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.
Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio said Monday that he would not publicize his top choices to head the school system, a year after promising a “public screening” process for schools chancellor.
The incoming mayor said he is seeking counsel from his transition committee – which includes public-school parents and advocates – and from others as he chooses someone to take over the nation’s largest school system in January.
But he said he would not subject his top picks to public scrutiny – a vetting process that some cities have adopted when selecting school chiefs and one that some New York advocates have demanded.
“We’re not going to have a beauty contest,” de Blasio said Monday during a press conference near City Hall. “We’re not going to put the different finalists on display.”
Some critics were quick to suggest that de Blasio’s stance seemed to clash with comments he made during an education forum for mayoral candidates (co-hosted by GothamSchools) in November 2012.
“We need a chancellor who is presented to the public and not just forced down our throat,” de Blasio said at the time, after critiquing Mayor Bloomberg’s surprise selection of Cathie Black as chancellor in 2010 as “mayoral control gone to an undemocratic level.” De Blasio added that he would seek candidates with backgrounds in education and would conduct a “serious, serious, public screening.”
Leonie Haimson, the executive director of Class Size Matters and a frequent Bloomberg critic, said it would be disappointing if de Blasio backs off from that campaign-trail pledge.
“Of all the decisions he’s going to make, the selection of the chancellor is going to be the most important one,” Haimson said. “And it’s really important that that selection be made in a way that allows for public input.”
Haimson has circulated a petition that urges de Blasio to carry out his campaign promise to more deeply involve the public in school-system decisions. Specifically, the petition – which had about 540 signatures by Monday afternoon – says the top chancellor candidates should answer questions at town hall-style meetings, after which the public could submit their feedback to the mayor-elect.
Some observers argue that publicly screening potential school-district leaders might discourage candidates who are still employed elsewhere or who don’t want to submit to such intense scrutiny before they are guaranteed the job. Still, some city school boards involve the public in their school-chief searches.
For instance, the Seattle School Board polled the public before conducting a national superintendent search last year, while the Boston School Committee has said it will hold community meetings to compile a list of desired qualities in a new superintendent.
In New York, since the state agreed to grant Mayor Bloomberg control of the school system, mayors now have the final say in choosing the chancellor.
Bloomberg was criticized for choosing three chancellors – Joel Klein, Black and Dennis Walcott – who each required state waivers because they did not have the requisite education degree combined with several years’ teaching experience.
When Bloomberg sought a waiver for Black, a former media executive who resigned after 95 days as schools chancellor, then-Public Advocate de Blasio said Black should first answer questions in a public forum.
De Blasio said at the same 2012 forum that his schools chancellor would “definitely [be] an educator.”
Lis Smith, a de Blasio spokeswoman, said in an email Monday that in addition to his transition committee, the mayor-elect is also seeking input from “outside stakeholders” and from the public through the transition website.
“Mayor-elect de Blasio greatly values public input on who the next education chancellor will be – a point he made crystal clear today,” Smith said.
With Mayor Bloomberg on his way out, there’s been a small crack in the icy relationship between the city education department and the teachers union.
The thaw is taking place over a $12 million grant that the city is eligible for to fund new ways to develop, retain and compensate top teachers. The purpose is to improve teacher retention in high-poverty schools, where turnover is most acute.
After holding out for months, the United Federation of Teachers signed off on a grant application that the Department of Education submitted just ahead of a 5 p.m. deadline today. Signatures from the teachers and principals unions were required, but the UFT had declined to offer one for months.
Over the summer, Chancellor Dennis Walcott blamed the UFT’s unwillingness to support the grant bid on union intransigence. Education officials accused the union of trying to negotiate work benefits that were unrelated to the grant.
But a lot has changed since then, most notably the election of Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio, who takes over next month after campaigning as an anti-Bloomberg candidate.
“The main thing that’s changed is that a new administration will be implementing that grant and that one of its stated priorities is teacher retention,” said Amy Arundell, the UFT’s director of personnel and special projects.
