When it comes to getting rid of standardized testing in early grades, the city and the teachers union are on the same page — both want them eliminated from their teacher evaluation plans.
But the two sides, whose toxic relationship seems to have reached new highs in Mayor Bloomberg’s final year in office, are taking different approaches toward achieving the same end goal.
The United Federation of Teachers ratcheted up its latest critique of teacher evaluations today by joining a statewide coalition that wants to ban standardized tests in any class below third grade. UFT President Michael Mulgrew first raised the issue two weeks ago, arguing that they are developmentally inappropriate because some students can barely hold a pencil, let alone fill in bubble sheets.
“To be using it at these young ages is just ridiculous,” Mulgrew said today on a conference call with reporters.
In New York City, a small fraction of the city’s roughly 800 elementary schools is supposed to administer the bubble tests this year because of how the city’s evaluation plan was written, though parents at some schools are rebelling against the mandate.
Officials at the Department of Education agree with Mulgrew, but they are hoping a quieter discussion with state education Commissioner John King will lead to a solution. There is optimism that the strategy is working.
“The commissioner has indicated a willingness to look at this issue and consider some flexibility for the current school year,” Polakow-Suransky said.
Polakow-Suransky said he first has to submit an official legal request, which is required whenever the city or the UFT wants the state to interpret or adjust the evaluation plan that King imposed for New York City back in June.
It’s an approach that apparently the union isn’t interested in being a part of, according to Polakow-Suransky.
“We have invited the UFT to jointly submit this clarification and have not heard back,” he said in an email.
Update: The department sent a letter to the state with its request, a copy of which is below.
The issue has its roots in King’s decision, which became necessary because New York City was the lone district in the state unable to negotiate a plan with its local teachers union.
King required all schools to use performance-based reading and math assessments developed by the city for the evaluations. But Polakow-Suransky said he withheld the math assessments for early grades because they were brand new and would have been an unreasonable burden for schools in a school year that was already full of changes.
Most elementary schools had a “default” option to use average growth scores from state tests taken by students in higher grades, but the small number of K-2 schools in New York City were left with the standardized tests as a last-ditch fix.
“Without possibly intending to, [King's decision] created a situation where we had, at the K-2 level, to make a choice between essentially putting out a test that would be mandated for every elementary school in the city, or not putting anything out at all,” Polakow-Suransky said earlier this month.
The state coalition says that a solution for just New York City wouldn’t be good enough because some districts outside of the city were also using the tests. On the conference call, a first grade teacher from Suffolk County said that her evaluation plan required her to administer online tests that were similarly inappropriate.
King said in a statement today that he agreed with Mulgrew and Polakow-Suransky on the early testing. A spokesman didn’t respond specifically to whether King was open to adjusting the plan for the city’s K-2 schools, but King’s statement suggested it was possible.
“We support the drive to prohibit standardized testing of pre K through 2nd grade students,” King said in an emailed statement. ”We look forward to working together to make sure that children are protected from more testing than is necessary at the local school district level.”
Sustaining an annual tradition, Department of Education officials will hold meetings with teachers, parents, and students at 71 low-performing schools in the coming weeks.
But with the department’s leadership set to change over when Bill de Blasio becomes mayor Jan. 1, the meetings are not a prelude to a round of school closure announcements, as they were in the past. Instead, they’ll be used to develop plans to help the schools get better, as de Blasio has said should be the response to low performance in almost all cases.
The Bloomberg administration’s strategy for improving the school system has rested heavily on closing struggling schools and opening new schools in their place. That strategy drew fire from school communities that said the city had not tried to fix the schools before closing them.
Responding to that criticism, the city began holding “early engagement” meetings at schools with low scores several years ago to show communities that it had considered their explanations for their poor performance before making closure decisions. It also began creating “targeted action plans” for the schools it decided not to close.
The “early engagement” terminology is gone this year, reflecting the gentler approach to school improvement that the department is cultivating as the Bloomberg era of school reform comes to a close. Now, the meetings are being billed as “conversations with struggling schools” as a way to figure out what they need to improve.
“Avoiding a one-size-fits-all model, we’ve differentiated our supports and interventions because each school is different,” Deputy Chancellor Saskia Levy Thompson said in a statement. “Today, we’re beginning that listening process again to determine what these schools do well, identify areas for improvement, and develop a unique action plan for each school.”
Several times this week, department officials have touted a new statistic: Of the schools that developed targeted action plans in the past two years, more than three quarters saw their annual letter grade improve, and 40 percent gained two or more letter grades.
Levy Thompson said the 71 schools chosen for the meetings, which will begin shortly, are both in the bottom 15 percent of schools citywide on this year’s progress reports and are seen within the department as not being on track to get better.
The schools include Boys and Girls High School in Brooklyn, which received its third straight F this year, but not Dewitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, the other school to extend the same unprecedented spree. A former top department official became Clinton’s principal this year.
The list also includes three schools that until this year received support from the College Board. The nonprofit cited shifting organizational priorities when it withdrew its support this year, but it had previously pulled aid from one school when it began to struggle.
And it includes a few schools saved from closure in the past, including Wadleigh Secondary School for the Performing and Visual Arts, which kept its middle school open after powerful politicians came to its aid, and Bushwick Community High School, a transfer school that the department removed from a list of schools facing “turnaround” last year.
