthy one. We will confer with our new Chancellor on this matter when he or she is named,” she said.
The Nelson Mandela School follows the Bloomberg administration’s typical model for new schools—small and focused on a specific topic. Montgomery said discussions have focused around replicating the model of Bedford Academy, a small school also located in Bedford-Stuyvesant that has been celebrated for high test scores and its male and female empowerment classes.
Chief Academic Officer Shael Polakow-Suransky, who was born in South Africa and whose father was forced to flee that country in the 1970s for his activism, said that he would look to involve himself in the process of developing the school’s curriculum in the new year once the school is approved.
“When I was a teacher, we spent time teaching this material and kids found it really fascinating, especially because of the role of young people in the resistance in South Africa,” he said. “There’s a lot of connections to be made, and I think that there aren’t many moments in history that intersect as powerfully with American history … South Africans were really inspired by Martin Luther King and the work of the civil rights movement here, and the anti-apartheid movement in turn inspired a movement here.”
Outside Boys and Girls High, a staff member shooing students away from reporters insisted that the new school would never open under a new mayor. But Walcott, who had been in discussions with some at Boys and Girls High during Mandela’s illness, made it clear that he expects that it will.
“The honoring of a man like Mr. Mandela is something that transcends elected politics, that transcends administrations,” he said.
As the dust settles from Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio’s two-day spree of administrative appointments, all eyes have now turned to his next big decision: who he’ll pick for New York City schools chancellor.
Speculation around a handful of candidates has been around for months, but this week the rumored list was shuffled and whittled down. Some names have vanished while others surfaced at the top of the rumor mill, a rearrangement that reflects concerns that de Blasio’s top administrative picks so far aren’t diverse, observers say.
The newest contenders to emerge are Kaya Henderson, District of Columbia’s schools chancellor, and Chicago schools chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett, who was in New York City recently, fueling rumors of her candidacy, sources said. Montgomery County Superintendent Josh Starr also remained in the mix, as did New York-based Carmen Farina, the city’s former city chief academic officer and Regent Kathy Cashin.
Andres Alonso, the former chief executive officer the Baltimore schools once considered a frontrunner for the job, has not been mentioned as prominently.
The short list of education leaders outside New York City reflects a wide swath of backgrounds and ideas about education policy, some of which seem to align closely with de Blasio’s views, and some of which don’t. For de Blasio and his advisors, their choice will be a signal of how faithful he plans to stick to some of the campaign pledges that helped distinguish him from more centrist Democratic candidates during the primary.
De Blasio himself has said nothing publicly about who he’s considering for the job, other than acknowledging this week that he’s begun talking to candidates. A de Blasio spokeswoman also declined to comment or confirm details about the selection process, which is taking place mainly behind closed doors.
Starr, Henderson and Byrd-Bennett share at least one thing in common on education. All were teachers in the New York City school system before moving up their career ladder. They also all run relatively large school districts, though they range in size (Chicago has 400,000 students compared to Montgomery’s 150,000 and D.C.’s 45,000) and demographics (Montgomery County, which runs up to the edge of D.C. boundaries, is largely suburban).
Their differences in other areas are stark, which could factor into de Blasio’s decision. Of the three, Starr, 44, appears to have the most in common ideologically with the mayor-elect. Both de Blasio and Starr are opposed to using tests scores as an accountability tool to measure the performance of teachers and schools, and both have railed against the use of school grading systems like the one New York City currently has.
Both are also against using test scores as a sole determinant in student admissions policies, a position that moved Starr to try to desegregate middle school classrooms during a six-year superintendency in Stamford, Conn.
Starr was in Brooklyn last week and it is reported that de Blasio’s team has reached out to him. A spokesman for Starr did not comment on the reports, saying only that he is “aware that his name has been mentioned for the position.”
But observers say chances may have faded a bit for Starr, who is white, after seeing who de Blasio picked this week for first deputy mayor, Anthony Shorris and police commissioner, Bill Bratton.
“Given his commitment to wanting a diverse government, his selection of two white males for the two key appointments he’s made, I would think, raised the probability that the appointment of the schools chancellor would will not be a white male,” said Joe Viteritti, a professor of public policy at Hunter College who has advised school leaders in New York City, San Francisco and Boston.
Henderson and Byrd-Bennett, both African American women, are seen as being on the other side of the education reform spectrum. As leaders of urban school districts that have pushed aggressive policies around teacher evaluations, charter schools and intervention for struggling schools, they are closely associated to Bloomberg’s brand of reform, which de Blasio ran against in the election.