While the Bloomberg administration has launched some teacher retention initiatives, Arundell said its philosophy has focused too much on rewarding top teachers and punishing low performers. (Bloomberg’s rhetoric on teacher quality and efforts to rid the city of weak teachers led the ice to form in the first place.) She said the union prefers a shift toward greater professional development for all teachers and additional support for novice teachers.
Teacher quality is briefly mentioned in de Blasio’s education policy book, but he did not make it a prominent part of his campaign.
The funds are available through New York’s Strengthening Teacher and Leader Effectiveness Grants, a $72 million pot of money from the state’s $700 million in federal Race to the Top winnings. The grants seek to spur districts to rethink how teachers are paid.
Currently, teacher pay in New York City is determined primarily by years of experience and through earning higher education and profession development credits. The current round of grants require districts to develop “career ladder” programs for top teachers, something that the UFT has long advocated. But it also mandates that teachers’ ratings be considered to be eligible for promotions and raises, a policy that unions have historically opposed.
The city tweaked details of the grant application to hew closer to what the UFT originally asked for over the summer, Arundell said. None of the money will be used to create assessments or hire talent coaches to implement city teacher evaluations, which showed up on the original grant application, she said.
Arundell said city officials also showed more of a willingness to collaborate with the union to write the grant, something that was absent the first time around.
“They agreed to almost every change we suggested,” Arundell said.
Department of Education spokesman Devon Puglia did not respond to questions about the details of the application. In a statement, he thanked the teachers and principals unions for signing off on the application — after noting that previous negotiation stalemates have cost the city has “tens of millions of grant dollars for City classrooms.”
“Everything that is listed in the grant application are things we believe in and would implement well,” he said.
Throughout this fall, we met students in the throes of a notoriously overwhelming process: deciding which schools to list on their high school applications.
Today, they must make their final decisions. The applications are due this afternoon, and students will find out in March which school they will attend — or whether they must enter a second admissions process for students who are not placed anywhere.
At high school fairs this fall, some students said they felt anxious about the application process; others said they were confident that they’d get their first choice or end up at another satisfactory school. Their priorities varied widely, as did the level of support they had gotten throughout the process from parents, teachers, and guidance counselors.
For some eighth-graders, new information caused old ideas to evolve. Here’s one example: Back in September, Tiffany Mejia had her heart set on the School of Food and Finance because, she said, she likes to cook, and her best friends also wanted to go there. By the time she submitted her application last week in advance of today’s deadline, she had pushed Food and Finance to second place in favor of Humanities Preparatory Academy, a small school in Chelsea that enrolls both traditional ninth-graders and students who have previously struggled in other high schools schools.
“I was just looking through the book and I saw it and I liked that name and how it sounded,” Meija said. “I started researching it and seeing if it’s a good school.” She said she looked at online reviews written by current students and at the school’s report card from the city before deciding that the commute from her apartment in the Bronx would be worth it.
Tiffany’s mother, Blacina, said in Spanish that safety is her first priority for her daughter’s high school. While Tiffany made her own list, Blacina said she “will give the last word” on whether Tiffany can attend whatever school she is assigned. Blacina said she knows Tiffany might not get into her top choice and decided to wait to visit schools until a match is made.
As we’ve heard from current high school students who regret their choice of schools, transferring after the initial application process is no easy task, particularly after the re-application deadline passes this time next year. A student desperate to transfer out of a school slated for closure told us he was “just trying to get out” and into a small school on the same campus, because “even in the same building there’s a big gap” between the quality of schools.
Parents told us that the results of the first Common Core-aligned math tests added another layer of uncertainty to the application process. In light of the drop in test scores this year, the city advised screened schools to adjust their expectations and look for students with a level of 2.25 or higher when they ordinarily would have looked for 3s, and 1.8 or higher when they might otherwise have looked for 2s. But screened schools don’t have to follow the city’s advice, and parents said they heard mixed messages about scoring cutoffs at the high school fairs.
For some city students, the application they submitted for today’s deadline isn’t the only one they’ll submit this year: Students interested in charter schools need to apply directly to those schools. Some cities have decided to allow students to apply to charter and district schools through one form and a single process, and while there hasn’t been any significant movement on that front yet in New York, city officials have indicated that it’s a (very) long term goal.