The full list of schools that will hold community meetings in the coming weeks is below:
P.S. 137 John L. Bernstein
Henry Street School for International Studies
Marta Valle High School
P.S. 198 Isador E. Ida Straus
Murry Bergtraum High School for Business Careers
Independence High School
P.S. 145, The Bloomingdale School
Wadleigh Secondary School for the Performing & Visual Arts
Coalition School for Social Change
Isaac Newton Middle School for Math & Science
P.S. 123 Mahalia Jackson
P.S. 194 Countee Cullen
P.S. 200 The James Mccune Smith School
Academy for Social Action: A College Board School
Frederick Douglass Academy
P.S. 132 Juan Pablo Duarte
P.S. 152 Dyckman Valley
High School for Health Careers and Sciences
J.H.S. 162 Lola Rodriguez De Tio
Foreign Language Academy of Global Studies
P.S. 146 Edward Collins
M.S. 301 Paul L. Dunbar
Holcombe L. Rucker School of Community Research
Felisa Rincon de Gautier Institute for Law and Public Policy
Banana Kelly High School
P.S. 070 Max Schoenfeld
P.S. 073 Bronx
P.S. 126 Dr Marjorie H Dunbar
I.S. 313 School of Leadership Development
New Millennium Business Academy Middle School
Bronx High School of Business
Thomas C. Giordano Middle School 45
P.S. 021 Philip H. Sheridan
P.S. 112 Bronxwood
School of Diplomacy
P.S. 092 Bronx
Peace and Diversity Academy
Bronx Regional High School
P.S. 067 Charles A. Dorsey
M.S. 113 Ronald Edmonds Learning Center
P.S. 305 Dr. Peter Ray Brooklyn ElementaryFoundations Academy
School for Legal Studies
Automotive High School
P.S. 309 The George E. Wibecan Preparatory Academy
Boys and Girls High School
W.E.B. Dubois Academic High School
The High School for Global Citizenship
School for Democracy and Leadership
P.S. 114 Ryder Elementary
P.S. 202 Ernest S. Jenkyns
P.S. 306 Ethan Allen
Multicultural High School
I. S. 381
P.S. 165 Ida Posner
P.S. 327 Dr. Rose B. English
Brooklyn Collegiate: A College Board School Brooklyn Secondary
Mott Hall IV
I.S. 347 School of Humanities
P.S. 377 Alejandrina B. De Gautier
Bushwick Community High School
Pan American International High School
J.H.S. 226 Virgil I. Grissom
Frederick Douglass Academy VI High School
Richmond Hill High School
John Adams High School
PS/MS 147 Ronald McNair
Pathways College Preparatory School: A College Board School
If Jessica Fuentes had better luck with timing, she might be in college now.
But because she was a high school senior in 2012, the year the state raised the minimum exam scores required to graduate, she missed the new cutoff score on a few tests, failed to receive a diploma, and withdrew from the college she had planned to attend.
Today, after many unsuccessful attempts to pass the tests, she is juggling three jobs while studying for a high school equivalency certificate.
“I did four years of high school,” said Fuentes, 20. “What a waste of my time.”
Fuentes is one of an untold number of city students ensnared by the state’s efforts to raise graduation standards. Those efforts, meant to ensure that high school graduates are prepared for college, have in some cases stranded students in graduation limbo, where because a single test score is a few points too low, they must set aside plans for work and college to take taxpayer-funded test-prep classes.
Betty Rosa, a member of the state Board of Regents that set the higher standards, said the change was never meant to keep otherwise solid students from graduating due to a few points on a test.
“I think there are arguments for rigor,” Rosa said. “But at the same time, as we move through these issues, we really have to take into account what are the unintended consequences.”
Starting last year, students must pass five state Regents exams with grades of 65 or higher. Previously, students could earn a 55 or higher on some of the tests and still graduate, but with a so-called local diploma. That option now is only available to students with disabilities or ones who successfully appeal their scores.
Fuentes hit the old standard but not the new one on each of the exams. Another student from her senior class at Francis Lewis High School in Queens has taken a single Regents exam 11 times without passing — including every opportunity since missing her graduation last year. Under the old cutoff score, she, too, would have passed the test.
The student, Tiffany, asked that her last name be withheld so that potential employers and others would not be able to discover her struggle to graduate.
She said she has attended afternoon and weekend Regents-prep sessions, studied with a private tutor, taken online courses and watched instructional YouTube videos — all in the hopes of passing the global history and geography exam.
Meanwhile, she has had to pause her plans of attending college and becoming a nurse.
“These poor kids are being held back and their lives are on hold because they can’t get this diploma,” said Cristina Cotignola, a Francis Lewis guidance counselor. “As an educator, I hate this rule.”
Neither the state nor city education department could say how many students were blocked from graduating last year after falling on the wrong side of the new cutoff line.
The city’s four-year graduation rate declined by half a point last year: from 60.9 percent to 60.4 percent — a modest dip, but the first real decrease under Mayor Bloomberg. (The city also toughened how Regents exams are scored and limited makeup work last year for the first time.)
Abja Midha, project director for the nonprofit Advocates for Children, said the full impact of the rule change would not become clear for another year or so, when some students who narrowly missed the score cutoff stop trying to earn their diplomas and turn instead to GED classes or work — a risky route that could limit college choices and future wages.