For Byrd-Bennett, it’s not the first time her name has been floated for chancellor — this year or even this decade. She was reportedly then-Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott’s top choice for the job when Mike Bloomberg took over City Hall in 2002.
Byrd-Bennett ran the Chancellor’s District under Chancellor Rudy Crew in the 1990s, a group of low-performing schools that received extra resources to improve. The model has been cited by Michael Mulgrew and Randi Weingarten as a preferred intervention than Bloomberg’s school closure strategy.
But that was a long time ago. Most recently, Byrd-Bennett has enraged the union in Chicago as Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s schools chief. Last year, Byrd-Bennett was the face of the administration’s cost-saving plan to shutter 49 school buildings, a story that gained national headlines.
Byrd-Bennett still has close ties to New York City, however, and some see her work in Chicago more as an extension of Mayor Rahm Emmanuel than a reflection of her actual positions.
She was in New York City prior to Thanksgiving, a source said, fueling speculation that she is being taken seriously by de Blasio. The source did not know specifics of the trip.
A Chicago Public Schools spokeswoman, said she “can’t confirm her travel schedule” when asked of Byrd-Bennett’s visit.
Henderson, under then-Chancellor Michelle Rhee, helped negotiate a 2010 teachers contract that included merit pay for high-performing teachers and helped implement the district’s new teacher evaluation system. In 2011, she took over for Rhee, who resigned when the mayor who appointed her lost a re-election.
Henderson has continued most of the district’s reforms, but without the brash managerial style that made Rhee a divisive presence both in D.C. and nationally. This year, D.C. saw big student gains on national tests, though it still ranked low in overall achievement.
A spokeswoman for Henderson confirmed she had spoken to de Blasio, but did not say what they talked about.
Alex Messer, a fourth-grade teacher at P.S. 321 in Park Slope, couldn’t wait to read a city report a few years ago that promised to quantify his impact on students.
He had just led them in a rousing discussion of the British economic policies that provoked the Boston Massacre. He taught them to use “ubiquitous” and other “staggering genius” words, as he and his students call them. He knew he was a good teacher.
But when he opened the report, his heart sank: he was ranked in the 18th percentile. He called his mother that night for support. Later, he logged onto a job-search website.
“All I knew was that I had failed,” Messer recalled this week. “I was ‘18 percent.’”
As the state exams have become tougher, many critics have decried what they see as the tests’ spirit-crushing toll on children, even as officials and others argue that the assessments are needed to make sure students meet the higher standards. (Less than a third of city students passed the harder English and math exams this year.) But fewer teachers have publicly described the way testing can color the look and feel of their practice.
Messer and other members of a new group called Teachers Talk Testing aimed to fill that gap with a forum Tuesday evening at P.S. 321 where educators told their tales of a data-fueled drive for accountability that they say has run amok. The group, which grew out of a longtime parent committee at P.S. 321 focused on testing, formed this fall and now includes about 30 teachers from a handful of schools, mostly in high-performing District 15, according to Messer, who is also a union chapter leader.
Part of the group’s purpose, Messer said, is to provide firsthand accounts of testing to concerned parents who, on Tuesday, talked about opting their children out of the state exams.
“Whatever they decide to do surrounding testing,” Messer said after the forum, “I think it’s important that their actions are informed by teachers and our experience.”
The speakers — who included four teachers and the principal from P.S. 321, along with two other Brooklyn teachers and a professor — described mind-numbing exams of questionable quality that devour class time, sap the joy from teaching, and reduce instruction to helping students choose answers on a bubble sheet.
“Once we get into test prep, there’s no real conversation, just practice answering these questions and maybe we’ll analyze why ‘B’ is the right answer,” said Ronda Matthews, a 5th-grade teacher at PS 321 who said standardized-test work consumes about a month of class time per year.
Anxiety about test scores — which factor into student promotion, school grades and teacher ratings — drives many teachers to the lower, less-tested grades, Matthews said. In the past two years, seven new teachers have taken over 5th-grade classes at P.S. 321 as veterans flee the high-stakes grade, she added.
Julie Cavanagh, a special-education teacher at P.S. 15 in Red Hook, said she has watched the number of testing days multiply from six when she started teaching in New York in 2001 to 15 days in recent years. Meanwhile, her students with disabilities who found test days frustrating and boring received a perverse “accommodation,” Cavanagh added: extra test time.
“It sounds like hyperbole, but I really felt like I was participating in child abuse,” she said.