Current or rising high school students who move to the city after today’s application deadline will have a very different experience. Instead of attending high school fairs and submitting a list of their top choice schools, they’ll head to enrollment centers where they are assigned to schools with open seats. All too often, a recent report found, those schools are already struggling.
“Get rid of Regents tests.” “Higher pay for teachers.” “Increase $ and access for arts education.”
Those are just a few of the hundreds of education suggestions that New Yorkers left for Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio in the last couple of weeks at the Talking Transitions tent, a temporary structure erected in Tribeca to host conversations about the city’s next phase.
Dozens of nonprofit and advocacy groups led panel discussions and presentations in the tent, which was created by billionaire George Soros’s Open Society Institute with help from other philanthropies. The tent’s goal was to make the often opaque transition process transparent and open to public influence.
The hastily scheduled events included several with a focus on education. The Dignity in Schools Campaign led a discussion about the future of school discipline; the parent group NYCPublic.org shared the results from its “parent engagement lab”; a coalition of early childhood education advocated laid out their hopes for expanded pre-kindergarten programs; and Families for Excellent Schools, a group that organizes parents at charter schools, brought charter school educators together to discuss instructional practices at their schools. (We even played a role, moderating a panel of principals affiliated with the NYC Outward Bound Schools network.)
In addition to the conversations, the tent also allowed visitors to leave suggestions for the city’s new leadership on a series of color-coded stickers. We took photographs of some of the blue education suggestions on one of the tent’s final days of operation, and you can see them in the slideshow above.
Most of the stickers reflect the progressive priorities that de Blasio has set up to now. There are even a smattering of “Diane Ravitch for chancellor” stickers. But a few — including a couple that call for the city to gain more charter schools — represent views that seem unlikely to advance under a de Blasio administration.
It’s been about a month since we announced our plans to change our name to Chalkbeat New York and launch a new website. Last week we re-introduced you to bureau chief Philissa Cramer, who talked about why she was excited for GothamSchools to become Chalkbeat New York.
The exciting evolution would not be possible without our team of top-notch journalists, who traverse the city to bring you daily news about New York City’s schools. So this week we want to introduce you to our reporters in New York — whose experience in the organization ranges from several years to just a few weeks.
Below, they share why they are passionate about education reporting, what teachers helped them get where they are today, and embarrassing stories from the job. You can read more about Chalkbeat’s Colorado and Tennessee reporters, too.
Sarah Darville, reporter
On the team since September 2013
1. Where you worked before & why you decided to join Chalkbeat: Most recently I was writing for the Nieman Journalism Lab, and before that I was studying at Columbia. I was an intern for GothamSchools in 2011, and became really impressed with what Philissa and Elizabeth [Green] were doing. When that was over, I stayed in touch, freelancing a bit and watching the site expand. When I graduated, I was thrilled to come back and be a part of a growing nonprofit news organization focusing on an issue I care about.
2. Story you are most proud of: I’ll go with a recent one about the issues remaining for special education teachers dealing with the city’s information system for those students. Those issues affect thousands of people every day, and they haven’t seen significant improvements.
3. Teacher who most helped you get to where you are today: (Besides my two-time Teacher of the Year/all-time mom of the year?) My first journalism teacher, Mrs. Atkinson, for letting me loose upon my high school and backing me up when I inevitably got into trouble for it.
4. Your most embarrassing or funny reporting moment: I once spent a long time wandering around City Hall … looking for City Hall. Was no one else expecting a skyscraper? It’s New York City!
1. Where you worked before & why you decided to join Chalkbeat: Freelance sports writer covering mostly competitive running and sports media; student at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.
2. Story are you most proud of: The story I’m most proud of is covering a high school football game that included students who had just been through hell on account of Superstorm Sandy. The football game was the first time they had seen each other and it was an emotional reunion to cover.
3. Teacher who most helped you get to where you are today: David Lewis and Indrani Sen, my journalism co-professors at CUNY. As editors, they constantly made my stories better, as teachers they pushed me to be a better reporter, and as informal publicists, got my stories picked up in the New York Times — and on the radar of hiring editors.