The group estimates that statewide about 22 percent of each senior class — or some 48,000 students — might not graduate high school for a variety of reasons, from missing class credits to dropping out. A small subset of those students includes ones who met most graduation requirements, but scored too low on one or more Regents exams.
“Those are students who now do not have access to college or other careers,” Midha said.
Students who fail the state tests can retake them as many times as they like. To boost their odds of passing, they can attend city-funded Regents-prep classes until they turn 21.
At Francis Lewis, review sessions leading up to the test are available for the 20 or so students that failed exams last year due to the higher cutoff score. Tiffany, for one, returned last school year for global history tutoring every afternoon and five hours each Saturday morning — but still she couldn’t pass the test.
The global history exam — which covers several millennia of world history taught over two school years — is the most-failed Regents test. The state has considered overhauling the exam so that it would cover less content.
Tiffany’s father, Philip Yeung, argues that it makes little sense for the state to prevent Tiffany, a would-be nurse, from graduating high school on account of a history exam. It also seems unwise for the city to pour resources into her for an extra year or more also on account of a single test, Yeung added.
“I’d rather see them give that time and effort to a student that’s failing, who really needs it,” he said.
Students who come within three points of passing a Regents exam and meet several other criteria, including good attendance and passing grades, can appeal their scores on up to two tests. If a school-based appeal committee signs off, the students receive diplomas.
Neither Fuentes nor Tiffany has earned at least a 62 on the global history exam and so neither can appeal her score.
The Coalition for Multiple Pathways to a Diploma, which includes Advocates for Children, has called on the state to add non-test assessments — such as final projects or portfolios — as graduation options. It also urged the state to expand the number of tests and range of scores subject to appeal, and better publicize that process.
In the meantime, some students remain stuck.
Tiffany still exchanges text messages with her guidance counselor about retaking the Regents exam, but she has lost touch with most of her classmates who earned diplomas and moved on.
Now, after more than a year of fruitless tutoring and retesting, Tiffany has decided to start studying for her GED.
“What else can I do?” she said. “I’ve basically done everything I can, but nothing’s working.”
Brooklyn’s Boys and Girls High School earned the lowest mark on its city progress report today, making it one of just two schools ever to receive the failing grade three years in a row.
The Department of Education has closed many schools that have netted F’s since it began awarding the annual grades in 2007, but Boys and Girls has always managed to stay away from the chopping block. It will escape closure again this year, this time because the Bloomberg administration has simply run out of time to shutter any more low-performing schools.
Instead, Chancellor Dennis Walcott is scheduled to appear Thursday at Boys and Girls, not to intervene in its academic program but to join the school’s powerful supporters to cut the ribbon on a new health center there.
But while other department officials previously have supported Principal Bernard Gassaway as he has annually promised improvements that have not materialized, Chief Academic Officer Shael Polakow-Suransky said today that a school with Boys and Girls’ record should be “cause for serious concern.”
“I think sometimes when something’s not working you need to look at bringing in a new team of educators in that school community,” Chief Academic Officer Shael Polakow-Suransky of schools with a string of Fs. ”It doesn’t make sense that that would be off the table, but it’s not really our decision to make.”
People close to the Bedford-Stuyvesant school said today that even though the city hasn’t closed the school, the stigma from perennially being labeled as failing is doing the same job, just slowly.
“They’ve gotten such a bad rap throughout the years that people just will not send their children there,” said Lisa Dunn, a former PTA president at the school.
Before this year, no school has ever been stuck for so long on the lowest grade in the city’s six-year history of A-F grading system. Today, both Boys and Girls and DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx received their third consecutive F’s. Both schools have strong alumni associations, long and storied histories, award-winning athletic programs, and support among local politicians.
In Boys and Girls’ case, powerful supporters — including City Councilman Al Vann and Regent Lester Young — have repeatedly convinced the Department of Education to extend the school’s lease on life while Gassaway, their hand-picked principal, could be given time and space to implement his turnaround plan. Gassaway said when he came to the school in 2009 that he needed three years to show improvement.
Gassaway would not comment on the school’s latest marks. But he publicly said last month that he might resign over the city’s proposal to install another school inside Boys and Girls’ massive Fulton Avenue building.
That building is far emptier than it used to be just a few years ago. In 2007, Boys and Girls enrolled more than 4,000 students. Following a class action lawsuit that charged Gassaway’s predecessors with warehousing disruptive students in an auditorium and the simultaneous rise of small schools in the area, enrollment plummeted. This year, fewer than 1,000 students attend the school.
And few of those students are thriving, according to city data. Daily attendance hovers around 75 percent and four-year graduation rates were just over 40 percent in recent years, about two-thirds of the citywide rate. Just one in five students met minimum academic standards necessary to move onto college or has managed to stayed in college for at least two years after graduating, according to the latest city data.
Gassaway and Boys and Girls supporters have long argued that the school has been a victim of the city’s enrollment policies, which have frequently come under fire for concentrating high-needs students in struggling schools. Those policies, they have said, made it hard to attract high-performing middle-school students, though a screened program for accelerated students in partnership with Long Island University is now in its third year. Over the years, they said, students who were the farthest behind in school and with the most problems at home made up a larger proportion of the population.
The school has made several efforts to address those needs, including with the health center that Walcott is inaugurating on Thursday. Gassaway opened a highly touted ”Care Center” last year and recruited a network of community-based organizations to expand social services in the school.