Many of the panelists mentioned problems with the state tests themselves: confusing passages, erroneous answers, above-grade questions and too little time. As for the so-called teacher data reports, like the one Messer received, those suffered from wide error margins and wild fluctuations. (Messer, for example, moved to the 70th percentile the year after he was ranked in the 18th.)
“What I’m strongly opposed to is the misuse of the data from the testing,” Phillips said Tuesday, “and the ways in which this questionable data has such high stakes for children, for teachers, for principals, for schools.”
P.S. 321 parent Diana Berger said she had become so “sickened” by the school system’s emphasis on testing that she was considering enrolling her daughter in a private school. But during the question-and-answer portion, she wondered if there was a way to fight the tests from within the system.
“My question is: should we opt out?” Berger said.
A teacher from the East Village’s Earth School, where about a third of parents opted their students out of the test last spring, said she expected a similar response this year. Another teacher, from M.S. 447 in Boerum Hill, said her school decided not to use test scores as an admission factor — an apparent boon for opt-outers.
But Phillips and others noted some drawbacks to the opt-out movement: students still are required to take a time-consuming alternative test that must be administered individually; and few parents from low-income and immigrant communities have so far joined the movement.
Teachers Talk Testing, which formed this fall with educators from P.S. 321 and a few other schools, has circulated a petition that calls for the incoming de Blasio administration to “lower the stakes” on testing by removing test scores as the main determining factor in student promotions, school admissions and school report cards.
The group is also asking teachers to submit videos with their thoughts on testing to its website, which it hopes will inspire families to take whatever actions they feel are necessary.
As a huge shift approaches for students who are looking to earn GEDs, Chancellor Dennis Walcott announced Thursday a few smaller changes to the system designed to help them.
GED Plus, the name given to the city’s preparation programs for students, was about to become an awkward moniker when the GED stops being administered in New York next year. Though that exam that has long been synonymous with a high school equivalency credential, the state will begin giving a new Common Core-aligned exam with a different name in 2014.
So starting January 1, the student centers will be known as Pathways to Graduation, Walcott announced today. Five of those 62 locations will also host staff members from the Office of Adult and Continuing Education, allowing at least some of the students who age out of the Pathways to Graduation centers the chance to stay put as they continue trying to pass the exam.
For the thousands of students enrolled right now, the name change also reflects their deadline for passing all of the GED’s five component tests before the January switch to a new exam. At that point, students who had already passed portions of the GED exam will have to start from scratch.
A spokesperson for the Department of Education said the GED Plus programs have served about 8,500 students per year for the last six years, but could not say on Thursday how many students have only passed a portion of the exam. (In 2011, a report from the Center for an Urban Future showed that the passing rate for the GED citywide was only 48.1 percent, compared to 66.9 percent for the rest of the state.)
At the 35th Street Alternative Education Complex on Thursday, Walcott told a class of students taking a practice exam that he had a son and daughter who both earned GEDs, before wishing them good luck and heading out.
“I felt really good because they all gave me evil looks, and that’s a good sign, because they were so serious and so intense preparing that they were like, who is this guy coming in and interrupting me?” he said at the press conference later.
Twenty-year-old Malik Peterson—who found out that he had earned his GED this week—was a bit more responsive to the chancellor’s visit, exuberantly informing Walcott of his results in the hallway before requesting multiple pictures with the outgoing schools chief. “For Instagram,” he explained.
In an effort to burnish his education legacy before leaving office, Mayor Bloomberg took the unusual step Wednesday of announcing the city’s 2013 high-school graduation rate – which he said rose to a record high of 66 percent – a full six months before the state officially releases those figures.
The rate touted by the mayor reflects students who graduated this August after four years. As usual, the rate among students who graduated by June was lower, at 61.3 percent – though that rate still represents a 32 percent increase since 2005.
The latest August graduation rate is 1.3 percentage points higher than in 2012, when the rate declined for the first time under Bloomberg. The mayor said 2013’s preliminary graduation rate – which state officials said they verified – is the city’s highest since it adopted its current calculation method in 2005.
According to the city’s figures, black and Hispanic students’ graduation rates both climbed since last year, though each group still lags roughly 20 percentage points behind the rates of white and Asian students. Students with disabilities saw their graduation rate rise 7 points over last year’s, while the rate for English language learners slipped by nearly 2 points.
While acknowledging the lingering gaps between student groups, Bloomberg said that since he took office in 2001 fewer students across the board are dropping out of high school and more are graduating prepared for college, even as diploma standards have become more demanding.
He attributed these gains to his get-tough education policies, including closing low-performing schools and opening new small ones, which he said has made New York’s school system a national model.