4. Your most embarrassing or funny reporting moment: A month into the job, I left on my bike one morning to interview the founding principal of a new school in Bedford-Stuyvesant and didn’t come home for another 36 hours, when a judge released me from Brooklyn’s central booking. Want details? Shoot me an email.
1. Where you worked before & why you decided to join Chalkbeat: I was on a research fellowship in Buenos Aires and met a group of high school students on the night they staged a takeover of their school building. They were protesting changes to the national curriculum that they said had been made without student input. Over the next month, students across the city joined the protest and occupied more than 50 high schools. I tried to piece together as much of the backstory on education in Buenos Aires as I could in a short time, but I’m sure I missed many details. Joining Chalkbeat gave me the chance to learn and write about education as an ongoing, evolving story, this time as part of a dynamic and talented team.
2. Story you are most proud of: As Chalkbeat New York’s community editor as well as a reporter, I’m always on the lookout for stories like this one that highlight local efforts and priorities.
3. Teacher who most helped you get to where you are today: Fred Strebeigh, who teaches creative nonfiction writing at Yale University. He saw that I loved writing and interviewing and convinced me to give journalism a shot.
4. Your most embarrassing or funny reporting moment: When I stopped by a newly-occupied high school in Buenos Aires and was turned away at the door by three 15-year-olds who told me, “We haven’t developed our press strategy yet.”
E-mail Emma at email@example.com and follow her on Twitter at @emmarsr.
1 Where you worked before & why you decided to join Chalkbeat: DNAinfo, covering the South Bronx. I decided to join Chalkbeat because it’s a smart, dynamic, growing news organization covering a topic — education — that I believe is vitally important and fascinating.
2. Story you are most proud of: I’m proud of our recent story about some students who have been trapped in a sort of graduation limbo, where a few points on an exit exam has kept them from earning diplomas. I think it illustrates the unintended consequences that can sometimes accompany well-intentioned policy changes — in this case, the move to raise graduation standards.
3. Teacher who most helped you get to where you are today: I’ve been fortunate enough to have had amazing teachers at every grade level since I started pre-school. That being said, I still think about lessons I learned from a few of my graduate school journalism professors just about every day on the job.
4. Your most embarrassing or funny reporting moment: In my last job I was covering a news conference where the New York City mayor was touting a new parking app for smartphones. I asked whether that posed any distracted-driving dangers and he replied, without missing a beat, that there were many instances when people should avoid using the app, such as while driving their cars … or taking a shower.
In his first major post-election speech, Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio argued Monday that his wide electoral victory amounts to a mandate to curb inequality by expanding the city’s pre-Kindergarten and after-school programs through a tax hike on the wealthy.
But beyond announcing the formation of an “early-education working group” to hash out the details of the expansion, which he said he wants to begin rolling out next school year, de Blasio offered few new details about his central campaign pledge.
Instead, he repeated his plan and said that it is gaining support from lawmakers in Albany, who must approve it – even as former mayor David Dinkins suggested to de Blasio, his one-time aide, that he reconsider the income-tax hike.
“I have offered a game-changing investment in early-childhood education and after-school,” de Blasio said in his keynote speech at a summit on children hosted by the Earth Institute at Columbia University. “Nothing less will do.”
In a press conference after the speech, De Blasio declined to name candidates he is considering for schools chancellor, but said he may have more information “in a couple more days down the road.” He also did not name the members of the working group.
Some observers quickly pointed out that de Blasio, who will take office in January – midway through the school year – left many questions about his signature proposal unanswered.
Pedro Noguera, an education professor at New York University, said de Blasio had yet to detail where he would find space to provide full-day preschool to nearly 50,000 more four-year-olds or how he would train enough educators to teach them.
“I would have liked to have heard more,” Noguera said, though he added that these are “big, complex issues” that take time to resolve.
Key state legislators – including the senate co-leader, Democrat Jeffrey Klein – have recently endorsed de Blasio’s plan to raise the income tax of city residents earning more than $500,000 a year, but Senate Republicans and Governor Cuomo will be harder to convince, analysts say.