Sources close to the school say most of those organizations are no longer actively working with the school, with the exception of Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration, whose director Colvin Grannum is also a longtime ally.
Gassaway did not respond to requests for a list of community groups working in the center, but he said in an email that it was not diminished. And he noted the new school-based health center.
But the school’s low performance is dismal even in comparison to other struggling schools. Like all low-ranking schools that the department has opted not close, Boys and Girls has received “targeted action plans” with extra resources.
According to the department, most of those schools have improved in response to this extra help. Of all schools that had the assistance plans in 2012-2013, 37 percent improved by one grade this year, 28 percent improved by two grades, and 11 percent improved by three or more grades. A few of the schools netted lower grades. Boys and Girls was part of the 14 percent of schools to stay the same.
A few students have managed to thrive at Boys and Girls. Dunn, the PTA president, allowed her son to attend Boys and Girls to play basketball on the condition that he enroll in the Long Island University program. She estimated that he earned a dozen college credits by the end of his sophomore year.
This year, though, Dunn became part of the school’s student flight when her son transferred to a high school closer to where they live in Queens, in an effort to cut down on his commute. She said she was initially “shocked” to hear it had not improved, but added that the number of students who entered ninth grade already many years behind in reading and writing had taking up a larger share of the population.
What to do with the school, its students, and its hulking building in Bed-Stuy will be among Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio’s education challenges. Though de Blasio has pledged to support struggling schools rather than shut them down, Boys and Girls’ recent history suggests that extra help isn’t enough to turn the school around.
Shifting political winds in the area could also fracture the coalition that has pledged to support Boys and Girls in the past. Vann is leaving the City Council, while another longtime member of the school’s advisory group, Jitu Weusi, died this year.
And Dunn said she thought the constant negative attention that the school receives has “stigmatized” it so much that students no longer want to attend. She suggested that the school’s fate might be sealed when she recalled her experience taking her son to an enrollment center before high school so he could join Boys and Girls’ championship basketball team. She asked the department official to add Armando to the school’s register.
The response she said she got: “Why are you sending him there?”
Rows of tiny children shivered inside puffy coats on the steps of City Hall Wednesday to make the cutest case possible for daycare, after-school, and full-day preschool funding.
Their plea wasn’t directed at the outgoing mayor, but the incoming one, Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio, whose campaign was fueled by a pledge to tax the rich to pay for full-day pre-kindergarten for all 4-year-olds and after-school programs for all middle-school students.
“We are here today … to say: take your campaign promise and turn it into a reality,” said Wayne Ho, chief policy officer for Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies, one of more than 150 advocacy groups and service providers in the Campaign for Children, a coalition formed to fight cuts to early-childhood and after-school programs.
De Blaiso recently named FPWA’s executive director, Jennifer Jones Austin, as co-chair of his transition team. One of her roles, the campaign said last week, is to lead the push for universal pre-K.
The coalition’s 19-page plan urges the next administration to commit $150 million of the city budget to fund these programs, which is the amount the City Council has had to cobble together in recent years after the mayor’s office cut the funds from its budget.
The plan also proposes the creation of a new Office of Early Childhood to focus on children aged five and younger.
The coalition argues that early-childhood programs — which include subsidized childcare, Head Start and universal pre-K — prepare children for school while freeing their parents for work. Its plan asks de Blasio to extend his vision beyond the full-day-preschool and after-school pledge.
The report says that the city’s early-childhood system serves about 140,000 children, but that thousands of eligible children still miss out. And one of the city’s main after-school programs has shrunk by about 35 percent since 2008, the report adds.
De Blasio says his proposed income tax on households that make more than $500,000 would raise about $342 million, which would finance full-day preschool for all the city’s four-year-olds, including the 38,000 now in half-day pre-K and the 10,000 others in none. He also says the tax would fund more after-school programs.
De Blasio’s tax plan would require state approval, which could be an uphill battle, as well as a legislative tweak that would allow the city to spend the money on full-day pre-K.
Officials released what could be the city’s final round of school grades today, emphasizing stability even as major changes are likely imminent.
The Department of Education and City Hall will soon be full of new officials, and last year was chaotic for different reasons—Superstorm Sandy and the first round of the state’s new, tougher Common Core-aligned exams. That meant today’s release was marked by little fanfare and lowered stakes.
The A to F grades and accompanying school progress reports are based mostly on calculations of student test scores, and they have become a signature of Mayor Bloomberg’s focus on school accountability since the city began giving them out in 2007. But they may not stick around at all, as mayor-elect Bill de Blasio has promised to eliminate those grades and pause the school-closure process.
So the 45 schools that received Fs and 102 that received Ds this year will not be considered for closure this year, as has become the norm.
The overall grade distribution across schools—fixed for elementary and middle schools, but not for high schools—remained fairly steady, despite across-the-board score decreases following the introduction of new state tests. Overall, 27 percent of the 1,624 schools receiving grades earned As, 36 percent earned Bs, 28 percent Cs, 6 percent Ds, and 3 percent Fs.
Some of this year’s scores also felt the impact of Superstorm Sandy, which devastated a number of city schools. Eleven hard-hit schools that would have received low grades had those grades withheld, though they did receive overall progress reports.