“What is clear is that for the 12 years we’ve been doing this, the results are – by any national standards – outstanding,” Bloomberg said. “We really have become the poster child.”
With less than a month left before Bloomberg hands over his post to Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio, who has promised to reverse many of this administration’s signature school policies, Bloomberg has been vigorously defending those policies.
On Tuesday, he announced that many more students took Advanced Placement exams and the SAT than when he took office.
On Wednesday, when asked why he decided to reveal the city’s preliminary graduation rates half a year before the state releases the official figures next June, Bloomberg replied, “We’re not going to be here” at that time, adding that the public has a right to know now “what has been accomplished and what has not been accomplished.”
At a separate press conference Wednesday, de Blasio said he thought it was appropriate for the current mayor to announce the graduation results before leaving office.
“Clearly, the work done by the Bloomberg administration – the good, the bad, the in-between – that’s all on their account and that’s fair and that’s right,” he said.
In the last few years, both the city and state have made it more challenging to earn a diploma.
Students must now score a 65 out of 100 on all five Regents exams, since the so-called local diploma that allowed a score of 55 on some tests has been eliminated for most students. And students cannot hastily earn last-minute course credits, since a process that allowed them to do so online has been restricted.
With those tougher standards in place last year, the city’s June graduation rate fell half a point, to 60.4. But this year, the rate is up nearly a point from last year, which city officials said Wednesday confirmed their prediction that students would adapt and rise to meet the higher standards.
Still, the graduation rate could soon take another hit when the Regents exams are overhauled in the coming years to assess the more demanding Common Core standards. When the grade 3-8 state tests were tied to those standards this year, scores plunged, with less than a third of students passing the English and math exams.
But Bloomberg said he did not expect the graduation rate to fall for that reason, citing states that had adopted tougher standards and eventually saw learning gains.
“When you raise the standards,” he said, “you have to teach harder, you have to work harder.”
Geoff Decker contributed reporting.
The Independent Budget Office released an unusually early set of cost-cutting ideas today, including a plan for co-located schools to share staff members and changes to where new teachers would be allowed to live.
The report, which the agency typically releases in the spring to influence budget debates, is a list of ways for the city to potentially cut costs or raise cash. Most of the report’s education ideas have been proposed before, including eliminating principal performance bonuses (to save $6 million) and eliminating parent coordinators altogether (to save $91 million).
New this year is the proposal for schools in the same building to share a single parent coordinator and a secretary, which the IBO estimates would save the Department of Education $50 million next year.
Another new proposal could inspire even more controversy: stricter residency requirements for new DOE employees. Currently, most city employees must live in the city for two years and then can move to six surrounding New York counties and are taxed an additional amount equivalent to city taxes. DOE employees have been exempt from both requirements, but changing that for new hires would bring in $3 million next year and increase over time as older teachers retire, according to the IBO.
IBO spokesman Doug Turetsky called the existing exemption a “glitch” in the system, and said the idea to change it came from within the agency. “It was just discrepancy that we were aware of, so we’re putting it out there,” he said.
But that could also hurt recruitment, as the report notes, and could “create an undeserved financial burden for affected personnel, many of whom are paid less than similarly skilled counterparts in the private sector or the more affluent suburbs.” It would also require changes in state law.
Today’s report also attaches updated price tags to a few of Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio’s stated education priorities. A one-year moratorium on opening new schools—a possible result of de Blasio’s plan to pause school co-locations and closures—would save the city $13.5 million, according to the IBO.
De Blasio has also said he plans to charge charter schools rent to operate in public space, and the IBO estimates doing so would bring the city $92 million next year. That’s up from its $85 million estimate in May, due to the growing number of students in charter schools across the city.
De Blasio has said he would charge charter operators on a sliding scale, which would lead to different figures than the IBO’s estimates, which are based on charging charter schools rent based on a per-pupil fee of $2,320.
The budget watchdog’s estimates around charter rent has been disputed by analysts who say they fail to account for future costs tied to pension and healthcare benefits for city teachers.
“If you do the math that includes what goes on with the city’s credit card, then [charter schools] are clearly cheaper because they’re not accumulating pension and healthcare,” said Jonathan Trichter, who co-authored a paper that determined co-located charters cost $3,000 less per student.
Though the city has been releasing data this week to help bookend Mayor Bloomberg’s 12-year tenure, Turetsky said the early report was unrelated to the mayoral transition, and that the reports will come out in the fall for the foreseeable future.
“Rationally speaking, for most New Yorkers who think about the budget, this is really getting starting now,” Turetsky said, noting that the mayor is the one official the IBO does not serve.