Cuomo “doesn’t want to go into an election year as a Democrat who raised taxes,” said Michael Benjamin, a political consultant and former Democratic assemblyman. He said insiders have suggested that Cuomo may try to find a different revenue stream for the plan before November’s state elections, after which he might reconsider a tax bump.
But de Blasio told reporters his tax plan is the best and fastest way to fund the school programs and said “more and more people who matter” are backing it.
He said he aimed to “win this tax fight by April 1” – the start of the state’s fiscal year – and then begin running the expanded programs later in 2014. He acknowledged that preschool space is limited, but said possible solutions include grouping multiple programs into existing pre-K centers or converting other buildings for that use, including former Catholic schools.
He also hailed a new Bloomberg administration pilot program that pairs middle schools with nonprofits to extend the school day by nearly three hours as a model after-school program. And he plugged community schools, which enlist private partners to offer an array of on-site services for students and families – a model favored by the city teachers union, which de Blasio has said he wants to expand from the current 16 schools to 100 schools.
Immediately after de Blasio made his remarks Monday afternoon, in which he had praised Dinkins, his former boss, the forum’s moderator invited Dinkins to ask de Blasio a question. Dinkins used the opportunity to suggest that the mayor-elect push for a so-called commuter tax on people who work in the city but live outside it, which he said might face less resistance in Albany.
“See whether or not this might be more easily done than to put a tax on the wealthy to take care of the rest of us,” Dinkins proposed.
But de Blasio balked at the idea, responding that his tax on high earners “is the right path and an attainable path.”
For one class of fourth graders, a tour of City Hall turned into a chance to add their voices to the fierce public debate over standardized testing today.
Teachers from the Brooklyn Charter School scheduled the city government field trip after finding that few of their students knew much about the city elections that took place earlier this fall. But they didn’t realize they were going to be walking into a City Council hearing featuring Chancellor Dennis Walcott, who was getting peppered with questions from lawmakers about how testing policies were affecting schools.
Any possibility that the students would see some of the heated sparring between education officials and council members, a common sight at previous hearings, seemed dashed by the timing of the visit. The election season is over, and both Walcott and Education Committee Chair Robert Jackson are just a few weeks from leaving office, so there were no theatrics and little new information offered up in the Department of Education’s testimony.
The hearing framed many of the issues that have been raised more contentiously at forums, state legislative hearings and protests around the state this fall. Some of the issues, like an increased pressure to perform well and the shifting standards that define proficiency, were ones that the visiting students and teachers said they’ve seen and experienced first-hand.
“I’ve been in testing grades for six years and it’s definitely more pressure,” said Gina Zaccaria, one of the teachers from the Bedford-Stuyvesant school. “They feel it more.”
Last year’s tests were closely aligned to the Common Core for the first time since New York State adopted the more challenging learning standards in 2010. The change resulted in lower proficiency scores across the state, with just one in three students passing both the English and math exams. The drops sparked a push back about how prepared students and teachers were to meet the new bar, and the teachers unions have led a charge in calling for the state to slow down its rollout by removing the high stakes for teachers that are attached to the tests.
Zaccaria and her class were spotted and invited into the hearing room for a formal introduction as Walcott was about an hour into his testimony. They stayed for a couple of minutes before filtering back out into the newly-renovated City Council chambers to share their own experiences with the tests.
All of the students said they felt nervous before taking the third grade exams last year and they all agreed they were hard. Some students “didn’t finish all of it” while another student called the experience “nerve-wracking,” especially because it was, as third-graders, their first time taking state tests.
One girl said that being held back a year was on her mind. Charter schools are exempt, but grade promotion from one year to the next in New York City is based on state test scores. That practice could be going away soon with Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio intent on deemphasizing the role of tests as a way to measure student, teacher and school performance.
“I was really nervous if I would pass or not,” she said. (The students’ names were kept anonymous at the request of their teachers, who said they did not have permission from parents to speak to the press.)
But the students were optimistic about this year’s tests. Why?
“I think that because we’re getting better at learning and writing,” one girl said.
And a boy thought that the more challenging standards were a good thing.