The results were good for new unscreened high schools, which continued to outperform high schools opened before 2002. Sixty-seven percent of the new schools earned an A or B, compared to 46 percent of the older schools. For charter schools, the results were also positive, with 69 percent earning an A or B.
De Blasio has called those letter grades too simplistic, though he hasn’t yet said what he would replace them with or whether schools would still be assessed by the complex algorithms that go into the grades.
Bloomberg rebuffed de Blasio’s assessment of the school grades at another event on Wednesday, saying that they made it easier for parents to understand school quality. “Getting it down to something that they can use is not making it too simplistic; quite the contrary, it is making it useful,” Bloomberg said.
But Chief Academic Officer Shael Polakow-Suransky, who presented the results on Wednesday, said he sees middle ground. “I hope that, there’s a sense that when we look at these questions, it’s not a dichotomy,” he said. “You don’t have to either do progress reports or no progress reports, you don’t have to either do no accountability or yes accountability. You can find ways to address whatever concerns are out there and build them into the system in a smart and thoughtful way.”
This year, adjustments included a new metric for college and career-readiness, after the department heard complaints from teachers and principals that their students were doing well in college despite not having exam scores that met the city’s college-readiness threshold.
They were right. Though only 25 percent of the class of 2011 was deemed college-ready by their state scores, an additional 23 percent of students who graduated then are still in college after three semesters, and high schools are now receiving credit for preparing those students as well.
The city also emphasized the success of its efforts to work with schools that received Ds or Fs in recent years but that the city decided not to close. Of the 76 schools with one of those plans last year, 76 percent improved at least one letter grade this year. Eleven percent improved three or more grade levels.
That may be a result of a suggestion in a recent report on school networks. “Although it is not widely discussed (either by the DOE or its critics), the last few years have seen the DOE take steps to test out more assertive direct support models for struggling schools,” that report said.
The city will release a list of schools eligible for “early intervention” because of low performance on Thursday.
And while Polakow-Suransky said it wasn’t his place to advocate for the specific continuation of the school grades, Bloomberg was happy to do just that.
“I would certainly urge my successor to keep going,” the mayor said.
Patrick Wall contributed reporting.
Correction: This story previously misstated the number of schools that received Ds. That figure is 102, not 202.
A school accountability era in New York City is going out not with a bang but with a technical briefing in the basement of the Department of Education’s headquarters.
That’s where Deputy Chancellor Shael Polakow-Suransky will be unveiling this year’s progress reports, the letter grades that the Bloomberg administration awarded annually to schools since 2007, to reporters. The setup is similar to what has happened in the recent past but a far cry from the early years of the progress reports, when Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein used to tout the scores — and their improvement from the previous year — with great fanfare.
The letter grades are not the biggest school story today for Bloomberg and his current chancellor, Dennis Walcott. They’re appearing together early this afternoon at a high school in Hell’s Kitchen to announce a donation from AT&T to fund a new software engineering curriculum.
Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio has said he wants to overhaul how schools are assessed, so today’s grades could well be the last that schools receive, at least under the current system. What they show will become a lasting data point in Bloomberg’s education legacy, along with the city’s higher graduation rate and this year’s dramatic test score decline because of the state’s new standards.
We already have one hint about what this year’s progress reports will say. On Monday, Polakow-Suransky said at a panel event that the lowest-performing 15 percent of schools from last year — all of which received “Targeted Assistance Plans” if the department opted not to close them — had come out ahead on this year’s reports. Three-quarters of the schools with the plans saw their grades go up by at least one letter; 40 percent rose by two letters or more, he said. (Those data points are repeated in a report released Monday about how the city supports schools.)
The grades are based on complex algorithms that compare student progress and performance across schools with similar students. Although the formulas have been tweaked every year, the big picture has remained the same: Elementary and middle school grades have been based almost entirely on state test scores, while high school grades factor in graduation rates and how quickly students earn credits, as well. More recently, high school grades have also reflected how well students are prepared for college, based on whether their students are exempt from remedial courses and stay enrolled over time.
This year, high schools are getting more credit for their graduates’ persistence in college than in the past, although graduates’ college readiness still amounts to only 10 percent of each school’s score. For the first time, middle schools’ scores will based in small part on their graduates’ performance in high school, and elementary schools will see for the first time how their students are doing in middle school, although that won’t factor into their progress reports.
The city also changed the way schools are compared so that schools are grouped with other schools that have similar students. Principals had long complained that the city’s old formula compared schools with many high-need students to schools with relatively few, and schools with many high-need students have been more likely to receive low scores.
The Bloomberg administration devised the grading system in large part to give parents more detailed information about their schools and to shift the focus from raw performance to the progress that students make every year, in an effort to make the point that some schools with struggling students propel them forward faster than others. But de Blasio and many others have criticized the reports’ single letter grades for offering too simplistic a view of school quality.
Usually, the city uses the grades to determine which schools to consider closing. This year, because the closure process would span the two mayoral administrations, no schools will be closed. But Walcott said last week that the department would let low-performing schools know that their progress did not meet standards nonetheless.
Online guides to this year’s progress report formulas offer other indications that the department plans to plow ahead with the progress reports even after the end of the year. Principals have been told to expect additional changes, including the incorporation of the middle school student achievement data point into elementary schools’ grades.
The city’s next public advocate isn’t afraid to raise her voice on education issues.