The full report is embedded below. Here is a list of all of the schools-related suggestions, with new items starred:
Good afternoon, future Chalkbeat New York readers! (It’s got a nice ring to it, right?)
As promised, we want to continue to update you about our journey to becoming Chalkbeat. (In case you missed it, we told you why we’re changing our name to Chalkbeat, re-introduced you to our bureau chief Philissa Cramer, and also took you behind the scenes with our old and new reporters.)
Today, I want to tell you about my job. As some of you may have noticed, I was hired as a reporter at GothamSchools in April and then became Chalkbeat’s first director of engagement a couple months ago. “Engagement” is a big buzz word in journalism and other worlds these days. Our own working definition is that engagement is “the body of work that maximizes our readers’ opportunities to access, learn from, interact with, and act on our journalism.” In simpler terms, it means I want to get more people to read, share, and talk about our stories.
Reporters can write dozens of stories a day that expose problems or spur debate, but if no one sees those stories, does the reporting even matter? Bet you can guess my answer. I’ll be making sure our reporting makes it to the people who need it most. (You can read more about my engagement strategy and my background in this Q&A published by ReportHers.)
While I’ll be overseeing our engagement efforts at all four of our bureaus, I’ll be based in New York and will work closely with New York community editor Emma Sokoloff-Rubin and Colorado community editor Tiffany Montano. You’ll hear from both of them next week.
Here’s what my job means for Chalkbeat New York readers:
1. A stronger sense of community: We want Chalkbeat New York to be a place where educators, policymakers and families can come to voice their concerns, talk to one another and ultimately, act in a way that leads to better schools for everyone. One way I want to achieve that is by improving the quality of our comments section, which, according to our readers, could use some extra attention. To that end, I’m working with our bureau chiefs to try to create a more welcoming venue for productive conversation.
2. Having an advocate in the newsroom: My goal is to bring a user and reader perspective to our newsroom as often as possible. I want to make sure our stories are easy to understand and that readers feel like their voices are being heard. I also want to help our reporters understand our community of readers so that we can do a better job delivering the information you need. Ultimately, we are here to serve you.
3. More opportunities to contribute to our reporting and interact with reporters. Some of our best stories come from our tips e-mail address, and we often read valuable insights in our comments section and on Twitter. After all, journalism is a two-way street. To tell the story of New York City schools, we need the people who make up those schools to help us tell it. To that end, I’ll be advising each bureau on how best to build relationships with readers, and I’ll also be devising ways for readers to contribute to our stories. We took a first step in that direction with our School Snapshot project, in which we asked you all to submit photos of something that makes your school special or unique and tell us about it.
We’re extending the deadline until the end of this month and if you haven’t submitted one yet, you can check out the photos from each of our bureaus below for some inspiration! And if you have any questions about my job or suggestions about what my job should be, e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or Tweet me at @anikaanand00.EDIBLE TESTS IN COLORADO BIKE RICKSHAWS IN INDIANA STUFFED ANIMAL VOLLEYBALL IN NEW YORK STUDENT TELEVISION IN TENNESSEE
Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio’s ever-expanding transition team just got a little bigger.
De Blasio today introduced the six-person group in charge of figuring out how to make a reality out of his campaign’s boldest pledge, to provide full-day pre-kindergarten to nearly 70,000 four-year-olds. De Blasio first announced he would convene the group last week in a speech to build support for his plan.
Much attention up to now has been focused on how de Blasio wants to fund the expansion, an income tax hike that first needs approval from the state legislature and Gov. Andrew Cuomo. And while that part of the plan remains in doubt, a series of logistical hurdles also await de Blasio even after he secures funding from Albany.
De Blasio’s “all-star” working group will be tasked with advising him on those challenges. They include finding and renovating space to make room for 50,000 students who aren’t currently in full-day programs, hiring new teachers to teach those students, and setting standards to ensure New York City’s pre-K programs deliver a high-quality education.
“To achieve that pre-K initiative, we need some of the best minds in the city to start work right now on developing the practical approaches of making sure that we’re ready to go as soon as legislation is approved in Albany,” de Blasio said at a press conference inside of a crowded Head Start classroom in East Harlem.
It was one of the few public appearances that de Blasio has made since being elected a month ago and lacked details about more significant decisions, such as who he’ll pick for chancellor and when that choice will be made. De Blasio has created several groups to help him make those decisions and prepare for his new job, including a core transition team, a 60-person transition committee, and another big group that is planning his inauguration.