“I actually think that new things are happening, we might [be] changing,” he said.
Facing an incoming mayor who wants to shake up the city school system, a coalition of principals is lobbying to hold on to one Bloomberg policy they say is crucial to running their schools.
A group of 120 school leaders say they’re concerned with Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio’s campaign pledge to restructure the city’s support networks, which manages school operations around professional development, curriculum and budgeting. De Blasio has said he wants some decision-making authority restored to district superintendents, who oversaw support before Mayor Bloomberg won control of the school system.
The principals said they felt compelled to respond publicly to a chorus of criticism that the networks have received recently.
“Our feeling is that there has been a lot of talk, that people are dissatisfied with networks and the new mayor should eliminate them,” said P.S. 321 Principal Liz Phillips, who is leading the coalition. “But we felt that the voice of a lot of principals who are very satisfied haven’t been heard.”In a letter that Phillips co-authored and sent to de Blasio on Friday, the principals argue that they should be allowed to stay in their networks if they want. Listing the system’s perks, they say their networks encourage professional collaboration, unite like-minded schools across geographic boundaries, decouple support and evaluation — and they’re better than any system that’s come before it.
“Networks provide particular kinds of support for schools that many of us have found to be invaluable,” the principals say in the letter.
Their lobbying puts them at odds with their own union, the Council of School Supervisors & Administrators. CSA President Ernie Logan has said giving power back to superintendents, who manage and evaluate the job performance of principal, would restore a clearer chain-of-command.
“It’s true, some schools are especially pleased with their Network, but it is also true that some are dissatisfied,” CSA spokeswoman Antionette Isable-Jones said in statement.
The way school operations are managed has changed several times since 2002. Currently, schools choose to contract with networks run by the Department of Education or nonprofit-run support providers based on their need, with the least in-demand ones getting shut down.
Critics say the network structure has many drawbacks.
Some say the expertise of staffers can vary among networks and that some can become stretched thin trying to serve many member schools across multiple boroughs. Others say that far-flung networks can cut off schools from their surrounding communities, and that weaker networks fail to support struggling schools or serve high-need student populations.
“It’s a very mixed bag out there,” New York University professor Pedro Noguera said of the quality of networks.
Darlene Cameron, principal of Star Academy P.S. 63 in Manhattan, said that the collaboration among principals in a network can be useful, but that many networks feel pressure from the city to focus more on ensuring schools follow department protocols than helping them improve their practice.
“It should really be about teaching and learning and not about compliance,” she said.
The 120 principals represent schools in about six networks, said the letter’s co-author Julie Zuckerman, principal of Castle Bridge School. Zuckerman and Phillips belong to the Children First Network 102/113, which is run by Alison Sheehan and shares an opposition to high-stakes testing.
Another signee, Nedda DeCastro, principal of the International High School at Prospect Heights, said her network excels at helping her serve a student population of all English-language learners.
“It helps us tremendously,” said DeCastro, who belongs Children First Network 106, which serves other international high schools. ”It is a lonely job and we need one another.”
Zuckerman and Phillips have often been on the other side of Bloomberg in the education debate, signing onto a letter opposing the role of testing in teacher evaluations. But Zuckerman said she expects other principals to join the coalition regardless of where they stand on other policy issues.
“This is a single issue thing that doesn’t have the same kind of complexities as testing and some other things have,” she said.
Seeking some middle ground, the principals proposed “a hybrid system that would allows successful networks to exist and offers more geographic-based structures for those who want that.”
Sheehan, the network leader, said a “hybrid” system would allow schools to get the support they need without abandoning networks altogether.
“What we’re trying to get de Blasio to understand is that one size doesn’t fit all and that he should figure out a way to differentiate supports for our schools,” she said.
A spokeswoman for de Blasio’s transition team did not respond to a request for comment.
A spokesman for the education department pointed out that principals are generally satisfied with networks. ”Their views should be respected and valued,” said the spokesman.
A copy of the letter is below:
In support of the network structure option
As people anticipate restructuring at the Department of Education in the next administration, we want to establish our support for keeping networks that work and allowing principals the choice as to whether they stay in those networks or not.