Letitia James’ aggressive oratory against charter schools and co-locations has earned her standing ovations in crowded school auditoriums, effusive praise from Diane Ravitch, and skepticism among charter school parents. And her increasingly vocal presence in education activism provides a clear glimpse into what mayor-elect Bill de Blasio’s closest progressive allies want from him on education.
“I think you can view me as a partner in ensuring that the mayor of the city of New York honors his commitment to reform the school system as we know it,” James said in a recent interview. “Now it’s time to put the rhetoric into action. And my role is to ensure that in fact the rhetoric is actualized.”
Currently a City Councilmember representing Fort Greene, Prospect Heights and much of Crown Heights, James will soon be the city’s second highest-ranking official. Though the power of the public advocate has historically been limited, she may end up playing a larger role given her close relationship with de Blasio.
But James, an outspoken critic of charter schools eager for large-scale shifts in the city’s education policies, has been more condemnatory than de Blasio when speaking out about the city’s public schools. ”They have pretty much dismantled public education,” she said of the Bloomberg administration. “I see it wherever I go, and I just see the inequities.”
Politics will necessarily hem de Blasio in once he begins governing from City Hall, where he will almost certainly face continuous pressure to moderate the stances he took during the campaign on charter schools and school closures. And James says she won’t hesitate to hold de Blasio to account if he does.
At a transition event yesterday, James told the Observer that de Blasio is a friend—”But nonetheless, putting that aside, I have a job to do. And New Yorkers elected me to be checks and balances on Mayor Bill de Blasio,” she said.
That’s been a more natural stance for past public advocates, who have been at political odds with the city’s mayor for the position’s 20-year history. But James and de Blasio appear in public together frequently, offered strong endorsements of each other during the campaign, and share many positions.
“I don’t think, in terms of education, we diverge on much of anything,” James said, referring to de Blasio.
James’ solution to that dilemma is to remake the office, not the relationship. “The office of the public advocate could utilize more of its oversight powers. It could sue. It could hold hearings all throughout the city of New York, hearings which really focus on parent involvement,” she said. “My emphasis is going to be a lot on litigation.”
Over the course of the campaign, de Blasio made some of his own educational priorities clear: universal pre-K, a plan to charge well-financed charter school networks to operate in public space, a moratorium on school closures, and the elimination of the school letter-grade system.
More broadly, James said she and the mayor-elect agree on the need for “a more comprehensive idea of education,” meaning more resources for schools, smaller class sizes, and what she termed “disbanding standardized testing.”
The desire to de-emphasize testing is why she said she would be consulting Carmen Farina, the former second-in-command at the Department of Education who later criticized the use of test scores to measure schools, during her transition. (Farina, whose name has been floated as a possible chancellor, has been informally advising the de Blasio campaign.)
If charter school advocates are hopeful that de Blasio can be swayed toward more pro-charter positions as the governing process begins, they definitely won’t find such flexibility from James. She speaks of “charter schools” and “public schools” as separate entities, and repeatedly referred to what the money the city spent supporting charter schools could do for other parts of the school system.
James attended Brooklyn public schools—P.S. 39 and M.S. 88 in Park Slope, and Fort Hamilton High School in Bay Ridge. At Fort Hamilton, she recalled being offered Spanish, Latin, and French, and having school nurses, guidance counselors, and afterschool programs available.
That wealth of options is not available in many district schools, she said—a problem she says was caused by the Bloomberg administration giving charter schools space in public buildings.
“Charter schools obviously provide so many things to so many children,” she said. “It just appears that charter schools have basic services and beyond … and public schools just have basic services, if that.”
Given that the budget of the public advocate’s office has been slashed in recent years, James is counting on de Blasio’s sympathy for her cause and her ties to councilmembers to give her office more cash—and more influence—on education issues citywide.
“I think this is an opportunity to form an alliance when necessary, to continue to provide oversight, and to be critical from time to time as well,” James said.
She says she’s not interested in the job herself, but Carmen Farina has a clear vision for how Mayor-Elect Bill de Blasio’s chancellor should lead the city’s schools.
That vision includes some big ideas — including converting empty classrooms into dormitories for homeless students to forcing real estate developers to build space for early education — that the retired educator says have been on her mind recently. On Monday, Farina shared her thoughts publicly on an education panel about the transition underway at City Hall between the Bloomberg and de Blasio administrations.
Farina said her philosophy around education policymaking represents an approach that’s been absent at the Department of Education in recent years.
“I want to see us have a system where people do things because they have a sense of joy about it, not because they have a sense of fear,” Farina said during the panel, which was part of a daylong conference about the transition at the CUNY Graduate Center.
Farina’s four-decade career as a teacher and administrator in city schools included Mayor Bloomberg’s takeover of the system in 2002. She helped oversee an initial restructuring under mayoral control, serving as one of 10 regional superintendents and then moving up to head the department’s instructional division for two years.
Farina has been an unofficial advisor to de Blasio on education, a relationship that dates back more than a decade to when they worked in the same Brooklyn school district. Before he was elected to the City Council in 2001, de Blasio served on the District 15 school board at the same time when Farina was superintendent.
The close ties have led to speculation that she might be de Blasio’s pick for chancellor, a rumor she squelched last month and again on her way out of the room after her panel appearance. She declined to offer the name of a good candidate to fill the position, arguing that de Blasio and people who are helping him with the transition should handle the selection privately.