Responding to critics who say he is backing away from comments he made during the campaign about publicly screening his chancellor candidates, de Blasio said that it was an “open process” that was already underway.
“That was clearly a reference to an unfortunate chapter in our city’s history related to Cathie Black and I am totally sure that we will never have a situation like that again on my watch,” de Blasio said. “We are talking to a number of individuals with extraordinary careers in education and we are accepting nominations through our…large transition committee and through our web site.”
The early education group is made up of five women and one man who have decades of combined experience working in early education and social welfare services: De Blasio’s transition co-chair, Jennifer Jones-Austin, a former official for the Administration for Children’s Services; Josh Wollack, a former City Council staffer for de Blasio and director of Children’s Aid Society’s early education programs; Sherry Cleary, who runs an early education professional development program at CUNY, Elba Montalvo, founder and CEO of the Committee for Hispanic Children and Families and a foster care advocate; and Gail Nayowith, executive director for SCO Family of Services.
De Blasio said that the group would be responsible for coming up with answers to many lingering questions about how his administration will implement the full-day pre-k expansion, though he offered some of his own hints.
He said he’d be able to find teachers who have been unable to get jobs in Department of Education schools because of hiring freezes. He also suggested that one option to find space could be in city-owned school buildings, which the Bloomberg administration has used primarily to open new K-12 schools.
A state education policy maker whose name has arisen as a possible contender for chancellor said today that while she thinks Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio should move quickly to change some Bloomberg-era school policies, others are worth keeping.
Kathleen Cashin, a former Department of Education official who now sits on the state Board of Regents, said the new mayor should preserve city schools’ “network” structure of school support while moving quickly to help schools that have many high-need students. She also said the state should be open to changing its approach to teacher evaluation and the Common Core — two initiatives where she has been a dissenting voice in Albany.
In an interview today, Cashin said changing course shouldn’t be seen as a repeal of the reforms and the purpose behind them.
“It’s not a sign of weakness,” she said. “I think it’s a sign of intelligence to revisit some initiatives.”
The comments, made at a small breakfast gathering for principals at the City College of New York’s School of Education this morning, come as New York City prepares for the education policies of the last 12 years to be revised after de Blasio takes over City Hall next month. De Blasio was critical of many of the Bloomberg administration’s school policies on the campaign trail.
Cashin, who supervised schools in de Blasio’s area of Brooklyn, is seen as a possible candidate to head the school system under him. Last month, the Daily News even published an op-ed from one of Cashin’s supporters arguing about why she’d be a good fit for the job.
Cashin declined to comment on the rumors today. But she said that an immediate priority should be establishing a special district for schools with the neediest students, similar to the Chancellor’s District in operation under former schools chief Rudy Crew before Bloomberg took over the schools.
“You can’t wait a year to get something rocking and rolling for the kids that are far behind,” Cashin said.
Cashin had additional advice for the mayor-elect, saying that if de Blasio is successful in securing funding to expand pre-kindergarten access, the department would need to shift quickly toward training people to work in those programs.
“If we do get the pre-K money, I think having a lot of [professional development] so our pre-K’s are second to none,” Cashin said.
But Cashin was not entirely critical of the Bloomberg administration’s school policies. She endorsed the city’s current network structure of school support, saying that it unites principals in a way that had never before been possible under old models, including where she was a regional superintendent. She said a letter in support of the networks, signed by over 100 principals last month, showed that the structure works, “as long as we have a clear chain of command.”
“You know why networks are so important right now? Because they have community and people have been living alone or on their own,” Cashin said.
“It means so much to them to be together,” she added. “I think that’s why they’re objecting to going back to the districts.”
Asking about their experience with their own networks, principals in the audience agreed with Cashin, though they said improvements could be made.
“They step into that gap between policy making and policy fulfillment,” Tammy Pate, principal of Renaissance School of the Arts, who is a part of a network run by the private nonprofit CEI-PEA. Pate said she wants to be able to stay in her network but wants the city to create a better accountability system.
“We’re not sure who’s responsible for what or who has the power to make what decisions,” Pate said.
One area where she said she would appreciate the help of an empowered superintendent, rather than a network leader, is with enrollment. Over 40 percent of her students have disabilities, a rate so high that a former high school superintendent at the event, Joyce Coppin, said she would have never tolerated it had she been in charge.
“A superintendent who had the authority and power to say I have to inspect equity in the district is something that would be the most amazing occurrence,” Pate said.