Networks provide particular kinds of support for schools that many of us have found to be invaluable, and that were not necessarily provided through the district, region and ISC structures. These support features are:
1. The gathering of schools of similar visions or purpose: the internationals, special ed reform focused, collaboratively structured, and schools committed to alternative assessment. This enables these schools to work more closely together and support each other towards better meeting their missions.
2. Shifting the supervisory structure into an advisory and support structure. It makes all the difference in the world that the network leader and team members are not the principals’ rating officer. Our networks have been responsive to us and in many cases network principals have had a say in the selection of network staff.
3. Networks support professional development that better meets the needs of the teachers, administrators, and other support staff in our schools and that allows for cross-pollination across our schools.
4. Because of racial and economic segregation by neighborhood in New York City, geographic districts are often segregated as well. Self-selected networks offer the option of racially and economically diverse schools working together and benefitting greatly from this collaboration.
We are deeply committed to our networks and do not want ours to be dismantled because some are not working well for others. We can imagine some kind of hybrid system that allows successful networks to exist and offers more geographic-based structures for those who want that—more like the early days of the Empowerment Zone.
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Maria Nunziata, P.S. 130 15K130
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Jack Spatola, P.S. 172 15K172
Sharon Fiden, P.S. 230 15K230
Zipporiah Mills, P.S. 261 15K261
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A student stuck without a diploma after 11 unsuccessful attempts to pass a test is the “poster child” for a need to create new ways to graduate, a top state education official said this week.
Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch was asked Monday about a recent GothamSchools story on students who have failed to meet the state’s new higher graduation standards, when went into effect last year. She said such students prove the need for diploma options that allow students to substitute an alternative assessment for one of the five required Regents tests.
“Should that student be denied a high-school diploma? I don’t think so,” Tisch said about Tiffany, a would-be nurse who has yet to pass her global history and geography Regents exam more than a year after she had hoped to graduate. Tiffany, who still takes Regents-prep classes at Francis Lewis High School in Queens nearly 18 months after her senior year there, asked that her last name be withheld so that potential employers and others would not learn of her graduation struggles.
“She’s my poster child for why we need multiple pathways [to graduation],” said Tisch, adding that she would like Tiffany to attend a Regents meeting next month where the board will consider proposals for more routes to a diploma.
The state last year began to require students to students to pass every exit exam with a 65 or higher (out of 100) to earn a diploma. The so-called local diploma, which allows scores of 55 or higher on some tests, was restricted to students with disabilities or ones who successfully appeal their scores.
The rule change was intended to ensure that graduates are prepared for college. But in practice, a few missed points on a single Regents exam has stranded some students without diplomas, sidetracking their plans for college or work and footing taxpayers with the bill for test-prep classes.
“There’s a lot of people in my situation that just let it go and then drop out,” said Jessica Fuentes, another Francis Lewis student who missed the higher mark on a few exit exams last year and so now is working three jobs while studying for a GED. “And then when that happens, they become single parents and have no career.”
Along with the higher graduation standards, which were phased in over several years, the state has also considered creating new diploma routes for students in special vocational, math and science and arts programs. Students would still take the state English, math and science exams – as federal law requires – but they would skip the global history test in lieu of an assessment tied to their program.
Abja Midha, coordinator of an advocacy group called Coalition for Multiple Pathways to a Diploma, said that such programs must be available to a wide range of students – including those with special needs – and should include assessments other than standardized tests.
The Board of Regents, which sets graduation requirements, has yet to approve these alternative diploma options – though Tisch said that board members have “enormous interest” in them.
(The board is also considering a proposal to split up the global history and geography course – whose Regents test is failed the most – and creating a separate exam for each course.)
Tisch said that the board will take up the additional-diploma-routes issue in December and invited Tiffany to attend and tell her story.
Tiffany said she would be willing to share her story at the meeting, even though it is unlikely she could take advantage of any new diploma paths. But she said she wished the state had established other graduation options before they raised the minimum exit-exam scores.
“Some people are really bad test takers,” she said. “It would have made our lives much easier.”
Geoff Decker contributed reporting.