“When we voted for Bill as mayor we assumed he heard our concerns and would make the right decisions on his picks for commissioners and chancellor,” she said.
Some of what Farina said on the panel hewed closely to priorities that de Blasio campaigned on during the election season. Like de Blasio, she called for the inclusion of more voices than just the mayor’s on the Panel for Educational Policy, the 13-member school board that sets education policies.
She also offered an idea that could address space issues that could stand in the way of de Blasio’s proposal to expand the number of available pre-kindergarten seats and after school programs for middle school students. Real estate developers, she said, should be required to build early childhood education centers that would also serve as community centers for middle school students.
And Farina had a radical solution to serve some of the roughly 18,000 children who are currently housed in city’s homeless shelter system.
“We need to turn some of our large high schools into dormitory schools,” she said, so that homeless students can be accounted for in the hours when they’re not supposed to be in school. (Many large high schools currently house multiple schools, putting them near or over capacity.)
Farina was critical of the Bloomberg administration’s approach to low-performing schools, which largely relied on closing them and opening new schools in their place. An alternative to closing schools, she proposed, is to pair principals from schools with mirroring student populations, where one school is performing well and the other isn’t, to exchange ideas about what works and what doesn’t.
“Principal-to-principal, teachers-to-teachers, are the best vehicle to professional development that I know,” she said.
The panel featured plenty of praise for the some current Bloomberg policies, too. Joining Farina on the seven-member panel was Cass Conrad, executive director of CUNY’s Early College Initiative, who touted the hundreds of small schools that have been created in the last 12 years.
Another panelist, Department of Education Chief Academic Officer Shael Polakow-Suransky, said the city’s evolving school accountability system — dominated by schools’ annual progress report card grades — was worth saving, but with some changes. He said recent changes to the system were providing a more accurate picture of school quality than ever and that bringing test scores, which currently make up most of the scores, into balance with other measures would improve them more.
He also said a pilot to allow schools to opt out of the citywide accountability system had attracted roughly 50 schools and would further test different approaches to measuring school performance.
A study that the city Department of Education commissioned to boost the chances of having the next mayor continue the “network” school support structure concluded that while the theory is sound, the execution has not been.
Struggling schools have gotten too little support and communities and schools have had too weak of a connection under the networks, according to the report, released today by the Parthenon Group. One solution, the consulting firm suggests, is restoring some authority to district superintendents — whom the Bloomberg administration stripped of most power in 2007.
Networks replaced a system of school support that was linked to schools’ geographic districts. Instead of coaches and advisors giving professional development, curriculum, and budget help to all of the schools in a single area, they currently work with schools that choose their brand of support, no matter where the schools are located.
The new report comes at a time Mayor Bloomberg’s successor, Bill de Blasio, is deep into planning for his transition to City Hall. De Blasio has said he thinks districts should play a stronger role in school support, but he has so far offered few details about how he plans to change the way schools get help.
The report contains several ideas for de Blasio and his transition team. Before it got the contract to study networks, Parthenon secretly told the department that it would seek to identify “low-hanging fruit” that could be changed without overhauling the network structure entirely.
The group found that principals appreciate being able to select who gives them support and being able to work with schools other than those that happen to be located nearby. It also found decoupling support from evaluation allowed some principals to seek help more often.
But Parthenon also found validation for longstanding critiques of the network structure.
One critique has been that the structure allows low-performing schools to operate with little intervention. The report backs up the charge, concluding, ”The DOE today may provide too little empowerment for a set of schools that are high performing and experience little benefit from central supports, while offering too much latitude to principals who will not be able to figure out how to improve on their own.” It adds that when struggling schools have gotten intensive support, as the department has offered in recent years, they have usually gotten stronger.
The report suggests allowing superintendents, who must rate principals each year, to supersede network leaders for the worst-performing schools. “The formal authority of the superintendent is of greatest value when working with struggling schools that, without strong guidance, may not necessarily make the best use of their autonomy,” the report concludes.
Superintendents could also play a stronger role in helping communities feel connected to their schools, according to the report, which identifies community relations as a weakness under the Bloomberg administration.
“While the DOE points out that each district office has a family advocate position, there is a legitimate concern from parents that this position is disconnected from the day-to-day support, oversight, and resources that networks provide, and that district offices have few resources to act on their concerns,” the report concludes.
Staffing is another concern. The city does not have enough highly trained people to fill all of the difficult and specialized roles that networks must play, the report says.
“The current model, in which the DOE has to staff 56 network teams in addition to cluster teams and superintendents, has significantly increased the challenge of talent development and hiring for all of these positions, and left the existing talent base stretched fairly thin,” it says, adding that it might not even be realistic to find 56 strong network leaders. The staffing challenge is most acute in areas where network officials need specialized expertise, such as around special education, according to the report.
Shael Polakow-Suransky, the department’s chief academic officer, said Parthenon’s exhaustive interviews meant the report’s conclusions are worth considering. “I think it was a thoughtful report,” he said today.
From some principals, the possibility that the network structure might not survive into de Blasio’s tenure is a real concern, despite their drawbacks.
“I think that whoever is going to be in charge should be really mindful of not throwing the baby out with the bathwater,” said Donna Taylor, principal of the Brooklyn School for Inquiry, a citywide gifted school.