In her talk to the principals, Cashin emphasized the need for equity and social and emotional support for high need students. Too much of a teacher’s evaluation, 40 percent, is based on student learning when she said so much of that outcome is based on a student’s personal life. She said she thought closer to ten percent should be attributed to a teacher.
She also said the state should change how it’s implementing the Common Core, learning standards that the state adopted last year. She has been asking the state to create an independent committee of teachers to review and amend the state’s Common Core-aligned curriculum materials.
More than twice as many students took Advanced Placement exams, and more than 15,000 more high school seniors took the SAT this year than took the exams in 2002, Mayor Bloomberg announced today.
New College Board data show that the average SAT score of New York City students increased eight points over last year. But Bloomberg took the long view as he presented the data for the final time, emphasizing the growth over his time in office over the year-to-year numbers that typically get the spotlight.
The city did post small, across-the-board gains over last year in every SAT subject, with the biggest gains among Hispanic students, who saw a six-point average gain in writing and a five-point average gain in reading.
The city’s scores are still far below the national average, and big gaps remain among students. While the average total score for white students was a 1541 out of 2400, the average score for Hispanic students was 1235, and the average score for black students was 1225.
But the data also show the number of high school seniors taking the SAT has increased 53 percent from 12 years ago, and the number of students taking AP exams increased to more than 35,000, from about 17,000 12 years ago.
The city’s average SAT score remains behind the state average of 1463. The city’s average SAT reading and math scores are also lower than they were in 2002, which officials have attributed to the increases in participation, which typically come from more students taking the exam who would not have previously thought of themselves as college-bound.
The city released the data as the mayor pushes to define his legacy during his final weeks in office. Bloomberg attributed the gains to the city’s support of new, small high schools, and announced the numbers at Bedford Academy High School, which has 360 students and opened in 2003.
Principal Adofo Muhammad said 180 of his students were taking AP courses. ”We kind of push the envelope, extremely,” he said.
Bedford clearly takes testing seriously. During Bloomberg’s press conference, Bedford students chuckled at their principal’s mention of “9 to 9s,” all-day test prep sessions that the school holds on Saturdays, seven times a year.
At those sessions, students prepare for Regents exams, AP exams, and the SAT, or spend the whole 12 hours working on a subject they’re having trouble with, according to junior Julius Blake.
“It’s long but it’s very good. It helps a lot,” he said.
In explaining the 12-year increases, Chancellor Dennis Walcott also pointed to the city’s focus on “college and career readiness,” including the new metrics on school progress reports that track how many students take college-prep classes and whether they persist in college after graduation.
The city is continuing to put AP classes into more schools though its Advanced Placement Expansion Initiative, announced this fall in cooperation with the College Board, which runs the AP programs. The initiative will add science, math, and technology AP classes to 55 high schools.
That’s part of a nationwide effort to enroll more black, Hispanic, and low-income students in AP classes. Some research has shown the classes improves student outcomes even if students don’t pass the end-of-year exams, though other experts have disputed those findings.
Nearly 20 percent of school districts across the state have changed their teacher evaluation plans since adoption — with an increasing number cutting back on tests associated with evaluations.
Since January, the State Education Department has approved revised plans for more than 130 districts out of nearly 700 statewide, according to a spokesman. More than half of the changes have come this school year, and more districts are in the process of revising their plans ahead of a March deadline, the spokesman said.
The state isn’t yet tallying how plans have been altered, but a review of plans posted online reveals that while some of the changes are only minor wording tweaks, many others reflect a trend toward nixing tests. Interviews with teachers, union officials, and district officials from across the state confirm the trend.
The state’s new teacher evaluation rules require that 40 percent of teachers’ annual ratings be based on their students’ performance. Many districts initially opted to test students at the beginning and end of the year to measure student growth, in addition to administering state reading and math tests. But now, having experienced the burden of testing all students in all subjects, some are taking advantage of a provision in the rules to increase the weight of state reading and math test scores.
Their changes, which local teachers unions must accept, roll back a major compromise about how student growth is measured. They also portend possible teacher evaluation changes for New York City, where the testing burden has been lighter but has still garnered criticism from parents, educators, and Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio.
In most districts across the state, one of the first results of new teacher evaluation systems last year affected students most of all.
“They came to school and took a bunch of tests,” said Adele Bovard, superintendent of the 9,000-student Webster Central School District outside Rochester. “It was a tough way to start off the school year for our students.”
Bovard estimated that the district developed more than 100 new tests for its 2012-2013 evaluations. Other districts developed dozens of their own tests or shelled out local funds to buy tests from third-party vendors.
This year, Webster did away with all of its new tests. ”We are a much happier district because of this change,” Bovard told lawmakers earlier this year.