“Being able to go to a meeting and be able to walk into a room with 47 like-minded people means everything in the world to a principal and an [assistant principal],” Taylor added. “And without networks we wouldn’t have that. That’s big.”
Geoff Decker contributed reporting.
Parthenon’s complete report is below:
A coalition of small high schools where students complete graduation projects rather than take most Regents exams could soon add several more schools to its ranks – if the state lets those schools skip the tests.
The New York Performance Standards Consortium is in talks with the state to get Regents-exam waivers for as many as 22 schools that follow the group’s instructional model and use alternative assessments, but currently must also administer the Regents tests. The schools, which have been part of a multi-year pilot, include several high schools in the Internationals and Expeditionary Learning networks. Many of them have staff members who worked at consortium schools in the past.
The consortium currently includes 28 public schools — 26 in New York City and one each in Rochester and Ithaca — where students are exempt from taking all Regents exams except for English. Instead, they must earn class credits and complete intensive projects to graduate.
The group and its supporters – which include the city teachers union and more recently the city Department of Education – have lobbied the state to let more schools trade the Regents tests for the long-term projects, citing data showing higher-than-average graduation and college-enrollment rates among consortium schools.
“I think it’s a disgrace that these schools have to apply for a waiver to do more work and prepare children better,” said United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew, adding that obtaining the state waivers is rarely easy. “We know every time we do it it’s a political battle.”
Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch declined to discuss the consortium or the waivers due to the ongoing talks. Ann Cook, the consortium’s executive director, also declined to discuss the talks but said she expected an answer from the state soon.
The consortium must ask the State Education Department to renew the test waivers for the schools that have them every few years, which the Board of Regents must approve. In the past, the consortium has sometimes needed to lobby lawmakers to get the waivers renewed, but Commissioner John King most recently granted the schools a three-year waiver extension in July.
The current negotiations are around whether the consortium can add new members, something that could be politically tricky for King to allow at a time when the state’s emphasis on standardized testing has come under fire. Some of the pilot schools have followed the consortium’s alternative-assessment model for years in hopes of getting their own waivers to stop administering Regents exams.
Students seeking diplomas at consortium schools skip the math, science, and social studies Regents tests. Instead, they complete a literary essay (in addition to taking the English Regents exam), social-studies research paper, applied-math project and science experiment, which they must defend before panels of teachers and outside observers. A student at the Institute for Collaborative Education, for instance, conducted a neurobiology experiment and wrote a 15-page paper comparing the writing of Ralph Ellison and Albert Camus for his assessment projects one year.
The city Department of Education gave the consortium funding a few years ago to train the pilot schools in its methods. Since then, it has pushed the state to offer those schools Regents waivers.
“We think this is very strong work that should be expanded,” said Shael Polakow-Suransky, the department’s chief academic officer. The school where Polakow-Suransky was the founding principal, Bronx International High School, is one of the consortium pilot schools.
The waiver wait has strained some schools. Jamie Munkatchy, a science teacher at Validus Preparatory Academy, a consortium pilot school in the Bronx, said that for the past six years she and her colleagues have attended consortium trainings, helped evaluate other schools’ graduation projects, and guided their own students to complete similar projects.
But still, their students must take and pass all five Regents exams required for graduation.
“You get tired of the consortium telling you waivers are going to come, but they never come,” Munkatchy said. “They would just say, ‘Be patient, it’s going to happen.’”
The situation changed recently for Validus. When consortium officials held a vote at the school to check for support of the alternative-assessment model, less than 80 percent of the staff voted for it. Now the consortium does not plan to seek a waiver for the school.
The consortium says it would like to secure waivers for all of the pilot schools that have participated in the trainings and where the entire staff backs the consortium model.
But some current and former pilot-school staffers have complained about a lack of transparency in the waiver process, where the consortium leaders lobby state education officials in private for the test exemptions on the schools’ behalf. Cook declined to provide GothamSchools a list of the pilot schools.
The consortium says it has asked the state to develop a more formal process for granting the waivers.
In the meantime, some pilot schools have struggled to balance the consortium-style project work with preparing students for the Regents.
“It’s kind of like dancing with two partners,” said Matt Brown, principal of Kurt Hahn High School, a pilot school that is part of the Expeditionary Learning network. “We feel like we would do a better job for our kids if we could focus on the performance-based assessments.”
Claire Sylvan, executive director of the Internationals Network for Public Schools, said of the network’s 15 New York City high schools, three are founding members of the consortium and the rest are consortium pilot schools.
“We do find that we can’t go as in depth in our performance tasks and portfolios in our schools that are required to do Regents as we can in our other schools,” Sylvan said, adding that she has not been informed if or when the pilot schools might receive waivers.
Leo Casey, executive director of the Albert Shanker Institute, who previously worked closely with the consortium schools when he was the UFT’s vice-president, said he did not expect any schools to adopt the consortium model simply as a way to sidestep the state tests.
“It shouldn’t be seen as an opt-out,” he said. “It’s taking on a great deal more work.”
Khadim Seck, a senior at Urban Academy, cited an art-criticism project where he analyzed the work of the Japanese artist Yoshitomo Nara — he creates “pictures that look cute, but there’s something dark lurking” — as an assessment that spurred learning in a way a typical test could not.
“Students are more than just a grade,” he said. “They’re actual thinkers.”