The changes sought by upstate districts have been contagious. Bovard was invited to present Webster’s new model to the teachers union in nearby Rochester, a school district of 30,000 students. Union President Adam Urbanski liked the model so much that he signed off on the changes in the middle of this school year.
“It didn’t take a lot of convincing,” Urbanski said of the new plan, which was approved Nov. 22. ”Because at the very least, no matter how it worked out, teachers and students were spared needless testing.”
Unintended consequences of local control
The new tests were either bought or developed in order to comply with the state’s teacher evaluation law, which mandates that one measure of student growth is set by the state and another is set locally. The distinction was once a major source of disagreement between the New York State United Teachers union and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who wanted the state to retain control of how student learning was measured in evaluations. NYSUT successfully argued in court that some local control would lead to a stronger evaluation system, leading to the current arrangement.
The union wanted assessments that educators tend to prefer, such as portfolios, to count for the local portion of the evaluations. But to accommodate a tight implementation schedule, many districts simply bought or developed tests for each grade and subject.
“I’m not going to lie, a lot of us took the easy way out and took the third-party test provider because there was a very tight timeline,” said Patrick Michel, who runs a group of 15 small school districts outside Albany.
After a year of giving the tests a try, however, districts are saying they were a mistake — at least for now. “Last year we got lots of feedback around there being too much standardized testing for the local part of evaluations,” said Michel, whose districts began cutting out tests this school year.
“You don’t know what you don’t know,” said Anita Murphy, Rochester’s deputy superintendent.
An increased role for state tests
To replace the tests, many districts are turning to a provision in the evaluation law that allows districts to use state test scores for the local growth measure as long as the scores are used in a different way from the state’s measure.
For example, the rules allow districts to evaluate groups of teachers based on the performance of all students in the school on either the math or English state tests. In order to set student benchmarks at the beginning of the year, the rules also allow districts to swap out pre-assessments for “historical data,” which is compiled from academic results in previous school years. State tests at the end of the year then may take the place of post-assessments.
The trend back toward a reliance on state tests has some of Cuomo’s allies crowing that the governor was right all along to argue that student growth should be measured according to state tests.
“Sometimes it turns out the grass under your feet was actually greener than you thought,” said Joe Williams, executive director of Democrats for Education Reform.
Williams said the state union could very easily help schools in districts that haven’t cut back on testing by agreeing to allow state test scores to count more. “If NYSUT wants fewer tests they should encourage it through bargaining,” he said.
NYSUT spokesman Carl Korn called the criticism “incredibly disingenuous” and said it is up to local unions to negotiate the kinds of changes they want to see in their districts.
“We’ve always said our locals are autonomous,” Korn said, adding, “We’ve always supported authentic assessments as better indicators of student growth than standardized bubble tests.”
A smaller shift for New York City
In New York City, the testing burden is less extreme than some other districts’. When State Education Commissioner John King imposed a plan for city schools in June, nearly a year after other districts had begun implementing their plans, his rules provided more ways to measure student learning than just tests.
On top of that, the city has taken steps to shield schools from being required to administer a new set of tests while they focus on other parts of implementation. City officials had wanted to make locally developed tests part of a menu of options for schools, but withheld some when they realized that King would require them in certain instances. (That decision has had consequences of its own.)
Some performance assessments are being used and their administration, however constrained, are still causing headaches. Schools recently wrapped up grading the tests tied to the assessments, which have stirred high-profile protests and boycotts from parents, teachers and students.
“The biggest issue is that the testing is an arduous process,” said Gary Nusser, an assistant principal at M.S. 88 in Brooklyn, whose 1,200 students each took two pre-assessments each this year, one in science and one in social studies.
Even as they have sought to reduce tests, current officials have also defended using “pre-tests” as part of the performance assessment process.
“Yes, students do the pre-[assessments] and the post-[assessments] and that’s part of something that you do for evaluating teachers,” Chancellor Dennis Walcott said last week at City Council hearing on testing policies. “There’s nothing wrong with that.”
Nusser said the Department of Education regularly asks him for feedback about the evaluations, and he said he hopes the scoring issues are considered in any future changes.
That’s a distinct possibility. De Blasio has said he wants to “put the standardized testing machine in reverse,” and further changes to reduce testing related to teacher evaluations could be on the table when he takes office next month. UFT President Michael Mulgrew said recently that one of his first priorities after de Blasio becomes mayor is renegotiating the city’s evaluation system — just hours after praising a group of schools that administer almost no state tests at all.